Arts - Autumn 2010

Rock of Ages

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Forty years after their deaths, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin now seem part of the mainstream culture they rebelled against

By Wendy Smith

September 1, 2010


 

I was 14 when Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died within 16 days of each other. It was 40 years ago, the fall of 1970, hardly more than three years since the Monterey Pop Festival had made them both stars, but as far as my friends and I were concerned, they’d always been around. They were part of our musical landscape, along with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Drugs, I regret to say, were part of our landscape too; we bought into the counterculture’s glorification of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll as the way to blast our generation loose from the dead hand of conformity and the dreaded prospect of turning into our parents. We shrugged off adult finger wagging over the deaths of two 27-year-olds from heroin overdose and suffocation due to barbiturate intoxication (though Hendrix choking on his own vomit inspired a fair amount of gross-out teen humor). When you’re 14, 27 seems far away, and premature death can seem romantically tragic rather than criminally wasteful.

I accepted that Joplin and Hendrix, both famous for their pursuit of excess as a path to ecstasy, had paid the price for their rejection of conventional wisdom, conventional behavior, and conventional restraint. They were the first members of the pantheon I formed in high school of heroes who had lived hard and died young: Lenny Bruce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Garfield, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith. Joplin introduced me to Bessie Smith, whom she always cited as her greatest inspiration, though I didn’t start listening to the 1920s’ Empress of the Blues until after Janis died. At 14, to my mother’s horror, Joplin was my model of what a woman could be: a plain, unpopular teenage girl who transformed herself into a flamboyant counterculture diva through sheer talent and audacity.

I loved Hendrix’s sexy singles, but to me he was merely the flashiest in a well-populated field of rock-guitar gods. Joplin’s music spoke to my soul. “Ball and Chain,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Kozmic Blues” were the cries of a grown woman, but they perfectly voiced my adolescent angst. I fiercely defended her against a friend who declared, “How can Janis Joplin sing ‘Summertime’? She’s not black!” “Neither was the guy who wrote it,” I shot back—one of the few times in my teens that I actually made the right rejoinder on the spot. When a classmate asserted that Hendrix’s death was a greater loss to music than Joplin’s, I resented the implication that she was just a chick singer, while he was a serious musician.

I have to admit, though, that when I started listening to Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, for a while it made me think less of Joplin. “I don’t like her as much now that I’ve heard the real thing,” I remember loftily telling someone, betraying a misguided notion of authenticity that confines purists in every field. Hendrix, whose weakness for self-in­dulgent solos was more noticeable in the material his record company issued posthumously, also suffered by comparison when I en­countered the stinging, tightly focused work of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and other classic blues guitarists. I didn’t know that Hendrix had carefully studied them all, and I didn’t really hear the bluesy cadences that informed even his most psychedelic songs. Similarly, I was startled by the country twang of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Mercedes Benz” on Joplin’s final album, released after her death. All I’d ever heard about her youth in Texas was that she hated every minute of it, and I’d assumed that included the region’s music as well as the jocks and sorority girls who mocked her. I had thought of Hendrix and Joplin as fabulously new creatures who had invented themselves and their music. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but they had connections to the past that were more tenacious than I realized.

I would be a lot older when I figured that out. I wasn’t listening to their records much by the time I finished high school in 1974. I’d pretty well had it with the whole ’60s thing. The consequences of its extremism were grimly apparent, both personally, in the drug-related nervous breakdowns of several of my friends, and politically, in newspaper headlines about Black Panthers killed in police raids and Weather Underground members blowing themselves up or perpetrating lunatic bank robberies. At the ripe-old age of 18, I felt as unmoored as the existentialists I was reading. Sanity and a sense of limits were beginning to seem a lot more appealing than ecstasy and excess. The music I preferred in college was by singer-songwriters (including Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman), whose work had the honesty of Hendrix’s and Joplin’s, with less recklessness. If they took drugs (and plenty of them did), they didn’t promote LSD as a path to enlightenment. Their diminished sense of possibility made me a little sad—Joplin and Hendrix, especially in performance, always gave me the feeling that mu­sic could do anything and take you anywhere—but their caution seemed wise. Smashing through sexual, social, and political restraints could be liberating, but it was also risky, sometimes life threatening.

I learned that lesson over and over as an undergraduate studying revolutionary movements and radical dissent. I was still a child of the ’60s, trying to find a way to make sense of the cultural and political turbulence that unsettled my adolescence. Being bookish by nature, I thought that finding precedents in history would help me do it. And eventually it did, after depressing sojourns through European revolutions that ended either with the restoration of the monarchy and an oppressive class structure that took hundreds more years to reform (England and France) or with a police state arguably worse than what preceded it (the Soviet Union). The collapse of the utopian dreams of the ’60s appeared less toxic in that context, the conservative reaction of the ’80s—though still troubling to a very liberal Democrat like me—less final. It had all happened before.

I was especially fond of two previous eras in American history that intertwined personal, political, and cultural transformations. The transcendentalists, staunch abolitionists all, blithely appropriated bits of Swedenborgian mysticism, German idealist philosophy, and English romanticism to create the first great flowering of our national literature in the works of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Dickinson—as well as a lot of messy personal entanglements and at least one failed commune. In the early 20th century, Greenwich Village rebels mingled Marxist theory, modernist aesthetics, and Freudian psychology to preach socialist revolution, free verse, and free love, outraging the bourgeoisie at least as thoroughly as any tie-dyed hippie while giving rise to the Provincetown Players, Eugene O’Neill, and The Masses, a trenchantly radical magazine with equally trenchant art.

