Monday 26 February 2018

Janis Joplin Essay: 'Little Pearl Blue' - Who Was The Real Janis?

You can read more in 'Little Girl Blue - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Janis Joplin' in e-book form by clicking here

Ah yes, a [61] 'Combination Of The Two'. We touched on duality in our George Harrison essay but it feels like it's even more true of Janis who, from her childhood, was never quite sure who she was. Or that she did know who she was, but nobody else seemed to recognise it and not recognising it hurt. Most people who come to the Janis story without really knowing much about her expect her showbizzy image assume that she was a daredevil in life as well on stage. See any moving or still image of her on stage and chances are she's howling out her soul, letting all her emotions fly and daring the world to take notice of her. She even died the ultimate daredevil 'look at me' rock and roll death if you're into that sort of thing. But Janis was not your typical rock chick and - at least compared to the closest competitor to her crown Grace Slick - she was a lot more vulnerable and a lot more complicated than most people ever realised.
'She dares to be different' an article on her by her college newspaper once ran - but Janis was not your natural rebel. She rebelled because she hated seeing how minority groups were treated and because she couldn't stop being true to herself, that cutting off her 'true' side hurt her a lot more than giving in to other people did, even though that side hurt too. So many of these songs in this book say something along the lines of how Janis never wanted to be a star, to have fame, to have money or power - she just wanted to be understood and accepted. Unfortunately for Janis she was born in the 'wrong' skin colour and gender to be 'allowed' to be her 'real' self (you sense the stork that brought her to Port Arthur, Texas, was drunk on Southern Comfort!) Afraid of speaking out, but more afraid of not speaking out, Janis learnt to wear a suit of armour that she still hated to wear - a suit of armour called 'Pearl' that could do everything 'she' copuldn't. She didn't have a name for it at first, but it was her louder self she could 'act', especially when fuelled by drink and drugs, that allowed her to speak her mind and be reckless without consequences - even so the 'little girl' inside her still found it difficult speaking out and having more people hate who she was and put her down. It caused problems for the rest of her love life too - people were never dating the 'real' Janis and you sense her college boyfriend and her rock and roll star boyfriends would have seen two very different sides to her. neither though were strictly Janis - in fact both were.
The 'real' Janis, as recorded in her classmates' memories and high-school yearbooks, is what modern day commentators would call a 'nerd'. Janis adored reading and was good at learning, devouring more books in her spare time than supposedly more high-falluting musicians like Paul Simon or Bob Dylan. Right up until her death the people who met her were amazed at how she was knowledgeable on pretty much any subject, but would keep her knowledge under wraps because she'd learnt the hard way that people didn't like intelligence in a 'girl'. For me, reading Janis' many biographies and seeing her many documentaries, it's this intelligence that made her stand out so much from her peers, far more than the fact that she spent most of her teenage years a little overweight or that her acne-scarred looks saw her voted 'best man on campus'. For Janis came from an upper-class family where girls weren't meant to think for themselves or have opinions. She dated boys who expected her to be pretty or if not then pretty silent - and on first meeting the bookish shy vulnerable Janis, who hated upsetting people, probably seemed like the perfect candidate for the role. But there was one driving force that Janis would never ever compromise over for anybody: authenticity. She hated it when smart-alecky boys parroting things their dads said showed up their ignorance about society and politics. She was horrified when her female classmates started using their sex appeal instead of their brains. She had too big a heart to laugh at the hippies, the homeless, the werirdoes in her inner circle - because she felt their pain and understood their problems, as well as the narrow-minded prejudices of her own little world. She was deeply frustrated at the idea of having to do what everyone in her inner circle was doing and being trapped there forever. She was a misfit who realised it and partly relished it, but who also longed more than anything else to fit in. Most of her career feels, in retrospect, like a chance to prove the people around her 'wrong', that she could be loved on her own terms for who she was. And it's a tragedy that it ended so soon, before Janis truly found that.
