Share this article

print logo

'Pearl Sessions' inspires a new appreciation for Joplin

It only took me 40-some years. But I've finally fallen for Janis Joplin.

I love her on the deluxe double-disc set of "The Pearl Sessions" (Columbia/Legacy). I didn't when the original first came out, "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Get It While You Can" notwithstanding.

I always respected Joplin, but until her October 1970 death from a heroin overdose -- within 16 horrific days of Jimi Hendrix's drug-related death -- I always had huge reservations. She always seemed to me as if she were performing in the musical equivalent of blackface (unlike Bonnie Raitt, whose tutelage by Mississippi Fred McDowell never altered her vocal style). Her love for Tina Turner was open and warmhearted, and I always thought of her as the Haight-Ashbury hippie simulation of Tina T.

I didn't entirely "get" Janis Joplin. I paid lip service to the self-professed freak from Port Arthur, Texas -- the much bullied and laughed-at, acne-stricken outcast -- but I was too deeply into other music at the time to feel how much a life triumph her music was.

What I think I finally "get" now, 42 years later, is her sense of humor. She was, in her gloriously wild and disheveled way, adorable.

What brought it home to me on "The Pearl Sessions" is the tiny little recording session toss-off "Mercedes Benz," which she sarcastically introduces as a song "of great social and political import." The irony is, of course, that in its funny, jokey way, her a capella homemade ditty really is making a sneaky social commentary about the naive American way of petitioning God for material gain and worldly triumph.

"Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz/ My friends all drive Porsches/I must make amends./ Worked hard all my life, Lord/ No help from my friends/ Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz."

By the time she's finished, she has prayed for a color TV and for her deity to "buy the next round" during a "night on the town." And when she's finished, we hear a little Janis snicker that kills me.

We hear it again at the very end of the first disc when she's finished singing a Dale Evans version of "Happy Trails to You" as a birthday tribute to one of her musicians.

I love that little giggle. It seems to me that fleeting little sound illuminates everything else about her -- even the perfectionism and anger you also hear on the deluxe set in recording session banter. She seems, among other crucial things, to have had a view of herself every bit as ironic as Elvis Presley's when he'd cock a sneer on his upper lip, just so his band could be entertained by the immediate sudden yip of female screaming in the audience.

It's one of the most profound qualities in American music -- that ironic, playful sense of self. In at least one case -- Fats Waller -- a performer employed it with genius to make immortal hilarity out of the decidedly unfunny subject of white stereotyping of black Americans.

I must admit I'm a sucker for giggles left in on recordings. On Tracy Nelson's classic recording of her amazing song "Down So Low," she belts out one bit of blues melisma with so much lung power that she suddenly laughs with pleasure at her own incredible chops.

So what is one to do about finally falling for Janis Joplin?

I began to think about what might have been if Janis and Jimi hadn't died in 1970. What if, like Keith Richards, they'd miraculously survived into a thoroughly oxymoronic old age.

Would they have hit 70 as one of the world's greatest tandem rock concerts? Or, more likely, would Jimi have long since abandoned rock for jazz with Miles Davis and Gil Evans and then, decades later, Miles Alumni like Chick Corea? Would he have fled America for Europe again to invent music we can't now imagine?

What would have happened to lusty old Janis if, instead of legendarily "saving the bass player for Omaha," the bass player she hooked up with in Omaha had saved her from heroin? What if he had successfully guided her into rehab? And a program? (Both things, in infancy, back then among celebrities.)

What if we'd had Janis Joplin around for four more decades? What if we'd watched her gain weight, withdraw from a punishing performance schedule and write a monster memoir, and enjoyed it as her music became the soundtrack for countless movies while she herself became as beloved a talk show presence as Dolly Parton (three years younger) always is?

What if -- not that bizarre a thought -- Janis Joplin had always been in the world to become the definitive elder stateswoman of freakdom in the Patti Smith mode, a huge and vital force for high school outcasts, self-deprecating ironists and passionate, perfectionist performers everywhere?

Just buy the new "Pearl Sessions." And enjoy.

There's nothing else you can possibly do with the set.