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The Lonely Decade

By Jessica Roche, with comment by Kristen Englehardt

[1] What is it about the Sixties that still lingers in the minds of the American population forty years later? For many the Sixties was a time of liberation, a time of true freedom, but it was also a time of struggle and oppression. This was a decade that prided itself on overcoming obstacles of race, gender, and even sexuality. The Sixties was an experience that many people wish they could relive, and other survivors of the decade refuse to even remember. Perhaps the one thing that sticks strongly in my own mind are the passings of many great individuals -- the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcom X. The second half of the decade marks itself with the untimely deaths of rock legends Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and the subject of this project -- Janis Joplin.

[2] After the fifties, Americans were emotionally dead. During the next decade the population would search again for the "grand ideals" of democracy. The American people were looking for something in the 1960's; they were searching for ideals and dreams. The Sixties were a "time of rebellion, defiance of authority, acting out hopes and dreams. . . a time of reconsidering the way we lived, the way we behaved toward people in this country and abroad" (Zinn in Morgan, ix). During the Sixties people began to take into account American history and began to attempt to redress the past. Perhaps the largest and most influential group in motivating the American people was musicians. They began to put the feeling of America into songs, and they used those songs to fight for what they believed in, from anti-war songs to sexual liberation and free drug use. It was the fight for personal freedom that caused perhaps three of the greatest rock musicians to pass from this life to the next. Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin all passed away in the second half of the decade from substance abuse.

[3] The music of the 1960's was a way for the people to experience a new freedom, and in most cases to see beyond the world around drugs was a necessity to see the true reality. Musicians saw themselves as a tool to open people up to what they believed was the reality of the time. They were the "means or channel through which their audience passes from ignorance to knowledge, from ordinary consciousness to ecstasy, from control and inhibition to revolt and freedom" (Goldman 361). It was this path that eventually led many individuals into the dark and treacherous world of substance abuse. The Sixties was a time of experimentation, and many people used drugs as a tool for temporary experimentation, but others were pioneers that sought ultimate knowledge. Those pioneers, who sought out real knowledge, never came back.

[4] Rebellion was also a major effort in music during the 1960's. Not only were women stepping into the foreground of folk music, but also rock and roll officially took hold in the hearts of Americans. Those individuals of the Rock and Roll world like Morrison, Hendrix, and Joplin all sought to gain the acceptance of their fans and the country. Maybe their messages got across, maybe they didn't, but, regardless, they captivated the nation with their astounding successes and tragic deaths. The people of America were looking for inspiration and hope, and music was the means through which they found it. Rock and Roll began the integration of white and African American music. (see comment by Kristen Englehardt)

[5] Musicians began to blend the sounds of African American blues and jazz into their own music. It was this blend of music that magnetized the crowds:

Impelled by the relentless pounding beat of the music, one is then drawn in out on the floor. Here there is a feeling of total immersion: one is inside the mob, inside the skull, inside the music, which comes from all sides, buffeting the dancers like a powerful surf. Strangest of all, in the midst of this frantic activity one feels supremely alone; and this aloneness produces a giddy sense of freedom, even of exultation. (Goldman 344)
The crowd reveled in this music that brought them to a connection with themselves. It was a new feeling and a new freedom for the people of the 1960's. It was music with emotion and passion. However, this type of music began in the early part of the decade and was dominated by men, until Janis Joplin arrived on the scene.

[6] Janis Joplin was the first woman to step into the arena of rock and roll. She is considered to be the first woman to join the ranks of men like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and The Rolling Stones. The music of these individuals was sung with such emotion and such passion. The music was sung from the gut, and the experience of Joplin performing in concert is often compared to a sexual and orgasmic experience. Janis Joplin was one of rock's reigning superstars. Her rise

signaled America's move away from the rigid categories of postwar culture, but it also, and above all, testified to her extraordinary talent. . . . In a nation coming out of the fifties, Janis's unapologetic sexuality proved irresistible, especially to the reporters whom she supplied an endless stream of outrageous copy. Janis likened performance to orgasm, swore like a sailor, and dressed like a psychedelicized hooker. Forget beachheads -- Janis was like an invading army, seizing that rock 'n' roll land of desires in a way that no white woman ever had. (Echols xvi)
Janis was a remarkable presence in the realm of rock 'n' roll. She brought a new and exciting dimension to music that no one had ever seen before. Unfortunately for many, a destructive dark side came with the world of rock. It was a destructive force that was new to the industry.

