Today is the birthday of one of the great rock blues divas of all time: Janis Joplin, and my song for the day features one of my favorite recorded vocals, ever. It’s Janis’s only #1 song, released in spring of 1971 after her untimely demise (she was finally recording with her own band) on October 4, 1970. In other words, this song was my introduction to Janis Joplin and she was already dead. In any case, I bought the 45.
Later, through my first girlfriend who was a bit of a Janis devotee, I discovered Cheap Thrills, ten years after it came out, which includes incredible songs like “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime” and “Ball and Chain” amidst the so-so acid-rock guitar of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Pearl, the album recorded with the Full-Tilt Boogie Band by Paul Rothschild that contains “Me and Bobbie McGee,” is the only LP of hers I own, besides a Greatest Hits. I tend to stick to her studio recordings because, for all that Janis is best known as an electrifying performer (her performance at Monterey in 1967 is rightly legendary), I dislike her tendency to ramble at the mike. Joplin struggled with heroin use througout her career and drank when she was and wasn’t “straight,” so her live recordings can be rather varied in quality. For some artists, you just had to be there. I’d already missed that boat.
This song though is, to me, one of those “all she wrote” kind of things. “If she did nothing else and only did this song . . .” I’d still remember her and still speak highly of her way with a song. The song was written by Kris Kristofferson and has been covered by just about anyone who was around back then, but this is the performance that owns the song. I won’t say “it’s the singer not the song,” though, because it is the perfect vehicle for Joplin, so, all due credit to Kristofferson for his song which, in her hands, becomes a major statement of “the life”: “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” That captures the blues ethos pretty well—free, but without many options. But then “nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, honey, if it ain’t free.” Freely given, in other words—like love, respect, joy, and all the other “nothin’s” that matter.
The song tells the tale of two hitchers—the singer and “Bobby” (male in Janis’ version, though female in Kris’s)—who hang together as long as it suits “him” apparently. “Feelin’ good was easy when Bobby sang the blues”—the interesting thing there is that, in Kristofferson’s version, sung by a male, Bobbie is a great female blues singer, and in Joplin’s version, a great female blues singer is recalling a great male blues singer. It’s not out of place to regard this song as a eulogy for Janis herself, sung by her in honor of herself—fictionalized as Bobbie McGee. That’s not possible, in reality, but it’s possible to feel it that way.
Bobby gets away from the singer. “He’s lookin’ for that home and I hope he finds it.” A way of saying that he’s looking for a stable life, stable wife, and all that dream. Janis/Kris, the singer, is out there on the road, just looking to feel good when and if he/she can. And that means feelin’ the blues.
What really makes Joplin’s version is everything that happens after the lyrics end. Joplin jams and riffs and just lets it go. Listen to how she descends the scale on “lordy lordy lordy lordy lordy lordy lordy lord.” I wait for it every time. And every bit of that final jam—including the boogie of the Full Tilt Boogie Band—takes this song into the superlative. Given how often one heard, by 1970, of Joplin’s shambolic lifestyle, it’s a revelation how great she can be when she’s really on. In this song she completely lives up to the rep she continues to enjoy as one of the greats. In time, Joplin became synonymous with “the blues” of being a woman in a man’s world, particularly a woman who wasn’t “attractive enough” to be popular with men. That’s part of her persona, certainly; something like the suffering heart of womanhood bluesing over the hard-hearted shittiness of manliness. She’s a plain woman with a great talent. Would such a one rise to fame in any era after the Sixties/Seventies? Not likely. Here’s to Janis, “get it while you can.”