Take another little piece of my heart now, baby

Did you know someone in middle school or high school who was relentlessly bullied, picked on, or humiliated by other students?  Of course you did.  It’s pretty much a universal thing and, sad to say, it’s been going on for many decades, and only recently is it being more seriously addressed by school authorities.

It happened in the late 1950s at Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, Texas.  Kids there taunted and tormented one particular girl they felt was an ugly freak, a shy outlier who had severe acne problems and weight fluctuations.  Try as she might, she never fully got over the persecution, and suffered self-esteem problems the rest of her life.  But she survived by befriending other outcasts, listening to blues records by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Nina Simone and Odetta, and developing her own singing voice by mimicking theirs.  It was a strategy that worked well for her…for a while.

That girl was Janis Joplin.


Fifty years ago this Sunday, Joplin died in Room 105 of the Hollywood Landmark Hotel (now the Highland Gardens), a short walk from the Hollywood Bowl where she had thrilled a sold-out crowd a year earlier.

She had been an intermittent heroin user, and the dose she injected that night was allegedly cut with something else, which killed her.  She was 27.

Her death was a punch to the solar plexus of rock music lovers everywhere, particularly because it came only 16 days after the passing of the wondrous but troubled Jimi Hendrix, who died in similar fashion in England.

Friends, family members, business managers, armchair therapists and countless others have written books and granted interviews in an attempt to analyze Joplin, a moody, hugely talented, self-destructive, fun-loving young woman whose star shone so brightly for only three years before being extinguished far too early.

images-302Joplin’s influence was enormous and far reaching.  Hundreds of female vocalists and blues musicians in the five decades since her death have lavishly praised her electrifying live performances and her surprisingly polished studio recordings.  Critics sometimes took exception to the way she overworked her material to the extreme, but most adored her “devastatingly original voice,” her “overpowering and deeply vulnerable artistry” and her “Elvis Presley-like ability to captivate an audience.”

British singer Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine, who wasn’t born until 17 years after Joplin’s death, had this to say:  “She was so vulnerable, self-conscious and full of suffering.  She tore herself apart, yet on stage, she was totally different.  She was so unrestrained, so free, so raw.  It seems to me her suffering and the intensity of her performance went hand in hand.  There was always a sense of longing, of searching for something.  I think she really sums up the idea that soul is about putting your pain into something beautiful.”

Unknown-576Despite her small-town upbringing, Janis was a free spirit from an early age, rejecting Port Arthur’s narrow thinking regarding sex, segregation and a woman’s place in the world.  She attended college in Beaumont and in Austin, playing coffee house gigs as a solo acoustic act, honing her chops on folk and blues tunes.  At the first opportunity she left Texas for California, hitchhiking there with her friend Chet Helms, who later became manager of the San Francisco band Big Brother and The Holding Company.

Eventually, Joplin became that band’s lead singer, and by 1966, Bay Area people were buzzing about the gypsy-like girl who could belt out blues tunes with unparalleled passion and energy.  She dove head first into the


no-rules milieu of the counterculture, experimenting with psychedelic drugs , wearing outré boutique clothes, and enjoying sexual relationships with men and women alike.  She considered herself “one of the boys,” sleeping with whomever she pleased and resisting the double standard that said men could do that but women could not.

Even before they had released their first LP, Joplin and Big Brother won a slot at the legendary Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, and her mindblowing performance there was so spectacular that it forever secured her place in the rock pantheon.  It also won her a recording contract with Columbia Records.  Despite all this attention (which she adored and craved), Joplin confided that she was plagued by self-doubt, always fearing she wasn’t really good enough.

Unknown-532Ah, but she most certainly was.  Joplin and Big Brother recorded a stellar set of blues and rock songs which comprised the compelling LP “Cheap Thrills,” the #1 album in the country for eight weeks in late 1968.  Joplin and producers chose to add manufactured audience sounds to make it appear to be live, but in fact only the final track, the explosive “Ball and Chain,” was recorded in concert.  The Top 20 single “Piece of My Heart,” “Combination of the Two,” a cover of the Gershwin classic “Summertime” and the Joplin original “Turtle Blues” combined to make a well-rounded blues album for the ages.

images-342Big Brother wasn’t the most precise band around, and Joplin grew weary of their sloppiness.  At the same time, the band grew resentful of her “star trip” eclipsing the band, and by year’s end, they went their separate ways.  Janis had become enamored with soul and R&B and rounded up musicians who shared that bent.  They became The Kosmic Blues Band, with prominent horns and a much funkier beat than Big Brother’s psychedelic blues.

