I Can Hear Janis Joplin Laughing

Pete and I were just watching the latest episode of “Mad Men” which concluded with Big Brother and the Holding Company’s version of “Piece of My Heart”.  I said to Pete, “That should bring in a nice chunk of change for the guys.” I meant that quite sincerely. Pete and I are friends with most of the original band, and we’re always happy when fellow artists stand to make royalties on old recordings, but especially on AFTRA accounts, not the least because that union offers a great health insurance plan for self-employed musicians.

The second thing I said to Pete was, “Janis would have gotten such a kick out of this—I can just hear her cackling to the top of her lungs.” Pete said, “You knew her. You should post what you just said on Facebook. People like to hear about such things.”

So, here I am.

The reason I think Janis would have laughed about it is that she had such a vivid sense of irony. The juxtaposition of “The Establishment” (personified by “mad men”) with the voice from the counter-culture that Janis and Big Brother embodied was perfect. The episode had been, in large part, dealing with women trying to claim places of power in business, and then to have Janis’ gutsy vocal come roaring in on “Piece of My Heart” foreshadowed the enormous change that was happening in the late 60s…change that was on its way even to Madison Avenue, as ads would soon co-opt the counterculture’s style, way of life, and values, and then sell them back to the hippies with a big price tag.

I think Janis saw it coming, certainly in her own life, as her fame and popularity grew. She laughed it up, enjoyed the ride, and continued to belt out songs that tore our hearts out…but she was also deadening her senses with whiskey and heroin.

I was a very young woman when I had the good fortune to travel in her circle, and I think I was too young and too in awe of her to really understand her. I certainly didn’t have the skills to protect her from the inevitability of the demon that was stalking her, but even at that age, I had a foreboding sense of dread when she left Big Brother and danced alone into the limelight. I attended parties at her house that left me covered in cold sweat. The atmosphere of “anything goes” was being taken to new levels among the people who had begun to congregate around her. There was a hard drugs vibe at those parties, not the psychedelic lightness of being I was used to. And I felt that many of the people filling Janis’ house didn’t care about her. It was as if they were flashed out by the scene—her celebrity and “hipness,” and didn’t see the person behind the veneer.

For her part, Janis seemed increasingly remote. I realize now that it was the drug, but from the perspective of a 20 year-old, her fate seemed inevitable—like a tragedy that couldn’t be stopped.

But back to that laugh…when Janis threw back her head and surrendered to mirth, it drew you in, lifted you up, and swirled you in its excitement. She was so much, well…for lack of a better word, FUN. Colors were brighter, scenery was more vivid, and everyone around her was vivacious when she laughed.

The men of the series, Mad Men, are the total opposite of the hippie, musician “cats” Janis loved. The whole “straight scene” (as Janis would have called it) was the subject of countless conversations among those in the 1960’s counterculture. What amused Janis was how many of those “straight dudes” loved her and her music. I can imagine Janis saying, “They wouldn’t have given me a second look in high school, you dig? It’s some crazy shit, man!” And then would come that raspy cackle.

I loved her. I cried every time I heard her sing, as I stood at the side of the stage, watching her spit on the floor, clear her throat, and start moving as Big Brother launched into the guitar opening of “Piece of My Heart.” She had a big piece of my heart and always will.

Next time I write, I’ll tell the story of how I came to know Janis.

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