I discovered Janis Joplin through my stepfather, who was the driving force behind what we called “GI Night” when I was growing up. GI Night was our semi-regular house clean (in military circles, “GI” can mean an ultra-deep cleaning); it consisted of two hours of work accompanied by music blasting from the record player, and then dinner out, often at Mike’s XLint Food in Willow Glen.

GI Night was memorable, but its soundtrack was even more so. We played everything from John Philip Souza marches, to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, to Helen Reddy and, of course, Janis.

The record we listened to most was Pearl, which she recorded in 1970. I loved the picture of her on the cover, with her wide smile and bright red skirt and those crazy pink feathers in her hair. But I really loved her voice — even I could hear the whisky in it — and her songs’ combination of melancholy and cynical humor.

“I’d like to sing a song of great social and political import,” she rasped, before launching into the a capella tune “Mercedes-Benz“:

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?

What is it about Janis that’s so compelling? Her custom-painted Porsche 356 convertible? (Guess Porsche won out over Mercedes after all.) The life-cut-short thing? (She’s part of the “27 Club” — other members include Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. In fact, she died in October 1970, just a few weeks after Hendrix.) Or maybe it’s because she seems like such an innocent under that hard-drinkin’ and druggin’ veneer — a small town girl amazed to find herself in the thick of the 1960s music scene. Didn’t she have anyone, or anything, to offer her ballast? I suppose not, because how else could she have come up with the phrase “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”? (And of course, dying from a heroin overdose does suggest a certain lack of balance.)

I still like to listen to Janis when I’m cleaning house, her voice close in my ear as she sings “Get It While You Can,” the words so sad and defiant and resigned:

You got no one you can count on, baby
Not even your own brother
So if someone comes along
He’s gonna give you some love and affection
I’d say get it while you can, yeah!

And sometimes I wonder — if she’d lived just a little longer, would she have realized there’s generosity and abundance out there that wouldn’t have failed her — no Mercedes required?

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About Kate

Things are weird in the wide world -- and like everyone else, most days I'm used to it. But to shake things up for myself, I like to notice and write about stuff that strikes me as both beautiful and strange, fascinating and repulsive, sweet and sour -- like how the steamy, stinky air that comes up from the BART vents at 16th Street Mission reminds me of being twenty-two, apparently immortal, and in love.

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