One Night with Janis Joplin will soon be leaving Arena Stage and making a well-deserved trip to Broadway. The amazing music of Janis Joplin and an uncanny and charismatic conjuring up of Janis by Mary Bridget Davies are the primary reasons for the musical’s acclaim and success.
Yet I would like to take a moment to praise the understated yet excellent book for the musical by writer/director Randy Johnson. It serves the musical well and avoids the traps that could have snared a writer.
First, Randy Johnson deserves credit for coming up with a concept that celebrates the life and music of Janis Joplin. He deserves credit for avoiding the tired and trite “Behind the Music” formula that was cleverly skewered in the 2001 movie Josie and the Pussycats. In that film, musical acts were systematically created and then killed off to feed the public’s appetite for such stories.
Cynics may point out that Johnson’s approach won favor with the family of Janis Joplin. Yet I have spoken with several fans of Janis Joplin who saw me reading biographies of her life (see end of article) and who did not want to hear every sordid detail of her life on stage. Instead, they wanted to talk about her unique musical style and her body of work and were glad that the musical takes that approach.
Moreover, Johnson’s streamlined approach manages to avoid a trap for undisciplined writers; namely, including extraneous material. Johnson’s streamlined book carefully resists the temptation to include too much biographical material.
William Goldman’s classic book Adventures in Screenwriting is primarily remembered for his statement that in the movie business, “Nobody Knows Anything.” He means that no one can tell in advance with certainty whether a movie will be successful or not. For example, it was once conventional wisdom among Hollywood executives that science fiction movies won’t make money.
Yet Goldman’s more practical advice for a writer is his statement that “Screenplays are structure.” You must protect the spine of the story and every scene in a movie or play should advance the story. As a result, he then quoted William Faulkner as saying “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
As an example, Goldman talks about a story he would have loved to include in his Academy Award® winning script for Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. Butch Cassidy was in jail in Utah and the Governor offered to pardon him if he agreed to give up being a criminal.
In reply, Cassidy said he could not honestly make that promise. Cassidy would promise, however, never to commit another crime in Utah. The Governor accepted that deal and Cassidy kept his word.
It’s a great story, but it happened many years before the time when the movie started. Although Goldman wanted badly to find an excuse for Cassidy to tell that story in the film, it slowed the story and stood out as being unrelated to the story’s action. So, he reluctantly left it out.
There are a lot of interesting stories and facts about Janis Joplin that Randy Johnson could have thrown into the musical. Yet they would have slowed the story, taken time from the music, detracted from the goal of the musical, and/or required prescient knowledge on the part of Janis. As director of the work, he kept his focus on the overall needs of the musical.
Since Mr. Johnson could not include much background about Janis in One Night with Janis Joplin, I would like to offer a few anecdotes, odd facts, and trivia about Janis Joplin. I hope that these items contribute to the enjoyment of the show by those who have seen the musical, and encourage those who have not to catch One Night with Janis Joplin before it leaves town.
Janis Joplin grew up in Port Arthur, Texas and was an intellectually precocious child. She skipped second grade. She was on the honor roll until her senior year when a combination of boredom and her growing interest in music distracted her from her studies.
* * *
Janis’s mother wanted her to become a teacher. Among the high school clubs to which she belonged was the Future Teachers of America.
* * *
Because of Janis’s unconventional fashion and outspoken manner in high school, she had more male friends than female friends. She and her guy friends would often drive from Port Arthur, Texas into Louisiana to visit bars just over the state line to hear folk and blues singers. The first time they decided to drive all of the way to New Orleans, Janis had told her mother she was spending the night with her best friend. On the way back, however, their car was in a minor accident. The police, finding a 16-year old Janis in a car with 18 year-old men, threatened to charge the men with violating the Mann Act (transporting a girl across state lines for immoral purposes). Fortunately, Janis’s mother explained it was all innocent.
* * *
Janis was a talented vocal mimic who had an uncanny ability to sing just like her favorite female singers (such as Bessie Smith, Odetta, and Etta James) when listening to them on the radio. Her own natural singing voice was a clear voice reminiscent of Joan Baez. Because Janis wanted to sound different from the popular folk singers of her time (like Baez and Judy Collins) and because she felt that the blues were more emotional and authentic, she sang in a unique powerful husky and bluesy manner instead. Her voice was so powerful that when she sang in a college folk trio called “The Waller Creek Boys” in which she played an autoharp, she sometimes had to stand 5-6 feet away from the microphone.
* * *
Janis was a talented painter and seriously pursued art in her youth. In college, however, she had a friend who was a better painter. Janis dropped painting because she did not want to be a painter if she could not be the greatest. (Artistic talent seems to run in the family, though, as her younger brother Michael Joplin is a highly regard glass artist living in Arizona whose work has been featured in galleries across the country.)
* * *
At different times Janis attended Lamar State College and the University of Texas. Although Janis tried not to acknowledge that insults hurt her, she was self-conscious about her complexion and weight. When she was nominated for “Ugliest Man on Campus” while at the University of Texas, some believe that event contributed to her decision to withdraw from college and head to San Francisco for the first time. Janis later said the only time she felt beautiful was when she was on stage.
* * *
At one point in San Francisco the combination of drug dependency and despondence led her to seek to commit herself for mental illness. The hospital thought she was trying to game the system and turned her away. Janis found it ironic that the authorities declared she was not crazy, although she never spoke of the event subsequently.
