- 04 Oct 21
51 years ago today, iconic American singer-songwriter Janis Joplin died in her hotel room, aged just 27. To mark her anniversary, we're revisiting Phil Udell's reflections on her legacy, following the release of Love, Janis – originally published in Hot Press in 2001.
In many ways, Janis Joplin is the ’70s lost icon. She lived fast, died young and made some fantastic music along the way. But Joplin hasn’t exactly been raised to the same exalted status as some of her contemporaries. Her songs don’t soundtrack a multitude of adverts, her albums don’t take pride of place in the record stores, her face does not adorn a million bedroom walls but all of this somehow makes the work of Janis Joplin more special.
Yet there are many that feel that her work deserves a wider audience, not least her younger sister Laura, one of the guiding lights behind the Love, Janis stage show. Drawing on letters that the singer wrote to her family during and after her rise to fame, the show combines her own words and her music to create an insight into her short life. The album of the show replaces the cast recordings with twelve original tracks, still in the context of her letters.
For those unfamiliar with her work, the power and range of those early recordings is nothing short of staggering. Joplin was first and foremost a blues singer – ‘What Good Can Drinkin’ Do’ bears more than a hint of Bessie Smith – yet her various bands took the genre to new heights, not that dissimilar to what Led Zeppelin were also attempting. She may have screamed with the best of them (Big Brother’s reading of ‘Piece Of My Heart’ is astonishing) but, as her confidence in the studio grew, so did her ability to temper the fury with a more tender side, matched on ‘A Woman Left Lonely’ and ‘Little Girl Blue’ by a less abrasive musical backing.
But it’s those letters home (read on the album by Catherine Curtin) that place the music in a real, human context. Running from her early days in San Francisco to her last, the extracts choose not to dwell on the darker side (although Joplin refers to her “self-destructive streak” at one point), instead focusing on the singer’s excitement and amazement at her success – her tale of Paul McCartney attending one show (“He’s a Beatle, mother… if only it could have been George”) is quite touching.
Increasingly torn between the stability of her family life and the world of a rock star, Joplin immersed herself in work to keep that self-destructive streak under wraps. By the time of her last letter, she looked to be finding the happiness that she had sought for so long, even talking about the prospects of marriage and less time on the road. A month later she was dead from an accidental drug overdose.
Despite the sad ending, Love, Janis does much to rescue Joplin from the realms of tragic victim. Hearing her excited stories, flicking through the beautiful photographs, listening to that amazing voice in playful mood on ‘Mercedes Benz’, all brings her to life once more and instils the artist with the dignity, sympathy and respect that she so rightly deserves.