Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bye, Bye Baby: Happy Birthday, Janis Joplin

I came of pop-music age with the Go-Go's and Madonna. Yet as I was perusing my parents' LP collection as a teen-something, I paused at an album depicting an oddly attired woman on the cover: huge granny glasses, feathers, bangle bracelets, flywaway hair. This was Joplin in Concert. And from the very first sound of her chiding voice--"You've been playing the wrong chord all night"--right before "Down on Me" kicked in, I was transfixed. Yet the raw emotion and obvious vulnerability of this performer (there was no doubt in my mind that she was not just a singer, but a performer of epic proportions) also frightened me, and I hadn't even realized yet that her life was in the past tense. Listening to her wail the blues was like gazing into a mirror at my own teen angst, although my "voice" was that of a scribbler of morbid, puerile poetry that graced the pages of my suburban high-school literary magazine to little recognition (except for the local newspaper that offered me the job of "high school correspondent," obviously on the unfounded faith that a budding poet would make a good journalist).

Perhaps a year or two later, an hour-long documentary called Women in Rock was released on cable TV, and I saw, not merely heard, Janis wailing "Ball and Chain" and "Summertime" onstage at the Montery Pop Festival that ushered in the all too brief Summer of Love that had died by the summer I was born. And I was retroactively hooked.

Janis Joplin's first name could not have suited her more: she was born in January, the month itself named for the two-faced Roman god Janus, which looked both backward and forward. Janis was born at the end of the sign of Capricorn, a sign noted both for its melancholy and spiritual potential, and at the very beginning of the generation that became known as "hippies," although like the beatniks of the 1950s, Janis made the pilgrimage to North Beach a few years before the Haight-Ashbury district became psychedelicized.

But what, astrologically, could account for Janis's seismic personality; her persona of "Pearl," the tough-talking, hard-drinking, blues-singing floozy; her rebellious nature; her untimely demise?

Janis Joplin was born just before the Full Moon, the phase of the moon most associated with a desire for fame. And her Moon in Cancer (whose gem is the pearl) widely conjuncted her Jupiter, which only magnified the hypersensitivity of her innermost emotions. She may have talked tough, but it was obvious that her sharp words were there to protect a very soft underbelly. Indeed, a slight snub from a stranger at a party could make her burst into tears, and she often lamented that her life on the road was a cruel joke. She claimed to want a nice man to take her out to dinner after a show, as opposed to the hangers-on of the groupie scene that had nothing to do with her real self. Yet paradoxically, the more she retreated into her "Pearl" persona, the more of a caricature she became, the more she surrounded herself by sychophants, the less chance she seemed to have of someone "real" being able to break through.

She was the firstborn of three, and as the fates would have it, was born with Aquarius on the Ascendant, making her a natural rebel, especially in a town as "proper" as Port Arthur, Texas, and a time as constricted as the U.S. in the 1950s. Had she been born slightly earlier or later in the morning, Janis might have upheld the status quo (Capricorn Rising) or merged into her local environment (Pisces Rising). But Janis was born on a metaphoric fault line, and indeed, her conservative parents would never approve of the unusual path she created for herself. Janis was born with Mercury Retrograde in Aquarius in her 12th House, opposing Pluto; how apropos, then, that one of her "complexes" involved her younger sister (Mercury), who was perceived as the "good daughter," the one who was approved of by her parents while Janis herself was "lost" to the Plutonian underworld of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Capricorns, the cynics of the zodiac, are often influenced strongly by the father; Janis's own father, who by today's standards would probably be considered an alcoholic (certainly, he spent more time drinking and tinkering around in the garage than with his family), taught his oldest daughter about "the Saturday Night swindle": the realization that it's not ever going to get any better than being out on a Saturday night, not having a particularly good time, blowing your weekly paycheck on a few drinks, only to start all over again the next day, hung over and broke.

Yet with that prominent, creative, ever-hungry 5th House Moon in Cancer, Janis was one of the very few women of the era who made it in the men's club of rock and roll. Grace Slick similarly dominated her all-male band, yet "Gracie" was also a conventionally beautiful ex-model from a rich family, whereas Janis was a much rougher diamond. Both helped pave the way for subsequent generations of women in rock, yet Janis paid a very steep price for being the archetypal goat atop the mountain: she was already addicted to alcohol by the time of her success, and her ultimate undoing, heroin, soon followed to dull the pain. Yet because Janis was such a huge success, few people, even among her closest friends, felt that she deserved any sympathy or understanding for her so-called problems. "People like their blues singers drunk and miserable," she said bluntly.

(And dead?)

Her version of "Ball and Chain" is certainly a Capricornian masterpiece, showing how duty, sorrow, and loneliness can make the heart so heavy in love. Yet I would rather celebrate her upbeat "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)": as she exhorts in her stage patter right before the song kicks in, "If you're lookin' for a nice piece of... action, and you ain't gettin' any, you know what you gotta do, baby...you gotta try harder."

Somehow, this exultation to hard work, which flew in the face of the "tune in, turn on, drop out" hippie era, seems the opposite of sea-goat cynicism.

I love you, Janis.


  1. hmmm, i'll need to add her to my musical education (i know, i know, i've missed a few things here & there . . .).

    your description of your "sngst" years reminded me of my own, during which i listened to too much of the Doors and scribbled way too much purple verse in various notebooks (though i never had any high school literary journal to submit my ramblings to . . . ). -Pacer

  2. oops, that's meant to be "angst" not "sngst" which sounds like the name of a bad Swedish death metal band . . . -Pacer