Freedom’s just another word
by Iryna Byelyayeva
Janis left one pearl
Priceless with imperfections
Then flew to heaven
I have loved Janis Joplin since I was a lost teen (right into lost early-twentiesdom, where I find myself now). I genuinely think her raspy, soulful, melancholy voice taught me to appreciate and accept my feelings. She’s a woman I love to listen to and love to sing along to, not because I have a good voice—although I do do a mean ‘Mercedes Benz’ when I have a sore throat—but because I feel what she sings rising up inside me and suddenly the only possible way to deal with the feelings she’s giving me is by doing the same thing she does: sing them out. Janis Joplin was born to be a singer, true artist and musician, and nothing else was an option.
I recently read a collection of rock criticism essays by Ellen Willis, The New Yorker’s first popular music critic. She started her column, ‘Rock Etc.’, in 1968; the essays in the collection I serendipitously found in a second-hand bookshop are mostly from the 60s and 70s, though they do dip into the later decades too. Willis was a wonderfully critical woman—it was such a breathtaking experience to read a person disliking The Beatles, David Bowie and Black Sabbath. She’s allowed to say it, because she is very smart and also was there when it was all happening. Willis was there when Bowie was starting out and she was not impressed. I couldn’t stop reading every snarky sentence, every time she said that The Rolling Stones were better musicians than The Beatles, because I was transfixed by the idea of being around when these icons were blooming and being allowed to say things that now, decades later, seem blasphemous. I mean, honestly, she kept saying that Mott the Hoople were a great, famous rock band. But Mott the Hoople are not the point.
The point is the heartbreak I felt reading her essay on Joplin. Willis loved Joplin—that is clear from all the other essays in which she spoke so highly of Janis’s work. But this one particular essay, published in Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in 1980, felt sad and disappointed. It can’t be denied that Joplin’s death was a musical, cultural tragedy. Willis’s take on the matter was regret that we never got to see Joplin blossom into the truly great, iconic singer Willis believed she could be. The line that really got me was ‘Janis died before she really had a chance to define her post-San Francisco, post-Big Brother self. Her last two albums … had a tentative, transitional feel.’
Perhaps it’s the fact that I feel deeply in love with Peal (1971) before Big Brother and the Holding Company but I still see it as a masterpiece. Fine, Joplin didn’t write most of the songs and just covered wonderful blues songs, like ‘most women singers’ according to Willis, but in my mind these songs are hers. I don’t want to hear anyone else to ‘My and Bobby McGee’. Who wrote the song isn’t the point, whether Joplin was transitioning or not isn’t the point either (of course she was transitioning, that’s all we ever do, that’s the stupid joke of it all), the point is that Pearl is a perfect collection of songs which all fit together, which all speak to the same thing and they are performed by a woman whose voice is broken but beautiful, like the cracks on oil paintings.
I love Pearl and I’m sad it’s all I have (or at least, that’s what it feels like) but there’s another part of me that doesn’t really want any more. Despite what Willis says, Janis Joplin has given me thirty-four minutes of soul, blues and passion that I will listen to for the rest of my life and never, never get over.