Happy Birthday, Janis Joplin

Joplin died in 1970, three weeks after Jimi Hendrix and nine months before Jim Morrison. All three of these rock icons were 27 when they left the planet. What a waste.
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Had she lived, today would've been Janet Joplin's 64th birthday. Joplin died in 1970, three weeks after Jimi Hendrix and nine months before Jim Morrison. All three of these rock icons were 27 when they left the planet. What a waste.

I've recently been watching some of the old "Dick Cavett Shows" that are now available on DVD. Cavett's show ran on ABC from 1969 to 1975. He was known back then as the erudite alternative to Johnny Carson. Sure, he was a bit of a snob, but as a pre-teen snob myself, I enjoyed his intellectual banter. My friends and I used to count the number of times he worked German or French words into conversation, or how many times he mentioned his "close, personal friends" Woody Allen and Groucho Marx. Cavett always had an amazing assortment of guests, and he'd often convince people who never gave interviews to come on his show.

Among the guests he attracted were many of the major rock stars of the day. "I don't know who said, 'Dick would be great with rock people,'" Cavett remarked in a recent interview. "I would have asked 'Why?' if I had been there. The fact that I had all these people on still surprises me. For some reason, I was accepted by the rock folk. Maybe they understood that they and I were on the same side of the Richard Nixon question."

The network censors were frequently on Cavett's case, knowing his outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam, and they probably had fits every time a rock star appeared on the show. One classic moment that the censors missed was taped on August 19, 1969, just hours after the Woodstock music festival had ended. Cavett's studio audience was made up of mostly young people who were on their way home from Woodstock and the show featured several acts from the festival who hadn't even had time to clean themselves up. Joni Mitchell was there too. The woman who would write the song "Woodstock" had not attended the music festival even though she'd been invited to perform. The reason? Her manager thought it would be better for her career if she appeared on "The Dick Cavett Show." Great manager. Following Mitchell, the Jefferson Airplane, still covered in Woodstock mud, performed an intense version of "We Can Be Together" and kept in the now famous line, "Up against the wall, motherfuckers!" The censors missed it but the audience went nuts. It was the first time the F word had ever been uttered on television. If that happened today, ABC and Dick Cavett would probably be fined several million dollars each.

One unlikely repeat guest on Cavett's show was Janis Joplin. Three of her appearances are on DVD: one from the summer of 1969 and two from 1970, the last one taped shortly before her death from a heroin overdose. In addition to six electrifying live performances, including renditions of "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and "Get It While You Can," the DVD of her appearances includes the complete unedited shows. Looking at the bizarre combination of guests in each program, you might think that the person who booked the shows was on heroin himself.

Joplin's 1969 appearance had something of a counterculture theme. In addition to Janis, the show featured the improv group "The Committee" featuring a very young Howard Hesseman. Many of the skits performed by this group would never be allowed on television today, such as a bit in which an African-American man teaches Hesseman how to "act black." The other guest was English rock critic Michael Thomas, all of 25 years old and taking himself very seriously. Sparks fly when Janis challenges his work and the function of rock critics in general. At the end of the show, "The Committee" asks Cavett, Joplin, and Thomas to join them in an improvised "emotional symphony." Each person is assigned an emotion which they must express on cue. Janis, quite in touch with her emotions, performs gamely with the group while Cavett looks painfully uncomfortable.

My favorite Janis Joplin appearance is from June 25, 1970. Joining her on stage are Raquel Welch, fresh from the premiere of "Myra Breckenridge" and at the dizzying height of her fame as an international sex symbol; actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the former Mr. Joan Crawford, looking quite handsome and debonair at age 61; and Chet Huntley, who was about to leave his partner David Brinkley after 14 years of delivering the nightly news together. Huntley spends his time on the show openly lusting after Raquel Welch. Watching contemporaries Joplin and Welch interact provides a fascinating glimpse into the polarities that beset America at that time. Welch represents everything that Janis is not. She appears in a micro-mini dress and is gorgeous, refined plastic from head to toe. Janis is decked out in her vintage rock duds but wears not a stitch of makeup. Her wild hair would have made Raquel's hairstylist weep and unlike Welch's careful poise and affected speech, Janis sits slumped in her chair and blurts out anything that comes into her head.

