What probably first caught my attention about Janis Joplin was a song that she had thoroughly forgotten by the time I heard it. “So Sad To Be Alone” it was called and hearing it for the first time was a moving experience. I have seldom heard anything better. The song was just her lonesome, world-weary voice accompanied by her autoharp and it was recorded by a fan’s tape recorder in the early Sixties when she was in Austin.
She sang in a voice that still haunts me, about the lure of the open road—Kerouac was still an influence then, remember—and of the people she met on that road: “It’s sad, so sad to be alone. It’s sad, so sad to be alone. No friends to help you, no family or home. It’s sad, so sad to be alone.” Those verses were always to define Janis for me, no matter what she did or where she went. Even had she not become an important singer, I would have felt a permanent affinity toward her, for we were, for better or worse, children of the Fifties and, importantly, children of Texas in the Fifties. It was not a rewarding time or place, overall, to struggle through adolescence. It was rough as hell, as a matter of fact, and I maintain that it left Janis emotionally scarred and helped drive her to the excess that eventually took her life.
There has already been enough garbage—both maudlin and acrimonious—written about her childhood in Port Arthur and those early days in Austin, but in assessing her musical legacy it is essential to take into account the total tedium and simultaneous cruelty of high school in basically any conformist-minded town. There probably is no mental cruelty as severe as that of an established group toward a misfit, an ugly duckling, or a rebel. Joplin was all three of those. She had to flee, and I’ll always wonder if she ever realized that you can run only so far. Just before her death in 1970, she went back to Port Arthur for the tenth reunion of her class at Thomas Jefferson High School. I still think she went just to try to stop running—it didn’t work. I’ll never forget her haunted eyes at that tawdry reunion as her classmates—who ten years before had regarded her as merely an aberration—either tried to play up to her or treated her like a side-show freak.
All those memories of Janis were brought back to me by the recent release of a two-record album called Janis Joplin (Columbia). The first half is a part of the sound track of the documentary movie Janis. It’s a disappointing movie, and the record is even more of a letdown.
One probable reason the documentary fails is that her parents demanded (and got) approval rights of all footage used. Perhaps that’s why her death is not mentioned at all in the movie, which consists mostly of sequences of her performing on stage and being interviewed, along with clips of the high school reunion and the reporters there—half hostile and half fawning—asking her if she was ever invited to a high school prom. The movie sound track part of the album is only valuable insofar as it presents variants of her usual repertoire—“Ball and Chain,” “Summertime,” “Maybe,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” “Move Over”—mixed with isolated bits of interviews (she is witty on the Dick Cavett Show; pathetic in a stage rap in Toronto as she talks about how to score with men). Oddly, two songs from past albums (“Piece of My Heart” and “Cry Baby,” two of her strongest) are patched onto the sound track, indication just how little good