The Book Club

Rock Stars and Their Pain

Dear Bill:

Thanks for the kudos on my Janis liner notes. They were particularly appreciated because Echols quotes those notes near the end of her book, out of context. I hate to quibble, because I truly admire Echols (her previous book, Daring To Be Bad, is the best one out there on second-wave feminism) and think her Janis book does a great job contextualizing Janis’s story. But I was a bit irritated when she quoted me to support her assertion that young women today find Joplin scary. I did write that Joplin’s intensity intimidated me, when I was nineteen; but the rest of my essay is about my coming to terms with her talent. I just want people to know that I totally dig Janis now.

It was easy for me to dodge Janis as a young person, in ways I couldn’t have avoided Elvis (not that I wanted to), or Morrison, the Stones, Stewart, and Clapton. Those crusty rockers still regularly get played on the radio. Their music pops up on soundtracks, is covered by other artists, blares out of mall sound systems. Not so for Janis. “Mercedes Benz” was used in a car commercial, and artists like Joan Osborne and Melissa Etheridge make sure to acknowledge their debt to Joplin, but in general her voice seems too difficult to assimilate. Why?

I thought her music couldn’t give me much pleasure, as you do, until I dove back into it for the box-set project. Then I discovered its nuances, the sweet that comes with the bitter. If “Piece of My Heart” were as ubiquitous as, say, “Sympathy for the Devil,” I think most listeners would find the balance in Janis. The fact it’s not is connected to her –her femaleness–of course.

This is why I feel sorry about, not for, Janis Joplin. People still can’t seem to take her, so many years after her death, unlike her fellow casualties Hendrix and Morrison. People make fun of Jimbo now and still venerate Jimi, but the emotion ruling our memories of Janis is pain. Her libertinism translates as a hunger to be accepted; her rawness as an inability to stay in control. In male rock stars, promiscuity and rootlessness thrill; they are part of the rebel’s stance, the rocket fuel of the self-made man. In Janis (and in Courtney Love, her 1990s counterpart, exacting vengeance by surviving) these qualities signify self-loathing and weakness.

When I say promiscuity, by the way, I don’t just mean the urge to do the nasty. All the weird romance in Elvis’s life, exhaustively documented by Guralnick, didn’t amount to that much nookie. His notorious resistance to going all the way with the good girls he enshrined within his virgin-whore complex makes his sexuality seem ridiculous. But in the context of his art, it makes sense. Elvis was emotionally promiscuous–he craved the spark of union, with his lackeys, his audiences, the people he gave Cadillacs to on the street. Rock and roll is also emotionally promiscuous. Its rhythm reaches out and engages anyone willing to open their ears. It moves their bodies and frees their desires.

Male rockers’ promiscuity shocked at first, and continued to surprise as it took on different forms–the ironic stance of Mick Jagger, the operatic pose of the young Robert Plant, the nihilistic bulldoze of Johnny Rotten, the push beyond gender of Kurt Cobain. But it complements other admired masculine traits, notably the need to conquer. Women, even now and certainly not in the 1960s, don’t make sense as conquerors. Even the strongest supposedly want to be conquered in the end (why am I suddenly thinking of Ally McBeal?) Feminism has only begun to mend this gender division.

Janis herself felt divided about her conquering impulses. She found power in her gift, and used it enthusiastically. But she still often felt like a failure as a woman. There’s a heart-ripping moment in Echols’ book, recounted by your pal, Peggy Caserta. The two women are making love; Caserta tells Janis that she’s beautiful:

“You could see the pain on her face. ‘Why would you say that?’ she asked. I caught a look on her face…she was I really meant it and was blown away. ‘No one’s ever told me that before,’ she said. Then she held onto me like we’d just jumped off the Titanic.”

The greatest woman rock star who’d ever lived, the embodiment of sex in her era, couldn’t feel her own allure. That I feel sorry about.

So, do we feel sorry for these stars, both of whom are treated by their authors as tragedies? I don’t know – do we even regard them as human exactly, in the way we might a friend? That’s one of the weird things about fame, especially posthumous fame. Can we even relate to Janis or Elvis as people on the same plane as ourselves? What do you think?