It was at this time that I personally became aware of Joplin.  I was 14 and buying up as many hip rock albums (Zeppelin, Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Cream) as I could afford.   I admit I bought “Cheap Thrills” partly because I was captivated by R. Crumb’s fantastic comic book art on the cover, but when I took it home, I was so taken by the music, especially “Ball and Chain,” that I played it incessantly.

images-304I was first in line at the record store when she and her new group released “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama!” in September 1969.  I was pleasantly surprised by the R&B punch of “Try,” “To Love Somebody” and “Maybe” with their dominant horns and keyboards, but she was still true to her blues on “One Good Man” and the riveting title track.  What a fine album!

Joplin had solidified her cachet by appearing at Woodstock that summer, even though she felt it was a sub-par performance and refused to allow it in the documentary film or its soundtrack.  She broadened her fame by making several memorable appearances on national TV on the quasi-hip “Dick Cavett Show,” having a blast chatting and giggling about everything from her regrettable high school days to her left-leaning political views.

As it turned out, Janis and the Kosmic Blues Band musicians never really gelled, so she left them as well.  She made it known that, despite her ability to pack arenas like Madison Square Garden, she actually preferred playing much smaller venues and clubs — another example of her inner conflict between self-loathing and a need for adulation.

images-300She took time off in 1970 to travel with a new paramour to Brazil, taking time to give herself a little distance from the drugs and the craziness of her rock star life.  When she returned a month later, though, her heroin use resumed.  She assembled a third group, The Full-Tilt Boogie Band, which featured organ but no horns.  They did a train tour of Canada and added some U.S. dates at the end, which met with mixed reviews.  Some praised the band’s tightness while others felt Joplin appeared exhausted and uninspired.

In an interview that summer, Janis confirmed what others have said about her conflict between the inner woman and the outer performer:  “I’m a victim of my own insides.  There was a time when I wanted to know everything.  It used to make me very unhappy, all that feeling.  I just didn’t know what to do with it.  But now I’ve learned to make that feeling work for me.  I’m full of emotion and I want a release, and if you’re on stage, and if it’s really working and you’ve got the audience with you, it’s so sublime.”

In August and September of that year, she and the band recorded several songs in Los Angeles with producer Paul Rothschild at the helm.  Vibrant tracks like “Move Over,” “Half Moon” and “Get It While You Can” showed a renewed vigor, while Joplin’s reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” showed the full range of her unmatched vocal talent.

images-303The band laid down the instrumental tracks for “Buried Alive in the Blues,” and Joplin planned to record her vocals the following day, but it was not to be.  In tribute to Janis, the track was left as is, leaving listeners to imagine her vocal part on their own.

Just as with Hendrix, Jim Morrison and others who died young, her tragic death only served to raise never-resolved questions like, “I wonder what kind of music she would’ve been making in her 30s, 40s or 50s?”

Unknown-531The final songs were compiled onto her final LP, the posthumously released “Pearl,” which rocketed to #1 in early 1971, as did the single of “Bobby McGee.”

At age 20, Stevie Nicks was performing with Lindsay Buckingham in a Bay Area band called Fritz, often serving as a warmup act for legends like Joplin and Hendrix.  She recalled watching her from the wings during her performances.  “When Janis got up on that stage with her band, this woman became my new hero.  She was not what anyone would call a great beauty, but she became beautiful to me because she made such a powerful and deep emotional connection with the audience.  I didn’t care much for the feather boas and the bell-bottom pants, but she didn’t dress like anyone else, and she definitely didn’t sing like anyone else.

