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Janis Joplin and the Sisters of Excess

‘Janis, you’re fuckin’ up. . . You’re drinkin’ too much. You’re dopin’ too much. This life is bullshit. Your real life is with people. . .cookin’ breakfast, takin’ out the garbage, dumb things, dumb shit.’

‘Aw, man,’ she said, ‘I don’t want to live that way. I want to burn. I want to smolder.’

Ellis Amburn, Pearl

A girl in Eudora Welty’s novel The Golden Apples takes a dare and sets her stockings on fire. ‘She had the neighbourhood scared she’d go up in flames at an early age.’ In one of my first children’s books, a child is warned not to play with fire. She does. And I remember staring at the picture of red flames engulfing her like snakes of sin, impressed by her defiance of authority rather than her sad fate, falling in love all at once with the stylisation of writing and art that could carry off such bold aesthetics and pedagogic ambivalence. All she leaves behind is a pile of ashes and the tiny signature of a pair of shoes. I have since learnt that ‘the number of children who go up in flames in nineteenth-century storybooks is nothing short of extraordinary.’

It is sometimes said that fire is a messenger to the people from their gods. If one does not accept this hierarchical arrangement, then fire belongs to us, coming not from above but from below. ‘Fire was detected within ourselves’ says Gaston Bachelard in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, ‘before it was snatched from the gods.’ Prometheus is famous and severely punished for stealing fire from Zeus, but Zeus himself must be the prime suspect in this Classical soap-opera of divinities, sitting on borrowed flames.

The poet Emily Dickinson takes a different view. She writes of ‘reticent volcanoes,’ of Etna basking and purring, while underneath ‘how red the Fire rocks.’ She dares her reader to look into the white-heat centre of a person’s soul.

Janis Joplin (1943-1970) did not die in a fire. But it is often premised that she burned out. An overdose of unexpectedly pure heroin killed her. Accidentally. She killed herself. The ambiguity of victim or suicide remains unresolved.

Joplin is one of the genius voices of the century. But not only did she produce extremely moving and disturbing music. For anyone who saw her in concert or on film, the songs are produced physically. Joplin’s body language is as memorable as her vocal radiation. She appears to have been addicted, among other things, to expression. Her biographies tell how as a child she loved the sound of her own voice singing, and how as an adolescent shaping her image she practised that resonant Circean cackle with which she signs off at the end of her posthumous hit, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, one of the most beautiful interpretations of a love song ever rendered.

Just before she died, she engaged the night clerk of the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles in small talk. Most of her waking hours, it seems, Janis Joplin had spent singing, laughing, swearing, talking. Able to conduct ‘a well-informed conversation on any subject under the sun,’ she was ‘politically sophisticated,’ a ‘polished intellect.’

She was a collector of books and a reader. To bring the compulsion of this reading habit to bear on the excesses of her drug and alcohol addiction, biographers pose her, reading ‘voraciously.’ She ate chocolate bars and raced through best-sellers when there was nothing more nourishing at hand. Legend has it that she ‘lugged’ loads of reading matter around the country and around the world, acquiring more along the way, that at the very least she always carried a bag big enough for a book and a bottle of Southern Comfort.

Long before going off the rails Joplin had read Kerouac’s Beat bible On the Road. I don’t know if she read de Sade or studied the work of Hieronymus Bosch. She read Nietzsche, Nabokov, Thomas Hardy, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, and all the writings of the Fitzgeralds. One of her favourites was a Southern tale of romance and destruction: Nancy Milford’s life of Zelda Fitzgerald. The reason? ‘She was fucking crazy as I am…I think everything that happened to her was just too much in the end.’

Too much of everything brought down Zelda and Janis.

