Her frantic stage presence was not a style she developed consciously, but something she claimed overtook her.
Veteran San Francisco media personality Steve Wagner was co-host, writer, and executive producer of the Bay Area television programs Reel Life and Filmtrip.
Steve has ghostwritten several published books, contributed articles on music, film, and popular culture to numerous publications, and presented lectures and workshops on music, art, and mythology throughout the U.S.
His book All You Need is Myth: The Beatles and Gods of Rock (2019), a study of the classic rock era through the lens of classical mythology, is the product of ten years of research and composition.
Day 8 in our countdown of the classic rock mythic archetypes commences with Janis Joplin, the oracle of the rock pantheon. Anyone with cursory knowledge of Janis Joplin’s life and career will see many parallels with the vocation and plight of the ancient oracles—the estrangement from community, the years of exposure to toxic substances, the hyperactive state she assumed during live performance. The philosopher Heraclitus’s description of the oracles’ manner and method, circa 500 BCE, reads like a review of a Janis Joplin concert: “The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and un-perfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.” Below is an excerpt from All You Need is Myth: The Beatles and the Gods of Rock focusing on Janis Joplin, the oracle archetype:
Unlike the other ’60s rock gods, Janis’s most famous and enduring songs were written by other people, establishing her as a channel; receiving musical energy and directing it through her primal voice. Her distinct choice of material—tunes such as “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain,” “Cry Baby,” “Down on Me” and “Work Me, Lord” (the title of which could suffice as an oracular credo)—speaks to both her unique gift and the curse she labored under. The description she often gave regarding her unique style of music, Kozmic Blues (which informed the title of her first solo album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!), was, like Hendrix’s “Electric Sky Church” explanation, a glimpse inside her personal psychology and perhaps an attempt to put into words the supernatural source she suspected was using her as a vessel.
Calling her style “Kozmic Blues” was perhaps an attempt to put into words the supernatural source she suspected was using her as a vessel.
Even more than her music, it was Janis’s seemingly possessed delivery that captivated and entranced her audience. It is noteworthy her frantic stage presence was not a style she developed consciously, but something she claimed overtook her: “I don’t know what happened. I just exploded. I’d never sung like that before … I stood still, and I sang simple. … But you can’t sing like that in front of a rock band. You have to sing loud and move wild with all that in back of you. … I just want to feel as much as I can, it’s what ‘soul’ is all about.”
Transcending the sense of underlying energy and the point of direct experience that is beyond the physical world, the logic of the brain, and, most frustratingly, language.
Representing the deeper feminine qualities of inner wisdom and intuitive process, concerns of ecology and equality, possession of hidden knowledge, and emphasis on truth and integrity, attributes of countless mythic goddesses of the ancient world.
Everything we experience in our material world is realized and created through a dance with its opposite.