Live fast, die young, and make sure that corpse is good looking: most of us are familiar with human nature’s tendency to romanticize the accomplishments and enable the eccentricities of those who prematurely meet their demise at the height of their powers, but we usually don’t pay attention to how these icons are often memorialized in reverse. We tend to analyze each event of their life from the pinnacle moment itself. The rise is more important than the fall, primarily because the artist didn’t live long enough for inevitable mediocrity to set in, which consequently glosses over their shortcomings and places overpowering focus on their admirable traits.
If Mick Jagger or Keith Richards had taken the last train in 1971 instead of gleaning the riches off 35 years of legitimate mediocrity, we would be calling them the greatest rock artists of all time. Is Jimi Hendrix really the greatest guitar player who ever lived? Does the three year span between his breakout at Monterrey and his untimely death embody a sufficient catalog to unequivocally make that assumption? Of course not; if Hendrix were alive today, he would probably be consistently mentioned in every top 10 guitarist list but the consensus that exists now would be erased quicker than a hippie can lose his mind dropping LSD and tripping to “Voodoo Child.” Was Jim Morrison one of the most insanely brilliant artists ever, a man whose genius was so overpowering it was impossible for him not be internally tortured? Absolutely not: sure, Mr. Mojo Risin’ conjured some epic lines, would have spawned a million internet memes had it existed back then, and fronted a great band, but people seem to gloss over how he wrote an avalanche of self-indulgent, moronic, babbling nonsense and grandiosely talked about banging his mother, never mind the fact anyone who drinks themself to death by the age of 27 probably shouldn’t be idolized. Probably the most overtly lionized individual in pop culture history is Kurt Cobain, a slightly above average songwriter for a slightly above average band whose death and influence over a genre-shift suddenly transformed into the pantheon of songwriters not seen since Lennon died (at least in the years following his demise).
So what about Janis Joplin? She’s part of that year 27 curse (a legitimately creepy phenomenon), and she died in the same three year span as Hendrix and Morrison, so she will forever be part of that pantheon. Her rise was quick, catapulted by Monterrey in the same way Hendrix was, and she absolutely burned out (heroin overdose) before having the chance to ungracefully fade away. In short, she’s a revered component of rock history, an undeniable legend, the white queen of the blues. The important question isn’t Joplin’s talent; that much was undeniable. Anybody who’s heard “Piece of My Heart” or “Cry Baby” knew this gravelly voiced powerhouse could absolutely belt out soulful blues jams that most people absolutely cannot nor will not for the foreseeable future. It isn’t about the legitimacy of her flower queen status, it is actually far more likely her entire persona was calculated specifically to align with the times and launch herself into fame. The important question is whether her catalog is objectively good enough to qualify her as a rock legend, with analysis on the removal of the dying young factor. The best way to view this is taking a look at her seminal greatest hits package, with the caveat it is missing one extremely crucial song (“Mercedes Benz”).
The quintessential aspect of Joplin’s persona was responsible for the sincerity and upmost application of her talent, her cunning image manipulation that led to her fame, and ultimately led directly to her death. That is, Joplin was controlled by a massively overpowering insecurity/image complex. The reason she sounded like every cell in her body was pleading for something, anything in “Ball and Chain, “Move Over,” and “Cry Baby” is because it absolutely was. She was a tormented soul at odds with herself from childhood, and all of those memories came bursting out of her like a runaway freight train heading for a nitro-glycerin plant. This also drove her need to fit in, whether it was going full-on hippie once that became fashionable or getting back into drugs after swearing them off, simply because everybody else was doing it. In the end, addiction claimed her, and one has little doubt her last moments were not pleasant and were directly caused by a series of unfortunate events.
So what did Janis leave us with? We can look at the raw power of the aforementioned songs, the sheer torment of “Cry Baby,” the seminal pleadings of “Piece of My Heart,” or the way she almost dropped dead on stage after banging out “Ball and Chain.” With respect to this however, in the end it really boils down to a song she didn’t write but absolutely encapsulates everything about the person she was: “Me and Bobby McGhee.” A song that sounds like it came straight out of Bob Dylan’s insane yet astutely brilliant mind but actually penned by Kris Kristofferson, “Bobby McGhee” is about everything Janis wanted (love, acceptance, bonding) that decays into everything she ended up personifying (loss, pain, pleading, and feigned acceptance). The nature of the song’s composition is gentle while times are good and gets increasingly more intense as everything falls to pieces. In the end, it’s actually the perfect summation for Janis’ life and career: it never quite came together, even when it seemed it would.
From a vocal prowess standpoint, Janis is probably as good as we remember her. From a songs perspective, she had 3-4 undeniable classics. Is that objectively good enough to lionize her in history the way we do? Probably not, but being human, we will absolutely continue to do so and will throughout the course of history. We can’t help it, and maybe it shouldn’t be any other way. Although it’s a tragedy to see someone pass away early, from a music consumption standpoint, it’s almost sadder to see great artists become a parody of themselves. Unfortunately for Janis the human being, she never got the chance to play out that inevitable course.