Of Circe Boccaccio said, in Concerning Famous Women, she ‘was powerful because of her force and eloquence and that she did not much care about keeping her chastity untarnished as long as she got what she desired.’ Notions of excess, indulgence, satiation, transgression, ecstasy and libidinal gratification burst from the pages of the Joplin story. This is the girl, after all, who is as well-known as Oliver Twist for asking for more. A Mercedes Benz, a colour TV, a night on the town. Who boasted that she had sex sixty-five times in the five days that it took the Festival Express train to cross Canada. There is in it all a mix of madness, irony, sheer pleasure and philosophy. In ‘Bobby McGee’ Joplin describes with her intonation, as much as with the words themselves, the freedom of having nothing left to lose, giving the zest of her voice to ‘nothing’, to the possession of dispossession as a rare and superior state of consciousness.

While on an addictive rollercoaster she continued to act with creative integrity. However, except to blame her rebellious nature, at least in part, on a repressive home and school life – which her family denies – writers have left the Joplin concurrence of art and obsession relatively intact. Feminist writers in particular have barely responded to a poetics of excess where an apparently destructive narcissism and the uglier consequences of addiction are at play. Within liberationist politics, gush and tacky thrills are usually regarded as an embarassment. And in rock ’n’ roll heaven the place next to Elvis is empty. Because the queen is holding court in hell. In a recently published anthology of women’s writing on rock, pop and rap, Joplin is mentioned briefly, once or twice. She’s not exactly forgotten, but looked upon as a bit of a freak.

Excessive drinking is getting drunk, intoxication, toxication. If you do it too often, people become moralistic, equating needy, greedy and seedy. They say you are wasting your life, wasting their time, that you act funny, smell bad. If you soak yourself in fire water, it was once believed, your punishment will be spontaneous combustion. Excess is waste. And for all its monumental self-befoulment, the twentieth century hates waste, hates to deal with it, puts it in its place, as war, environmental disaster, fetish, festival, art. From the personal to the international to speculation on the vastness of space, solving problems of excess is a major industry, with the possibility of a freedom where there’s nothing left to lose becoming itself a ‘wasted’ pipe-dream.

To keep pouring drink down your throat-pipe you must imagine your inner self as a bottomless pit, a dark hole without clear boundaries. This undefined zone translates between Joplin’s destructive and creative urges: she refers to one of her masterpieces, ‘Ball and Chain,’ as the most difficult song in her repertoire, because ‘there’s this big hole in the song that’s mine and I’ve got to fill it with something. So I do. And it really tires me out.’

Both nonsense and sense are governed by excess. Excess is repetition, redundancy, ruins. But repetition in speech or behaviour also suggests emphasis, a desperate call for attention, a message. Redundancy suggests extras, overflow, migration, loss, extinction, extermination, the burning of witches or of books: when there’s too much of something and it falls away, or is shoved, is sacrificed, slips out. Slips, Freud showed us, are a valuable medium for meaning. Sacrifices, we have known since earliest times, can convey profound symbolic significance. And the Gothic ruin, with its redundancy of rooms and passages and secrets, is a minefield of disclosures that drive us along in our decipherment of the Gothic text.

Gothic literature thrives on the exploratory aesthetics of excess. From its eighteenth-century start in the sublime, through the nineteenth-century’s rising enthusiasm for the dirty tricks department – storms, spectres, doubles, dilapidation, distress and plenty of deferred narrative closure – to its incredible twentieth-century resurgence and branching out into art, music, film, fashion, and the winding staircases, winding sheets and subterraneous passages of critical theory.

The Gothic is successful – from Mrs Radcliffe to Mills and Boon, from Gaudi to gaudy – not because it dictates how it should be read but rather in that it offers the reader rooms for rent. The Gothic is capacious: it accommodates you and your illicit imagination. It’s a messy space. Everywhere there are clues – fictional deposits, Freudian slips, Bataillesque droppings – but then there’s a dark enough ambience for readers to pick them up and repossess them by exercising the primitivisms of their minds. Readers like nothing better than to be grafting a complex of intellectual and atavistic possibilities, under cover of ‘a good read.’ With a bit of help from the authors, it’s Gothic readers that engender Gothic texts.