Even so, it took more than a few goes to 'escape' this life because Janis was, until the end of her life, more than just a shouting extrovert. It took two separate times of running away to first California then san Francisco to find the life that she was meant for, mixing with the sort of people her Port Arthur family would have crossed the road to avoid. The first ended in disaster when Janis, desperate to block out her pain, found herself succumbing to the more careless and carefree aspect of her personality, nearly dying from a drug overdose and being sent back, by her new friends, back home to recuperate. People assume that Janis was chomping at the bit to come back and relive this hippie lifestyle again, but no - Janis was a little afraid of what she'd unleashed, I think. She'd seen her uninhibited self in full swing for the first time and it scared her just how far she was prepared to go - how many boys she was prepared to sleep with (back at a time when pregnancy was career-ending), how much booze she could swig back and just how desperate her addictive personality needed to fill that gaping hole in her life of being misunderstood. This 'Pearl' side, her extrovert self, got what she thought she'd always craved: company and acceptance. But it came at a price: people only accepted her or her company when she performed the way they wanted her to and she was prepared to go to the point of potential death to get it. 'Pearl' enabled her to be what she always wanted to be, but it came with a price and she wasn't sure she was prepared to pay it. Instead she returned home, to pick up the life she left off, hooking up with an old boyfriend who expected her to be meek and mild and to raise a family - which, for a time, it looked as if she would do. But the 'Pearl' side became an itch she couldn't scratch and Janis had to be true to herself, thankfully having better luck a second time when she ended up falling in with Big Brother and The Holding Company. But which side was really Janis? Most reviewers assume the 'Pearl' extrovert side was - while those who met Janis assumed her quieter, softer side was the 'real' her. For our part, we believe that it was both.
In some performers' cases that's because the personality they take on stage isn't really them at all. Meeting him in private you've never think that the quiet shy Ray Davies was really the beer-swilling arm-waving demonstrative performer in the dressing up box of The Kinks' heyday or that the arm-windmilling Pete Townshend had a softer, shyer, introverted self. Both men grew to fill up the stage when they started performing, as an extension of themselves, but Janis is more complicated than that. The woman on stage belting out blues songs 'feels' like her real uninhibited self in a way that the shy, awkward girl who cared too much of what people thought of her off-stage doesn't. By the last year of her life Janis even had a name for this contradiction: 'Pearl', her showbiz alter ego for whom her final posthumous album was named for and who she regarded as being as real as her 'other' self. 'Pearl' was in many ways a wish fulfilment: you wouldn't hear pearl talking about 'going home alone' after 'making love' to that many people on stage as per the most famous and most revealing of all Joplin quotes. Nor would you imagine 'Pearl' wounded and scarred for life because of some low-brain bully attacking her for her looks, her brains and her love of the blues. But 'Pearl' was a part of Janis, perhaps the self she always longed to be - the self that got back in control when the dregs from her Southern Comfort bottles gave her confidence or from the shot to her system when the heroin kicked in. This Janis took no shit from anyone and far from being quietly spoken and shy could scream what was bothering her like nobody else. It was also this side of Janis that helped kill her, when after six long months of being 'quiet' Janis the girl, Joplin became 'loud' Janis the Pearl, taking one last shot of the drugs passing through the neighbourhood that killed her. The quote she offered to her friend and interviewer Dick Cavett ('If I went back to heroin who would care?') might be revealing - Janis just couldn't take being quiet humble Janis for any period of time. But at the same time she couldn't stay in her 'Pearl' character for too long because that wasn't her authentic self either - and if Janis got too carried away with that personality she risked going too far the other way and being reckless.
People assume that all Janis could do was scream and shout, but that is so not true. The reason I - and probably so many of you - adore her is that when her two personalities were working together, rockstar Pearl and lost little girl, that's when her music truly took off. The best moments are when there's a real intelligence behind that pure passion, when we see that sense of vulnerability peeking out behind that fierce persona, when things go oh so wrong that it hurts - while Janis vows not to give in and that she's going to make it go oh so right. I'd like to see the 20th century's other shouty singers match that level of sophistication or dimensions. For an example, Janis' own songs work best, where she can put both halves of her personality together. Even as early as her teenage years [1] 'What Good Can Drinkin' Do?' is fascinating, in that it shows how self-aware Janis is of her split personality. Hangovers the next morning for Janis must have been a horrific experience, as her little girl side, full of thought and reasoning, chastises her 'Pearl' side full of instinct and self-destruction. This is the sound of a girl who can out-drink you under the table - and out-think you over it - decrying it as a waste of time and yet you still feel it's so necessary to her life. Most teens would write their first or at any rate their first recorded song about booze in an attempt to show off. For Janis it's a prescient warning given that it's another drug taken to excess that will kill her, years later.
