The queen of rock’n’roll: Remembering Janis Joplin

It’s sobering to realize that Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison all died within a short period of time.

Deutsche Welle 10.4.2020

Texan girl, blues queen and music pioneer: The iconic figure in the 1960s hippie and women’s liberation movement died 50 years ago, on October 4, 1970.

June 25, 1970: Wearing a purple suit, countless bracelets and a pink feather boa in her hair, Janis Joplin had a chat with TV show host Dick Cavett.

He asked if she often returned to her hometown, Port Arthur, Texas. No, Joplin said, excitedly adding that she was planning on going back for her 10th annual high school reunion. Asked about her former schoolmates, she said: “They laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state. Now I’m gonna laugh.” It was a moment of triumph and of pain in the life of the megastar.

She would die less than four months after that Cavett interview.

The class reunion at the Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur was filmed. She showed up in her typical eccentric hippie style — obviously a colorful foreign body among the rest of her former elegantly dressed classmates. Interviewed that day, she was asked who invited her to the prom night back in the day: “No one,” she replied. It appeared to still hurt.

Born on January 19, 1943 in the oil refinery town of Port Arthur, Janis Lyn Joplin was able to read before she went to school.

As a 14-year-old chubby girl with severe acne, she was bullied in school. She was interested in art and literature, and wrote poetry. “I started singing when I was about 17. I could sing. It was a surprise — to say the least,” she later said. She hadn’t realized how powerful her voice was.

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Her inner liberation from her conservative milieu would eventually be noticeable in her appearance: Janis dyed her hair orange, wore men’s clothes or shaggy dresses. The girl who had an inferiority complex decided to start attracting attention. Parents didn’t want their children to hang out with her; she was seen as a bad influence.

Janis finished high school and trained as a secretary. She later studied art at the University of Texas in Austin. There, her provocative appearance led her to be named “the university’s ugliest man” in a frat boys’ satire magazine.

Read more:Who was Janis Joplin?

Newsweek 1969 Cover (Newsweek)

San Francisco’s counter-culture

At the age of 18 she moved to San Francisco — culturally light-years away from Port Arthur, Texas. She became an icon of the hippie movement. And her voice felt like an earthquake in the music scene. 

The unpopular high school girl eventually landed on the cover of Newsweek magazine. The article titled Rebirth of Blues described her as rock’s first female superstar, adding that at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Music Festival, “a volatile viol of nitroglycerine named Janis Joplin blew the rock world wide open.”

In Janis Joplin’s five-year career, she sold 15.5 million albums in the US alone and obtained international recognition — all while leading a rather self-destructive lifestyle.

It was later revealed that she wrote many letters to her parents during this period, constantly craving their recognition. As the singer would drink whisky and swear on stage, she wasn’t allowed to perform in Houston, Texas. Her parents reportedly found her provocative behavior appalling as well. Her family nevertheless stood by her until the end.

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On October 4, 1970 Janis Joplin failed to turn up as scheduled for a recording session at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles where she had been working on her album Pearl with her Full Tilt Boogie Band. A colleague drove to the Landmark Hotel, where she was staying, and found her lying on the floor, dead. The autopsy revealed the cause of death to have been a heroin overdose. Guitar legend and fellow hippie icon Jimi Hendrix had died only two weeks before, also age 27.

Only days before her death, Joplin had signed her will, including a large sum for her wake at Lion’s Share in San Anselmo, California. Sent to 200 guests, the invitations were printed with the message “Drinks are on Pearl.” The rest of her estate went to her family.