Thursday, January 19, 2012

For Janis Joplin, On Her Sixty-Ninth Birthday

The first time I heard Janis Joplin, it was by chance. I was at the home of an acquaintance, a bona fide Popular Girl who argued feminist positions along with me in our junior-year literature class, making her my favorite of the in-crowd. I’d been assigned a class project with her, and she had a small group of us over to her home to work on the task. We sat cross-legged on the floor, sipping sodas and plotting our work, when a quiet wail in the background caught my ear. I tuned out the conversation and tuned in to the wail: I couldn’t make out the words, but the sound itself was urgent, pained, and undeniably female. I interrupted the conversation to ask who we were listening to, and the popular girl smiled. “Janis Joplin,” she said. “Isn’t she great?”

I’d heard of Janis Joplin before, but somehow she had slipped through my musical upbringing in favor of The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Dylan. My parents owned Pearl—as I’d learn later that night when I’d ask my parents about Janis with the same sort of feigned-casual tone I might use to inquire about an it’s-no-big-deal-really crush—but she wasn’t a part of the household repertoire. After commandeering Pearl and realizing there had to be even more Janis out there, I went to the public library and found every bit of material on her that I could. I borrowed CDs to make illegal tapes of them; I read biographies; I watched Monterey Pop. I went barefoot for much of my senior year of high school because it seemed like something Janis would have done; I strolled the halls with my long hair, tie-dye T-shirts, long necklaces, and ripped jeans, and imagined myself to be channeling some part of her. Forget that as a classic good girl, any rebellious streak I had was forever turned inward, not outward; forget that I was 17 and had no idea what phrases like a woman left lonely, piece of my heart, and get it while you can could possibly mean (or rather, forget that I’m an adult critiquing my adolescent understanding of her work; at 17 I knew the meaning of those words as well as anyone).

I wouldn’t say I wanted to be Janis, or even that I considered her a role model. I’d quickly learn how she lived, I’d quickly learn how she’d died, and I didn’t want to shape my life in that way. But I admired her. I’d call it a “girl crush” if I didn’t usually apply that term to women who reminded me of a better version of myself, which Janis wasn’t. Janis Joplin was nothing like me. That’s part of why—I’ll use this phrase, and not lightly—I loved her.

It wasn’t until I had read multiple biographies of her that I began to recognize something that felt like a nonsensical gnat at first, but a gnat that appeared in every major work about her: Janis Joplin wasn’t pretty. I mean, yeah yeah, eye of the beholder and inner beauty and all that, but Janis Joplin was not considered to be pretty. She was an outcast growing up, teased for her looks—her acne-plagued skin, her tendency to gain weight—and she never carried the mantle of the pretty girl. Even when she became an icon of the late ‘60s, it wasn’t because she was a beauty. None of that mattered to me, though, because I had no idea she wasn’t supposed to be pretty.

There are plenty of reasons why I didn’t think about Janis Joplin’s beauty. The obvious would be that she was so extraordinarily talented that her voice took a backseat to her looks, or perhaps that her talent made her beautiful to me. Hell, maybe it was because Janis came to me through a Popular Girl, so I conferred the qualities of that girl onto Janis herself. And perhaps all of those are true, but that’s not what was really going on.

It was more this: Famous women are pretty, and Janis Joplin is famous, ergo Janis Joplin is pretty. That was it, that was the logic, and I didn’t question my faulty syllogism. Janis Joplin had to be beautiful, because known women are beautiful. I didn’t need to actually look at her to know it must be true. To be clear, it wasn’t that I had some special ability to see a female performer as beautiful because of her talent alone, or that I thought her looks were unimportant. It was quite the opposite: I thought looks were incredibly important. I was so stuck on connecting beauty with talent and “making it” that I superimposed a physical beauty onto anyone with talent. Rather, I superimposed the concept of a woman’s looks, to the point where the actual physical “truth” of it (if there is ever a “truth” about beauty) became beside the point. I’d like to think that Janis’s looks didn’t cross my mind because my attitude on the matter was so progressive, but in truth it was because my attitude was regressive, or at least adolescent. I prized beauty, so I tethered skill, talent, tenacity, boldness, attitude, charisma—the things I actually loved about Janis—to it.