Other self-written songs that peek at the 'real' and 'hidden' Janises include [2] 'So Sad To Be Alone', a desperate song of emptiness and despair, written by the 'girl' Janis for the 'Pearl' Janis to sing, inviting company however unsavoury because she needs to be loved so badly. [9] 'Empty Pillow', if it is indeed another Janis original, feels like another take on the same theme, with Janis writing a thoughtful, intelligent song about emotions that's driven by feeling, of hunger for company. Her 'Pearl' side clearly wrote [18] 'Mary Jane', a song not about drugs so much as the changes it creates in people - though Janis doesn't sing about herself as much as the 'boys' around her, it's intriguing to note that she sees drugs not as a way of exploring her inner psyche or theirs but as a way to speak more freely and openly. Skipping on a bit, [56] 'Women Is Losers' is a fascinating song for the times. It's Janis, the new Queen of the San Franciscan jungle, remembering her sad and lonely former self and all the people like her that the hippie dream is moving too slow to change. Sung with a sly grin, it's also her bluesiest saddest moment as she acknowledges that men get to make all the rules and any woman who disagrees or out-thinks him is doomed to a life of being different, the only alternative to a life of subservience to a gender that's dumber and more ignorant than her own. [53] 'Intruder' is a sillier take on the same theme, Janis slowly realising that men feel this longing for company and to belong as much as women, but resenting their more aggressive way of going about it. Janis turns that soulful need into a pure physical re-action, watching that need 'grow and expand' with her boy's erection.
You would think that by 1967 and  her post-Monterey fame Janis would never be lonely again. But actually her songs from this period onwards get more desperate, less cerebral and more from the gut than the mind. The trouble wasn't getting men but getting the right man who could handle both sides of Janis' personality, who could keep up with both her drinking and her thinking. Was there ever a sadder AAA song than [62] 'I Need A Man To Love'? Performed by 'Pearl' but clearly written by the 'lost girl', it may well be the ultimate Joplin composition as a timid and shy creature, unable to connect with anybody on her wavelength, turns a song about being lost into a song where Janis is purely in charge, preening and purring seductively. If pearl gets to sing the verses, though, it's the 'girl' that gets to sing the lengthy middle eight full of terror : 'It can't just be this loneliness!' As silly and dumb as it is, [65] 'Turtle Blues' is quite interesting too in this context: Janis' take on love is that it's something people keep hidden, 'beneath a horned shell', until they find the right person to open to. She's still looking, petrified that she's going to be entombed within that shell for the rest of her life. [66] 'ball and Chain', while a cover song, also makes it clear what the Joplin philosophy is: love hurts and Janis fears becoming a slave to her feelings, losing herself in the sheer size of her love as it grows, something the carefree 'Pearl' side of her personality dreads.
By 1969 Janis has two sort-of boyfriends on the go: Kris Kristoffersen and Pigpen, of the Grateful Dead. Both appeal to both sides of her personality: Kris is a flashy celebrity who adores appearing on stage - but he's also cerebral, writing some of the wordiest songs Janis ever covered. Pigpen, meanwhile, knows (and feels) the blues every bit as much as she does and spends his career on stage with the Dead improvising long great raps about love that bring out his inner extrovert, usually whilst drinking. But Pig, too, was a 'thinker' and was actually shy and quiet offstage, a similar outcast in a society that said white people couldn't understand the blues. Both relationships were good for Janis when they started (especially Pig's) - and devastating when they ended (especially Kris', who sounds a bit of a pest to be honest, leading Janis on for his career with no desire to understand her the way she appears to have understood him). Janis never lived to sing a Pigpen song (shed have sounded great doing 'Easy Wind', the song of carefree living learnt the hard way as written for Pig by Dead lyricist Bob Hunter) and sang [104] 'Me and Bobby McGee' as her 'goodbye' song to Kris, where in what could have been a Joplin metaphor 'freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose'.
