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Topic: Joplin: Signed, sealed, revealed Return to archive
9th April 2007 10:02 AM
Ten Thousand Motels Joplin: Signed, sealed, revealed
Larry Rodgers
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 8, 2007

When blues-rock screamer Janis Joplin died in a Hollywood hotel of a heroin overdose in 1970, she inadvertently cemented her legendary status as a troubled party girl.

That's a shame, because there's another side to the singer that millions of fans aren't aware of: She was a funny, well-read, intelligent woman who was devoted to her parents, two siblings and a dog, Thurber, named after author James Thurber.

This other side of the raspy-voiced singer emerges in Love, Janis, a touring off-Broadway production that draws much of its dialogue from the letters she sent back to her family in Texas, and its music from a take-no-prisoners catalog that includes Piece of My Heart, Try (Just a Little Bit Harder), Move Over and Get It While You Can.

"Janis was incredibly funny, which a lot of people don't get, because all they ever think about is heroin and depression," said Michael Joplin, the singer's younger brother and a manager of her estate. "She was really smart and witty and liked to have a good time, so that's the thinking we're trying to get out of the play."

Directed by Randal Myler, who drew raves for the musicals Hank Williams: Lost Highway and It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, Love, Janis uses two singers plus an actress in a speaking role to tackle Joplin's challenging vocals and larger-than-life personality.

The production, which the Arizona Theatre Company is bringing to Phoenix after a Tucson run, doesn't whitewash Joplin's personal problems; her overdose at age 27, though tastefully depicted, is one of the play's most wrenching moments, and her checkered love life emerges in letters and interviews conducted by an offstage voice.

But those letters and the production's 16 songs, stunningly interpreted by Chicago singer Cathy Richardson and New York rocker Sophia Ramos, remind viewers of the singer's many joyful moments, as well as her wry wit, love of family and enthusiasm for the growing Bay Area music scene.

Top of the pantheon

"Janis Joplin was the female version in rock of what Led Zeppelin was for males: She took the blues and made it her own, and took it to a whole new level," said Paul Green, founder of the Philadelphia-based School of Rock for aspiring stars.

Ramos agreed: "Any woman who wants to do rock and roll. your bible is Janis. That is your Genesis."

Indeed, Joplin changed the rules of the rock game for women, shattering that male-dominated world's image of submissiveness when she joined Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966.

"She empowered a whole generation of female singers," Green said.

Director Myler, 56, a native Californian, recalls being stunned as a teenager watching Joplin at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom.

"We had never seen anything like it. She was out there stomping, sweating and screaming and not worrying about it."

But the full-throttle approach that made Joplin's music so engaging extended offstage, and it ultimately caught up with her.

"If she were here (at dinner), she would eat the most food," recalled Big Brother's Sam Andrew, 65, who was Joplin's closest confidante and briefly her lover. "If we were all doing drugs, she would do the most drugs. If we were all driving cars, she would drive the fastest. She had a big appetite."

Like Jimi Hendrix and the Doors' Jim Morrison - two other rock legends who died at 27, within a year of Joplin - the Texas singer's career was much too short. She moved a mile a minute, Andrew says, and used heroin to slow down. Just four years after joining Big Brother, the drug killed her.

In 1992, Laura Joplin, concerned that her big sister's place in rock history often focused on drugs, alcohol and depression, wrote the book Love, Janis, based on Janis' letters to family. Laura, 57, of California, and her brother, Michael, 53, of Tucson, also wanted to take the letters to the stage.

"There has been a lot of talk of movies over the years, and we'd read scripts that weren't what we were looking for," Michael said. "We said, 'Maybe we should do a play, because we could put in it what we'd like to see.' "

After more frustration searching for a stage collaborator, Laura Joplin saw Myler's Lonesome Highway performed in Denver, and she and her brother pitched their idea to the director. But Myler, prejudiced by his one-dimensional image of Joplin, initially was lukewarm about the project. He, too, was unaware of Joplin's softer, intellectual side.

"The public persona I saw as a kid in high school, I didn't think it would be much more than postcards with expletives," Myler said. "Then along came these really great letters, so intelligent, wise and funny. It's a little like letters from summer camp, only it's the rock-and-roll scene in the Bay Area."

