things we learned about janis joplin from janis: little girl blue

What you didn't know about the Queen of San Fran hippy scene.

by Oliver Lunn
30 January 2016, 1:36am

​Foto: © Getty Images

When Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose in 1970 she unwittingly became a member of the 27 Club and joined the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and all the other musicians who died - typically from drugs - at the age of 27. Like most members, she had led a rebellious life fuelled by drink and drugs, yadda yadda yadda, so the cliché goes. To most people, she seemed like a woman who assuredly bulldozed her way through the male-dominated music scene. To most people, she was strong and unbreakable. But in Amy Berg's documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, which uproots the buried truths about the singer's life, we glimpse something seemingly at odds with all that: Joplin's fragility is laid bare. It's the most vivid portrait yet of the woman once described as, "The most important female vocalist since Aretha Franklin". Here are some things we learned from it.

A bunch of frat boys really got under her skin in Texas
Known as 'Pearl' to her friends, Joplin was, in truth, always the sensitive girl from Port Arthur, Texas. In school she was picked on for the way she looked - messy hair, tomboy dress sense, etc. - and she began to question her own desirability. It got worse in Austin when a bunch of frat boys officially voted her "the ugliest man on campus". In the words of a teary-eyed friend: "It crushed her. It was the saddest thing I ever saw." Her sister chimes in: "It became increasingly hard [for her] to fit into a group of angry men who liked to pick on her." What did Joplin do? She packed her bags and headed for the hippy hills of San Francisco, later penning the lyric: "I just had to get out of Texas, baby". She soon fell in with a crowd of beatniks and fired up the engine of her career.

Her explosive appearance at Monterey Pop Festival changed everything
When Joplin belted out a career-crowning performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, sharing a bill with Otis Redding, The Who and other rock titans, she was barely known to the wider public. It was a massive moment for her and it instantly catapulted her to fame. Not least because Mama Cass and other LA-based artists who had previously been critical of the San Francisco scene were sitting slack-jawed at the sight of this explosive new talent. Her emotional honesty was center stage and she was finally accepted. Yet at that moment, in a blinding spotlight, she was part of a band - Big Brother and the Holding Company - and wasn't supposed to be seen as a solo artist. An Almost Famous-esque clash of egos was sure to follow.

Dick Cavett might have been intimate with Joplin
Talk show host Dick Cavett looks kinda funny sat next to Janis Joplin. He's wearing a sharp suit, his hair flattened Lego-style. She's wearing a crazy purple outfit and has feathers sprouting from her hair. They're a circus-like contrast: a free spirit versus a buttoned up square. Still, Joplin appeared three times on the show and they clearly hit it off. But were they close close? Cavett himself says, slowly and somewhat tentatively: "I will level with you. We may or may not have ended up... intimate. I memory is so bad." Need he say more? Later, he's sincere and downbeat when recalling asking her: "Can you assure me you're not doing heroin?" Her answer, he says, stuns him to this day. "Who would care?"

Joplin consciously avoided heroin before shows
When she was using heroin - and this was intermittently throughout her career - she consciously shirked shooting up before a show. It was her post-gig fix that was more of a regular thing, we're told. A former bandmate explains: "She rarely was using heroin before a concert because it wasn't the right kind of energy for onstage and she cared about that." That said, we do see one slightly awkward gig where a drugged up Joplin has been pushed onstage by Peggy Caserta. Caserta, a former lover described as an enabler rather than a helper where drugs were concerned, appears in voice only, saying: "We shot heroin for fun and it took the edge off." During the gig in question, Joplin's voice struggles and strains, some lyrics sung in a croaky whisper. It's painful to watch.

Pink and others lament Joplin and the "ballsy" women of her generation
During the closing credits, some familiar talking heads throw in their two cents. Pink opines: "Women were way ballsier then than they are now. Janis was fearless with her pain and with her truth. That was one of the most inspiring things for me, watching her going, Oh okay, I don't need to be anything other than who I am." Then there's Juliette Lewis, the actress-turned-rock star: "To perform that way, with those lyrics and those songs, and to feel there's no lie in it, it's like, you might as well be slashing yourself onstage and opening your skin." Lastly, we're left with the words of John Lennon on the question of Joplin and drugs: "I think the basic thing nobody asks is why do people take drugs of any sort, from alcohol to hard drugs; that means there's something wrong with society that's making us so pressurized that we cannot live in it without guarding ourselves against it."


Janis: Little Girl Blue will be in cinemas from 5th February

janis joplin
Little Girl Blue