I don’t remember what I thought the first time I saw a picture of Janis. I do, however, remember looking at pictures of other women from the era and wanting to be like them because they were pretty. Grace Slick’s tilted head and dark eyes on the cover of Surrealistic Pillow, Mary Travers looking pertly fabulous under her boa on Album 1700, even, as a child, the pretty smile of Marlo Thomas on the back of Free to Be You and Me: I loved all of these albums from childhood on, and probably would have even if Grace, Mary, and Marlo were less pretty than they were. But their looks were a part of the fantasy portal they created. Grace and Mary were beautiful women surrounded by men (who I saw as being of lesser talent, whether or not that’s true), and Marlo—well, she was That Girl, right? Was it any wonder a girl who longed to be both pretty and accomplished would look up to these women?

It was probably my experiences with Grace, Mary, and Marlo—and Peggy Lee, and Linda Ronstadt, and Lesley Gore, Julie Andrews, Stevie Nicks, Diana Ross, or any of the other female musicians who populated my childhood—that made me assume, sight unseen, that Janis Joplin must be pretty. Once I started reading biographies of her and saw that writers would occasionally mention that she was hardly Venusian, I dismissed such notions as being beside the point, but I still didn’t question the veracity of their claims. It was only after my fervor had died down a little bit—the poster taken down from my wall, my college boombox finally being relieved of Cheap Thrills—that I studied photographs of her, looking for something other than Janis Joplin, the legend. She made some arresting images, to be sure—sprawled in feathers on a leather settee for Pearl, behatted in furs leaving the Chelsea Hotel. There’s little question that Janis was attractive, in the sense that she attracted you, and for reasons that had nothing to do with her voice. But pretty? No, she wasn’t that.

Still, we loved to look at her. In fact, perhaps we loved to look at her because she wasn’t traditionally beautiful. As rock critic Ellen Willis writes in her 1976 essay on Janis, “Joplin’s metamorphosis from the ugly duckling of Port Arthur to the peacock of Haight-Ashbury meant, among other things, that a woman who was not conventionally pretty, who had acne and an intermittent weight problem and hair that stuck out, could not only invent her own beauty (just as she invented her wonderful sleazofreak costumes) out of sheer energy, soul, sweetness, arrogance, and a sense of humor, but have that beauty appreciated. Not that Janis merely took advantage of changes in our notions of attractiveness; she herself changed them.”

Isn’t it nice to think so? I don’t think it’s true, though, not exactly, or at least I don’t think Janis changed our notions of attractiveness. But I do think that not only is she a prime example of how someone’s raw talent can make a person so appealing as to actually transform one’s looks, she’s also a poster child for the ways beauty serves as a false protector. Janis Joplin, never having been considered pretty, also never had the security of banal prettiness. And as harsh as it probably was to not have that security, it may also have wound up giving her a certain protection against misdirected blame. In “Ball and Chain,” when Janis moans, “I don’t understand how come you’re gone” she has a near-childlike lack of understanding—how come you’re gone? how come? The only thing greater than her gaping incomprehension at why her man would leave a good thing is her pain. But at age 17, I’d have known how come he’d gone: I wasn’t his dream girl after all, I wasn’t pretty enough, I spat when I talked, I’d been too clingy, and my god was I really just fat after all? (I’d have been wrong, of course. We never understand how come they’re gone.) Janis skipped forward through the analysis of the good girl, the pretty-enough girl, the girl who desperately wishes not to repeat her mistakes—the me-girl—landing smack-dab in the searing, fertile garden of pain. We all wind up there eventually. I can’t say she spared herself any grief through her circumnavigation around nice-girl self-blame; Janis didn’t spare herself much of anything. But she grieved the right things. She never had the crutch of prettiness, so she learned to walk without it.

