Pearl: Janis Joplin
Pearl is the second and final solo studio album by Janis Joplin, released posthumously on January 11, 1971, three months after her death on October 4, 1970.
A Woman Left Lonely, track three, is the song that says it all. It’s the one I was least familiar with when I returned to this album, and it’s the one I’ve played most.
A woman left lonely will soon grow tired of waiting,
She’ll do crazy things, yeah, on lonely occasions.
Janis was certainly lonely and she certainly did her fair share of crazy things, in a culture that was hostile to women in general but dangerous for women like Janis. Her hedonism, unconventional behaviour and appearance along with her desire to be accepted as a woman and an artist meant she was trapped in the age-old virgin/whore dichotomy for women; or good girl/bad girl if we take the religiosity out of the notion. Janis did not want to be just one of the boys and had some hateful experiences that must have hurt her deeply- being voted ‘ugliest man on campus’ at her college and being mobbed by misogyny and stupidity. She chose the ‘bad girl’ paradigm, but it didn’t make her happy. Fellow musician, one time boyfriend, admirer and friend Country Joe McDonald said of Janis:
“Sexism killed her. Everybody wanted this sexy chick who sang really sexy and had lots of energy. People kept saying she was just ‘one of the guys’: that’s a real sexist bullshit trap, cos that was fuckin’ her head around. She was one of the women. She was a strong, groovy woman. Smart, you know? But she got fucked around.”
Her nearest contemporary was Grace Slick, a woman who played down her own talent and played up her allure and femininity, as was expected of women at that time. Grace, conventionally sexy and more acceptable to the male-dominated rock world survived the excesses of the counter culture years and re-emerged into middle of the road mainstream success in the 80s. Janis died alone in a hotel room from a heroin overdose, aged 27. She was waiting for her friends to show up and truly was a woman left lonely.
So many of the tracks on Pearl deserve the plaudit of iconic and many of them endure in popular culture; perhaps especially Mercedes Benz and Me and Bobby McGee. Listening anew this week, every song felt fresh, raw and exciting. The Full Tilt Boogie Band matched Janis, giving her the quality musicianship she deserved. Watching grainy YouTube clips of Janis performing, I witnessed her talent and vulnerability. That cracked, brilliant and unique voice, brought forth Euterpe herself, a muse making herself heard to a generation and beyond of strong women in an industry that has been so dominated by men.
Janis Joplin’s star burned bright and fell too early. Her legacy endures. She laid a path for other women to tread and deserves her status as a legend. She opened up a space for women to enter and be more fully realised as artists. She was a sister too, raising half the funds required to purchase a tombstone for her idol Bessie Smith.
Here is Janis with her sublime version of Gershwin’s Summertime. Totally unique, totally Janis.