But here's the thing. Although it would have been quite easy for Janis to mop the floor with Raquel, the two women treat each other with great respect even though they clearly have wildly different opinions about most things. Joplin freely admits that she didn't care for "Myra Breckenridge" and Raquel doesn't seem to take offense. The women seem to accept the different roles they have in American society and though Cavett sometimes seems to clench up at what he calls their "arguing," Janis is always quick to point out that she is enjoying the free-spirited discussion and doesn't consider it an argument at all. Raquel tries a little too hard to shake her bimbo image, but through her convoluted ravings about world events you can see that she was no fool. Douglas Fairbanks just enjoys the ride, and it's sweet to see how excited Janis gets when he talks about meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald as a child. Joplin says she is a Fitzgerald fanatic and after one of Raquel's diatribes she encourages the actress to read a new biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, making a comparison between the two that flies straight over Welch's head.

What is most remarkable about watching these shows, apart from seeing what an utterly authentic person Janis Joplin was, is the difference between the REAL conversations they contain, for better and for worse, and the manufactured, artificial sound bites that pass for conversation on talk shows today. Nowadays every TV conversation is forced into a few brief moments with the overriding objective of plugging some commercial entity. Hosts and guests are prepared in advance so they can simulate talk that shows everyone to the best possible advantage. No warts, no disagreements, no truth.

Janis's final appearance on Cavett's show occurred on August 3, 1970. The eclectic guests that night included actress Gloria Swanson, who at 73 could have passed for 50; a very young Margot Kidder, years before "Superman," who walked onto the stage in her bare feet wearing a floor length granny dress and gigantic glasses; and former pro-football star Dave Meggyesy, whose ground-breaking book "Our of Their League," was about to be published to great controversy. Meggyesy was an anti-war activist who wrote about how sports in the United States dehumanized athletes. He resented the jingoistic use of football to sell the war in Vietnam and today is the president of Athletes United for Peace.

Joplin seems genuinely curious about what it was like for Gloria Swanson to make films in the early days of the film industry. The waif-like Margot Kidder sits curled up in her chair and breathlessly blurts out her recent discovery about how the old-time actresses always made their nipples stand out underneath their thin silk gowns. "They used ice cubes!" she giggles, embarrassing Dick Cavett who continues to squirm as Gloria gets up and demonstrates how she used to deal with the underwear lines under her costumes. The mood changes dramatically when a very serious Dave Meggyesy, wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt and jeans, presents his leftist views about sports in America. Despite his earnestness, you can feel the sexual tension between him and Janis Joplin rising by the second.

How lucky we are that Janis Joplin's personality is captured on tape in these interviews. She tries to explain the difference between getting underneath the music, as she does, and coming at it from the top down. "If I hold back, I'm no good. I'd rather be good sometimes than hold back all of the time." She gets flustered whenever Cavett calls her a "lady rock star" and asks him to just call her a singer. When asked who her favorite "lady singer" is, she says Tina Turner and then has to explain who that is to Cavett who has never heard of her. There is a poignant moment when she tells Dick about her plans to attend her 10th high school reunion in her home town of Port Arthur, Texas. She playfully asks Cavett if he'd like to be her date.

Dick Cavett: Well, I don't remember having any friends in your high school class.
Janis Joplin: I don't either. I don't either, believe me.
Dick Cavett: Do you think you'll have a lot to say to your old high-school classmates?
Janis Joplin: I don't have a lot, man.
Dick Cavett: You were not surrounded by friends in high school?
Janis Joplin: They laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state, man. So I'm goin' home.

She did go to the reunion and by all reports it was a painful trip for her. Janis Joplin proved that being the most authentic person you can be does not necessarily protect you from your demons. Weeks after her trip back to Texas, she was found dead of a drug overdose. The last recordings she completed, just three days before her death, were "Mercedes-Benz " (later used in an actual Mercedes-Benz commercial, a move that I'm guessing would have made Joplin's stomach turn) and a birthday greeting for John Lennon. Lennon later told Cavett that Joplin's taped greeting arrived at his New York home the day after she died.

I think that Janis Joplin would have remained a dynamic voice in the music industry and a significant figure in the cultural landscape of this country. "Don't compromise yourself," she once said, "you are all you've got." What a tragedy for all of us that her refreshingly honest voice was stilled so soon. I wonder how her music would have developed over the years and I'd be curious to hear her take on the current state of the world.

Janis Joplin's last album "Pearl" was released posthumously. Her definitive version of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" zoomed to the top of the charts with her impassioned delivery of such great lines as "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." One song on the album, "Buried Alive in the Blues," was released as an instrumental because Janis died the night before she was scheduled to record the vocal track:

It's real hard you know, it's real hard being buried alive
It's real hard being buried alive
When you're buried alive they walk right on by you
When you're buried alive they never care about you
When you're buried alive, oh, you reach out for somebody
And when you're buried alive you can't seem to press on through.

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