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New Thoughts on Old Songs

All of My Tomorrows

By Elizabeth Ward

Now that my sisters and I are grown, my parents have embarked on the slow process of excavating thirty years worth of childhood relics from their attic. Happy to do his part, my dad triumphantly plunked a stack of plastic bins and cardboard boxes down on my slightly lopsided 100-year-old North Carolina porch last February after driving them down from Illinois. Months later when the sweltering summer humidity made outdoor activity impossible, I lugged one bin at a time from the storage shed into my air conditioned living room to begin the process of elimination, uncovering every birthday card I’ve ever received, my first cursive writings, diaries, college awards, folded high school love notes sealed closed with the wax of thrift store candles, still smelling faintly of cheap incense.

Sifting through a blue crate, I stumbled upon my tie-dyed Janis Joplin tapestry. If you spent time at suburban malls in the 90’s, you have seen this tapestry. The coarse, brightly colored 4’x 6’ banner showcases a black silhouette of Janis Joplin sporting bellbottoms, high heels, and a flower in her ever-wild hair. I purchased the tapestry with babysitting money at the Center Stage at Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Illinois in the summer of 1994. It was just after my freshman year in high school, and as my childhood perception of the world was being swept out from under my feet, a new reality was blowing in.

I had walked into Romeoville High School on my first day of ninth grade wearing jean shorts, a crisp white t-shirt and black vest, and spotless white Keds. Long, wavy hair cascaded down my back, and neat bangs framed my makeup-free face. I walked out of Romeoville High School nine months later wearing ripped thrift store jeans, a Nirvana t-shirt, and black Converse All-Stars, the toes of which had been artfully scribbled on by my new friends. My short, dark bob haircut framed my pale face, the features of which I highlighted with black eyeliner and Rum Raisin lipstick. To an adult, these alterations may have been imperceptible. But to a freshman, they signaled an entirely new state of being. I had graduated from the oppression of middle school homogeny to the great heights of revolutionary nonconformity.

Music, of course, was central to this transformation. One day after school, early in my freshman year, I stumbled upon REM’s “Everybody Hurts” video on MTV—the one where everyone is stuck in traffic. All these people trapped, hopeless, sad, ultimately abandoned their cars on the highway and walked away, suddenly free. I knew what I had to do. I quietly packed up my library of cassette tapes from middle school, which contained the likes of TLC, Boyz II Men, and Color Me Badd, and hid them in an old shoebox in the back of my closet. I suddenly had more pressing concerns than those addressed by cheesy pop music and insincere love songs. I was beginning to scratch the surface of the musical universe, and my timing could not have been better. The Smashing Pumpkins were at the top of the charts, the Flaming Lips were putting out album after intriguing album, and I had just discovered the fantastic haze of My Bloody Valentine. Each of these modern bands effused remnants of 1960’s psychedelia, and I decided I wanted to uncover the roots of these bold colors, this immense feeling—that my new favorite bands conveyed. As a suburban high school freshman, this desire led me to Musicland, where I began my exploration with the purchase of Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits. Until this acquisition, all I knew about Janis Joplin was that my parents did not like her—a fact that virtually guaranteed that the $7.99 I paid for Greatest Hits would be money well spent.

What I heard when I popped the CD into my stereo completely took me aback. This was not the childish voice of a flighty young hippie girl. This was scratchy pain; this was haunting passion; this was knowing demise. This was emotion for which there were no words. This was raw soul. This was a voice calling to me from another time, changing my perception of history and throwing me a lifeline to the past, pulling me deep into a new place.

Spring crept in, and with it came the balmy air that breeds restlessness among suburban Chicago teens, antsy from the long Midwestern winter and ready to burst with frustration and boredom and passion infuriatingly deemed ‘hormones’ by teachers and parents. I’d sit in my bedroom with the window wide open, smoke trailing from a cheap stick of incense, weaving its way through my pink and cream bedroom, ashes littering the lacy surface of my dresser. I’d listen to “Summertime” over and over again. During daylight hours, I’d play the whole album, wailing along to “Piece of My Heart” and “Down on Me”, strumming along to “Bobby McGee” on my classical guitar, and trying to break my childhood association of “Cry Baby” with that scene in Look Who’s Talking when Kirstie Alley’s baby won’t stop crying. But when I listened at night, it was all about “Summertime,” and then, when I’d had enough, I’d skip to “Ball and Chain.” How I loved the sexy guitar, and the quiet hush of Janis’s voice, which gradually grew to great heights and swept me away. How deep was that famous spoken interlude in “Ball and Chain” to my fifteen-year-old ears—so worthwhile that I deliberately memorized it and would write it across the pages of my notebook as I sat in my freshman English class, bored to tears as my stoic teacher read Romeo and Juliet aloud to us, reciting each character’s part herself, impossibly monotone and dispassionate.