In the last two years of her life, though, Janis wrote songs about feeling more alone than ever, as the feeling of insecurity and loneliness overpowered her. [76] 'One Good Man' is a slow chugging blues that despairs of ever finding the 'right' one. Janis isn't greedy, one man who has all the right things will do, but she can't find even one, telling us in the opening verses that she's getting bored of going to parties just for 'fun', she wants something deeper. 'It ain't much' she sighs, 'it's only everything!' [79] 'Kosmik Blues' even sees Janis singing about herself and her love life in tatters in the third person, unable to quite believe things are still this bad: 'I keep pushing so hard and babe I keep trying to make it right, though another lonely day...twenty five years and just one night!' Most of her 'Kozmik Blues' cover songs deal with loneliness too - [78] 'To Love Somebody' finds her sobbing that 'you don't know what it's like' because nobody feels as deeply as she does, while the jaw-dropping [81] 'Work Me, Lord' (by close friend Nick Gravenites, possibly written directly for Janis) finds her making a pact with God that she'll do anything he wants if only he could, please, somehow, someday, give her somebody who loves her as much as she loves him, cursing herself for 'never feeling satisfied'. Only near the end, with [96] 'Move Over', does Janis sound as if she's turned a corner, that her 'Pearl' side is in charge and is kicking out the men in her life for not being good enough to please her.
It would have been fascinating to know where Janis might have gone next. Following her 'Monterey' performance, when she was finally granted the celebrity she craved and the success she deserved, feeling a part of a movement bigger than herself, it feels as if she was 'allowed' a mandate from her 'crowd' to be herself. The more vulnerable she was offstage, the louder she was onstage, the more she looked in charge on stage and the more helpless she sounded in her songs, the more her audience lapped it up. To this day Janis is a heroine for outcasts everywhere, who feel lost with the life that was carved out for them and who haven't met the right people to believe in them for who they are. Success is usually the point when singers and writers 'lose' that part of themselves - that they finally feel accepted and 'belong', which tends to be when their audience (who don't feel successful or as if they belong) lose faith in them. For Janis it was different: she'd spent so much of her life trying to hide her 'Pearl' side to her family and friends - and later her 'little girl' side to her fanbase - that she took success as a chance to explore her personality while realising that she wasn't quite as alone as she once was. The shock came in 1969 when she was persuaded to leave Big Brother (the single biggest mistake of her short career) and decided to change the pure sound of her music, substituting the rock fire that she could dance to with the horn section of the Kozmik Blues Band that cried big heavy tears alongside her. This robbed her music of its dimensions for many, but it's a logical extension of what Janis had been trying to do her whole career long: understand herself more. Given the freedom to be 'herself' for the first time in her life, free of the need to be who her friends and family or bandmates needed her to be to sell records, she became the 'purest' version of Janis she could find where her two split personalities met in the middle: she became the 'blues'. When that third record was coolly received, however, she had a re-think and it was her quieter, humbler, more thoughtful self that took over. As popular as it is fourth alum 'Pearl' always sounded as if it was 'missing' something to me - and what it's missing is right there in the title (and on the front cover). This doesn't feel like the showbizzy 'Pearl' side of Janis much - it's a bunch of 'thinking' songs played with a slicker, more refined  take on the 'Big Brother' sound. Naming this third band the 'Full Tilt Boogie Band' also sounds like a similar covering up of the truth - compared to Big Brother and even the Kozmik Blues Band this wasn't a band made for thinking or for going full tilt. Instead Janis feels as if she's holding something back, allowing only one side of herself onto record. I do wonder how this album - unfinished at the time of Janis' death - might have been received as just another 'Janis' album without the extra publicity of her demise. Would it have been as rapturously received and might Janis have ended up making soundalikes for the rest of her career less intense and more thoughtful, 'mature' than what she did before? Or would she have got bored and gone the other way, perhaps releasing a fifth album titled 'Small and Helpless' or something like that, with a picture of her as a little girl on the cover, maybe crying - while the songs within would have featured her 'Pearl' self, living larger than life and fully in charge cackling like the days of old? Or would she have met the man of her dreams at last, one who 'got' both sides of her chaotic personality and loved them both, appreciating the hurt vulnerable little girl who just wanted to fit in as well as the boastful extroverted 'Pearl' who loved being the centre of attention? Alas we'll never know - but maybe even that early death, at the age of twenty-seven, was an inevitable result of the fight going on Janis' whole life long between her two personalities?
