In this occasional series, we look back at our first pop culture loves.
I never got to go to Woodstock, but I heard a lot about it the summer of 1969. We talked a lot about the Monterey Festival, too, back in rural Ontario where I was growing up.
At my summer job in a now-defunct Hamilton department store selling men’s clothes, music was our connection to the bigger world. I have a family of musicians and my younger brothers made it their mission to supply me with albums of the women rockin’ the day.
This is how I ended up with Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits as a Christmas gift in 1973. Throughout the decade it was followed by albums from Fleetwood Mac, Pat Benatar, Blondie and Heart.
At the time, listening to Joplin was akin to listening to a wild animal claw its way out of a cage. She howled. She screamed. She whispered. She was unlike any other singer that I remember. Her music was a mix of rock and blues and even ballads — “Me and Bobby McGee” — and she defied categorizing.
Unlike the pretty girls of Fleetwood Mac or Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, Joplin was stocky, scattered and really out there. She was as unconventional as her music; “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Down on Me” and “Get it While You Can” were such cries from the heart. No happy endings here but delivered with force and energy.
So, while I appreciated the songs and the sheer power of her delivery, they didn’t necessarily become standards that I put on the turntable when I was whiling away a Sunday afternoon.
Listening to her music again is like being punched in the stomach. What she has to say is more relevant than ever today. Be yourself. Love with all your heart. Recognize hardship and heartbreak. Celebrate your humanity.
My favourite is “Piece of My Heart” when she orders, “Take it!” She is fearless — “a woman can be tough” — and I honour that so many years after her death.
As the parent of two young adults roughly her age when she hit celebrity, I admire the level of confidence and talent she had to use to forge ahead on her own path. She was truly remarkable and a trailblazer, and it was a joy to become reacquainted. Her music has aged well.