The first time I heard Janis Joplin, her voice came from a VEF 206 (the stereo system from Eastern Europe that was in many Cuban homes. I didn’t know who she was, but her sound remained etched in my memory.
Many years had to go by before I was able to hear her again and for me to find out her name. With a great deal of effort, I went about trying to find out about her life. I listened to stories from friends and I read articles in magazines that were lent to me, since she was never mentioned in the Cuban press.
Her lifestyle was what caught my attention. Though I was a fairly reserved teenager, I had already liked the feeling of being free. When I try to think of the reasons why I identified with her way of life, I can’t really explain it. I just wanted to live like her or maybe it was that I liked the idea of people doing what they felt like with their minds and bodies without caring about social conventions.
While I identified with her rebelliousness, I was continuing to get ahold or more of her records. Janis became an icon of freedom for me and for many people.
Recently I came across a book written by Myra Friedman, someone who had a close relationship with the singer. I was immediately interested in reading it since I didn’t believe that anything could detract from her image at that point.
But it turned out that everything I knew was about the image of Janis Joplin, as the book spoke about a fragile, talented, self-destructing and famous human being. Her fame was reached through the exploitation of her image that she rejected commercialization, which causes one to suppose that somehow she was used and had to suffer much to achieve her recognition at the cost of what she criticized.
If Janis Joplin had survived the ‘60s (she died in 1970), what would have been her story? My imagination, especially after reading this book, is unable to place her outside of that decade. I don’t say that because of her voice — which I’m certain was capable of anything — but for her restless personality.
This is an old book, one whose pages fall out when you thumb through it; and as I continued reading it, my spirit also fell. Her struggles with depression, her addiction to alcohol and heroine, but especially the contrast between her rebelliousness and her longing to please and be accepted sank me into deep sadness.
I believe that Janis was born with a different spirit and that the society surrounding her dragged her into the mud, suffocating her. But what was worse was that Janis needed that society, though this wasn’t understood by her.
For me, reading the book Buried Alive generated a lot of anguish not only for Janis. Beyond her constant insecurity, the image that I had of her was left lacerated. I began to think that no one could be free if they depended on the acceptance of others. Yet though we deny it, and sometimes we ignore it, who doesn’t want to be accepted?
So I don’t know how to break out of the circle. What’s the point that allows us to free ourselves? Perhaps it doesn’t exist and the idea of freedom is just that – an idea? To what point can we desire acceptance without that desire becoming a punishing tyrant?
According to one friend, what’s important is to know where the obsession to be loved begins and where it ends in order to open the way to “normality.” She didn’t say it with bad intentions, but I refuse to accept “normality” as something I strive for. Those of us who don’t want to live as others expect rebel, as we try to be free and that in this way we go back to the beginning.
These past few days I was going to the doctor for examinations and I received some not very flattering news. In fact, the visits to the doctor have made me almost as depressed as reading the book. In any case, nothing changes my pleasure for Janis Joplin’s songs. On the contrary, her voice resonates in my interior like a chisel, reminding me that I’m alive and that I can feel pain…or something different.