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Janis Joplin was the premier female blues singer of the 1960s, though she only cut four albums in her lifetime -- two of them as the vocalist with Big Brother and the Holding Company [their first album, 1968's "Cheap Thrills," was intermittently #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart] and two as a soloist backed first by the Kozmic Blues Band and then the Full Tilt Boogie Band. Her only Billboard Hot 100 solo hit that made it to #1 was her posthumous "Me and Bobby McGee," written by her former lover Kris Kristofferson, but her raw, powerful, and uninhibited singing style continued to attract audiences long after her heroin-induced death at 27, with 15.5 million albums sold in the US. She grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, but had few friends. "I was a misfit. I read, I painted, I thought. I didn't hate niggers." Later, when a reporter asked if she had ever entertained at her high school, she replied, "Only when I walked down the aisles." At first, she was primarily a painter, but she began singing blues and folk music after she discovered recordings by the earliest blues performers Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Leadbelly. (In 1970, she had a tombstone erected on Smith's unmarked grave.) She briefly attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she was profiled by the campus newspaper under the headline SHE DARES TO BE DIFFERENT: The article began, "She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levis to class because they're more comfortable, and carries her Autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song, it will be handy." That coverage didn't prevent her from being voted "Ugliest man on Campus." Aftyer that she moved to San Francisco to pursue a career in music. Though she continued to be plagued by lonmeliness and addiction problems, she found her calling: "I'm a victim of my own insides. There was a time when I wanted to know everything.... It used to make me very unhappy, all that feeling. I just didn't know what to do with it. But now I've learned to make that feeling work for me. I'm full of emotion and I want a release, and if you're on stage and if it's really working and you've got the audience with you, it's a oneness you feel."
In 1967, while she was still fronting Big Brother, her former lover Country Joe McDonald recorded "Janis":Into my life on waves of electrical soundAnd flashing light she cameInto my life with the twist of a dialThe wave of her hand, the warmth of her smile.And even though I know that you and ICould never find the kind of love we wanted togetherAlone I find myself missing you and I, you and I.It's not very often that something special happensAnd you happen to be that something special for meAnd walking on grass where we rolled and laughed in the moonlightI find myself thinking of you and I, you and I, you.Into my eye comes visions of patternsDesigns the image of her I seeInto my mind the smell of her hairThe sound of her voice, we once were there.And even though I know that you and ICould never find the kind of love we wanted togetherAlone, I find myself missing you and I, you and I, you.In August 1970, the day after Bessie Smith tombstone was erected, she was playing pool with Rip Torn and Emmett Grogan, who were drunkenly singing a song by poet Michael McClure. Joplin joined in and wrote her own lyrics, then performed it on stage that same day. Back home in California, with Bob Neuwirth, she fleshed it out into a full song, then called McClure for his approval. After she sang it to him, he said, "Well, I prefer my version" and sang it for her. When he was done, she announced, "I prefer my version!" Then she set to work on what was to be her final album. On 1 October, it was nearly finished. On the spur of the moment, she sang an acapella rendition of the McClure song, after declaring, "I’d like to do a song of great social and political import. It goes like this:Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?Oh Lord, won't you buy me a color TV?Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me.I wait for delivery each day until three,So oh Lord, won't you buy me a color TV?Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town?I'm counting on you, Lord, please don't let me down.Prove that you love me and buy the next round,Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town?Everybody!Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends,Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,So oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?That's it!"And it was. That was her last recording. Two days later, Full Tilt Boogie did the backing track for Nick Gravenites' "Buried Alive in the Blues," with Joplin scheduled to add her vocals the next day. Work finished at 11 p.m. She passed away in her motel room during the night.
