The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

back to profile

Melissa Etheridge on Janis Joplin

Thank you, Jann. It's a real honor, and it's very exciting, and it's something I've never done, but something I'm very honored to do. Janis Lynn Joplin was born January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas, and I can sort of imagine what that was like, growing up in a small town, because I grew up in a small town myself - but it was the '40s and '50s that she grew up in, and from what I gather, it wasn't easy for Janis. From the very start, she was very different. She was a rebel and a beatnick. She was taunted and ridiculed, and the other kids would throw pennies and rocks at her, because she looked different, and she acted different. And in all areas of her life, she refused to conform; she asserted her freedom, she painted and she wrote poetry, and at this tender point in her life, she discovered the blues. And after high school, she got out of Port Arthur, and explored the hippie culture, in Austin, Texas, first. She used to carry an autoharp with her at all times, and would perform at the local coffeehouses, and the bars, and the student union in the now-famous Threadgills [?] in Austin, Texas. She traveled to the West Coast, and dabbled in performing in L.A. and San Francisco. She also discovered the drug culture, and immersed herself in it like everything else in her life, full-on - the drinking, the grass, acid, heroin, speed, and sex, with men and women. That was what a young person did at the time, and it wasn't wrong, or even considered dangerous then. It was an attempt to expand one's mind and heart to the possibilities of life, other than what one was taught by society. She came home to Port Arthur one more time, in 1965 - actually an effort to slow down, and grasp what she really wanted out of life. She enrolled in secretarial school, she smoothed down her wild hair into a bouffant, and even got engaged - but it didn't work. She couldn't do it. She couldn't lie down and conform to the standards of small-town Texas. So, when she got an offer to join a band in the Bay Area, she returned to San Francisco and joined Big Brother and the Holding Company. Yeah. Big Brother signed in August of 1966 with Mainstream Records; they played the Monterey Pop festival, and their first album was released, and then Columbia Records bought out the Mainstream Contract in March of 1968. And they released Cheap Thrills. It reached #1, and it stayed there for eight weeks. This all happened at a time when the Haight-Ashbury scene was in full bloom. Without trying, Janis became an icon. She was the only goddess in a sea of rock gods. Posters of her were sold right next to those of Hendrix, Leary, and other heroes of the time. The posters depicted a wild thing, half nude, hair flying - an image completely different from any other woman in the public eye at that time. In 1968, Janis split from Big Brother, and formed a new band called the Cosmic Blues Band. They played all through 1969, and in October, they released I Got Them Old Cosmic Blues Again, Momma. In September of 1970, Janis started recording a new album with a new band, the Full-Tilt Boogie Band. She had recorded the tracks, sang all the vocals, except for one, "Buried Alive in the Blues," and it was never finished. On October 4, 1970, after a good day in the recording studio, Janis dropped by for a few drinks at her regular watering hole, Barney's Beanery. Friends she planned to meet up with her that night had stood her up, so Janis Joplin went back to her Hollywood hotel room alone. She bought a pack of Marlboro Reds, she chatted with the hotel clerk, and went to her room. The next day, Janis Joplin was found dead, at age 27, from a heroin overdose. Janis once said she became a singer because a friend loaned her his Bessie Smith and Lead Belly records. Janis said of Bessie Smith, "She showed me the air, and taught me how to fill it." Before Janis died, she even paid tribute to Bessie by buying a headstone for her unmarked grave. Janis was the '60s. She was the style, sound, inspiration for men and women all over the world. She wasn't playing a character; like the rebel in the high school in Port Arthur, she was just being herself. Even when she was a full-fledged rock star, she was ridiculed for her dress and her looks, for being different from others. Yet she never apologized, never backed away from the truth; instead she stood fast in her beliefs. To her fans she was a goddess - she was the passion and power of love and freedom. Men and women both felt it, understood it, and felt understood themselves. I remember the first time I heard Janis Joplin. I was ten years old; my parents had just purchased the album Pearl. I remember listening to the songs and studying the album cover, as I wondered about this crazy woman in feathers and beads, smiling, laying on that couch. I had never heard the blues. I had never heard Bessie or Odetta or Lead Belly, but I was hearing them then. When I was 19, I discovered her other work, and it grabbed me. I wanted to explode like that, I wanted to feel like that, and I wanted to sing like that. Yes, Janis Joplin was a junkie, yes, she was an alcoholic, yes, she was promiscuous - men, women, she made no excuse for it. In 1967, Janis Joplin was strange and freakish, but I think today she would be pretty hip. She would be alternative. I think so; she would do quite well. And because of what she did, I feel like what she did in her life at that time enabled me, when I was a young girl, in 1976, growing up, not to feel so strange about wanting to do the things I wanted to do. She gave me power in my life. We didn't need to be secretaries or housewives: we could be rock stars. I never knew Janis, I never saw her or heard her voice live, I never witnessed the fireball of fury that she unleashed onstage, but I think I understand. When a soul can look on the world, and see and feel the pain and loneliness, and can reach deep down inside, and find a voice to sing of it, a soul can heal. I wish the dose of heroin she had injected that night had not been accidentally ten times stronger than what her usual hit was. I wish she was here with us. I wish she was making a comeback now and doing an MTV unplugged, and getting her tribute album together, and standing up for women's rights, standing up for gay rights, standing up for intolerance everywhere, against fur or Republicans or whatever - I think she would be doing that, I absolutely do. I wish she would have survived; then maybe I could tell her thank you. Thank you for traveling that road, for carrying that ball and chain, for giving a piece of her heart. I wish I could congratulate her personally - tell her she will always be a part of rock and roll history; that she helped create it, lived by it, and died by it. I wish I could say to her now, welcome. Welcome to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - a place you so definitely deserve to be.