Janis Joplin — Ode to a Pearl

With today being the anniversary of Janis Joplin’s death, I figured a blog to honor her contributions was only fitting.

I didn’t need to do much research to know what Janis was about. Though she was before my time, I cut my teeth on her music. Literally. My parents, both very much a part of the hippie culture, loved her music. I can remember hearing her songs long before I was old enough to know what they meant.

By the time I was seven or eight, I sang along to all her biggest hits—Ball and Chain, Piece of my Heart, and Me and Bobby McGee, being particular favorites of mine to this day.

When I started gathering facts on her life, the countless musicians who touted Janis as an influence in their work didn’t surprise me.

But as I mulled it over in my head, I couldn’t escape the irony. Influence.

What does it even mean?

In Janis’s words, she was a “misfit,” an outcast in the small town of Port Arthur, Texas were she was born. Yet Janis craved acceptance from those who influenced her—socially, at least

She tried to fit the mold in her own way, graduating high school and later attending the University of Texas for a short time at her parent’s insistence. But even in college, Janis was a lightning rod for controversy. She lived very much in two worlds, never comfortable in either.

The Daily Texan, the progressive campus newspaper at UT, ran a profile on Janis in 1962, aptly titled “She Dares to be Different.” Citing the article: “she wears Levi’s to class, goes barefoot, and always carries an Autoharp in case the urge strikes to break into song.”

So. Fucking. Cool.

Or not so much, as it turns out. Although Austin was a bastion of freedom compared to other places in Texas, it was still Texas. In 1962.

About the same time the article ran, Alpha Phi Omega, the big fraternity at the university, sponsored their traditional “Ugliest Man on Campus,” contest. For charity, of course.

You heard that right. For five bucks, students voted on their pick for the ugliest dude on campus. All in good fun. Though, I’m not really sure if Janis found it amusing when she won the title.

In her usual fashion, she smiled through the pain and then caught the next bus to San Francisco, vowing never to come back.

But she did. If not to the university, to Port Arthur.

After a couple failed attempts at launching her career, Janis returned home with a canvas bag full of hippie garb and a nasty drug habit. One can only assume what started as good fun, quickly turned to something darker for the girl who could never escape the stigma of being different.

Vowing to get clean, Janis tried to conform, going so far as teasing her hair into a traditional beehive and getting a job. But you can only pretend for so long. Eventually, Janis caved under the weight of the expectations of those who held the most influence.

Not content to live as a fraud, she went back to California to give music another chance. And the rest, they say, is history. History we all know. So I don’t need to re-write it.

Janis DID find her true voice and in it, the voice of her generation. She spoke of things she felt passion about. The war. Racism. Sexual repression.

But all that freedom came with a price. Because the sad truth is, Janis couldn’t silence the voices of those who influenced her, good and bad, or wash away the stain from the brushes that painted her soul all those years before.

To hear her speak, it didn’t matter, what people said. But often, actions speak louder than words.

Just two months before she died, Janis returned to Port Arthur for her ten-year high school reunion. I suspect, to quiet those who’d ridiculed her and prove her success. Once home, though, she became a self-fulfilling prophecy, drinking to excess and flaunting a lifestyle those in Port Arthur could never understand, much less envy. She left her hometown for the last time feeling more rejection than love.

Which brings me back to my original thoughts about this article: Influence—and what it means. For all of us.

The notion is hidden in the subtext of many famous quotes.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” for example. What do you find beautiful? Open any magazine and you’ll get an answer for what some find beautiful. Those who influence fashion, at least.

But often those who influence don’t reflect. And if you try to live in their mirror, you’ll always fall short. A painful lesson Janis never learned.

But instead of seeing her life as a cautionary tale, I prefer to use it as a roadmap. It’s all there, folks—the potholes we should avoid on the journey to becoming our own true selves.

In the end Janis fell victim to the voices that influenced her. Until one day they got too loud and she silenced them for good.

Some might disagree, but I believe the biggest part of her legacy wasn’t her music. It was the way she lived by her own rules—always swimming against the tide.

It’s both ironic and tragic that her nickname was Pearl. In the sea, natural pearls are formed when a small irritant—usually a tiny grain of sand— works its way into an oyster. As the oyster fights back, releasing fluid to combat the irritant, a pearl is formed in the chaos. A tiny, luminescent ball. Beautiful, unique, and rare.

While composing this blog, a quote by George Bernard Shaw came to mind that I couldn’t shake: “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.”

And Janis taught us so much, even if she couldn’t master the lessons herself.

So when you think of Janis, remember, her death was but a footnote. A sad postscript. Don’t let her demise overshadow the wisdom of her teaching. I believe the greatest lesson can be summed up in a one short phrase: Don’t ever give those a voice that don’t deserve to be heard.

Living by that rule, we might all be a little happier. More content. And able to love ourselves, faults and all.