Over the years, Leonard Cohen has introduced "Chelsea Hotel," his tribute to Joplin, many times, many ways. This is one version: "A thousand years ago I lived at this Hotel in NYC. I was a frequent rider of the elevator on this Hotel. I will continuously leave my room and come back. I was an expert on the buttons of that elevator. One of the few technologies I really ever mastered. The door opened. I walked in. Put my finger right on the button. No hesitation. Great sense of mastery in those days. Late in the morning, early in the evening. I noticed a young woman in that elevator. She was riding it with as much delight as I was. Even though she commanded huge audiences, riding that elevator was the only thing she really knew how to do. My lung gathered my courage. I said to her "Are you looking for someone?" She said "Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson." I said "Little Lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson." Those were generous times. Even though she knew that I was someone shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never let on. Great generosity prevailed in those doom decades. Anyhow I wrote this song for Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel."Here's another: "A long time ago there was this Hotel in NYC, where a lot of musicians used to stay. There's a very great singer who used to stay there in the old days along with lot of other very good musicians. And I used to meet her in the elevator, very late at night, around three in the morning. She wasn't looking for me, and I wasn't looking for her. But there was nobody else up at that time. I think she was looking for Kris Kristofferson. Anyway somebody a little taller than me.... Even Phil Ochs was taller than me in those days. He's not that tall now. Anyway she was a very great singer and the thing I loved about her was her attitude towards her audience. There was no division, there was no ambiguity about how she felt about singing. So many singers today have such a curious attitude towards their audience, and if you read the lyrics of their songs, they're filled with ambiguity about how difficult it is to be a pop-star, how difficult it is to get servants, how hard it is to shop for jewels, and the burden of being loved by everybody. These are serious problems that occupy the minds. Many of our most creative minds today are occupied by these serious problems. And in her life and in her work, she gave herself completely, and when she decided to stop giving herself, she cut out completely. And I wrote this song for her, it's for Janis Joplin."And another: "A long time ago there was a hotel in New York City where a lot of musicians used to stay. Among them there was a very great singer, a woman. I used to bump into her in the elevator about three in the morning, completely by mistake. She wasn't looking for me. I think she was looking for Kris Kristofferson. And I wasn't looking for her. I was looking for ... Brigitte Bardot. Anyhow, we fell into each other's arms through some process of elimination, which is the process by which most things happen... Last time I saw her was on 23d Street. She said, 'Hey man, you in town to read poetry for old ladies?' That was her view of my career. Anyhow, there was no sense of ambiguity or division in her relation with her audience, with her public, and after she split, after she died, I wrote this song for her, Janis Joplin."
And his performances of the song have also varied. But here is very early, 1972, rendition:I remember you well in the Chelsea HotelYou were talking so brave and so sweetGiving me head on the unmade bedWhile the limousines wait in the street.Those were the reasons and that was New York.I was running for the money and the fleshI was running for the money and the fleshThat was called love, for the workers in songAnd it still is for those of us left.Oh but you got away, didn't you babyYou just threw it all to the groundYou got away, they can’t pay you nowFor making your sweet little sound, come on make it, babyMaking your sweet little sound, let’s all do itMaking your sweet little sound, I can hear itMaking your sweet little sound....For those were the reasons and that was New York.I was running for the money and the fleshThat was called love for the workers in songAnd it still is for the few of us left.Oh but you got away, didn't you babyYou just threw it all to the groundYou got away on your deepest dreamMaking your sweet little sound on the jukeboxMaking your sweet little sound on transistor radioMaking your sweet little sound, for the royaltiesMaking your sweet little sound, let me follow youMaking your sweet little song, let me follow youMaking your sweet little song, don’t leave me nowMaking your sweet little song, all the way nowGiving me head on the unmade bedA great surprise lying with you, babyMaking your sweet little sound.I remember you well in the Chelsea HotelThat was the winter of ‘67My friends of that year, they were trying to go queerAnd me, I was just getting even.Those were the reasons and that was New YorkI was running for the fucking money and the fleshThat was called love for the workers in songAnd it still is for the few of us left.Ah but you got away, didn't you babyYou just turn your back on the painYou got away on your wildest dreamRacing the midnight train, I can see itRacing the midnight train with no clothes on, babySee all your [?] torn on the groundAll of your clothing, no piece to cover youShining your eyes in my deepest cornerShining your eyes in my darkest cornerRacing the midnight train, I can't catch you babyRacing the midnight train.
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