Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It just can't be.

I've never really listened to Janis Joplin before.

My parents never, ever, ever, ever listened to music when I was a kid. Everyone else watched their parents rock out to the Stones or the Doors or Skynyrd or whatever, thought it was hoky, got older, realized it was pretty good, and next thing you know, you're telling Spin how you grew up surrounded by all this great music and it really influenced you, man, and yeah, Ke$sha, "Tik Tok" clearly has the lyrical depth and poignancy of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

Instead of rock or blues or whatever, we had Armed Forces Radio Network. AFN is a throwback to the days of yore when you could only get news of the sunny shore of the homeland from the radio, before Al gifted us with the most excellent Internet. At the top of the hour, AFN blasted a portentous, drum-heavy burst of bumper music, which was a signal to shut up so Mom could listen to the news. The rest of the time, it played country, and not even good country, but crap like Tim McGraw, which was enough to make me wish for spontaneous eardrum combustion. Yeah hey not bad enough that we've been here since the 1940s, NOW YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS SHIT.

The ironic thing was, American rock was huge in Germany at the time, along with Levis, which you bought on the black market because of the obscene cotton tariff, or charmed a GI into buying you from the PX. Everyone was walking around in acid wash like it was the eighties, but the eighties had been over for a while, and thank you very much for all that liberation, but the Amis were sticking around like the worst houseguest, and suddenly everyone hated us again, which has continued relatively unabated since then. (Actually you do get used to that after a while.)

Recently, my mom confessed to a secret liking for Jimmy Hendrix (and a consequent hatred of Lenny Kravitz, that pretender to the throne). But I never heard her play him, or anyone else, and my parents didn't own any CDs other than a few shabby classical music compilations that no one ever listened to, and some tapes of Christian family bands, the type where everyone is wearing a matching hand-sewn denim dress or shirt and there are like eight interchangeable kids. Sometime before I came around, my parents converted to a particularly virulent strain of Baptism, which eschews anything enjoyable and/or popular except for hairspray and backcombed bangs.

As a result, classic rock was out, but nothing else was in except for talk radio like NPR (soon to be ditched as too liberal).

My parents also owned a lot of badly printed books produced by church presses about the Evils of Rock Music/Wiccanism/New Ageism/Environmentalism/Roman Catholicism/Television/Much of everything else. These were really just pamphlets, with crooked typesetting and luridly illustrated covers that showed imaginative sketches of Satan and, variously, Catholics, hippies, Wiccans, folks in suits meant to illustrate the perils of the modern world, and rebellious teenagers (you could tell they were rebellious, see, by the rips in their jeans! and that HAIR!) bowing down to him. Satan was also usually pictured as lurking behind a priest, a television set, or a vinyl record, which led me to feel like, for much of my early life, he was always RIGHT THERE and might leap out behind a door at any moment, thereby illustrating the dangers of Modern Carpentry and other Foolishness.

Anyway, one of these pamphlets was produced by a preacher who also founded a home for wayward boys called Boys' Town, which, appropriately enough, is also the name of a rock band and a district in Mexico famed for legal homosexual prostitution. The preacher, whose name I have forgotten, besuited, bejowled, with the short, side-parted hair favored by Republican Congressmen, glares out from the back cover. This is SRS BZNSS.

So, it was from this pamphlet that I learned about the evils of Rock Music, which, oddly enough, included not only such crappy and forgettable acts like Stryper and Cinderella, but also Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen (also, Bowie, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Iron Butterfly, and oddly enough, Boy George, apparently for his penchant for eyeliner and snazzy fedoras, but, also, not Robert Smith, who perhaps got a pass for his Britishness).

The book totally ignored acts like 2Live Crew and NGA, and really, every single hip-hop artist and rapper popular at the time, but castigated Blondie, the Stones, and the Doors. Oh, and KISS. (Did you know that stands for Knights in Satan's Service?! Now you do! Apparently Satan's Army's uniform consists of black spandex, white greasepaint, and an imperviousness to embarrassment!)

So, without any sort of musical background or preference whatsoever, really a sort of tabula rasa without peer, my encounters with classic rock, blues, jazz, etc., are all fresh encounters, which has actually been sort of beneficial.

So. I read Alice Echols' biography of Janis Joplin, Scars of Sweet Paradise without, really, any knowledge of her or her music, so I started listening to it, and I love it (which is not surprising, as I love the blues and a lot of the artists that Janis herself loved), and besides all that, Echols' biography is pretty excellent.

Constructed from hundreds of interviews with Joplins' former boyfriends, girlfriends, bandmates, and friends, Echols does an excellent job of reconstructing a frustrating and complicated woman, but also gives a lot of historical background, which given my almost complete ignorance of the music of the sixties, and, really, anything that happened in American post 1945, was pretty great.

Writing about Joplin is like trying to reconcile a lot of contradictions, which, fortunately, Echols doesn't really feel compelled to do. Instead, she lets the messiness of Joplin speak for itself, for her paradoxical combination of balls-to-the-wallsiness, in-your-face stage presence, and shattering insecurity. Echols, wisely, spends a lot of time reconstructing the suffocating environment of Port Arthur, Joplins' hometown, and explaining how someone who had such a raw, undeniable talent, could at the same time be convinced of her own inadequacy.

There's also a plaintive note that runs through the biography, which could essentially be expressed thusly: You were great. Why did you leave us?

And now, having spent some time listening to Joplin, I understand that feeling - even, in fact, get kind of angry when I hear her sing. Of course, no one is obligated to stick around, but still. Still. Like it's unfair to deprive the world of that voice. And, of course, the irony that a woman with one of the strongest voices in musical history could be so fragile. If Janis had stuck around, though, what would she be doing now? It seems like everyone else in the book who made it out alive ended up a computer programmer in Silicon Valley or working as an administrative assistant in the desolation of post-70s California.

My parents finally loosened up a little. My dad now listens to Yanni and some pretty epically bad New Age-y (SATAN!) pianist lady. Man, you know, it's like a gateway drug - first some Boney James, then you're full on DIO.

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