what i'm reading: janis, her life and music

As a teenager and in my early 20s, I was somewhat obsessed with Janis Joplin. I read all the available biographies of her, and took any opportunity to see footage of her legendary performances.

I never lost my fascination; I've continued to love Janis' music throughout my life. Reading Janis: Her Life and Music by Holly George-Warren deepened my appreciation of Janis' intelligence and artistry. The book also shifted my adult view of Janis, from a misunderstood, tragic figure, to a joyful, life-affirming woman intent on living life on her own terms.

George-Warren was the first Janis biographer to have full access to all her diaries, journals, and letters, and truly, the first to care about facts. I didn't realize that Myra Friedman, author of the famous Janis biography Buried Alive (which I read and re-read) was in fact a publicist for Janis' record label. Turns out the book was mostly myth and rumour.

* * * *

Of course it is tragic that Janis died at only 27 years of age, by an accidental heroin overdose. She had been working hard to get clean, then relapsed, unknowingly injecting heroin that was 40 or 50% pure, rather than the 10% that was typical. An early death is a terrible thing, and when an artist has only begun to scratch the surface of her talents, it's also a tragic loss for music and culture. But Janis' life was anything but sad or tragic, and George-Warren's book reminded me of that. Janis' had her challenges, but her story is joyous and triumphant.

Without a doubt, Janis was insecure and had a profound need for attention. She went through some very severe bouts of depression, and was prone to fear and anxiety. She didn't love herself as she should have. With her personal evolution cut short at age 27, she had little time to do the hard work of adult self-acceptance.

Janis clearly sought to numb her pain with alcohol and drugs. With her addictive personality, this was a lethal combination. She was first addicted to shooting speed (what is now called crystal meth), later to heroin, and always, from start to finish, to alcohol.

* * * *

Janis was very intelligent, loved to read, and never traveled without a big stack of books. She was a self-taught music scholar. In her youngest musical days, she discovered the blues, listening to and teaching herself all the old blues forms. Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, became her first musical idol, and she taught herself to emulate this great artist who died six years before she was born.

Later, after seeing Otis Redding perform in San Francisco, Janis saw her own potential in his style, and sought to emulate him -- as Robert Plant and other singers would later do with her.

Janis was always keenly aware of her musical influences, always seeking to honour rather than co-opt them. When adapting signature songs by Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Etta James, Janis asked permission, and always acknowledged the originators onstage. She always cared deeply that she was standing on big musical shoulders.

* * * *

Here's something I never knew: the main reason Janis was hated and ostracized in her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, wasn't her original clothing or her wild hair or her singing. She was many years away from developing her signature style. It was all racism: Janis was hated because she was friends with Black people.

Janis frequented segregated bars on both sides of the divide, seeking music to hear, learn, and perform. She didn't hide the fact that she had Black friends; she regarded the racist norms as stupid and small-minded, and she wasn't shy about saying so. There may have been others in the small Texas town that opposed segregation, but no one else was open about it.

In Buried Alive, Friedman hints at Janis' pan-sexuality, and her relationships with women. I don't know if Friedman thought she was protecting Janis' reputation, but George-Warren finds a woman who was openly bisexual, who had both fleeting and serious relationships with both men and women.

Other writers have seen tragedy and dysfunction in Janis' very active sex life, but I see a woman with exuberant appetites, who lived by her own rules. Janis was very serious about her music, and she was also serious about enjoying life. She worked hard and she played hard.

Janis' overactive sex life is served up as evidence of a troubled, lonely soul. Did anyone say that about Mick Jagger (or Leonard Cohen, for that matter)? This is just the old double-standard, the same one that Joni Mitchell was subjected to, the one that all women are subject to, especially those who live and love independently. Janis did want someone to love, and she had serious, loving relationships with both men and women, but she also wanted to fuck around as much as she wanted. This wasn't sad! It was joyful and life-affirming. Janis was so alive to life and to possibilities. She loved intensely -- she loved sex -- and she loved being wild and free.

Janis also loved trying new things musically. When her talent outgrew her first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, everyone around her urged Janis to dump them and move on. But the members of that band were more than friends, they were a family. Breaking with them meant losing love; it meant choosing her art over love. It was necessary, but it was very painful.

Janis craved attention, craved the spotlight, whether on a tiny stage in a coffee house or in an arena; the more attention, the better. And of course that is also a drug. With fame comes fans' expectations, while an artist still wants to grow and change musically. The attention quickly becomes a prison, choking the life out of creativity. Janis: Her Life and Music is excellent at showing how popular success becomes a death sentence for music.

* * * *

This book is also full of wonderful insider stories of other musicians' and artists' encounters with Janis, and great quotes from critics discovering her incredible talent for the first time. Here are a few small samples.

From one of her band members on her interpretation of the Gershwin classic "Summertime":

It was as if molten lead had been poured into the rather conventional form of the song. Her voice was so high in emotional content that it split into two lines, one modal line accompanying the other at an exotic distance we felt rather than heard.

