Janis untangled

A new box set highlights the singer's music rather than her legacy.

The tough Texas blues-mama with the heart of gold: Janis Joplin’s simplistic image outlives her, and, like archaic armor, it clanks so loudly you can hardly hear her voice—not that you’d have much luck finding Janis on the radio these days, anyway.

Janis Joplin

Box of Pearls (Columbia/Legacy)

Pop culture can’t sit still for all the time it would take to explain Joplin’s contradictions. Even an eloquent biography like Alice Echols’ recent Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin does little to muffle the good-time-gal image that masks her complexities. Joplin was more a feminist in deed than word, writing lyrics of craven dependency while not allowing any man close for long. Despite her public focus on male attention, she had lesbian relationships throughout her life. She was an intellectual who hid her books and hung out with bikers. And amid the egalitarian rhetoric of her era, she built a cult of personality out of Southern Comfort and sexual bravado. She was an outsider who wanted to fit in but knew she never would.

It’d be easy to argue that Joplin’s diminished reputation is a matter of song quality (not until her third band, Full-Tilt Boogie, did she really find her stride), except that’s never been much of a concern in the music biz. The reason is more likely a thorny tangle of sexism and changing fashion. Unlike the female folkies who preceded her, Joplin transformed her pure voice into a raspy howl that was confrontational even when her lyrics weren’t. In the ensuing years, no female rock singer has revealed so much of herself to such a broad audience in her music alone. Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith, whose output eclipses Janis’, write from a perspective that’s more universal than personal. Perhaps only Marianne Faithful shares Joplin’s talent for raw self-revelation, though it’s taken Faithful decades to fully realize it.

Whatever the vagaries of musical trend, Janis Joplin’s voice will never lose its shocking power. On the new five-CD set Box of Pearls this is as true as ever. To many, it’s a travesty for a white child of the middle class to sing the blues, but Janis seems to have had no choice. Life is “too down and lonely,” she told another biographer, David Dalton. The existing footage of her on stage makes the case that performing was the only safe way for her to rise above her insecurity, her emptiness.

Box of Pearls includes Joplin’s four studio albums—Big Brother & the Holding Company’s self-titled debut; Cheap Thrills; I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, her first record as a band leader; and Pearl—each with two to four previously unreleased bonus tracks, as well as Rare Pearls, a five-song EP of previously unavailable material. The four full-length records are also available individually, as is Legacy’s reissue of the 1973 anthology Greatest Hits, with two added tracks since its first CD appearance.

New packaging does nothing to change the received wisdom: Pearl is clearly Joplin at the zenith of her abbreviated career, if only because her material and her musicians were finally up to the challenge of her voice. “Move Over,” “Get It While You Can,” “Cry Baby,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Me and Bobby McGee”—each one is a classic, allowing her to explore the full range of her talent. The record was only three-quarters done when Joplin died of a heroin overdose in a Hollywood hotel room. Despite (or perhaps because of) this morbid turn of events, Pearl remained number one on the Billboard album chart for nine weeks. The reissue also features better bonus tracks than the other CDs in the set: four songs from what sounds like a riveting performance in Calgary, Alberta, on July 4, 1970.

The box-set exclusive, Rare Pearls, is a mixed bag of outtakes from the Cheap Thrills sessions and live recordings of Kozmic Blues Band shows in Amsterdam and San Francisco (including a shambolic rendition of “Bo Diddley” that trails into Janis’ enthusiastic critique of the show).

Box of Pearls may be a completist’s dream (all those bonus tracks!), but more isn’t necessarily better. To complicate matters, there is also the 1993 three-CD package Janis. Both sets retail at about $45 and contain almost the same number of tracks (Box of Pearls has 55, Janis 49). Janis has the extramusical treat of liner notes by two of rock criticism’s most insightful practitioners, Ellen Willis and Ann Powers, and it also skips the Big Brother tracks that don’t feature Joplin’s vocals, saving the listener from curios like “Blindman” and “Caterpillar.” Plus, it spans more of Janis’ life, including rare pre-Big Brother recordings.

If you prefer to hear Janis Joplin in context, though, Box of Pearls is the better choice. These five CDs lay out her brief career, warts and all. Janis’ view of life, as described to writer Doon Arbus, could just as easily describe the frustrating limitations of her recorded output: “It’s so close to being like really right and good. . . . But it’s not. And it ain’t gonna be.”