Janis Joplin would have been 70 years old on Saturday, which means it's been more than 40 years since she died. But even today Joplin's name is practically a household word, thanks to one of the most powerful, emotional, expressive voices in rock history.
Of course Joplin was one of the original '60s free spirits, who barely met a controlled substance she didn't embrace. As much as her voice, her lifestyle and from-the-hip attitude made her such an enduring rock icon, the template for straight-talking, take-no-shit women from Chrissie Hynde to Courtney Love. Especially in Texas, the Port Arthur native became a role model to a generation of young people for whom Joplin was one of their first tastes of the counterculture, and one of their own to boot.
There was no love lost between Joplin and her staunchly conservative blue-collar hometown, but today the generous Joplin exhibit is one of the top draws at the Museum of the Gulf Coast. "Stepping out from the conformity of the 1950s, she eventually found herself in California," Joplin's bio on the museum's Web site puts it, politely.
Her story has always been tailor-made for Hollywood, and two different Joplin biopics have been in development almost since her death, it seems. As recently as October, New York magazine's culture blog Vulture reported that four-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams is attached to star as Joplin in a film directed by Precious's Lee Daniel. And last summer Deadline New York reported that the Joplin picture that actually owns the rights to her music, Joplin, is scheduled to go in production this year starring Tony-winning actress Nina Arianda of Broadway's Venus in Fur.
But where would Janis be today had she not ingested that bad dose of smack in October 1970, literally hours after she had finished recording her second solo album, the undisputed masterpiece Pearl?
Funny we should ask, says Greg Barr, bassist for Houston's top Joplin tribute band, Kozmic Pearl. (If you happen to be wondering how popular Janis still is in Southeast Texas, have a look at Kozmic Pearl's calendar: It's busy.)
"The other night I just watched one of her talk-show interviews with Dick Cavett from around 1969," Barr says. "He asked her what she would have been doing later in her life and, as usual, she fidgeted a bit and said maybe start sewing and have some kids."
But, he adds, "it's hard to say exactly what might have happened in her life -- she felt like a lot of people were against her and had so many personal demons jumping in and out of her psyche. She might have burned out or ended up passed out in a hotel room in another five or ten years anyway.
"Here's the thing about Janis," Barr continues. "No other artist lived in the moment like she did. It's what she talked about constantly. But she was great at R&B arrangements and a painter, and she was sensitive to social injustice -- maybe she would have ended up as a free spirit crusader, like Yoko Ono, but with street cred to back it up."
Myrna Sanders, Kozmic Pearl's vocalist, sees a lot of similarities between Joplin and the singer's good friend Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane/Starship. After going on to be a "huge star," Sanders says she thinks Joplin would have pursued one of her other artistic talents like Slick, now a respected painter, has.
"Grace refuses to perform as an old woman and thinks all those rock stars still strutting around onstage are silly," Sanders says. "Janis probably would have done the same thing. Grace had a couple of really wild decades as an alcoholic and still singing for Starship for a while. Since she and Janis were so close, I feel like they would have been partners in crime, both living in Malibu and painting since they were both artists."
But Sanders also believes the prospect of a more domestic lifestyle would have appealed to Joplin.
"Maybe Janis would have gotten married and had a few kids," she says. "I know that's what she really wanted more than anything.
"She was such a lonely soul."
Kozmic Pearl anchors the Janis Joplin 70th Birthday Celebration Saturday at House of Blues' Bronze Peacock Room, 1204 Caroline. Doors at 7:30 p.m. See lots more Joplin memorabilia at Wolfgang's Vault's Janis archive.
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