“I sing because I can experience a lot of feelings…” Otherwise, Janis Joplin had no one to hear. The most chilling part of Amy Berg’s documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, is to witness the cold formality of Mother and Father Joplin. No one can miss Janis’s hunger for love. Less obvious are the roots of that hunger: the trauma of a childhood with parents impossible to reach. Dorothy and Seth Joplin were uncannily similar to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” farmer with pitchfork and wife. There was no warmth or openness. So, neither heard Janis’s feelings of loneliness and hurt.
Janis Joplin was one of the greatest Blues voices since Ella Fitzgerald. Yet, being a hit sensation at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and much loved by her fans, didn’t make Janis feel loved. She never did. That’s because as hard as she tried, Janis was constantly unable to please her parents. This filled her with horrible self-doubt. She apologized repeatedly for “being so bad at The Family.” The Blues expressed, in a way nothing else could, the deepest reasons for Janis’s loneliness and depression. The songs she sang resonated with her feelings and her life. Without a Mama to tell her feelings to, her songs spoke her loss, loneliness, and distress.
You need a sweet lovin’ mama, babe …Someone to listen to you Someone to talk to you Someone to hear you Someone to want you… Someone to hold you… Janis needed to be held. Physical affection was nowhere to be found in the Joplin family. Tellingly, when asked if Janis had received much affection growing up, a characteristically remote Dorothy Joplin replied, “Well, she got her share.” Here share amounted to almost nothing.
Janis needed a Mama who touched her. Even more importantly, she needed a Mama who listened and welcomed her difficult feelings, helping her not to feel alone. Janis didn’t have that kind of Mama. This put Janis Joplin in a constant state of despair. She never felt lovable or good enough. And, she turned to other methods to manage her fears.
Living wasn’t easy for Janis. She struggled, using drugs, and unsuccessfully trying to find love. We see the temptation of drugs to quiet her feelings, in these lyrics: “So hush little baby, don’t you cry.” As well as in those from Piece of My Heart: “I’m gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough.” Both reveal how Janis dealt with painful feelings, all by herself. She couldn’t let herself cry. And, she toughened up. Janis wove a thick skin around her feelings and emotional needs. At least she tried.
Tough stock, Janis Joplin said, is what she came from. But some people can’t be tough. Janis couldn’t. She used heroin to escape. Yet, Janis wanted to believe she was too tough to let it kill her. Without any real help, her feelings overwhelmed her. Singing her heart out, Janis Joplin tried to please her audience just as she tried to please her parents. Yet, in spite of how hard she worked and belted out those songs, Janis Joplin never felt good enough.
Men always come out on top …Well you know, if they told you they want you they’ll come around by your door. Whoa I say now, if they don’t desert you, They’ll leave you cryin’ for more. If we replace the word “men” with “mother”, Women Is Losers conveys Janis’s longings and fears. The harsh aloofness of her mother left Janis crying for more; afraid she’d be deserted for being a loser. The documentary ends with a letter written just before she died:
“Dear Family, I’m awfully sorry to be such a disappointment to you … I guess I’ll write more when I have more news. Until then, address all criticism to the above address. And please believe that you can’t possibly want for me to be a winner more than I do. Love, Janis.” Janis expected judgment and felt she deserved it. Janis was a child who took in her parent’s unwarranted criticism. Sadly, she believed it, no matter what she did or how much she accomplished. She expected nothing else. That can destroy a life. And were her prison.
Why does every single little tiny thing I hold on goes wrong? Yeah it all goes wrong, yeah…Hey, here you gone today, I wanted to love you.
Janis didn’t withdraw, as some children with emotionally neglectful parents do. She became angrily rebellious. Janis’s brother said this about Janis: “She was the first to find out if you rocked the boat you might get noticed …”
Being provocative might get you noticed, but it doesn’t erase the certainty you’re always doing something wrong. And, it doesn’t draw people near. As lonely as Janis was, she couldn’t get the closeness she wanted. And, it probably felt like a ball and chain anyway. She felt she had to do things her parent’s way to be loved. And, that made her furious. They never accepted her or saw her talent.
Janis told them: “Singing is the truer me.” But they never understood or supported her. In fact, when they saw her perform with Big Brother and The Holding Company, it wasn’t pride they felt. Instead, they felt they lost their power. Her sister overheard one parent tell the other: “Well, dear, I don’t think we’re going to have much influence anymore.”
But, it wasn’t only being controlled that Janis rebelled against. She didn’t expect to be wanted. And, so she withdrew in her own rebellious way. Janis used drugs alone and watched while others got the love she couldn’t get. In “The Family”, if her brother and sister did what was expected, Janis was probably convinced they were the favored ones. Believing this must have torn her heart.
Each time I tell myself that I can’t stand the pain …But when you hold me in your arms, I’ll sing it once again. I’ll say come on, come on, come on, come on and take it. Take another little piece of my heart now, baby …Break another little bit of my heart …
What killed Janis Joplin were the pieces of her heart taken little by little. Each time she tried to get love. All Janis Joplin wanted was love. That seems very clear. And equally clear is that she never felt it.
At 14, Janis’s cute looks changed. She had severe acne, put on weight, and her flat chest couldn’t compete when other girls began to fill out. Peers bullied her. She called herself ugly. Not getting the love she needed from her mom, she felt both ugly or bad. And, being so angry at how little acceptance she got, Janis couldn’t be a compliant daughter. That got her less.
Yes, in some ways, Janis provoked negative attention and capitalized on it. But this pitted her even more against her mother. Her sister became the “good girl.” Janis got constant lectures and cruel remarks (“you’re ruining your life; people will think you’re cheap and a harlot”). Her hurt went unnoticed. Being sadistically voted “the ugliest man of the year” in 1963 by a fraternity at the University of Texas crushed her. Love was something she kept trying to get. It was always out of reach.
Feeling more and more unlovable, heroin became her sanctuary. Heroin gave her the good feelings she could get nowhere else. People weren’t safe. She didn’t believe anyone cared or loved her. And, she looked for love as well as rejection everywhere.
Her friend, Dick Cavett, said: “If everyone loved her, it was OK. But, if anyone didn’t, they could destroy her in a minute.” Once Cavett asked her: “How can you assure me you aren’t taking heroin?” Her answer was: “Who would care?”
Yet, of course, many people did. She just couldn’t see it or know it. In fact, all she saw was a future filled with a lonely heart. After her death, Dave Getz, drummer for Big Brother and The Holding Company, recorded a song called Can’t Be The Only One with lyrics Janis wrote: “I can’t be the only one cryin’ at night … too much sadness in this world … take this lonely heart from one lonely girl…”
Janis died on October 4, 1970, at age 27. Tragically, Janis Joplin never knew that David Niehaus, her love from Rio, had sent her a telegram. He’d helped her kick heroin once, but couldn’t stick around and watch her when she relapsed. She loved him until the day she died. But Janis Joplin believed that he, like her family, found her a disappointment and couldn’t love her.
But David’s telegram said something very different: “I really miss you. Things aren’t the same without you. I’ll meet you in Kat Mandu any time, but late October is the best season. Love you, Mama, more than you know.”
This telegram was waiting for her on the hotel front desk the morning she was found dead in her room. She died being Janis: Little Girl Blue.