Sunday, January 19, 2014

Can You Imagine Pearl at 71?

Seventy–one years ago today, Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas.

When I was in college, a female acquaintance and I used to listen to Janis Joplin on my friend's stereo while we drank beer and smoked cigarettes. Joplin had been dead for quite awhile at that time, but my friend and I were throwbacks to the '60s. Janis was one of our favorites, even though she wasn't one of our contemporaries.

If it is hard to picture Janis Joplin at 71, you have to remember that she has been dead for more than 40 years, forever a member of the 27 Club. Maybe she just burned out, a victim of all the booze and hard drugs she inflicted on herself. Perhaps it was inevitable that she would flame out the way she did.

(I always think of Joplin when I hear Neil Young sing "Hey Hey, My My." Of course, that could be because my friend was a Neil Young fan, and there's mental association involved for me there.)

"It's hard to imagine what Janis would be like in the 21st century," writes USA Today, "but it's safe to say no one has come close to matching her voice since."

Joplin was, as USA Today observes, "one of the first major female forces in rock 'n' roll." She was a pioneer, and pioneers have to be tough. You have to work hard, and you have to party hard if you're going to be taken seriously.

Her only #1 hit was "Me and Bobby McGee," which was released the same month that the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon and only rose to #1 after Joplin's death the following year.

On Rolling Stone's list of the Top 100 artists, Joplin ranks #46. Among female artists, only Aretha Franklin and Madonna rank higher.

"She loved her whiskey and made no bones about it," wrote Rosanne Cash for Rolling Stone. "This was a full–blown one–of–a–kind woman — no stylist, no publicist, no image–maker. It was just Janis."

Rolling Stone's list was tough for solo female artists to make. The only other women on it after Joplin were Patti Smyth, Joni Mitchell and Tina Turner.

"She wasn't just a great woman in rock — at the time she was the woman in rock," gushed Cash. "Janis really created this whole world of possibility for women in music: Without Janis Joplin, there would be no Melissa Etheridge. Without Janis, there would be no Chrissie Hynde, no Gwen Stefani. There would be no one."

That may be a bit extreme. Women's voices in rock could not be kept muzzled, but the truth is that Joplin accelerated their influence on modern music.

She was a true pioneer.