From the infamous Ralph Gleason, who booked Janis and Big Brother at the famous Monterey Jazz Festival.

There she was, this freaky-looking white kid from Texas onstage with all the hierarchy of the traditional blues world, facing an audience that was steeped in blues tradition, which was older than her ordinary audience and which had a built-in tendency to regard electric music as the enemy. The first thing she did was to say, 'shit', and that endeared her right away. Then she stomped her foot and shook her hair and started to scream. They held still for a couple of seconds, but here and there in the great sunlit arena, longhairs started getting up and out into the aisles and stomping along with the band. By the end of the first number, the arena was packed with people writhing and twisting and snaking along. It was an incredible sight. Nothing like it had ever happened before in the festival's ten years. It was Janis's day, no doubt about it. Old and young, long hair or short, black or white, they reacted like somebody had stuck a hot wire in their ass.

From Robert Shelton, New York Times critic "whose 1961 review of a Bob Dylan gig led to Dylan's recording contract with Columbia".

As fine as the whole evening was, it belonged mostly to sparky, spunky Miss Joplin. There are few voices of such power, flexibility and virtuosity in pop music anywhere. Occasionally Miss Joplin appeared to be hitting two harmonizing notes at once. Her voice shouted with ecstasy or anger one minute, trailed off into coquettish curlicues the next. It glided from soprano highs to chesty alto lows. . . . In an unaccompanied section of "Love Is Like a Ball and Chain," Miss Joplin went on a flight that alternately suggested a violin cadenza and the climax of a flamenco session. In "Light Is Faster Than Sound" and "Down on Me," she unleashed more energy than most singers bring to a whole program.

For Janis fans, this book is a gift.

For anyone who enjoys reading about the roots of rock of the 1950s and 60s, the music of the 1960s, and the San Francisco scene of that era, this is a must-read.

For those who only know the Janis Joplin of her one radio hit (albeit an incredible song), do some Googling and some listening. Then read this book.


listening to joni: #17 and final: shine

Shine, 2007

Shine is Joni's most recent, and likely final, studio album. She came out of retirement in 2007 to release the album, nine years after her previous Taming the Tiger.

Shine, which was also re-issued on vinyl in 2020, is a themed collection: the lyrics focus on environmental destruction and endless war. Joni composed some of the tracks for The Fiddle and the Drum, a collaboration with the Alberta Ballet Company, for which Joni served as artistic director.
At the time of the album's release, most critics interpreted the lyrics as references to Hurricane Katrina and the US's invasion of Iraq. Today, not tethered to specific recent events, the songs ache with heartbreak, frustration, and anger at how we humans have destroyed our planet. 
The album opens with an instrumental, "One Week Last Summer". When I first heard it, I thought it was a bit "Joni by the numbers," that Joni was musically repeating herself or relying too much on old patterns. But the more I've listened, the more the song has revealed itself to me. It's gentle but very powerful. It welcomes you, enfolds you, ushers you into the feel and tone of what follows. You can hear some Court and Spark in it, and some Blue, and some distinctly Joni arranging. She's not quoting herself so much as being herself.
In the lyrics booklet, Joni explains the song's title and the importance of that week, in which she experienced an inner peace and contentment, and a musical re-awakening.
I stepped outside of my little house and stood barefoot on a rock. The pacific ocean rolled towards me. Across the bay, a family of seals sprawled on the kelp uncovered by the low tide. A blue heron honked overhead. All around the house the wild roses were blooming. The air smelled sweet and salty and loud with crows and bees. My house was clean. I had food in the fridge for a week. I sat outside 'til the sun went down.

That night the piano beckoned for the first time in ten years. My fingers found these patterns which express what words could not. This song poured out while a brown bear rummaged through my garbage cans.

The song has seven verses constructed for the days of that happy week. On Thursday the bear arrives.

I love this statement, and I'm grateful that Joni included it. I can easily relate -- and I hope you can, too -- to the simple feeling of contentment, and how that freed her mind and her creative impulses. I also love that she ended the statement with some classic Joni humour.

The lyrics on Shine sometimes sound a little clunky and prosaic, as often happens with topical songs. But I have to add that they are a bit clunky for Joni. Even Joni's most strained lyrics are above-average. The songs mourn the paradise that's been paved into a parking lot, despair at what remains, and yearn, wish, and hope for "the genius to save this place," (from "This Place"), hoping when you have no hope: "if I had a heart, I'd cry" (from "If I Had a Heart").

"Strong and Wrong" is the most powerful and direct anti-war song Joni has ever written. Unlike many familiar anti-war songs, this is neither anthem nor folk song. It's a slow jazz meditation, the beautiful, rich piano chords accented by quiet drum and pedal steel. A lyric references another powerful anti-war song from another era: "Where have all the songbirds gone? Gone!" and then turn to a Joni reference: All I hear are crows in flight, Singing might is right, Might is Right! At the time this was thought to be about the US invasion of Iraq, and although those events may have inspired the song, it applies to all wars at all times, and to humankind's apparent inability to stop making war.