[7] Like many musicians, Janis Joplin performed heart and soul for her audience, but it was fame that brought tragedy to the lives of many artists. For Janis Joplin it was a world of loneliness. In a world where she strived for love and attention, all she found was loneliness. Janis Joplin felt unloved and abandoned. In 1970 she died in her Los Angeles hotel room from a heroin overdose. Janis believed that she was "deeply unloved and unlovable. Methadone and a month's worth of counseling wouldn't have done it -- only great discipline, support and self-reflection would have. The world she moved in encouraged her addictions, with its commitment to living on the edge and beyond limits -- its dedication to recklessness as a matter of principle" (Echols 302). Janis's way of coping with her feelings of emotional deprivation was to immerse herself in drugs and alcohol. For her it was a feeling of love -- when the world turned her down, she turned to the one constant in her life, heroin. Many people remember Janis in various ways, some loved her, and others hated her. She was admired by many and rejected by just as many people. The major downfall was her belief that she lived a life without love.

[8] In 1979, Twentieth Century Fox released a film called The Rose, a film based loosely on the life of Janis Joplin. Even though this particular film is not based completely on her life, it does focus on the downfall of a superstar who feels unloved and unwanted. Bette Midler stars as a tortured rock star who is a "boozy broad . . . but she captures little of Janis's intelligence, strength, or artistry" (Echols 307). The film focuses on the downfall of the star rather than the triumph. It would seem that the fall is more memorable than the rise. The Rose depicts a singer trying to find love and support in a world that seems to only want to make money off of her.

[9] The film's other main characters and their actions are symbols for the driving forces in the downfall of a star. Her manager Rudge Campbell, played by Alan Bates, is symbolic of a destructive driving force in her life, constantly reminding Rose that they are in a three-million-dollar-a-year business. Rudge has no regard for her personal needs. He doesn't care if Rose is tired or drunk, she still must perform; the music is no longer pure entertainment; it has become a business where no one is allowed time off. Rudge is not the only one whose actions dig Rose deeper into destruction; Houston Dyer's leaving and returning send Rose into a frenzy of alcohol and eventually drugs. Dyer is the one person who cares if she is tired; he makes her go to bed early and makes attempts to take care of her, but he can only fight for her so long. Eventually, Rose's ambition and desire throw him away.

[10] Perhaps the most influential force in the downfall of a star of this magnitude is self-destruction. Rose has a need and desire to be loved by the world in-spite of her exhaustion. At the end of the film, Rose and Houston have the ability to leave the rock 'n' roll world and go to Mexico. But she turns down her love for a man in favor of the opportunity to show her hometown what a star she has become. Her desire to show her town what she has become causes her ultimate downfall. Janis Joplin had this same desire. These two women who were shunned by their hometowns in their adolescent years, had a strong yearning to prove themselves to the world around them, and they succeeded. However, in The Rose, her hometown show was the driving force that leads to an on-stage drug overdose, dying in the eyes of the people that once rejected her. This desire to be loved by the world would step on the will to live and take her down the path to death. Janis Joplin's death was not on stage; Joplin died by herself in a Los Angeles hotel room, unloved and unwanted by the world around her.

[11] But this is not only the way Janis Joplin is remembered; her music was powerful and inspirational to the many women that were to follow her. Janis Joplin is eternally remembered for her ability to bring women into the same playing field as the "big boys" of rock 'n' roll. She will be remembered by the world around her. The sixties are remembered for many things -- politics, liberation, drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll. It was a time of change in American society, but with change comes a different world, and for the first time America truly was different. It was difference that was a source of conflict and struggle for many, and super- stars were no exception. In a world of free love, it was hard to find real love. Everybody loved everyone, and for an individual to not have his/her specific need to be loved met was one of the many consequences. This was the case with Janis Joplin. She enjoyed the liberation and the free lifestyle of the time; however, with this freedom she found nothing but loneliness and heartbreak. Janis Joplin was a pioneer for women in the world of rock, but she also showed the world just how lonely it could be at the top. Many people loved the Sixties, but it would not be a surprise that those who don't wish to remember it had the same feelings of loneliness as Joplin felt. Fighting for others meant forgetting about oneself; unfortunately for many, the way to "find" your true self was through the use of drugs. To many it was seen as the gateway to the soul, and to those performers like Joplin, Hendrix, and Morrison, it was also the gateway to death.


Kristen Englehardt 8/13/10

I have to disagree with Roche in her assertion that artists such as Joplin, Morrison, and Hendrix sought the acceptance of their fans and their country. When you listen to interviews or statements released by these artists, more often than not they promoted change in government, philosophy, and ideology; they weren't kowtowing to the whims of society hoping to sell records -- they just wanted to make music. That being said, I do agree with Roche's statement of people finding inspiration in the music of the Rock icons of the sixties. These people were hungry for change, and for many music was their avenue to it. Music of all genres became so intermixed with all aspects of life in this era that people couldn't help but to connect and find inspiration in it.

Echols, Alice. Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin. Ontario: Fitzhenry Whiteside LTD, 1999.

Goldman, Albert. "The Emergence of Rock." The Sixties. Ed. Gerald Howard. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984. 343-64.

Janis. Dir. Howard Alk and Seaton Findlay. With Janis Joplin. Crawley Films, 1974.

Morgan, Edward P. The Sixties Experience: Hard Lessons about Modern America. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1991.