I still think, given what people close to Janis reported during her last week on Earth, that it was her old demons from her teenage years that killed her - that she'd returned to her high school reunion a big star, who'd achieved more in life than her little ol' housewife classmates ever had, and still been ignored and ostracised. Janis had at the time been free of drugs and most booze for six whole months, turning her life around after a shambolic 1969 that had seen her lose so much and finding that her 'new' voice, more sophisticated than before, on 'Pearl'. But it's not the 'real' Janis any more than the boozy 1969 had been and so she swings to another extreme the other way, the shock of her high school reception and playing a part for so long causing her 'Pearl' side to go further out than ever, scoring right back to the excessive amount of drugs she'd been taking years before when her body just wasn't used to it. Maybe her 'soul' wasn't too, after thinking she'd 'grown up' and got past that 'Pearl' character for good.
All of this discussion could, of course, be 'wrong'. I never met Janis. She dies a full decade before I was born. She'd have probably told me to get lost with a cackle and told me I needed to get more 'loose, man!' and understand my own life before I start writing about hers. But there must be a reason why, from the moment I first heard that voice I 'got' it, in a way that I never have from any of Janis' other pretenders to the throne (why do people listen to Suzi Quatro or Madonna or especially The Spice Girls when Janis was real girl power decades before, blazing through new ground when all those other acts make such a fuss about squeezing through a door already open?) For it's the contradictions in Janis that appeal to me the most. She's clearly one hell of a singer, with a range and power and fire that few vocalists can hold a candle to, of either gender - but it's what she does with that power, on songs about feeling lost and helpless and vulnerable and desperate that make me love that voice as well as gasp in awe at it. Janis was an amazing on-stage charismatic presence as any moving footage of her or even a still photograph will demonstrate - but you sense, too, that giving her full self on stage took effort and didn't come naturally, it was just part of Janis being 'authentic' to herself.
Janis was a very talented and under-rated songwriter who sadly died before her compositions reached double figures - but she may well be the most honest of all writers too, open about her real feelings and how lost she felt, even living a life that others would have felt fulfilled from a hundred times over. Janis really 'grew' into her 'pearl personality, the way so many singers grow into a persona onstage they feel comfortable with - but you sense Janis never forget the painful outcast little girl she always was either. There's a world of dimensions going on in Janis' recordings - whenever she sings of being tough, you sense the hurt and pain that caused it; when she sings about being lost and helpless you know that Janis is still a 'fighter' and will find a way of digging her heels in; whenever she got the blues singing somehow made everything right and made sense of everything going on in her life. There will never be another singer like her - because female singers don't have to come from the same male-dominated background anymore, while being macho and tough as a girl is far more 'normalised' today. Even so, as long as there are misfits, who are told what to do and who hate hurting people enough to try to be what other people want - whilst hating themselves more for not being true to themselves - Janis will find an audience. Her bravery and courage ultimately didn't come from just her 'Pearl' side, but from her 'little girl' side too and it's allowing herself to be 'human', to show us how sad and small her world really was, that means her appeal will always be huge. Janis was a 'pearl' of a singer then, but there was so much more to her than just her drinking, cackling personality and we 'true' fans are those who learnt to take all sides of Janis and finally give her what she craved for all her life - by loving them all.
A now complete list of Janis articles from this website:


'Big Brother And The Holding Company' (1967)

'Cheap Thrills' (1968)

'I Got Dem Ol' Kozmik Blues Again Mama!' (1969)

'Pearl' (1970)

Non-Album Songs 1963-1970

Surviving TV Clips 1967-1970
Live/Compilation/Outtakes Sets 1965-1970

Essay: Little Pearl Blue – Who Was The Real Janis?

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