Popular genres are sometimes called trash and sometimes classics. ‘Of all the greatest novels in the world’ says Angela Carter, herself a born-again Goth, ‘Jane Eyre veers closest towards trash.’

Much like the singer who ‘wore her bracelets, necklaces, and gold sling-back heels like a string of adjectives…Janis’s ironic, ambivalent idea of glamour often bordered on kitsch. It was a combination of folklore and trash, the high-heeled babe with a heart of gold.’

For women readers the most popular folkloric story of all time has to be Cinderella. A tale of busy negotiation between trash and treasure, various linguistic and cultural versions of it have existed for over a thousand years. Marina Warner declares it more recently to be ‘the chief ornament of the pedagogue’s bookshelf.’ Its themes of degradation, mutilation, supernatural force, metamorphosis, the disintegration of female lines of inheritance, and the incessant return to a cave-like hearth, ensure its Gothic allegiance. That’s why it’s on the pedagogue’s shelf. Without Disneyfication or parental guidance, it’s an insurrectionist’s dream. Running away from home never sounded more exciting.

Today CinderellaJane Eyre, and Janis Joplin are contemporaneous cultural organs. In each one there is a fusion of identities. Cinderella shape-shifts between housemaid and princess, Jane becomes Mrs Rochester via a number of trajectories, and Janis catches us unawares with a simultaneity of voices. Her mother found the transformations bewildering and apparently liked only one of her songs, one with a velvety Joan Baez sound that she did not often display. Janis herself preferred the tutelage of Bessie Smith, of whom she said, ‘she showed me the air and taught me how to fill it.’ On a simple didactic scale, Cinderella and Jane improve themselves, but could have ended up like Janis, the good/bad girl who overindulged and lost her focus, and her life.

Zelda Fitzgerald lost her life in a real fire. A slipper – it wasn’t golden and her prince was already dead – a charred slipper discovered underneath her disfigured body provided identification. Nancy Milford describes the funeral group as friends who ‘shared a haunting intimacy in witnessing the last and mortal death of Zelda.’

How many times had Zelda died? The biographer wants us to number the romantic disappointments, the undercuttings of literary recognition, and the darkest moments of her repeated illnesses. I lost count.

Another woman of many deaths, Janis Joplin’s despair is amplified in the screech owl terror of her voice. Crying in perfect Blues pitch, stuttering, wailing like a Bach fugue, then curving back to a pleading, bleeding sweetness, Joplin enacts a sacrificial death with each performance. One of her biographers, her sister Laura, calls it throwing her body into the music. And this seems to be more than just another rock ’n’ roll cliché which many performers learn to fake. At Woodstock ‘she was tortured…she really screamed in agony…hanging on to the mike with both hands.’ Her cross-hatching of pleasure and pain leaves an almost unbearable impression. That was towards the end of her life, when she had to calculate on building up the intensity of an appearance in exactly thirty-five minutes. Any longer brought the humiliation of collapsing during the act on stage. She was a ruin.

Joplin’s rise had been phenomenal. At her concerts the crowds roared with a new kind of elation. And the critical response that tried to communicate the incendiary power of her voice, crowed with triumphal prose. In the short time from late 1966 to 1968 Joplin moved up from being recognized as a chick who could sing to a one-woman ‘headlong assault, a hysterical discharge, an act of total extermination.’ ‘It was as if some invisible claw had risen up from her throat, its talons hooked to tear unmercifully at the outer reaches of the auditorium.’ At this musical deliverance the audience is reported to have ‘reared like a huge stable of just-branded horses and heaved forward with a shrieking charge to the stage.’ Another time, the reciprocation between the performer and her audience is described as ‘oceanic euphoria.’

Horses don’t shriek, but who cares when the performer is herself an uncanny hybrid of lamia and little girl lost, whose raw operatic voice travels through the history of black blues, white blues, jazz, folk, rock and pop in the space of two notes. Since she hesitates to close off her notes, she often achieves an unusual range of vocal refraction, which in turn spawns a diffusion of interpretations. She is the James Dean of music, her voice is his walk, with all its tragi-comic faultlines.