“She put herself out there completely,” said Nicks, “and her voice was not only strong and soulful, it was painfully and beautifully real.  She sang in the great tradition of the rhythm & blues singers that were her heroes, but she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock & roll edge to every single song.  She really gave you a piece of her heart, and that inspired me to find my own voice and my own style.”


God love ya, Janis.  Your legacy is in your performances on the records, and I’ll cue them up and dig ’em whenever I need a dose of “dem ol’ kosmic blues, mama!”


Straighten up and fly right

Today’s topic is what some rock music fans might call “a buzzkill.”

As most everyone knows, “sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll” was a sort of unofficial mantra of the rock music scene in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Free love, recreational drugs and energetic rock comprised the hat trick of vices scorned by proper society, but to the generation in the thick of it, they were more of a menage à trois, the necessary components of a good time on Saturday night (or any night).

road recoveryThe thing is, when it came to drugs and alcohol, plenty of people overdid it, many because they had developed addictions and obsessive compulsions to keep using when others had stopped.

Musicians in particular were susceptible to this excessiveness because of easy availability and ubiquitous use/abuse among all those around them.  Sad to say, too many talented artists perished from their own self-destructive tendencies or reckless disregard for their own health and safety.  The list is too long and too familiar:  Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, Lowell George, John Bonham, Bon Scott, Kurt Cobain…

Sobriety-Unplugged-Logo_no_bgStill, there are tales of triumph, too.  Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh and Ringo Starr, to name three famous examples, all went through a couple of decades of chronic abuse of coke, booze, pills and/or opioids that probably should’ve killed them, as it did their unfortunate peers.  But instead, they saw the light, went to rehab, recovered and have now led sober lives for nearly 30 years now.

In celebration of these guys and all those who are in recovery (including me), let’s take a look at some notable anti-drug rock songs that deal with either the despair of addiction or the joy of recovery.

Let’s start with Joe Walsh, who went straight in the early ’90s as a pre-condition of joe_walsh2_1jpghis participation in the reunion of The Eagles.  Walsh himself tells the story:

“For a long time, my alcoholism and use of drugs was manageable.  By that I mean I would hang out with people who would say, ‘Well, you’re not so bad!’  But you know, it’s a disease, and the last two or three years of my addiction were terrifying.  It gets bad beyond your wildest imagination, and then you crash and burn, and then it gets worse than that.  An awful lot of my buddies died before they hit bottom.  Fortunately, I hit bottom before I died.

“Getting sober was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, because alcohol had convinced me that I couldn’t do anything without it.  You start with not knowing how to do anything sober, and you just build up your toolbox.  For a long time, I thought there was a possibility I might not be able to write music sober.  And I said, ‘If that’s the case, I’m just going to have to accept that.’

walsh12-1“So I stopped trying to write, but then one day this song ‘One Day at a Time’ (found on his 2012 “Analog Man” LP) kind of wrote itself.  I ended up telling my story about what it was like to be an addict, and my road to getting sober.  It just came out of me.  But the trick was I had to stop trying.  And so many addicts and alcoholics have contacted me to say they know exactly what I’m talking about in this song.  I’m saying there’s life after addiction, and it’s good.”  Sample lyrics:  “Well I finally got around to admit that I was the problem, when I used to put the blame on everybody’s shoulders but mine, all the friends I used to run with are gone, Lord, I hadn’t planned on living this long, but I finally learned to live my life one day at a time…”

“Kicks,” Paul Revere & the Raiders, 1966

R-7145038-1434724816-3922.jpegThis one is considered the first pop anti-drug song, which came out just as the recreational drug scene was blossoming.  It’s a great little tune, expertly produced by Terry Melcher, and written by pop songwriting gods Barry Mann & Cynthia Weill as a plea to their dear friend and lyricist Gerry Goffin (Carole King’s husband), who was headed off the deep end with drug use.  The upshot was, because of their involvement with this song, Paul Revere and the Raiders, who were never really a “hip” band, became somewhat blackballed by the counterculture as “a tool of the Establishment” (in ’60s lingo).  Sample lyrics:  “Well, there’s nothing that you ain’t tried to fill the emptiness inside, but when you come back down, girl, still ain’t feeling right, don’t it seem like kicks just keep getting harder to find, and all your kicks ain’t bringing you peace of mind, before you find out it’s too late, girl, you better get straight…”

