23 August 2012

"There But for the Grace of God ..."

by Guest Contributor Barbara Washburn

Grace Slick and Janis Joplin
(photo credit: Jim Marshall)

They were friendly competitors for Queen of the San Francisco rock scene, good friends who didn't take it too seriously. One was beautiful, with a contralto voice, the other, not so much a babe but she had the pipes. She could literally strike two notes at once. Above is a famous photograph of the two of them, taken on a hot San Francisco afternoon. (Another photo from the same photo shoot is available on Amazon as a poster.) Janis is in a hat and heavy coat, Grace in a Girl Scout uniform. Yet rock was still very much a boy's club, and these two felt more like accessories than players.

And then came Monterey in '67. Janis, with her rendition of
Ball and Chain slammed her head against that glass ceiling of the boy's club and shattered it.

Once she'd pushed her way through the hole she created, she pulled Grace up, and there they stood, the undisputed Queen and her heir. Rock changed that afternoon in Monterey, but of all the performances recorded, Janis's still blows one away.

Janis left
Big Brother; Grace remained with the Jefferson Airplane. It was a huge risk for Janis, going out on her own, both psychologically and professionally. The experience scarred her, but she persevered, there was music to be made, pain to be articulated in a way that wrenched the heart, a boy's club who needed to see her thumb her nose at them.

All too quickly came Woodstock in the summer of 1969. With all the delays, the musicians had to entertain themselves somehow, and Janis drank so much that her manager, Albert Grossman, refused to allow the footage of her performance into the original film; a wonderful Janis segment is included in the extended version of
Woodstock. The Airplane, scheduled to go on at nine, came on at six in the morning, spending their time doing so many drugs Grace Slick later said "I don't know how we performed." But she did, with her rendition of White Rabbit sublime in its own way.

Though Grace didn't realize it at the time, she had written and performed the signature song for the slogan "Drugs, Sex, and Rock and Roll." Naturally she had to perform it at Woodstock, what with all the bad acid going around, it was a form of comfort as well as awe. Blitzed out of her mind, drop dead gorgeous, she told them to follow Alice, it would be all right.

It couldn't last much longer after Woodstock, though no one could see it at the time. On the fourth of October, 1970, Janis died. She was in LA, recording her finest album, Pearl, with a band befitting her amazing talent. She'd been clean for awhile, but for whatever reason, she reached out to a dealer, who delivered almost 100% pure heroin. She didn't know that, just as she didn't know she was dying when she went out to the lobby to get change to buy cigarettes. She died after returning to her room, the change and the pack of cigarettes still clutched in her hand.

When asked that day about Janis's death, Grace said "There but for the grace of God go I."

The boy's club had forever gone coed, thanks to these two women. One can still hear Janis's influence in musicians today, from Robert Plant to Debbie Harry and others. Listen to Plant sing. He owes but will never acknowledge a debt to Joplin's vocals.

One can only long for the music Janis would have made, had her personal demons not been so overwhelming. All one has to do is listen to the acoustic version of Me and Bobby McGee to understand why the song's writer Kris Kristofferson said, upon hearing it, "She owns that song now." His tribute to her is on his The Silver Tongued Devil album, entitled Epitaph Black and Blue. There is no more poignant commentary on the price of breaking the glass ceiling and standing there virtually alone.

As for Gracie, she lived, though sometimes one wonders how. Sober now, she's turned her talents to visual art, and they are prodigious talents. Her paintings and drawings of her dead contemporaries are beautiful and insightful. She calls one she did of Janis "Wood Nymph", talking about a side of Janis she saw, the playful little imp. Grace's portrait of Jim Morrison is called "Sacrifice to Morpheus", a look at his dark side. Grace also painted Janis and her in the forest. Her work is a look backwards and an insightful visual commentary. She has no illusions about Woodstock, no romanticized view of it, though she is reverential about Monterey.

It couldn't have lasted, those few years that gave us such great musicians who celebrated drugs, sex, and rock and roll. And it will never come around again, anomaly that it was, for the hangover is too great. Its end began with Altamont, and the door was slammed on it on May 4, 1970, though it took a little perspective to see that. But while it was there, while it was good, oh man, what a trip. And when it decayed, it was inevitable. The reasons are many, take your pick: "suits" who saw dollar signs and signed all these groups to their label, others who exploited the concepts for their own purposes, ala Manson, a world that was growing older and we along with it. Pick one or make up your own.

But out of it came two women, who with unbridled determination, broke that ceiling, burst through the boy's club door, and gave us some incredible music while allowing many more fine female musicians to follow them. Their musical influences still reverberate today, and the legacy of their music will not fade away. In keeping with the yin-yang, the magic both believed in to some extent, one lived and one died. I hardly think the balance was worth it in this case.

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