Joplin fascinates her audience. They sit up and listen to catch the vertiginous twists of her music. For literary purposes, the Russian critic M. M. Bakhtin calls this kind of exchange ‘heteroglossia’: an elaborate kinship system, it is the constellation of possibilities, of meanings determined not by the author or the text alone, but by the context, the relationship between the reader and the book, and one text’s link to other, not necessarily literary texts. It is ‘a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve.’ Which is not to say we give up. If the story or the song work their magic on the reader or audience, then in Joplin’s words, we ‘try – just a little bit harder.’ It’s like this. Having put herself out there, full tilt, Joplin deserves the seeds of excess she sows in our minds.

Seeds of excess grow best in hell. Fire is sometimes necessary for germination. In a letter home, mid 1966, Janis wrote ‘The society seems to be leaning away from itself, straining for the periphery of hell, the edges, you know. At least in California.’ It’s distressing to imagine what her relatively conservative parents made of this daughter checking out the crumbly bits at the edge of the abyss.

Hell was the place to be. But which hell? Taking out the garbage in a small Texan town or trashing social values on the West Coast? For a moment Janis was clearly torn between the roles of housewife or hussy, between the double-faced furnace that is etymologically and symbolically linked to the home fires on the one side, and the infernal heat of overindulgence on the other. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology indicates that the furnace which is a fireplace and the act of fornication share a Latin source in the words ‘fornax’, or ‘fornix’, the latter being an arch or vaulted space once inhabited by the very poor and prostitutes.

While Joplin was writing home asking her family for her unfinished knitting and the makings of a quilt, hinting they might buy her a cookbook for Christmas, and chatting about visits to the dermatologist, car repairs, and pets, she was also rising to the accolades of stardom, and making it ‘with just about everybody’. ‘She’d take on all comers’, specialising in hour-long multiple orgasms. At the same time that she was developing a voice ‘grittier than Louis Armstrong’s’, she dressed for the California Dreaming in feathers and spangles and those golden sling-backs also called hooker heels or fuck-mes. In her memory they should be renamed fuck-yous.

Janis is of course a kind of Cinderella. Except each time she goes to the ball she picks up another prince. Like Cinderella – and Marina Warner notes that in one version her name is Cinderfanny – she can’t get enough, keeps going back for more. While most Cinderella stories are records of social emergence from a polygamous structure – two mothers, one father; three sisters, one prince – Janis happily veers towards the other extreme, of polyandry, or a plurality of ‘husbands.’

The nurturing flames of the hearth would seem to contradict, or at best to carry but a small flicker of the fires of a hell situated deep in the bowels of the earth: an adaptation from Norse mythology where Hel is the queen of the underworld, a place of sacred, originary fires, rather than punitive ones. So for the purposes of a mythographic genealogy, Hel or Helle, Elle or Ella, and Cinder-ella, are all related. Within their associative domain these figures govern the relationships between ovens and wombs, caves as entrances to the earth, arches as architectural simulations of the caves, and then also, the arch of the foot, the genital connotations of a foot in a slipper – in one of the earliest versions of Cinderella the slipper is made of fur – and the often frantic search for a perfect fit. A footnote: in the 1970s there was a well-known British dramatist who left his wife for another woman, a writer. As revenge, the jilted wife revealed on the front page of every newspaper the shockingly huge shoe size of the other woman, insinuating that the new couple shared not only a bed, but that metaphorically, their ‘footwear’ was also interchangeable.

Watch Janis in her clinky heels skipping satyr-like off the stage at the 1968 Monterey Festival. Who does she go to meet after the show?

