Janis Joplin has been something of a saint for longer than she was a performer. Brash, uncensored, brave but so sensitive, she stomped her feet and flung her head around like a toddler having a temper tantrum when she sang, making her a force of nature. She’s been listed as an inspiration to so many singers it’s almost a cliche, but some of them do a pretty great job holding up her legacy. Most girls go through some stage in their life when Janis is their heroine, and I’m no different. She died in October 1970, years before I was born, but once I hit the last year or so of college, she was the strong voice in the messy uncertainty that was life after everything that had been clearly mapped out. If she could leave home and stop giving a damn about what people thought of her and her wild ways, maybe I’d be ok too.
“Ball and Chain,” from the Monterey Pop Festival, 1967.
Here, covering Big Mama Thorton’s “Ball and Chain,” Joplin and her backing band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, are full on in the blues. Joplin’s feet start kicking around the 1:42 mark; the fury grows with each chorus, and reaches its peak around 4:40. And it looks like Ms. Joplin won over a famous fan in the audience that day– it appears Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas couldn’t help but stare, in awe of Joplin’s performance.
This live recording from the Cheap Thrills album could be a rarity. It’s certainly not as well known as some of her other hits, but it’s a personal favorite. It’s the atmosphere in the song: close your eyes and envision the upright piano, the patrons of some smoke-filled bar sipping their beers and whiskeys while Joplin stands up and serenades them, comparing herself to a turtle. “I guess I’m just like a turtle/That’s hidin’ underneath its hardened shell,” she sings. “But you know I’m very well protected– I know this goddamn life too well.” The best part of the song? The breaking glass at 2:55. We’ve all been there, right? “If you just want to go out drinking, honey, won’t you invite me along, please.”
“Try,” from Woodstock
In all her swaggering, head tossing, unruly-haired glory. Janis and the Kozmic Blues Band, rockin’ some serious bell sleeves and lots of velvet. There’s a grit in her voice in this performance reminiscent of another iconic moment at the original Woodstock, Joe Cocker’s version — superior to all others, in my humblest of opinions — of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends.”
“A Woman Left Lonely,” from Pearl
Possibly Janis at her most vulnerable. She had a dramatic life with plenty of peaks and valleys, from the misunderstood teenager in Port Arthur, Texas, to entirely too much booze and too many drugs in San Francisco and on the road. She had a big smile, a huge laugh and a personality to match, but there was a sadness she never could fully shake. This song is an explanation, a warning, a reminder that no one’s so tough that a little tenderness won’t be welcomed. “She’s got to do the best that she can,” she sings. “A woman left lonely, Lord, that lonely girl.”
“Piece of My Heart”
Ok, I wasn’t going to include this, as pretty much anyone who’s ever listened to a classic rock station in the past 40+ years knows it, and it’s a little too easy of a pick. So I’ll say nothing about the song, one of Joplin’s trademarks and originally recorded in 1967 by Erma Franklin. Instead, watch the video to see how people danced in a divided Germany in 1968. The men, surrounding Joplin like the enigma that she was, are wearing ties! In public! At a concert! Crazy.
“Get it While You Can,” from the Dick Cavett Show, 1970
Ask most people to name songs performed by Janis Joplin and you’re likely to get “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Try,” “Piece of My Heart” and maybe “Cry Baby.” I think “Get it While You Can” should be included, if not the top of the list. It’s a slightly prophetic song, at least in hindsight: “When you love somebody, baby, you’re taking a big gamble on some sorrow. But then who cares baby, for we may not be here tomorrow.” Nothing should be taken for granted; nothing’s guaranteed. Janis lived the truth of this song, even if that meant dying way too young.