There’s only so far I can romanticize Janis in this respect, of course. She jumped from lover to lover, only rarely feeling satisfied. She sought approval more than her lasting reputation as an iconoclast reveals; one listen to the mediocre Kozmic Blues shows just that. She went to her high school reunion fully expecting the reception she’d longed for 10 years earlier, only to walk away with a tire, an award for having traveled the farthest to attend. (“What am I going to do with a fucking tire?” she reputedly said upon receiving the award.) And, of course, she died in a hotel room, alone, at age 27, of a self-administered heroin overdose. I can’t claim jack shit for Janis’s self-image or appraisal of her own appeal. I can only claim what she taught me.

I’m older now, more mature, and I’d like to think I’m no longer as eager to equate talent and physical beauty. In fact, I’ve come back to that place I was at age 17: Janis Joplin’s looks don’t matter to me, in the sense that they’re unimportant in the larger scope of who she is. I’m glad for that. Janis’s legacy isn’t that of beauty; it’s that of brutal vulnerability, searing talent, and the virtue of being totally unable to be anyone other than oneself. I write here of the importance her looks had for me because this is the place I have to honor her, and here I write of beauty. But when I listen to her—it doesn’t matter what album, it doesn’t matter what song—if I am thinking of beauty at all, I’m thinking of the kind of beauty that transcends. Whimsy, will, and revelation created Janis’s legacy, and they create her beauty too. And today, on what would have been her sixty-ninth birthday, I want to offer her memory a piece of my heart.


  1. I seem to remember a quote by Janis that she knew she wasn't pretty but when she performed she felt like the sexiest most beautiful woman in the world.

  2. I'm glad you arrived at your final point. Back in the Sixties, there was less procrustean belief about women's beauty. Janis ignored that entirely and focused, instead, on her soul. Her music, like her life, was dedicated to soulfulness.

    If you can a chance, see her interview on The Dick Cavett Show. She appears as a guest alongside Rachel Welsh, early in both of their careers. Rachel is trying desperately to be the man-pleasing vixen; the contrast to Janis couldn't be more stark.

  3. What can pretty matter when she could wail a woman's soul like she did? She was simply BEAUTIFUL.

  4. One of the saddest moments of Patti Smith's Just Kids is when Janis comes to her room at the Chelsea crying because another man she liked went home with a prettier girl. I remember reading that and realizing that though my mother, a huge Janis fan, raised me to see Janis as beautiful (so I, like you, never really realized she wasn't considered conventionally pretty), men still chose other more attractive women WHO WEREN'T FAMOUS instead of her. This happened to her all the time. That pain must have been unbearable.

    I knew a hippie who was a roadie for Janis. He was the same guy who painted her Porsche. His name was Dave Richards. He said she was unbearably lonely. Dave always told Janis he didn't like that she was doing heroin so she'd make him watch her shoot up before she paid him. (The heroin that killed her also killed eight other people that night because the dealer tried to cut it himself but didn't know what he was doing and left it 50-80% pure.)

    Dave also told me that night Janis was on the Dick Cavett show she slept with Cavett and laughed about how he was running around her hotel room wearing nothing but the feather boa she sported during her interview.

  5. Autumn, I love all these little glimpses of your life. I really am hoping for a book version.

    "I went barefoot for much of my senior year of high school because it seemed like something Janis would have done..."

    HHAHhahaahhahha! I did this in college! Got terrible burns on the soles of my feet---- damn this desert pavement.

    Beautiful! As a teen I listened almost exclusively to 60's-70's music, but never listened to Janis---- partly because I preferred male musicians (hormones or internalized misogyny?). I wonder if part of me was afraid to align myself with another not-conventionally-pretty women, for fear she'd somehow "rub off on me" from beyond the grave. Then again, I also had certain ideas about being The Right Kind of Woman, and I'm sure they didn't involve raw wailing or feather boas. Kitchens and babies, more like.

    (“What am I going to do with a fucking tire?” she reputedly said upon receiving the award.)

    A fair question.

    Are you familiar with Leonard Cohen's song 'Chelsea Hotel #2," written about an evening with Janis?

    'You told me again you preferred handsome men
    but for me you would make an exception.
    And clenching your fist for the ones like us
    who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
    you fixed yourself, you said, "Well never mind,
    we are ugly but we have the music."'