But first witness Zelda Fitzgerald’s story Miss Ella. The heroine’s ‘fine high instep curved into her white canvas shoes in summer with the voluptuous smoothness of a winter snowbank. She…was so full of birdlike animation that she teetered on her feet when she spoke to you…I remember her twittering about on our hearth after supper, dodging the popping bits of blue flame…’

In her youth, Ella has two suitors. A fiancé, who is politely and assuredly in love with her, and another man who sets her alight. He explodes a ‘giant firecracker’ at a party, from which a spark catches in her dress. The perpetrator is ‘the first to reach her burning skirts’ and save her from the blaze. There follows an exuberance of apologies, presents and intimacies. Soon there’s a dropping of the fiancé and a new betrothal with the charming pyrolator. Unfortunately the ex shoots himself on Ella’s wedding day, ‘there on the playhouse steps…his brains falling over the earth in a bloody mess.’ Ella does not marry. And over time ‘the rims of her eyes grew redder and redder, like those of a person leaning over a hot fire, but she was not a kitchen sort of person.’

Believe it or not, Ella’s ex is called Mr Hendrix. He and the firecracker-lover are conflated at the Monterey concert, in the amazing pyrotechnical extravaganza staged by another Mr Hendrix. Dressed in a pirates-of-the-Caribbean outfit in hellfire yellows and reds, singing ‘Wild Thing,’ Jimi Hendrix enters into an elaborate and explicit seduction and copulation ritual, the object of his passion being his guitar, upon which he ‘plays’ in numerous positions, against the wall, between his knees, on the ground. He extracts from his libidinal sphere a ‘squirter’ and splashes lighter fluid liberally over the instrument. Then he sets the guitar on fire. Hendrix does not stop with the purification of flames. He smashes his burning guitar-girl to pieces. Women in the audience look upset. They look like they wouldn’t go near a guy like that for a million bucks.

All the time I’m watching this spectacle on film, I notice that whenever Hendrix is not singing – if you remember it’s a song of few words – he’s chewing. False teeth? Late breakfast? One of the Joplin biographies fills in the details. Backstage at Monterey people saw Hendrix throwing ‘a lot’ of little white pellets into his mouth, which they thought were Tic Tacs. They were LSD. It’s Mr Hendrix that Miss Joplin gets together with, after the show, perhaps with the added frisson of sketching an alternative storyline for Zelda’s heroine.

‘I am hot’ says Jane Eyre, ‘and fire dissolves ice.’ Then she excitedly considers the significance of a mess of melting snow dripping onto her floor, teasing poor Mr Rivers who had just come indoors, and whose name belies a potential for gush and flow which he’d rather not own. Glacial Mr Rivers is like Miss Ella’s ‘dead as a doornail’ ex. And the winning suitor, Mr Rochester, is a man with more than a few fireworks up his sleeve. Jane Eyre, as Angela Carter has pointed out, carries ‘a titillating hint of Cinderella.’

Jane Air applies for a job at Thornfield Hell where a crazed woman and her mock-Byronic husband test her nerves. As if in unconscious apprenticeship for excess, for ‘the outworks of conventional reserve,’ Jane fans the flames. Bright, brave and foolish – our favourite kind of heroine – she takes up residence in a room directly below the mad woman’s home-prison, ‘uncloses’ doors, lifts veils and sniffs around. Carter calls it inhabiting ‘the space between passion and repression.’

Janis Joplin also knew about repression. It is after all a girl’s privileged field. In May 1965 she returned home from her first trip to California, ‘very uptight…very constrained. Whatever had happened in San Francisco scared her nearly to death. She felt she’d gone over the edge but somehow come back, determined to reform.’ She covered the bruises on her arms with dull clothing, visited a therapist, enrolled in a secretarial course and sported a beehive hairdo.

‘Janis took the most visible sign of her freedom, her wild loose hair, and bound it tightly to her head.’ Her sister tells how in the evenings she would undo the bun and brush her hair, fantasizing about never cutting it, trying to imagine a future for herself, which included slowly and methodically taking the pins from the braided crown so the hair would tumble down, but ‘only her husband would ever get to see it.’