I don't understand why half the world is still crying, man, when the other half of the world is still crying too, man. I can't get it together. I mean, if you got a cat for one day, man —I mean, if you, say, say, if you want a cat for 365 days, right —You ain't got him for 365 days, you got him for one day, man. Well I tell you that one day, man, better be your life, man. Because, you know, you can say, oh man, you can cry about the other 364, man, but you're gonna lose that one day, man, and that's all you've got. You gotta call that love, man. That's what it is, man. If you got it today you don't want it tomorrow, man, 'cause you don't need it, 'cause as a matter of fact, as we discovered in the train, tomorrow never happens, man. It's all the same fucking day, man.

She was right. It sure as hell all felt like the same fucking day, man. And music was the only oasis on my long highway of school and chores and family obligations and general teenage entrapment. This woman truly had it all figured out. I wanted to own her world-weary wisdom. She had so much soul; I would have been happy to possess a fraction of all her voice held. She, I decided, was my Soul Mother: older, wiser, of a seemingly magical time in history.

I promptly checked Janis Joplin’s biography out of the library, filing away pieces of her life in my mind for future reference. I covered up my cream-and pink-hearted wallpaper with my brand-new tie-dyed Janis Joplin tapestry. At Claire’s, I purchased a pair of round, frameless, rose-colored glasses and proceeded to wear them everywhere. I picked up a used copy of a Thirteenth Floor Elevators album at Record Swap, once I read that she had nearly been their lead singer, and I danced around my room to the jug-infused, wildly sensory music, wondering at the LSD-laced musings about the “Quest” printed neatly on the inside cover of the album. I bought The Portable Beat Reader and proceeded to decorate my bedroom mirror with pictures of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and, of course, Janis herself. And, for the first time, I peered curiously into my parents’ liquor cabinet, singling out an almost-full bottle of Southern Comfort and tucking my knowledge of its availability into a pocket in my mind, ready to be pulled out on just the right evening.

I felt that it was not just her songs, but rather Janis Joplin herself who shepherded me through the trials of high school and love and ever-changing self-identity. One balmy summer night, long after my parents and sisters had gone to sleep, I crept down to the liquor cabinet, poured perhaps an ounce of Southern Comfort into a juice glass, and snuck it up to my incense-laden bedroom. The syrupy liquid was sickeningly sweet yet biting, and I drank it down, although I did not like it as I had hoped I would.

My friend Ann and I memorized the lyrics to “Mercedes Benz” and deemed it our anthem. Any time we found ourselves walking down a street, or driving in her father’s 1988 Oldsmobile station wagon (which had no tape player and a radio that only worked half the time), we’d belt out the a cappella tune, singing our hearts out, praising the genius of Wise Janis Joplin. When my friend Karen’s parents went out of town and we girls camped out in her backyard, a 21-year-old coworker at my after-school job offered to help us procure alcohol. Of course, I requested a bottle of Southern Comfort, pretending it was my drink of choice. In the moonlit summer shadows of Karen’s backyard, we swigged SoCo from the bottle, chasing it down with Red Dog and Lynchburg Lemonade, Cheap Thrills playing softly in the tent on Karen’s portable CD player. The next morning the backyard was a land mine of vomit puddles, and we hopscotched from the tent to the house, heavy heads hung low, swearing off Southern Comfort for life. I understood how Janis’s body gave out before thirty.

Now, at twenty-nine, I still do not touch Southern Comfort. I donated the tie-dyed tapestry to the local thrift store a couple of days after uncovering it. I occasionally play my Janis Joplin CDs and wail along when I’m home alone, but I’ve realized that, although it feels like almost no time has passed since the nights of cheap incense in my childhood bedroom, I am now two years older than my “Soul Mother” was when she died. Still now, when I listen to her voice, I am convinced that Janis was an old soul, albeit in a young person’s body, living in adolescent times. There is something in her voice that is otherworldly, older than history.

The most telling segment of Janis, a 1974 documentary that consists mostly of Janis Joplin’s fantastic live performances and studio sessions, is an interview she did while in Port Arthur, Texas for her ten-year high school reunion. Though she seems to have attempted self-defense in an armor of feathers and jewelry, large, round glasses and wit, the raw pain her visit home pushed to the surface was heartbreakingly obvious. A relentless Rolling Stone reporter fires question after question at the unusually fragile icon: “Did you go to football games? Did you go to prom? Surely you got asked to the prom? Did you entertain back in your high school days?”

Janis’s voice trembles as she shoots back, “Only when I walked down the aisles.” Five minutes of this painful exchange, Janis fighting back tears. Why had she gone back, put herself through this?

Like so many artists, Janis’s greatness was borne from her suffering. Is it not the underlying pain in her gravelly voice that makes Janis Joplin’s music so gripping? Her skin was not thick enough to withstand the painful scrapes of everyday life as I had imagined as a teenager. Rather, she had been shaped by her hardships as we all have. Her pain was not unique; most of us felt tortured and ridiculed at some point in our youths. It was her ability to channel that pain, to brew it, boil it, fire it out through the cannon of her body, hit us in the stomach, knock the wind out of us, propel us to hauntingly familiar places we cannot quite identify—it was this that made Janis Joplin great.

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