Piece of her heart

The play, launched in 1994, uses those letters to track Joplin's career arc, spiced with music that morphed from blues-rock with Big Brother to a more soulful sound with the Kosmic Blues Band and Full Tilt Boogie Band. After a rocking rendition of Piece of My Heart, performed by Ramos and a talented band playing vintage rock instruments, Joplin's other side starts to unfold onstage.

"Mother and Dad, with a great deal of trepidation, I bring the news. I'm in San Francisco. Now let me explain," actress Marisa Ryan recites. "I'm staying with some old friends from Austin. Don't worry, Mother, they're married!"

Joplin's acknowledgement of her parents' concern that she would repeat the follies of an earlier trip to San Francisco surfaces throughout the play, and serves as a reminder of how important her family's approval was to her.

"I am trying to keep a level head about everything and not go overboard with enthusiasm," she assures them. "I'm sure you're both convinced my self-destructive streak has won out again, but I'm really trying."

Ryan deftly covers the range of emotions seeping from the letters and soul-baring interviews, conducted by an offstage voice (Michael Santo). She shares the stage with Richardson or Ramos, with the actresses wearing identical outfits and even finishing each other's sentences at times.

By employing three actresses who look so different, Myler says he's trying to get past the stereotyped image of Joplin: "We don't try to do an impression of Janis Joplin at all. So it's a show that allows a woman named Sophia Ramos to play the part."

Stamp of approval

Big Brother's Andrew, who has served as musical director for Love, Janis since 1999, is satisfied that it provides a more accurate picture of this complex performer.

"One thing that comes out of this play is that she was fundamentally a happy person," said Andrew, who followed Joplin into the Kosmic Blues Band in 1969. "When you were around her, there was lots of laughing and jokes."

Despite the fact that he and Joplin were using heroin, alcohol and other drugs ("Janis was an 'everything-er,' " Andrew says), Joplin never lost her family ties.

"You can't imagine the chaos and hurricane that was happening in San Francisco in the '60s," said Andrew, who had a brief affair with Joplin after he left her second band. "But she's writing letters home clearly and articulately to her parents. She's a good daughter, trying to explain to them this unexplainable thing we were going through."

Joplin's unsuccessful search for a long-term mate, another struggle she related to her parents, also is covered in Ryan's dialogue.

"Thought ya'll would like to know what everyone looks like out here," she recites. "The boys are the real peacocks. They all have Beatle-length hair, ultra-mod dress, fancy shirts with Tom Jones full sleeves, Bob Dylan caps. Really too much, just like in the magazines, folks."

But at a lonelier time later in the play, she confides, "You can fill your life up with ideas and still go home lonely. I go out there and make love to 20,000 people a night and still go home alone. And honey, you can't (expletive) your music."

The play winds down with Joplin at her loneliest. With Ramos' Joplin watching, Ryan's Joplin shoots up and dies.

During the scene, Ramos gently sings one of Joplin's most poignant recordings, her 1969 version of Rodgers and Hart's Little Girl Blue, revealing yet another facet of the singer:

"Just count those raindrops softly falling down . . . . When they're falling down, Honey, all around you, I know you're unhappy."

Michael Joplin says he's not sure why his sister experienced patches of depression, even as she was appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and at England's Royal Albert Hall and being profiled in Newsweek magazine.

But he has a theory: "You take small-town people like Britney (Spears) and put them in this thing where everybody around them says 'Yes,' because they want to be around you, and they just get whacked."

But director Myler refuses to end Love, Janis on a sad note, bringing Joplin and her band back onstage for an uplifting two-song finale.

"Get it while you can," Ramos' Joplin sings. "Don't you turn your back on love."
9th April 2007 10:15 AM
MrPleasant Sometimes laughter is enough.
9th April 2007 11:18 AM
jb Does anybody remember laughter anymore?
9th April 2007 11:24 AM
Saint Sway she was a nappy-headed ho
9th April 2007 11:47 AM
Mel Belli All she wanted was some peace.
9th April 2007 08:27 PM
Mel Belli wrote:
All she wanted was some peace.

and a bottle of so co.....
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