On July 10, 1970, Janis Joplin was back in Austin, Texas. She’d taken advantage of a tour break to fly in for the birthday party of one of her earliest supporters, Ken Threadgill, owner of the legendary club Threadgill’s, where Janis had got her start as a performer before leaving for San Francisco and rock stardom. Her appearance at Ken’s party was meant to be a surprise, so she spent most of the day at her hotel. While passing the time in the hotel bar with her road manager, John Cooke, and some friends, the lounge’s guitarist began to play “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Janis was familiar with the song, which was written by Kris Kristofferson; her friend Bobby Neuwirth had introduced it to her the previous year, and she’d first performed it at a concert on December 16, 1969, in Nashville.
At the time, the song was best known from Roger Miller’s version. But Janis was anxious to put her own stamp on it. “That guy can’t do that song worth a damn,” she declared after the lounge guitarist finished the number. “Wait until you hear me. I can do that song.”
She performed the song that night, along with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” telling the audience how much she admired his work: “He sure does write some nice tunes.” Just over two months later, she was in the studio recording her own version of the song with her new group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band. It was regarded as one of the highlights of the album that would be called Pearl, and eventually became her signature song.
But that was an achievement Janis would not live to see. On October 4, 1970, she died of a heroin overdose at her hotel, the end result of a long struggle with substance abuse. She was 27 years old.
Pearl was released on January 11, 1971, and its 50th anniversary is being commemorated with new releases and events. You can expect two new vinyl editions of the album, from Vinyl Me, Please (April) and Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (July). Genesis Publications is issuing Janis Joplin: Days & Summers – Scrapbook 1966-68; Pearl Comix (Z2) will offer a graphic novel interpretation of her music; Baby Janis: A Book About Nouns (Running Press Kids) aims to share Janis’ love of words and reading with children. And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will be hosting an exhibit devoted to Janis that opens on May 21.
As 1970 began, Janis’ career was on hold. After leaving her first group, Big Brother and the Holding Company, at the end of 1968, she’d formed another band (belatedly named the Kozmic Blues Band, after the 1969 album I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, after they broke up). But she’d never been entirely satisfied with this band and played her last show with them on December 19, 1969. She then decided to take a break, going to Rio to celebrate during the city’s extravagant Carnival festival.
After her trip, she set about relaunching her career, going into the studio in Los Angeles on March 28 to record the song “One Night Stand.” Ultimately, she wasn’t happy with the number, which would later be released on the posthumous collection Farewell Song (1982). She also made guest appearances with Big Brother on April 4 and 12 in San Francisco, fueling her desire to assemble a new band.
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