I watched a movie about you today. Actually a documentary. You died before I was born, but when I discovered you – your voice, your energy, your insecurity – I felt as if I’d known you. This film only cemented that.
I read your sister’s book, Love, Janis, in college and wrote an extensive paper about you for a class using many of your own words to tell your story. This film did much of the same thing. Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) narrated and read some of your letters that you’d sent to your parents.
There was stuff I didn’t know, or didn’t remember. Like that when you were in Austin, you were nominated and won the ugliest man contest. How awful and cruel. It’s a big reason you lit out for San Francisco. But you weren’t able to make it that first time. Your friends put you on a bus back to Port Arthur to get straight. You went to see a show with a friend and ended up back in San Francisco where you auditioned for Big Brother and the Holding Company. And that’s when your rocket started to launch.
You loved being on stage. You were smart. And man, could you sing. The film had interviews with former bandmates, friends, managers, lovers. They talked about your drinking and using. They talked about your charm. Your magic. Unspoken (for the most part) was that you probably got laid a lot, but the truth was that there wasn’t love. The soulmate kind of love. You loved everybody. You wanted everybody to have a good time. And you all did. But you were often by yourself when the party was over. And those were the toughest times – the down hours. Nothing could replace the high you felt when you were on stage. God, it was electrifying to even see the footage. I know people who saw you live, and they tell me it was incredible.
Here are some videos:
I have written several poem inspired by you. In one of them, “Kings & Pearls,” I wrote:
\ The way I AM Janis
walking down an L.A. street in October
after “Buried Alive” and Barney’s Beanery,
“I will not die tonight,
sidewalk’s dirty but my feet don’t care
my lips are cold from beer…”
then there’s that void
between the cigarette machine
& the hotel room where they found her.
It is a void darker than desert midnight.
No one knows
She wasn’t done. /
Watching the film, knowing that you were doing the “Pearl” sessions, knowing that Paul Rothchild was working with you, knowing that you didn’t really know how to be alone, how to come down without using, I believe it more and more. You weren’t ready. You weren’t trying to die. you just didn’t know how to put off using that night.
I’ve never been into drugs. They scare the shit out of me. Your Big Brother bandmates said that early on you hated drugs. You didn’t want to be around it, but I guess the party took you to it. It was part of the fun. It was rarely an escape, just more fun to be had.
It’s amazing to think that your career, your stardom, lasted only three years. The Monterey Pop Festival was in June, 1967. You were gone in October, 1970. What a ride.
The interviews with the people who knew you, who made it out of the 60s alive, they are all, obviously, older. If you saw them in the street, you might not recognize them. But one thing I thought about when I was leaving, having sobbed through the last part of the movie at how sad it was that you had died, was that it is quite a gift to be able to age. You would have been 72 right now, going on 73 in January. What would you be doing now if you had managed to stay clean? Would you have had the same success with “Pearl” if you had been alive? I think you would have. It’s a great fucking album. Would you still be hanging out with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead (as an aside, I am two degrees away from you: Han knows Bob and Bob knew you. Amazing.)? Or would you hole up in your house in Marin, taking in rescues and painting or some other quiet pastime?
There’s never been anyone like you in all these years (45!) since you died. You made it possible for lots of women to pursue rock ‘n’ roll, to pursue whatever the fuck they wanted, to have confidence.
When I see you on film or read something you said, but mostly when I hear your music, I feel so connected to you. Not that I want to be like you, but that I just know you. I know, in my own way, that feeling of being on stage and just killing it. That euphoria. And the post-show letdown. I know the girl who really just wants to know she is loved, even if her decisions may not be what others thought was best. I know the joy of the gathering of tribes, like-minded souls who just want to feel good, feel loved, and they do and all feels right with the world. I know the loneliness when the tribe is gone or moved on.
I will say, though, that I feel that I’ve almost always been okay being by myself. I’ve lived with Han now since 2006, but when he’s on the road or even just at gigs, I’m on my own. You would like Han.
Thank you. For who you were and for your music. For your unabashed joy on stage. For your imperfect skin. For your intelligence and your laugh. For being a muse.