None of this necessarily had anything to do with music, except that my first job after graduation was at Doubleday, which published Dave Marsh’s biography of Bruce Springsteen while I was there. Until then I hadn’t read any books about rock ’n’ roll—I was immersed in history tomes and 19th-century novels, and I’m not sure I knew that there were books on the subject. But I was a Springsteen fan, picked up the book, and was hooked as soon as I read the words, “I believe rock ’n’ roll has saved lives.” I’m always susceptible to a writer with passion, and Marsh’s insistence that culture has political implications jibed with the convictions I’d developed studying history. I started to read more seriously about popular music and discovered many intelligent critics who astutely placed it within a social framework. Marsh, Peter Guralnick, and Greil Marcus (my three favorites) situated rock ’n’ roll on a continuum that stretched back to Stephen Foster and slaves’ field hollers before the Civil War and included country and jazz as well as folk and blues. They prompted me to listen more closely to older music by artists I knew mostly by reputation: Elvis Presley, The Coasters, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Jordan, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin. On their recordings I heard people refusing to be confined by genres, mixing up traditions, picking up the pieces that were mean­ing­ful to them and discarding the ones that didn’t suit—just like Emerson or O’Neill. American music was part of a larger story about the American character.

With this in mind, I could see that Joplin and Hendrix were more than fabulous hippie icons, the counterculture that embraced them more than a historical anomaly. Snippets of their biographies that I’d known for years fit together in a new pattern.

Hendrix had famously played backup for a variety of great African-American singers on the chitlin’ circuit, the string of venues that stretched from black theaters in Northern cities down to the barbecue joints of the deep South. Just as famously, he’d been fired by Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, and Little Richard, who weren’t about to be upstaged by some wild kid playing behind his back, picking the strings with his teeth, and humping the guitar. When Hendrix hit New York in 1964, Harlem sophisticates were equally unwelcoming to a performer who curled his hair, wore a woman’s blouse and a bolero hat onstage, and inserted rock solos into blues classics. Hendrix didn’t fit in. He’d grown up in Seattle, attended integrated schools, played guitar in various groups that mixed up blues, R & B, rock ’n’ roll, and jazz for multi­racial crowds. He revered Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album as a work of genius and was writing songs in that freeform vein. It made sense that he finally found his audience downtown in Greenwich Village, where denizens of the Cafe Wha were wowed by the uniquely personal style he called “science fiction rock ’n’ roll.”

Are_You_Experienced_-_US_cover-editMeanwhile, the musical heritage that Hendrix found confining helped Joplin free herself from Southern gentility. She defied her segregated hometown by playing the records of African-American folk and blues artists; listening to Leadbelly, Odetta, and, most of all, Bessie Smith, she realized that singing could express the ferocious emotions that Port Arthur insisted she suppress. But the folk-music scene in 1963 wasn’t ready for a white woman with such a raw sound; Joplin had to wait a few years to find the setting her anguished, assaultive vocals needed. She’d never seen a rock show or sung with an electric band when she arrived in San Francisco to audition for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966, but that didn’t matter to a psychedelic group that played what one member described as “blues in Technicolor.”

Hendrix and Joplin came from different parts of America to cross racial and cultural boundaries, I realized, but they wound up in the same place: a place where they could be themselves. They took what they needed from all the music they loved and transformed it into something new. To their delight, they discovered that there were a lot of other misfits out there who appreciated what they did.

You can see the exhilarating results in D. A. Pennebaker’s 1968 concert film Monterey Pop, which captures the early prime of two artists who’d only recently figured out that they could do it their way. Hendrix tears up the Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” layering it with feedback and distortion, tossing in a riff from Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” snapping his chewing gum all the while. At the climax, he straddles his guitar, pours lighter fluid on it, sets it on fire, and smashes it. “Don’t think I’m silly doing this because I don’t think I’m losing my mind,” he tells the crowd, the grin of a naughty schoolboy on his face. “This is the only way I can do it.” Backed by Big Brother’s screeching guitars and frenetic rhythms, Joplin is equally incendiary. The band does its “slash-and-burn” arrangement of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain”; Joplin shrieks and moans her way through the song with scary, intoxicating abandon. When Thornton sang “Ball and Chain,” it was a worldly reckoning of the way things were between men and women. Joplin’s rendering is an outraged protest, with the word “Why?” stretched to the breaking point. She stomps her feet, throws back her arms and howls, “This can’t be—b-b-b-b-b-b-b-be-be-be—in vain!” In a shot of a dumfounded Cass Elliot, Mama Cass mouths the words, “Oh wow,” and for once they’re not a hippie cliché.

The first time I saw Monterey Pop, in 1969, I loved it not just because the performances were thrilling, but because it celebrated what I viewed as my culture: the far-out music, the freaky clothes, the militant politics of those who stood proudly outside the mainstream. For a lot of years, it made me sad to watch the film, thinking of the people and hopes that had died. Now it makes me happy again, because I’m older and I know that nothing lasts forever, which makes those moments of joy all the more precious. I also know that the period of radical change in which Hendrix and Joplin flourished was not unique (as I once thought), that they belonged to a tradition no less real for being eclectic and inclusive rather than rigid and strictly defined.

A while ago, buying kalamata olives and parmesan cheese at a Middle Eastern shop in my neighborhood, I saw a flyer announcing a book signing by Arthur Schwartz, author of The Southern Italian Table: Authentic Tastes from Traditional Kitchens. A guy named Schwartz writing a book about authentic Italian food and plugging it at a store run by Lebanese Christians—that, I thought, is the American way. I also thought of Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock and of Joplin telling a record producer, “I want to be the greatest blues singer in the world.” There is no authentic here: we mix and match, we savor our own heritage and everyone else’s.

“I am large, I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman declared in “Song of Myself.” So did the skinny black kid who was too weird for Harlem and the unhappy, unpopular white girl who was way too weird for Texas.

Wendy Smith is the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940, which was recently reissued in paperback and as an ebook.


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