How Janis Joplin Has Influenced My Writing
On this day in 1970, rock 'n' roll legend Janis Joplin died of an accidental heroin overdose, joining Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain, and others in the infamous 27 Club. Why am I writing about this? Because a couple weeks ago, this feisty girl from Texas grabbed hold of the muse in my brain and dragged me back to the 1960s, when her crazy, Beatnik life began.
While I was working on draft two edits for my second book in mid September, I got distracted with browsing through music on Spotify. I've accumulated a massive playlist of over a hundred songs during the two years I've been drafting this book, but was hungry to find other artists that fit the mood of my book--especially music from the 1960s or 1970s, since this is the era from which my protagonist gleans most of her musical influence.
This is when Janis Joplin walked in.
Actually, let me backtrack. Janis didn't just walk in--she barged in without knocking. She burned down the door.
I'd known about Janis Joplin for a couple years then, having watched a documentary on Netflix about the 27 Club. If you're unfamiliar with the 27 Club, it's this strange phenomenon where successful musicians die at the age of twenty-seven. I was mostly interested because it featured Amy Winehouse, whom I listened to as a teenager following her 2011 death.
Anyway, the second I hit shuffle on Janis' Spotify profile, I wondered why I didn't think sooner to give her music a try--and why I'd never known of anyone who listened to her. Not only that, I'd never heard her come up in conversation, and I'd never heard her music on oldies stations, despite her being a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Needless to say, I wasn't prepared for what I was about to hear.
Her voice was unlike anything I'd ever heard before. I didn't know what to make of it.
Her guttural, often-squeally voice was so strange and enrapturing and provocative, that I stopped writing just to listen. I also took a moment to skim through her catalogue and learned that she spent much of her career as the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company--a hot, psychedelic mess of blues and rock 'n' roll.
Figuring I wouldn't get any more writing done now that I'd found this strangely good band no one talked about, I started my Googling rampage (as one does). What I found when comparing it to my manuscript was astounding.
I had inadvertently wrote a fictional book about Janis Joplin.
I'm serious. The similarities between Janis Joplin and my protagonist are eery. They both grew up in stable family households in East Texas but felt out of place; they were both bullied through their school years; they were both deeply gifted musicians who wanted nothing more than to leave their boring hometowns in pursuit of the music scene (San Francisco for Janis and Nashville for my character); they were both hippies (Janis an actual hippie and my character a modern-day teenager who emulated the hippie lifestyle); they were both abrasive, out-spoken, and driven by their often-explosive emotions; they both gravitated toward sorrow and suffering for the sake of creating authentic music; and lastly, they were both obsessed with being different than everyone else (Enneagram type Fours, can I get an amen?).
Freaky, right? This only meant one thing: I had to read a biography. Immediately. The following day, I scanned the shelves until I found Alice Echols' 1999 book entitled Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin. What's cool about this book is Echlos' decision to widen the scope of Janis' life by setting up the context in which she lived.
Now, I knew the sixties were weird, but learning about the buildup to this controversial era was especially telling. In the fifties, there was this thing called the Beat Movement, which originated in North Beach, West Venice, and Greenwich Village. The Beat generation was essentially a precursor to the hippie generation, the biggest difference being Beatniks' lackadaisical attitude toward politics and their minimalist clothing style. A beatnik, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is "a person who participated in a social movement of the 1950s and early 1960s which stressed artistic self-expression and the rejection of the mores of conventional society." Janis--notoriously at odds with her family and school peers--found herself inspired by the jazz, blues, and folk music that were prominent staples of this subculture.
By the mid-sixties, though, she tossed aside her everyday-attire of sweatshirts and jeans in favor of more flashy outfits to match the hippie aesthetic. Not only that, she added a blues edge to Big Brother's rock 'n' roll sound.
Perhaps the most profound aspect of Janis' character, however, was her appreciation for black musicians such as Odetta and Bessie Smith, despite her deeply racist hometown, Port Arthur, Texas. While Janis' pull toward the blues was magnetic, she didn't feel her white, middle class upbringing constituted an excuse to sing the blues. Her suffering came nowhere near the suffering of poor, black people living right on the other side of her town.
Through sex, drugs, her abrasive personality, her struggle with self-image and her longing for acceptance, she brought calamity upon herself. However, it was her reckless behavior and constant deluge of emotions that made her performances so shockingly vulnerable. She didn't hold back. She didn't fake it.
If I can get goosebumps listening to her on my commute to work in eighty degree weather (don't ask why it was eighty degrees on the first day of October in upstate New York, because I don't know the answer), I can't imagine what it was like to hear her live. Her voice, her music, evoked something deep within me that music hasn't made me feel in a long time. But I guess that's why they call it the blues.
I think this is one of the biggest things I've unlocked about my character--understanding why she has this draw toward suffering, longing, and ultimately adventure. It's motivated by the search for authenticity and the fear of being forgotten. It's searching so deep inside of you and summoning every ounce of pain, sorrow, and regret that you lose yourself for the sake of your art. This brutal self-honesty is what caused Janis to shield herself in a tough exterior. Her emotions made her powerful, but they also made her vulnerable and sensitive. This, thankfully, explains why my protagonist can be headstrong one minute and teary-eyed the next.
It's almost supernatural that I understood Janis' psyche long before reading the biography. As much as I don't like to admit it, I think what's true of Janis' search for purpose and truth is a little true of myself. Maybe that's why I created a character that's a mirror reflection of her. And maybe that's why I connect with Janis on such on a visceral, subconscious level. It's also gratifying that I have a cheat sheets of sorts, and can compare notes with Alice Echlos by asking, "Is this realistic? Is this how someone with this personality may think? Behave? React?"
I haven't finished the biography, but we all know how it ends. In the few weeks I've spent reading about, listening to, and reflecting on Janis Joplin, the more heartbreaking it becomes to think about the life she squandered. I only hope the book I'm writing will give a window into the kind of life Janis Joplin could have lead.