It should have been one of those fleeting disappointments, the kind you’ve already forgotten about the next day. Instead, it’s a regret that has been gnawing at me for 43 years. What’s the big deal? Only what I consider the missed opportunity of a lifetime.
Back in the 1960s, when I listened to local Boston AM radio stations and reel-to-reel tapes, two women reached down into my teenage soul and hooked me: Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin.
Throughout the subsequent four decades, I’ve never tired of Aretha Franklin’s voice, no matter which medium I heard it on: transistor radio, cassette, vinyl, CD, digital download or the handful of lucky times I’ve seen her live. Even as Aretha has aged, her remarkable instrument remains one of the most powerful and soulful in all of R&B.
Sadly, my other musical mainstay never made it to the CD age, let alone to the iPod era. Janis Joplin’s raw, rebellious howl of a voice was like nothing else I had ever heard. It was hard to believe that a white Texas woman could belt out the blues with such authority and pain.
I was coming of age at the time and Joplin’s music and message resonated with me. The Vietnam War was still raging, but I was just a tad young to be fully engaged in the anti-war movement. Joplin was so real that she stood in stark contrast to the pop acts of the day that seemed to be processed by a studio mixer without a shred of visceral emotion.
For those few years in the mid-to-late ’60s, Joplin was a shooting star who exploded into our consciousness after performing “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Shortly after that, her Cheap Thrills album (with Big Brother and the Holding Company) launched her short but oh so memorable career. Joplin landed on the covers of Rolling Stone, Time and Newsweek and was a featured act at Woodstock.
Never one for convention, she appeared on the Dick Cavett Show several times — taking swigs of Southern Comfort right on network television. I loved her for that. There was no one else I wanted to see more in a live venue than Janis Joplin.
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So Close, Yet So Far
In August 1970 Joplin was scheduled to play Harvard Stadium with her Full Tilt Boogie Band. My older sister, who was not a huge fan, nevertheless indulged her 16-year-old brother with a ticket. It’s hard to recall which was more exciting: going to one of my first concerts (having missed Woodstock the summer before) or seeing in the flesh the woman whose wails filled my teenage bedroom.
We made our way to our seats that sultry August night — and along with the other 40,000 souls jammed into the stadium, we waited … and waited … and waited. When Joplin still hadn’t taken the stage by midnight, my sister decided to call it a night. She has many fine attributes, but patience isn’t one of them. So when she got up and headed for the parking lot, I had no choice but to follow. She had the car keys.
Naturally, just as we got to the car, we heard a thunderous roar arise from the crowd. (We later learned that the band’s equipment had been stolen and it took them that long to find new gear to borrow.) But for us, there was no turning back. Devastated, I consoled myself on the quiet ride home by saying I’d catch Joplin next time she was in town.
Alas, there would be no next time. As fate would have it, this was Joplin’s last public performance. Seven weeks later, she was dead of a heroin overdose. She was 27, the same age as Jimi Hendrix, who had OD'ed a few weeks earlier. The news hit me like a sucker punch. I had been just minutes away from seeing Joplin wail, “Take it, take another little piece of my heart!” Over the years, I’ve wasted no opportunity to remind my sister that she robbed me of my one chance to see a real American idol.
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A Second Shot at ‘Janis’
Sometimes life offers you a second chance — and when it does, you don’t let it pass you by. Last fall, I heard a commercial for One Night With Janis Joplin, a new play featuring the singer's music and musings that would be coming to the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. I was intrigued but a bit fearful this would be some cheesy impersonator who’d degrade the 1970 Joplin image frozen in my memory bank.
Then the reviews started coming in — all raves. The show’s star, Mary Bridget Davies, was a Cleveland blues singer who was born eight years after Joplin died. But her childhood had been steeped in the stuff of the blues: Her dad drank to excess and her parents fought all the time. She grew up listening to such artists as Bessie Smith and Joplin, she dressed as Janis one Halloween and she was given to jumping on the couch and belting out her own rendition of “Piece of My Heart.”
I missed the show's first run because of scheduling conflicts, but when it returned to Washington recently, I made sure my wife and I were there for opening night. It was like stepping into a time tunnel. Davies had researched the role by talking with Joplin’s sister and brother as well as members of Big Brother and the Holding Company to get insights into the woman you didn’t see in public. She was pitch-perfect channeling Joplin: the tinted granny glasses, feather boas, flashes of humor and, of course, the signature gritty wail.
The audience that evening, mostly boomers, included a smattering of tie-dye T-shirts and graying ponytails and they leapt to their feet every time Davies hit and held impossible notes. For one magical night, we were all transported back to the ’60s.
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No More Regrets
I had arranged to meet and interview Davies backstage a few days later. There, she told me she got her break when she summoned up the courage to perform for Robert Lockwood Jr., the stepson of blues legend Robert Johnson, who proceeded to pay her the highest compliment: “You may be a white girl, but you’re not on the inside. You’re all right with us.”
Rumors were swirling that the show could be Broadway-bound. So I asked Davies what she thought Joplin’s reaction to her performance would be if the legend were still around to see it. "She‘d laugh a lot," Davies replied. "And she’d probably say, 'You did a good job, kid, but how did you do this show six times a week? I couldn’t do that!'"
The next day we heard the news: Davies as Joplin will be heading to the Great White Way in the fall. “Broadway has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl in tap shoes,” she told me. “Now I’m going to have to get a different dream.”
I know the feeling. It may have taken 43 years, but in my mind, I’ve now seen Janis. So I can check that off my bucket list, get myself a new dream and maybe, finally, forgive my sister.
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