Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Janis Joplin I Knew

The Janis Joplin I knew bore little resemblance to the iconic version of herself that ruthless exploiters compelled her to portray so that the pockets of their Dockers® bulged with money. She wasn’t brash and coarse and from Port Arthur, Texas, but from a leafy New Jersey suburb whose identity no biographer has ever been able to ascertain. She was educated in the expensive fictional private school in Manhattan at which the young man in The Undoing is a pupil. She didn’t listen to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith as a child, but to Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page, and, later, Aimee Mann. She didn’t have unprotected sex with Pigpen of the Grateful Dead, and didn’t guzzle Southern Comfort. Indeed, on one unforgettable occasion, she told me Southern Comfort was what alcoholics who couldn’t get hold of any rubbing alcohol might settle for. She enjoyed the writing of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. She enjoyed sherry, in moderation, and relaxed by crocheting.

Janis in 1982

After she faked a fatal overdose in a squalid Hollywood motel room in 1970 to escape the pressures of fame, she lay low, crocheting prolifically, and having two kids — Brad and Brie, as in the cheese — with her former wardrobe master, Howie.

Howie and I once wondered together if blindness might have certain advantages for a man. It would enable him to choose life partners on the content of their character, rather than on their looks. Many men deny it, but we all want gorgeous gals on our arms, as they make other men think we must not be the wastes of space we know ourselves, deep down, to be.

In any event, the woman the world had known as Janet Joplin came back into public view in 1981, with her own cable television program, A Piece of My Heart, in Lupus, Texas, not that anyone noticed, as she had reverted to her original name — Naomi Ishizuka —and was barely recognizable. In her Big Brother & The Holding Company and Me and Bobby McGee days, hers had been the ugliest hair in popular entertainment, but she’d had it styled at the Vidal Sassoon salon in Milan in 1974, and begun using Pantene® conditioner. She’d taken to wearing pantsuits in pastel colours, and to employing a makeup and hair person.

She invited no rock stars onto her television show, but instead interviewed the authors of romance novels, Republican operatives, and “Christian rock” stars. Noam Chomsky was on so often that they joshed about his becoming her Ed McMahon-like sidekick, charged with guffawing with delight at her every quip. She made small, below-the-fold headlines in 1982 when she tried to get Nancy Reagan to rebrand her famous antidrug campaign, from Just Say No to Just Say No, Thank You.recenOne got the impression that only a tiny minority of her guests or viewers recognized her as a formerly fire-breathing hippie chick hitmaker. She huddled with a succession of movie producers who wanted to make biopics in which she would be played by everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Nicole Kidman, but politely declined in every case. 

Having had much cosmetic surgery, Janis today, at 97, looks much younger, but in that weird, sort of disturbing way of people who’ve had much cosmetic surgery. She dotes on her adult grandchildren Shanté, whose aspirations to a career as a white rapper she has bankrolled since 1997, and Mistee, and occasionally sings at Lupus’s African Methodist Church. She is friends on Facebook with LaToya Jackson, the late Michael’s ever tinier-nosed elder sister.

Invited to assess Miley Cyrus’s recent brutalization of Heart of Glass, in which some observers thought Cyrus was trying to evoke her, Janis told this blog, “She’s very talented, and I wish her every success.”