janis joplin

rereading janis

On this day in 1970, Janis Joplin was found dead in Room 105 at the Landmark Motor Hotel. The room remains virtually untouched except for the messages patrons leave for her in the closet. They range from the simple and direct (“RIP Janis”) to the somewhat gauche (“Try just a little bit harder”). And then, of course, there are the longer ones — the love letters.

Those are the ones she’d like the best, I think. Janis loved to read. We don’t talk about this. We don’t think of her as a lyricist, even though she wrote many of the songs she sang with Big Brother and the Holding Company and after the band’s breakup. She’s not a literary kind of musical artist.

But maybe she could have been.

Until I read Alice Echols’s “Scars of Sweet Paradise,” I had no idea Janis was someone like me. The book is as much a history of sexual politics in the 60s as it is a biography, and the parts I found most interesting were those that exposed the worst treatment Janis received at the hands of classmates and even — or especially — men in her music scene. One guy kicked her under a table. Shortly after her death, an obscure music writer disparaged her for having acne.

She wasn’t just an icon (although she was very much that). She was shy and sensitive, and had no illusions about her debt to black musical artists like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin.

She was a voracious and sophisticated reader with a soft spot for the Fitzgeralds. Especially Zelda. It’s impossible not to think of Amy Winehouse rhapsodizing about the Ronettes when she talks about how great Zelda is:

I always did have a very heavy attachment for the whole Fitzgerald thing, that all out, Full Tilt, Hell Bent Way of Living (sic), and she and F. Scott Fitzgerald were the epitome of that whole trip, right? When I was young I read all of his books; I’ve reread them all: autobiographies, The Crack-Up, all the little scribblings … and she was always a mythic person in his life, you also have the feeling that he destroyed her. You always get the feeling that she was willing to go with him through anything and that he ruined her. But in the book you find out that she was just as ambitious as he was, and that they sort of destroyed each other. He wrote her a letter one time in which he says, “People say we destroy each other, but I never felt we destroyed each other, I felt we destroyed ourselves.”

Yeah, I’ve noticed a lot of things you are into are in that 20’s and 30’s type of thing.

I’m an anachronism, that’s what it is.

5/31/19 HINDSIGHT ADDENDUM: Intimate partner violence is never mutual. I’m leaving this up as a reminder to myself to stop promoting the trope of the self-destructive female genius. It’s horrifying to me that I didn’t frame it in terms of the question I was afraid to ask until very recently: What is responsible for this destruction?

Winehouse prostrated herself to a ghoulish monstrosity. Joplin sought comfort, validation, and friendship from rock & roll, but found herself without the inner resources to tell a Cavett from a cultist.

Feminism understands that individual men are not the problem; our collective hallucinatory worship of men is the problem. It’s a problem because it is the air we breathe; it is everything we know; it imbues our thoughts and desires; and it convinces gifted women like these that they deserve to be destroyed.