Although it was 50 years ago, what a shock Oct. 4, 1970, must have been for music fans.
Just two weeks after the sudden and tragic loss of Jimi Hendrix due to a drug overdose, fans lost yet another legend when powerhouse Janis Joplin succumbed to the same fate.
Joplin, who had struggled to break free from addiction for most of her adult life, was found dead on the floor of her hotel room. A needle was nearby and exceptionally potent heroin was in her veins. She was just 27 years old!
Joplin seemed to be entering a new phase of her career. She was winding down the recording of her album “Pearl” and had taken more command of production. She had formed her own band, one up to the challenge of keeping up with her boundless vocal talent.
Imagine for a moment what the world might be like if both Jimi and Joplin had not been lost to us? What if they’d lived and carried on their creative careers? Is it too bold to dream that they might have collaborated on an album together? Would music fans be treated to regular Monterey and Woodstock music festival reunions?
Alas, it was not to be. But we’re still left with Joplin’s powerful voice resonating through the decades. Her raspy wail is as compelling today as it was where it came to rest five decades ago. That takes moxie. Here’s how:
Moxie finds its voice.
Joplin’s voice was first cultivated in her childhood church choir. But the pure, sweet notes of “This Little Light of Mine” are far from the complex caterwaul she became known for unleashing.
As a teen in Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin became entranced with legendary blues artists like Bessie Smith. The emotional rawness and intensity spoke to Joplin. She had her own reason to sing the blues, too. She was a misfit and outcast in her straight-laced Texas high school. Perhaps hearing others sing of their own brokenness and rejection made Joplin feel just a little less alone. She began singing with folk groups, and her blues-tinged style began to take shape.
When it came to expressing the full range of human emotion, Joplin’s rich, raspy mezzo-soprano seemed virtually limitless. Listening to her shape a phrase is an edge of the seat experience, particularly on standards like “Summertime.” Where will she go next? you wonder as you listen.
It’s difficult to appreciate now how revolutionary her vocals were at the time. While she drew from and credited artists like Smith and Lead Belly and Ma Rainey, she stood in contrast to smooth-voiced contemporaries like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. Nobody was unleashing what Joplin seemed to barely contain.
Moxie defines its own style.
She was on the leading edge of the free-spirited hippie movement, and by the time she was in college, her heart just wasn’t in Texas anymore. She found her way to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and began shaping — and being shaped by — the countercultural scene.
It wasn’t only her singing that was revolutionary; her fashion sense was revolutionary, too. Joplin combined thrift-store finds in bold new ways. She let her hair flow full and wild and free, barely styled, and occasionally ornamented by anything from wildflowers to feather boas. Her face was almost always bare of any makeup, and her feet were often unencumbered by shoes of any kind.
Her style was in such contrast to “the runway of the day,” which was replete with strongly structured synthetics and mile-high beehive hair-dos. While pages of fashion magazines told women to control every aspect of themselves from the crown of their heads to the tips of their toes, Joplin screamed at them from the stage and turntable to let it all hang out. That takes moxie!
Moxie can’t go it alone.
It strikes me that Joplin — despite a family that loved her and a bevy of friends — seemed very alone. Her family loved her but didn’t necessarily understand her or approve of her. Her hometown peers rejected her. And too many that she gravitated towards were caught up in the same self-destructive cycles of abuse and addiction. She tried several times to curtail her own addictions, and she recognized that certain people and situations would trigger her own use. She tried to avoid them but always seemed to be drawn back in. In the end, sadly, she died alone in a hotel room.
Despite her success and acclaim, I HAVE to wonder if she ever felt truly, deeply, genuinely loved by others, and her adoring fans.
It is my FIRM belief, that when a vibrant soul such as Joplin’s is taken so young, so passionate, and so positioned for oh-so-many more decades of vitality, it is simply that “the gods” needed her energetic & restless soul elsewhere in the universe. It is just something we mere mortals cannot fully comprehend or fully ever understand!
I often ask my guests how they would like to be remembered. In the case of Joplin, I would ask this: tell me about a time you felt loved?
Janis Joplin’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janis_Joplin
Woodstock Music Festival’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodstock
Monterey Pop Festival’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monterey_Pop_Festival