“Cocaine,” Eric Clapton, 1977

maxresdefault-13Clapton had kicked a nasty heroin habit in the mid-’70s, but he then merely substituted copious amounts of alcohol instead.  When he recorded the J.J. Cale song “Cocaine” in 1977, he was drinking heavily every day and using coke as well.  He finally sobered up in 1988 and has stayed drug-free ever since, even establishing rehab clinics and sponsoring fundraising events.  Clapton maintains that Cale wrote “Cocaine” as a subtle anti-drug song.  “He knew if he tried to write a deliberately anti-drug song, it wouldn’t go over with the record buyers.  It would irritate them to have someone shoving that message down their throat.  So instead he wrote the lyrics in a cleverly ambiguous way.  If you don’t listen closely, it just sounds like a song about cocaine, neither pro nor con.  But if you reflect on it a bit, really look at the words, you’ll see it’s saying that cocaine is no good.”  Sample lyrics:  “If your thing is gone and you want to ride on, cocaine, don’t forget this fact, you can’t get it back, cocaine, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine…”

“That Smell,” Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1977

Lynyrd-Skynyrd-1977-Street-SurvivorsAs Lynyrd Skynyrd grew successful, singer Ronnie Van Zant was becoming concerned about the band’s increasingly reckless indulgences, including his own.  A near-fatal car crash by guitarist Gary Rossington ultimately led Van Zant to write “a morbid warning song” about the possible consequences of careless overuse of drugs and alcohol.  In the wake of a plane crash that claimed Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and others, only three days after the album’s release, “That Smell” became notorious, thanks to the line “The smell of death surrounds you.”  While the crash had nothing to do with substance abuse, the lyrics offered dire warnings about it:  “Angel of darkness is upon you, stuck a needle in your arm, so take another toke, have a blow for your nose, one more drink, fool, will drown you, ooh that smell, the smell of death surrounds you…”

“Snowblind Friend,” Steppenwolf, 1970

220px-Steppenwolf7Thanks to songs like “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam,” Steppenwolf had an image as a “druggie band,” but like many quickie interpretations, this reading was wrong.  As it turns out, the group, popular between 1968-1975, mostly shunned drugs.  In fact, “The Pusher,” made famous by its inclusion in the soundtrack of the counterculture classic “Easy Rider,” was an anti-drug song, pointing the finger at the guy who enables the addicts.  Country singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton wrote it, along with another song about the tragedy of drug abuse, “Snowblind Friend,” which lead singer John Kay liked and brought to the group.  It focuses on the difficulty of trying to help a cocaine addict:  “He’ll always be a problem to his poor and puzzled mother… He said he wanted heaven, but praying was too slow, so he bought a one-way ticket on an airline made of snow, did you say you saw your good friend flying low, dying slow…” 

“No No Song,” Ringo Starr, 1975

51t-FC5YaNL._SX466_Hoyt Axton shows up again as the songwriter, this time for a #3 hit song that takes a whimsical approach to drugs and alcohol.  Ringo sings the tale of the narrator, a recovered alcoholic/addict who is offered Colombian grass, Spanish cocaine and Tennessee moonshine, only to refuse them all because “I’m tired of waking up on the floor.”  Axton, who had struggled with addiction early in his career, claimed he was poking fun at himself.  Ringo, meanwhile, with a touch of irony, was a heavy drinker and pot smoker at the time the track was recorded, but he got clean in the late ’80s and has been sober ever since.  He still sings the song in concert:  “No no no no, I don’t smoke/snort/drink it no more, I’m tired of waking up on the floor, no thank you please, it only makes me sneeze, and then it makes it hard to find the door…”

