The Book Club

That’s How It Is Sometimes. Lousy.

Have I ever told you how great I thought your liner notes to the Janis Joplin box set were? I thought you and Ellen Willis (who also wrote a piece) unerringly captured her. What was revelatory, of course, is that you come from different generations, with different I guess the word is socio-political takes on her, yet relatively-in-accord feminist ones. Together, I thought the two essays do what notes like that are supposed to do but too rarely accomplish: re-illuminate the artist in the context of their collected works, make you hear the music and see the artist afresh.

I particularly liked your piece because we both come from the punk generation, where we learned to kill our idols. I was–and still am–intolerant of the slobbery, drunk star; the haphazard white blues; the seven-minute jam. You confessed your alienation, and described your reconciliation. I’ve never reconciled myself to the artists who went limp–the Stones, Rod Stewart, Joplin, Morrison, Clapton. I particularly dislike the survivors: Clapton with his Lexus ads, Mick Jagger shilling for Budweiser or Tommy Hilfiger. History treats rock stars cruelly either way, though, I have to admit. As a critic, I don’t think Joplin left a whole heck of a lot of a musical legacy (as opposed to an iconic one). I can’t imagine sitting around listening to her stuff for pleasure.

But I like her better now as a person. I’m glad you brought up sex. I came away from the Elvis book almost nauseated at the way Presley would catch a glimpse of a photo of a young girl on a father’s desk and then track her down. (Most of the time, the father helped.) He hooked them on pills, too. I had my humanizing moment with Joplin courtesy of a previous biography, Going Down With Janis, a marvelously titled tell-all from a former lover, Peggy Caserta. The first sentence is a deathless window to the book: “I was stark naked, stoned out of my mind on heroin, and the woman lying between my legs giving me head was Janis Joplin.” You go, girl, I thought. I want truths like that to come out in biographies. Not for the prurience, though Caserta’s book isn’t very sexy, and there would be nothing wrong with it if it were. It makes people come alive.

The greatest stars don’t care. There’s a deeply meaningful portrait of Joplin by Jim Marshall, the photographer. She’s sprawled on a backstage couch, cradling a bottle of Southern Comfort, a sad frown on her face, thighs exposed. Marshall says he took heat from some about the shot. But Joplin backed him up: “That’s how it is sometimes. Lousy.” Marshall, to my mind rock’s most eloquent photographer, loved Joplin but had a great journalist’s response. “I don’t care if Janis liked the picture or not.”

When we started this dialogue I said I felt bad about Elvis Presley because he makes me feel mean. I worry about sounding shrill in talking about people who I think lead fucked-up lives. I think I also carry residual guilt. I’m not sure what the responsibility is of fans, of the audience, to the artist. I used the word “enabling” yesterday; I worry about being complicit in self-destruction. Some years ago when I was a local music columnist I did story about a local hemi-demi rock star, detailing his drug use. I didn’t want to do it, but I thought about it and decided that he wasn’t going to die on my watch, so to speak. Would we respect Joplin more if she’d survived, perhaps done a Bonnie Raitt–bruised by a period of decline but revivified and now the toast of adult rock stations and the Grammys? I think she’d be happier to be alive today. Presley’s story is more complicated. He was deeply unhappy as well, on the evidence, but lacked a true martyr’s capacity for self-annihilation. His demise was slower, and much more painful.

Here’s a question. I always say that I don’t feel sorry for rock stars as a matter of principle. Is that too cold? Unnuanced? Counterproductive?