She never married, never got to use her typing skills, and for the rest of her short life, she let her hair down, a sixties chick with ruffled plumage, when the organicism of growing things was like a socio-primal urge. Janis cultivated a new female voice and ‘created her own style. It was her hair.’ Theme-hair. Lillian Roxon exclaimed that it was ‘positively triangular in its electricity.’ A revival of the nineteenth-century fanaticism for hair tents, and what went on in their shade.

Baudelaire liked them. ‘O Fleece, billowing down to the neck…the dark alcove of our love…blue hair, tent hung with shadows…the oasis of my dreaming…’ is one ecstatic example. Other times, he breathes the fragrances of tobacco, opium and sugar ‘in your hair’s burning hearth.’

Browning too. To some extent. His seductive Porphyria first attends to the fire in the grate, begins to undress, and then spreads ‘o’er all, her yellow hair,’ overwhelming her lover until he is moved to strangle her with those very tresses.

And Dante Gabriel Rossetti, after a painting by Edward Burne Jones, pictures Circe lit with the ‘fragrant flame’ of sunflowers while ‘dusk-haired and gold-robed o’er the golden wine she stoops’ to drink of death and shame. Throughout his work his damsels and his prostitutes, pure and impure alike, have awesome hair that flows, abandoned, unbound, across burning hearts and thirsting lips.

Or Ayesha, the heroine of H. Rider Haggard’s novel She, who tries to secure youth by stepping into a cosmic pillar of fire once too often – she had done it before and it had worked. For her extravagant venture, she dresses in nothing but her abundant locks. The scheme misfires, she ages rapidly, ‘puckered into a million wrinkles’ until all that’s left are the ‘perfumed masses’ of her hair, the nerveless token of rebellious energy. It’s like the Monterey festival ticket collector says, ‘once you leave, you may not re-enter’.

After her death, Janis Joplin’s coroner’s report notes: tatoos, scars, needle marks, and hair ‘of moderate length’ in varying shades from ‘blond to brunette.’

‘That’s it’ says Janis at the end of ‘Bobby McGee.’ ‘Someone else’s got to take it from here.’

Janis Joplin, backstage, Grande Ballroom, Detroit 1968. Photo By ©Elliott Landy, LandyVision Inc.

In this essay I refer to the following biographical sources: Ellis Amburn, Pearl (London, 1993), pp.319,204,140,24,244-5,102,141,64,350; David Dalton, Janis (London, 1971), p.3; David Dalton, Piece of my Heart (London, 1986), pp.47,147; Laura Joplin, Love,Janis (New York, 1992), pp.217,136; the movies Woodstock, Monterey Pop, and Janis. Other sources: Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples (New York, 1947), p.245; The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston, 1960), poems 1748,1146,1677,365; Maria Tatar, Off with their Heads!—Fairytales and the Culture of Childhood (Princeton, 1992), p.94; Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire (Boston, 1938), p.32; Giovanni Boccaccio, Concerning Famous Women (trans. Guido Guarino, London, 1964), p.78; Evelyn Mc Donnell and Ann Powers, Rock She Wrote—Women Write about Rock, Pop and Rap (London, 1995); Angela Carter, Expletives Deleted (London, 1993), p.162, and American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (London, 1994); Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde—On Fairytales and their Tellers (London, 1994), p.361; Nancy Milford, Zelda (Penguin, 1974), p.423; M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. M. Holquist (Austin, 1994), p.428; Neil Philip, The Cinderella Story—The Origins and Variations of the Story known as “Cinderella” (Penguin, 1989); Zelda Fitzgerald, The Collected Writings (London, 1993), pp.343-349; Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847), p.409; Allen S. Weiss, The Aesthetics of Excess (New York, 1989); and the work of H. Rider Haggard, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Baudelaire, Robert Browning, Bruno Bettelheim, Sigmund Freud, and Heinrich Hoffmann.