“Running to Stand Still,” U2, 1987

U2T71592The song’s title phrase originated from Bono asking his brother how his struggling business was going.  He replied, “It’s like running to stand still.”  Bono was intrigued by the phrase, and thought it expressed what he’d been told about heroin addiction, which was raging through his native Dublin in the 1980s.  In his review of U2’s “The Joshua Tree” LP, Andrew Mueller of The Ultimate Music Guide agreed, saying the phrase was “a perfect distillation of the dynamic of feeding on addiction.  You’re always running, but you’re going nowhere.”  The song describes a woman’s hellish life on heroin:  “She runs through the streets with eyes painted red, under a black belly of cloud in the rain, in through a doorway she brings me white gold and pearls stolen from the sea, she is raging, and the storm blows up in her eyes, she will suffer the needle chill, she is running to stand still…” 

“Amazing,” Aerosmith, 1993

aerosmith_-_get_a_tripEveryone in Aerosmith has confessed to abusing drugs and/or booze during their initial run of success (1973-1979), and the group’s early ’80s splintering was due to internal tensions exacerbated by drugs.  Singer Steven Tyler in particular had several embarrassing public episodes, including passing out on stage, which ultimately led to an intervention and a lengthy stay in rehab.  By 1989, the group was clean and back on top of the charts to stay.  For the 1993 multiplatinum LP “Get a Grip,” Tyler (with help from songwriter Richie Supa) wrote the power ballad “Amazing” about his sobriety.  The lyrics do a commendable job of explaining the desperation of bottoming out and the exhilaration of recovery:  “There were times in my life when I was going insane, I was so sick and tired of living a lie, I was wishing that I would die…  It’s amazing, with the blink of an eye you finally see the light, it’s amazing, when the moment arrives that you know you’ll be all right, it’s amazing, and I’m saying a prayer for the desperate hearts tonight…” 

The Needle and the Damage Done,” Neil Young, 1972

young_neil~_harvest~~_101bThis delicate, haunting Young tune deals succinctly with his grief over the heroin overdose of friend and Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten.  Appearing as a deep track on his #1 LP “Harvest” in 1972, this song summarizes Young’s experience with drug tragedies.  “I got to see a lot of great musicians who nobody ever got to see because of heroin.  And it started happening over and over again.  Then it happened to someone I knew.  So I just wrote a little song.”  Sample lyrics:  “I hit the city and I lost my band, I watched the needle take another man, gone, gone, the damage done…”

“Stone Cold Sober,” Del Amitri, 1989

51vnBO+xdeL-1I found it curious that there are about a dozen songs with this title, and only a couple have anything to do with being sober!  In fact, Rod Stewart’s 1975 track is all about not wanting to be stone cold sober.  The British band Crawler had a great 1977 song with that name, but it has more to do with wanting to flee town on the next train.  On its 1989 debut LP, “Waking Hours,” the Scottish band Del Amitri recorded its take on “Stone Cold Sober,” written by guitarist/singer Justin Currie, that explores the endlessly vicious circle of obsession with alcohol:  “And these dark days make the nights seem brighter than they are… So we get loaded and totally legless, but stay the same, I may be stone cold sober, but I’m looking for bottles of love…”       

Other anti-drug songs from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s to check out:  “Beware of the Man (With the Candy in His Hand),” The Dramatics, 1973;  “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Etta James (1967);  “Just Dropped In,” Kenny Rogers & The First Edition (1968);  “Demon Alcohol,” Ozzy Osbourne (1988);  “Needle of Death,” Bert Jansch (1965).

Unknown-18Songs concerning addiction or recovery seem to have become more prevalent in recent years.  Coincidentally, both Kelly Clarkson and Pink recorded different tunes called “Sober” in 2007 and 2008, respectively.  In 2014, Seventies singer-songwriter John Batdorf released “Soundtrax 2 Recovery,” an extraordinary collection of sensitive tracks inspired by the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Here are just a few more examples of such songs released in the past 25 years:

“Wise Up,” Aimee Mann, 2004;  “It’s Been a While,” Staind (2001);  “Young Homie,” Chris Rene (2012);  “Fallen,” Sarah McLachlan (2004);  “Slow Suicide,” Scott Stapp (2006);  “Powder Blue,” Elbow (2001);  “Habit,” Pearl Jam (1996);  “Devil in a Bottle,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (1994);  “The Drugs Don’t Work,” The Verve (1997);  “Whiskey Lullaby,” Brad Paisley w/Alison Krauss (2004).