Tuesday, August 11, 2009

She Dared To Be Different

Life in Port Arthur, Texas in the 50's was conservative and very racially divided. Conformity was the order of the day. Dads went to work to support their families, Moms stayed home to raise the kids, keep the house clean and cook. Few families had more than one car which Dad usually took with him when he went to work. Mom's spent Saturdays running errands, if she had a drivers license, while Dad mowed the lawn.

Children were seen and not heard entities that went to school, brought home decent grades, did their chores and were allowed out to play until dark when there wasn't any school. Playmates were all introduced to and approved by the parents. Children who dared to bring home someone "different" would be told that they weren't allowed to play with that child again. He/she's "not our kind". "Our kind" was defined by what neighborhood they lived in, who their parents were and what color their skin was. Sometimes "not our kind" was defined by weight. Being fat was almost as big a sin as being a thief.

Janis Joplin was an overweight child with acne so bad she required dermabrasion to remove the scars. She was ostracized because, in her own words "I was a misfit. I read, I painted, I didn't hate n******". She was routinely taunted and called names like "pig" "freak" and "creep". Janis was the oldest child of three, born into a family in which both parents worked outside the home. Her Mother described her as "unhappy" and "unsatisfied." A child that needed more than the "normal rapport" that her siblings required.

As an outcast, her choice of friends was somewhat limited. She befriended a group of other outcasts and through one of them was introduced to the music of Bessie Smith and Leadbelly. She joined the choir and expanded her blues listening to Odetta and Big Mama Thornton. Upon graduating from high school in 1960, she went to technical college that summer and on to the University of Texas in Austin. Still overweight, still an outcast. She didn't find any place where she fit in until she left Texas for San Francisco in 1963. Haight Ashbury where the flower children made love and the drugs were practically free.

Mostly she drank, with her beverage of choice being Southern Comfort. However, she discovered the "benefit" of speed. It caused her to lose weight. By 1965 the combination of speed, alcohol and the occasional heroin use worried her friends enough to convince her to go home to get well. They gave her a bus fare party to raise the needed money to send her home. Once there she quit drinking and drugging. She turned herself around to the point where a proper young man requested her hand in marriage. Not much is known about what happened, but shortly after her father granted his request, the man broke the engagement and Janis went back to San Francisco.

How is it possible to define someone like Janis? How do you define a legend that was larger than life itself and twice as tragic? In the 5 years between 1965 and her death in 1970 from a heroin and alcohol overdose, she became one of the most influential women of rock. She became the Grateful Dead's "Bird Song", the Mama and the Papa's "Pearl". She was "The Rose" of Bette Midler. She was Kris Kristopherson's "Epitaph (Black and Blue)". She may even have been the inspiration for this line from the song "American Pie". "I met a girl who sang the blues / And I asked her for some happy news, / But she just smiled and turned away". Don McLean has never confirmed it, but that is exactly what she did. She just smiled and turned away, leaving us with her legacy.

She broke through the boundaries of color and womens roles in our culture and she became a legend. She has a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awarded to her in 1995. She was also awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. All of these awards and tributes are how we remember her, but who was she really? I found a quote that defines her far better than I ever could. In her own words..."You can fill your life up with ideas and still go home lonely".

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