Last evening I watched on public television the story of Janis Joplin. I hadn’t intended to stay but I found myself drawn in by the story and yes, that haunting music. Rejected even ridiculed when young—even voted somewhere – a bar maybe –“the world’s ugliest man” – Janis was like young girls everywhere. She just wanted to be loved.
Janis was bored with small-town life in Texas and it was about this time that she started to hear the music. She had some musician friends, some guys who took her to Austin and it was in Austin that she heard those blues. They called to her loneliness, maybe. She began to mimic the sound for by this time she had discovered she had a pretty powerful voice. In time, she went to San Francisco and with her band, Janis was a hit.
She tried to go home sometimes. Once she thought her boyfriend was coming to marry her only instead when she called him, a woman answered. He already had a wife or girlfriend and a baby; he was not coming to marry her. One more time the shame of not being pretty enough, not being loved enough washed over Janis. She went back to San Francisco (when she said she was going to Austin). She became famous.
Maybe I was fascinated with Janis’s story because in the 60’s I, too, was a “California girl.” I was living in Southern California with my young husband, working as a secretary at Long Beach State College. It was there that I met a vivacious young receptionist at the Information Desk who sat with me on our lunch breaks and let me hear her recite Bible verses she was memorizing. Those words were electricity for me (as she knew they would be). I wanted to know Jesus Christ like that. In a few months my husband and I were baptized together. There’s more to that story, of course. The road was not always smooth.
But there is one memory I have of that decade that reminded me of how easy it is to be seduced by admiration, affirmation. My husband had a buddy at work who was trying to get in the movies and he asked if I would memorize a few lines and go with him to Hollywood to meet his agent, and perform our scene for him. I was excited to be so close to the Hollywood scene, and I dressed in a way that makes me ashamed now as I think about it. Around this time, we watched The Graduate and I cried all the way home. I was ashamed of myself for getting so close to the immorality of that world (and the temptation in me).
I’ve written a poem about Janis (and maybe myself a little).
Janis, Janis, little girl, I wish I could have been there
to tell you that you were lovely just the way you were
to tell you that you were loved and that your Creator had a
wonderful purpose for your life.
But you believed a lie—
that if you yelled loud enough maybe someone
would hear your pain and love you—
“I’ll do anything you want!” you cried, moaned–
(but you didn’t want to hear about that cross).
So they used you and you used, too, to relax they say
and then one day it was too late to go home.
And the men who knew you and used you sat around
discussing you many years after you were gone
(how did you die, dear girl, they didn’t say).
A woman talked about you, too.
She said “It was like being with God. I wish I could have been there.”
Like I said, she believed a lie.