    I wonder if she really did prefer handsome men, and if that quote is anything like accurate. I wonder if there's a special hell for songwriters who write about bedding now-dead people. Sorta hope so.

    1. I believe Leonard Cohen wrote "Chelsea Hotel #2" while Janis was still alive. The portrait of Janis in it (though she not named) sounds accurate, in accord with other images, accounts and interviews of her. As to "handsome men," I heard that she had an encounter with Jim Morrison.

    2. ... and with Kris Kristofferson, songwriter of "Me and Bobby McGee."

  6. I too loved Janis as a teen. I learned of her in a similar way from a girl I was good friends with. My friend had a rough life and was often lonely as they moved frequently before I came to know her. I think she identified with Janis' music. I just loved Janis' voice and her fearlessness in putting it all out there in a way I never could.
    Thank you for sharing a lovely tribute to a soulful singer whose time with us was way too short.

  7. Thank you for reminding me that I really need to read some Ellen Willis. Every time I read excerpts of her I am like o_O (in a good way!).

    Regarding Janis - I always loved that Janis was not a Pretty Girl, and yet she was still this enormous rock star who was stylish and influential and had sex with really desirable men. I mean, I had read "Pearl" and I knew she was tremendously unhappy, but still, I thought she led a marvelous life in her short time on the planet and it was unfortunate that she couldn't see that.

  8. I never really got into Janis Joplin, but I remember when I was about 16 and ill-advisedly idolizing Courtney Love, my mother said she reminded her of Janis.

    As for her attractiveness, it always seemed to me that she was one of those rare people who is just so *charismatic* that physical beauty becomes irrelevant. Like Mick Jagger. (Of course, this happens more with men, probably because the beauty bar is lower.)

  9. Laura and Terri, I love that quote. Here I used "pretty" and "beautiful" interchangeably but certainly beauty has other meanings--and Janis absolutely was beautiful in that sense.

    Shybiker, wow--I'll totally look for that clip. I always felt like I missed something by missing the '60s, but I hadn't considered the broader range of what was thought to be beautiful. I don't want to romanticize the era, but yeah...wish we had more of that.

    Nicole, that is indeed heartbreaking. And you can feel that pain in her music--a woman left lonely, and hell, every line of "Ball and Chain," one of her greatest. (Also, between your comment and Shybiker's I feel like I want to go on a Dick Cavett splurge...) She suffered, but she didn't play any sort of fragile-suffering card; she just showed the pain. It might have been easier on her had she played up her fragility, but she refused to, proving that vulnerability and fragility are two quite different things. And that one of them is easier for people--specifically men?--to swallow than the other.

    Rebekah, from the biographies I read of her, she certainly did have a penchant for handsome men. One legendary story goes that she was working on an album with her band and midway through felt like getting laid, and so she walked the streets until she found a handsome youth--Eric Clapton. Ha! On another note: Interesting about the idea of "rub off on me"--I felt that way too, though not about Janis. Hmmm, putting it in the thought bank.

    Fashnlvr, I feel like "bad girls" identify with Janis, but "good girls" do too--like you said, she put it out there in a way that many of us never could. Not just because of her talent, but because she was, yes, fearless.

    Caitlin, YES, get thee to Ellen Willis. I'm new to her as well but share the sensation. And, you know, Janis really did live a Pretty Girl life in many ways--she dealt with the unbearable pain Nicole mentions above, but she also did indeed bed many a desirable man. When she says "Get It While You Can," I tend to believe her.

    Raz, that's an interesting correlation--Janis is one of the rare women who was spoken of as being appealing because of her charisma. While all her biographers took pains to point out she wasn't conventionally pretty, in a full-length biography you'd discuss conventional appeal of anyone, man or woman. She really did make looks beside the point.

  10. i think she was not ugly, i think she just did not take care of her self not well. i think she had pretty is just drugs made her look old and i know if she would have put makeup on and dress like all these women hollywood people would notice her like the other women that were famous. also if she did her hair.

    1. Before Janis's late 1970 death, the portable hair blow dryer had not yet been invented, or yet mass marketed and distributed. So it was far harder to tame tumbly, curly, cowlicky hair.