Personal Heroes: Janis Joplin

I first became a fan of Janis when I was fifteen. Before this time, I had heard many of her songs, but was unaware that it was Janis singing, and I knew nothing of her life. In my social history class, I was required to do a research project on a person from the 1960’s. I had originally chosen Judy Garland, but another girl from my class had already started researching a project on Judy, so I was stuck. My teacher suggested I do my project on Janis Joplin, and I was sceptical. My teacher was kind enough tell me that there was a documentary about Janis that was scheduled to be on T.V that night.


That evening, I sat down in front of the T.V armed with a pencil and paper for making notes. I also tape recorded the show, in case I needed to rewind later to record something I had missed. As soon as the program began, I was fixated. My pencil lay dormant in my hand. I couldn’t think of writing anything, all the information was etching itself onto my brain. I was amazed by this woman, this wild, caterwauling, crazy-looking woman. I was taken in by the sheer power of her voice, and the pain she injected into every syllable.


I think the fact that cemented my appreciation of Janis was her teenage life. She was bullied horribly at school and was treated as an outcast. She had very few friends and withdrew into her music. As a fifteen-year-old girl who was currently feeling the pressure of merciless bullying, I felt reassured as I listened to Janis’s story. Although Janis carried the scars of her past for the rest of her life, she went on to achieve great things, and became the figurehead of an entire counter-culture. I found this inspiring then as I do now, and used Janis as an example of how a person can reap greater rewards just being themselves, rather than pretending to be like everybody else.


Over the next few years, I collected as many articles of Janis memorabilia as I could lay my hands on. This wasn’t easy to do, as I had very little money and the local music store in my tiny home town didn’t stock any of Janis’s albums. I recall going into the local second-hand book store on a weekly basis, and each time I would pore over the music section to see if there were any book that even mentioned Janis. It was a happy day when the owner of the store greeted me with a copy of Pearl, the Janis Joplin biography, which she had hidden under the counter for me. She had priced it at $10, but as I only had $8 in my pocket, she let me take it for that amount. I purchased my first Janis CD at the age of 16, and I listened to it nearly every day. Her voice, while not conventionally good, was just so raw and expressive. She threw her entire heart and soul into every song, and was often known to burst into tears on stage in the middle of a particularly moving performance.


Janis died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27. It has never been established if her overdose was deliberate or accidental. At the time, she was in the middle of recording her final album, “Pearl”, and was due to lay down the vocals to the final track the following morning. This track, entitled “Buried Alive in the Blues” has been included on the Pearl album, which was released three weeks after Janis died. Whenever I listen to it, I feel a chill down my spine and the moment seems to take on a sombre tone, even though “Buried Alive” is a relatively upbeat melody.


There are so many things that I admire about Janis. She was so strong, and yet so unabashedly vulnerable at the same time. Everything she did, she did with every inch of her being, and she was nothing if not determined. Her personal style was amazing also. She was not a pretty woman, and sported greasy hair, acne-scarred skin and a slightly chubby frame. In her early days, she performed in jeans and men’s shirts. In the early 60’s she became friends with Linda Gravenites, a clothing designer who made garments for a Height-Ashbury store. Linda jumped at the chance to design a new wardrobe for Janis, and made most of her clothing from that point onwards. She adorned Janis in velvet, sequins, beads, feathers and elaborate capes. Janis was one of the first female celebrities to sport a tattoo. Janis had three tattoos- a bracelet on her wrist, a tiny heart over her right breast and a lotus. She was known for holding ‘tattoo parties’, where a tattoo-artist friend was invited to ink each of the guests. Janis was a trail-blazer who was never afraid to be herself, who wore her heart on her sleeve and who refused to compromise when it came to those things that were most important to her. For these reasons and many more, she remains one of my biggest heroes.

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