Today is the deathday of Janis Joplin, and tomorrow is the birthday of my wife, Mary, who early on was a fan of Janis. So, today’s song forms a tribute to both. It’s the final track on Joplin’s final (and best) album Pearl. The link here is to Janis and her Full Tilt Boogie Band playing the song live on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970. Seeing Janis perform is something in itself. And she’s in really good form on those Cavett appearances, showing how well she worked with her new band. It’s a shame she only got to make one album with them and that even on that album there’s one track, “Buried Alive in the Blues,” that never received its vocal track.
So, “things left thus undone behind me,” to borrow a sentiment—if not the exact words—from Hamlet’s death-speech is something that haunts whenever we talk about those taken prematurely. Though with Janis I won’t say “prematurely.” Pearl shows her fully mature. It’s the album she was always capable of and it’s a great thing—given how little time she had left—that it was made at all. Seeing Janis so gracious and fun on Cavett helps too to make the case that she’s come into her own. I often have the image of her as more shambolic and strung-out than she really was. Let’s not forget she was a professional, the kind of person who can put even someone as uptight as Cavett at ease. There’s a great moment where he’s asking her about a tattoo on her wrist and then touches it. And she sort of lights up as though “Dick’s making his move!” and you can see how encouraging she would be if he wanted to crack that shell and get down with her. But, nope, the moment passes.
Janis was someone who got past a lot of what they used to call “hang ups.” And when she sang she exorcised plenty of demons. What I like about her performance of today’s song is how much she lays it all on the line. While she’s singing, she’s preaching. She means every word: “Don’t you know when you’re loving anybody, babe / You’re taking a gamble on a little sorrow / But then who cares, baby? ’Cause we might not be here tomorrow.” That’s the take away not just on the “use it or lose it” philosophy, but also underscores how ephemeral it all is. Love, don’t love. It ain’t gonna last—not even if it lasts a lifetime. “Who cares, baby?”
It’s also good hearing that coming from Janis, since she’s sort of the patron saint of every woman in an abusive relationship—by which, she would mean, any in which the woman gets beat-up emotionally by her man. She’s usually emphasizing that “sorrow” part of the equation more than the “who cares” part. There’s a fun moment when she surprises Cavett with a very quick and trenchant interpretation of her symbol for most relationships, which she characterizes as the mule with the carrot and the cart. Cavett wryly asks what equates with what—male and female—in that figure and she replies that the man is holding the carrot to make the mule (the woman) run, “promising something more than he’s ever willing to give.” Cavett seems struck by the aptness of the figure, then quips something about suddenly having to defend his entire sex. “Go ahead,” Janis quips right back.
About the song—it was written by Jerry Ragovy and Mort Shuman (the guy who, among many songs written, worked on those Jacques Brel translations I’ve mentioned before) and was a 1966 radio song. Janis takes it away for her own, and watching her “recover herself” at the song's end, after putting it out there—on talk television, no less!—is affecting. I’m pretty sure I caught at least one of these Cavett appearances when it occurred because I know I saw her on TV and if wasn’t then, it must’ve been on Tom Jones. Anyway, it’s still something to see.
Of course, today’s song is all about holding onto the love of a man, which is conceived of as fairly slippery. And listen to how she sweetens the “if anybody should come along / He gonna give you love and affection” and gets so strident and insistent with “I’d say ‘get it while you can’”—and then that string of “get it, want it, need it, hold it” that becomes a rather succinct game plan for how to hold onto love, which is what the song is all about, while always acknowledging that “while you can” implies that you might not “get it” whenever you want nor for as long as you’d like, while “want it” and “need it” might also not be permanent states.
Which is all a way of underscoring that it’s truly a miraculous thing—in its way—if you get it when you want it and can hold it while you need it. The blues that Janis sings comes from the fact that that so rarely occurs and then the sorrow seems all there is. But her singing on this song is as a kind of emotional survival tactic—to not let the losses outweigh the gains.
Don’t you turn your back on love