* * *
Initially Janis was fairly conservative fashion-wise. She often wore men’s shirts. Because of her love of Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks, when she first visited to New York before becoming famous, she often wore back denim pants, a black sweater, and a gold chain with a watch on it. Later, influenced by her time in the Haight-Asbury section of San Francisco, Janis became famous for wearing loud colors, feathers, and beads, and streaking her hair with color.
* * *
Janis first found fame as the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, a San Francisco-based band. They had their first large-scale performance at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Music Festival, a performance that became legendary. Unfortunately, their manager would not allow the group’s first appearance on stage to be filmed. A return appearance that night did result in the group appearing during the closing credits of a televised program on the festival.
* * *
As a result of their performance, the band scored both a new manager (Albert Grossman, who managed Bob Dylan) and their first major record company contract. Clive Davis signed Janis and Big Brother and the Holding Company for Columbia Record. He had a knack for finding talented female singers, and over his career has signed and/or worked with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, and Kelly Clarkson, to name a few.
* * *
When Janis Joplin and the band performed in New York City and on the East Coast, they became an instant sensation, praised lavishly by media outlets from the New York Times on down. They were such a sensation that the group’s first album, Cheap Thrills, was a gold record before it was released based upon pre-orders.
* * *
Janis took her music very seriously. She left Big Brother and the Holding Company because they were not as musically proficient as she wanted. Janis then formed a backup band called the Kosmic Blues Band and then a final backup band called the Full Tilt Boogie Band.
* * *
Janis was famously associated with Southern Comfort, a whiskey-flavored liqueur. She often had a fifth of Southern Comfort while performing on stage. Fans would pass up bottles to her from the audience. Once, as a reward for finding her lost dog, she gave an autographed bottle as a reward. Janis decided that she was providing the company with so much publicity that they should reward her. The company was initially cool to the idea, but as they started receiving news clippings in the mail, they ultimately paid Janis $2,500, part of which she used to buy a lynx coat. It delighted Janis to make this money for something she already liked to do.
* * *
Janis respected her fans and was devoted to giving great stage performances. She timed her use of alcohol and drugs so that she would be sober at the start of her concerts. When she performed at the famous Woodstock Festival in 1970, however, the poorly-run festival did not put her on until ten hours after she was scheduled. That delay and her nerves from the large crowd resulted in her performing while under the influence. She was so upset about giving what she considered a mediocre performance that she would not give permission to have her performance included in the Woodstock film or soundtrack album.
* * *
Because Janis had been insecure about her appearance when younger, she relished being considered a sexually desirable rock ‘n roll superstar. One male friend was the writer of what became one of her biggest hits, Me and Bobby McGee, a former Rhoades Scholar and Army veteran named Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson later became a highly successful actor (winner of a 1976 Best Actor Golden Globe Award for his performance in A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand) and country music writer and recording artist (inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004).
* * *
Janis Joplin died on October 4, 1970 at the age of 27, just sixteen days after Jimi Hendrix died, also at the age of 27. Since that time the “27 Club” has gained notoriety in the music world. Among the many other famous musicians who died at the age of 27 are Brian Wilson (founding member of the Rolling Stones), Jim Morrison (founding member and lead singer of The Doors), Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (founding member of The Grateful Dead), Kurt Cobain (founding member and lead singer for Nirvana), and Amy Winehouse.
* * *
Pursuant to Janis’s will, she was cremated and her ashes were scattered along the Marin County, California coastline. She split her estate among her parents, her sister Laura, and her brother Michael; however, she also left $2,500 for one last big party for her friends.
* * *
The following year her last album, Pearl, was released and went to the top of the charts. Among the songs on the album were Me and Bobby McGee (her only number one hit, it stayed #1 for weeks), Cry Baby, Get It While You Can, and her one-take a capella rendition of Mercedes Benz which ends with her characteristic giggle. Pearl became her most commercially successful album, selling over three million copies.
* * *
Janis Joplin was the first major female superstar in the male-dominated world of 60’s rock & roll. Many female singers have been influenced by her music and her legendary live performances. Among those who have regarded Janis as an inspiration are Stevie Nicks (who once opened for Janis), Chrissie Hynde, Heart’s Anne and Nancy Wilson, Joan Jett, and Pink.
[Author’s note: There are numerous books about Janis Joplin. Sources for this article included Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin by Myra Friedman; Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin by Alice Echols; Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel; and numerous websites.]
Life with Janis: we talk with Laura and Michael Joplin
We talk with director Randy Johnson
Tim Treanor reviews One Night with Janis Joplin
V Stoltz says
It was Brian Jones who was the original member of the Rolling Stones, who died at age 27. Brian Wilson, a member of the Beach Boys, is still very much alive.
David Siegel says
Nice piece Steven. Just a little note, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis as lead vocal had its first album out under the Mainstream Label. Just went downstairs and have the album in my hand. It was one of the those center piece albums for many of us in those days. Was out before “Cheap Thrills” on Columbia label. The album includes such wonders with Janis’s raspy loving voice as “Bye, Bye Baby” “Light is Faster Than Sound” “Call on Me” “Women is Losers” “Down on Me” and “All is Loneliness.”
As for superstar, oh the great debates in 1967-70, Janis Joplin or Grace Slick. So very different, and like debating Duke Snider, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle as the better center fielder in NYC during their heydays.
John Stoltenberg says
Thanks for this fascinating piece. Gotta go listen to some Janis now.