War -- its futility, its waste, its madness -- was certainly on Joni's mind. The title of the Ballet, The Fiddle and the Drum, is also one of Joni's earliest songs, which she famously sang on the Dick Cavett show, immediately following Woodstock. (You can see it here.)

My two favourite songs on Shine are the title track and "If," an adaptation of the famous Rudyard Kipling poem, with added verses. 

"Shine" (the song) is a litany of horrors, some global, some more specific.

Shine on the fishermen
With nothing in their nets
Shine on rising oceans and evaporating seas
. . . .
Shine on the Catholic Church
And the prison that it owns
. . . .
Shine on lousy leadership
Licensed to kill
Shine on dying soldiers
In patriotic pain
Shine on mass destruction
In some God's name!

But although the list of horrors is long, Joni implores us: shine. I hear this as having many meanings. 

Shine a light to expose evil. 

Let your inner light shine. 

A reference to the gospel classic, "This Little Light of Mine," in heavy use during the US civil rights movement.

"Earthshine," captured in the most famous environmental photo of all time, "Earthrise". 

As Joni sings "shine on... shine on," I also hear echoes of the Pink Floyd classic, "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" -- now referring to each of us, and to all of humanity.

The lyrics of "If" are straight out of the Kipling poem, with some masterful tweaks and a few new lines inserted. Comparing the poem and the song line by line, I was surprised that some lyrics I assumed were Joni's were actually from the poem. Of course Joni has removed the sexist and macho ending, and instead sings to perhaps her daughter, her grandson, or to us.

You'll be alright
You'll be alright.
Cause you've got the fight
You've got the insight.
I stumbled on "If" as a teenager and copied the words into my quote book. Even before knowing that Kipling was a racist colonialist, I hated the ending: I used a different colour pen and shaded over those last two lines. But the poem itself is powerful, and shouldn't be forgotten because the poet also wrote -- and is associated with -- a lot of offensive, racist work.

Shine also includes a remix of one of Joni's most famous songs, "Big Yellow Taxi (2007)". Its inclusion highlights how humanity has utterly failed since that song's debut. It serves as a barometer of our destruction. Paving paradise for a parking lot now seems a quaint notion, with more species on the brink of extinction and the very survival of the planet in question.

Throughout, Joni's voice sounds tired, strained, breathy. Her range is more limited, nowhere near the power and range she could harness in her earlier music. Of course that's to be expected in any older artist, especially a lifelong smoker, but it's still a bit sad when that vocal instrument was once so masterful.

Hear Music label
Shine was released by Hear Music, a label owned by Starbucks. Its music was featured on Starbucks' in-store playlist, and the CD was available for sale in Starbucks cafes. 
Many critics disapproved of this, some quite harshly. I don't get that. It's not as if the lyrics plug the coffee chain or the CD cover is emblazoned with the company logo. Working with Hear Music was an opportunity to reach a demographic that knows Joni's work -- and even more importantly -- still buys CDs. She clearly retained all creative control; do we dream this woman would ever do otherwise? 
I see this as a smart marketing decision. Joni's usual label, The Warner Group, is owned by WarnerMedia, a multinational entertainment behemoth. What's the difference?

The album cover

The album cover package is a simple and austere white font on black background, with striking images from the ballet.

Joni designed the cover and package, but for the first time, she neither painted a self-portrait for the album nor used her own paintings in the cover. Of course, she collaborated with a choreographer and dancers on the dance itself.

In her own words

In this interview from 2007, Joni talks about the tremendous creativity that she was able to express, as musician, artistic director, and visual artist through the Shine project. She says that Starbucks was "instrumental in this album being born at all", and also specifically mentions the Kipling poem, and the dancers' reaction to it.

She also confirms my impression from the lyrics: "Rationally I have no hope, irrationally I believe in miracles."

It's seven minutes long and worth a watch.

Other musicians on this album
Most of Shine is Joni working alone, playing multiple instruments and doing all the vocal tracks. However, a few other musicians did contribute.
Alto Sax, Bob Sheppard
Pedal Steel, Greg Leisz
Soprano Sax, Bob Sheppard
Drums, Brian Blade
Bass, Larry Klein
Percussion, Paulinho Da Costa
Acoustic Guitar, James Taylor 
Final "listening to joni" post

With this post, I have completed the "listening to joni" project on wmtc. 

Re-listening to Joni's music in chronological order brought me new musical insights, and re-connected me with my deep and abiding love of her music. It was sometimes a very emotional experience, both for personal memories and feelings I associate with the music, and the profound meaning I invest in many songs. 

This was also a very challenging writing experience, as I struggled to describe what I heard and offer some analysis. I'm not indulging in false modesty when I say I really never succeeded to my satisfaction. But that matters little. Writing this series was a great experience, because it brought me closer to the heart of the genius that is Joni Mitchell. 

I'm grateful to Les Irvin for including these posts in the JoniMitchell.com library, and proud to see my words incorporated there.