My Night with Janis Joplin

Michael Waterston, Ordway 3/22/16

Icon. Misfit. Free spirit. Rebel. Legend.

Janis Joplin was many things before her life was tragically cut short at 27 years old, but like all artists whose talent is ahead of their time, her true impact wasn’t recognized until it was too late. Even during her most successful years, she remained on the fringes of mainstream popularity, overshadowed by the likes of The Beatles, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Frank Zappa, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead. All legends for obvious reasons, but what was it about these artists that fans immediately gravitated toward? Janis was no less talented, so why was she so unappreciated or misunderstood at the time?

That’s not an easy question to answer – something one Ordway employee discovered when she followed some of her friends to see Janis in concert.

“It had to be late 1969 or early 1970 when I went to one of my first rock concerts. I was young (in my late teens) and looking for any excuse to enjoy a great adventure with four of my friends. Our friend, Mac, was the music guy: he knew of this “out there” woman named Janis Joplin who really threw down with her band. The rest of us were pretty main-stream in our music tastes, still listening to the Beatles, Stones, Cat Stevens, Crosby-Stills. Mac liked the harder bands that were coming out, ones the rest of us had never heard of – including Janis Joplin, but this was about having fun and experiencing something new with my friends, so what the heck? We were all along for the ride.

I can’t remember the name of the place where we ended up. The space seemed to hold about three or four hundred people and it was crowded, stuffy, and smoky. There weren’t any “No Smoking” signs back then. If there were, they would have been covered in a heavy layer of smoke and ash. Ticketmaster wasn’t even an idea that science fiction novels would be crazy enough to push, so it was all cash at the door. I don’t know if the audience was buzzing about seeing this band, or if they were just buzzed. It was that era…and exactly the type of fan following that this band was cultivating.

To those of us uneducated in Joplin’s music, the first set the band played sounded country and bluesy. That made sense to us, because we thought they were from Kansas, or maybe Nebraska. We didn’t know until much later that Janis’ roots were down in Texas.

But when the band came on for a second set things really changed. Or maybe I just remember this second set more vividly. Janis came on stage gripping the neck of an open whiskey or bourbon bottle, which she hung onto through the rest of the performance. One hand on the bottle, the other gripping the microphone, she started to unleash something we’d never seen before. With her wild hair whipping around and cowboy boots sticking out beneath her hippie tunic, her trademark voice belted out the music and turned the country blues into hard-edged rock. She would frequently turn her back on the audience and sing to the band, and they fed off her energy and played right back at her. It was as if they were there to entertain each other, to throw the music back and forth between themselves, forgetting that there even was an audience. When the last song ended, Janis gripped the microphone, still clutching the whiskey bottle that she had held for the entire set. The bottle was empty, and in a way so were we. She sucked you into her world with her voice, her swagger, and a passion that left you physically and emotionally drained. It was an experience that I could only describe as ‘euphoric.’

To this day I can’t tell you the name of any of the songs they played. It wasn’t until a few years later, after her death, that I remember starting to hear more of her music being played. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how special that performance was, and how lucky I was to have been there. At the time it was just a fun rock concert with my friends. Now, I know I lived a piece of cult history; unfortunately too young to fully appreciate it at the time. I guess you can say the same for anyone else growing up during that time.

More than her songs, what I remember of that evening was the larger-than-life experience: a pot-saturated auditorium, belting rock beats, screaming fans, and a wild woman totally wrapped up and taken away by her own music.”

Do you have a Janis Joplin memory or story? Share it with us in the comments below!

A Night With Janis Joplin is playing at the Ordway March 29 – April 3, 2016

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