Since I was a young adult, I’ve liked listening to Janis Joplin. That bluesy rasp she always had going on really underlined her overall sound. And like so many others my age, I devoured her biography Buried Alive. One of the things that struck me then was the way so many of the people from her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, thought she’d ruined her voice because she’d sounded sweeter and purer as a teenager. Of course, they also bullied the hell out of her because she had an artistic mindset and she wasn’t a racist at heart. (She did drop the N-bomb from time to time because it was originally the only word she had in her vocabulary for Black people.)
The other thing that struck me was that in all of her photos she seemed like kind of a mess. Her hair was everywhere. She wore a million beaded necklaces. She had the baggy, shapeless clothes on. In short, she looked kind of scuzzy and while it kind of matched her sound, it belied the emotion behind her delivery. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I saw a black-and-white nude she’d done in 1967, that I was able to see her differently.
In that image, taken by Bob Seidemann but not released until after her death, her hair is a little more under control. She’s still wearing lots of necklaces, but now they’re nearly her only defense against the camera’s eye. She’s got some curves going on that you never suspected were there. But her face…her face is an expression of vulnerability, maybe even fright. You can see it in the cropped closeup to the right which I’m pretty sure is from the same session. Janis was always artistically naked on the stage, but now she was giving us a literal nakedness that allowed the young woman behind the bawdy broad to shine through.
And I think that might be at the heart of her rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee.” Janis was able to channel more of a bittersweet sound than her usual Kozmic Blues thing, and then when the band opens up toward the end of the record, she’s just along for the ride.