Classic Albums: Janis Joplin – Pearl

A brilliantly raw illustration of the troubled artist’s tumultuous life

The release of Janis Joplin’s ‘Pearl’ in 1971 left a bittersweet taste in the mouth of music fans across the globe, with many still reeling from the unexpected death of the twenty-seven-year-old singer just four months earlier. As fate would have it, however, the album would go on to become the defining symbol of Joplin’s place as the greatest white female blues and soul singer of her generation.

‘Pearl’, heavily laden with Joplin’s raspy, tormented vocals, is a brilliantly raw illustration of the troubled artist’s tumultuous life. It was during the recording of this album that she relapsed into heroin addiction, an action that ultimately led to the tragic overdose in an LA motel room. And, had that overdose not cost her life, it was also the album that would have granted Joplin the recognition as an independent artist she had so desperately craved since breaking from Big Brother And The Holding Company in 1968.

‘Pearl’ was to arrive at a curious crossroad in Joplin’s career; on one hand she was still dealing with mixed reactions to her departure from Big Brother, which some felt an arrogant move and others a perfectly timed decision, and on the other she had a gold-selling album with the Kozmic Blues Band, ‘I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!’ that was still no match to Joplin’s predecessor with Big Brother, ‘Cheap Thrills’ (the best-selling album of 1968 in the US).

These factors were to play important roles in Joplin’s return to the needle and also to the main stage. Most likely the hardest role to play in Joplin’s career was that of a friend, as she found many either too overbearing or overruling. Those she could handle, and felt most at peace with, were themselves junkies and she watched as several fell victims to their addictions.

The role ‘Pearl’ was to play in Joplin’s life was existential – Pearl was in fact Joplin’s alter ego, a self-medication she used to deal with the stresses and strains of life as Janis Joplin. The cover itself featured Joplin as Pearl in full hippie get-up, sporting a pink, feathered headdress and reclining on a decadent lounge chair with a drink in hand. She looks genuinely happy. Ironically, the album created around a fictitious being may well be her most personal and honest.

Although recording was not entirely completed before Joplin’s death in October 1970 (‘Buried Alive In The Blues’ appears sans vocals as a result), there was still enough material to create an LP. Fortuitously she had laid down vocals to the brilliant ‘Me And Bobby McGee’, a cover of a track penned by Kris Kristofferson, whom Joplin was romantically involved with for a short time. It is believed Kristofferson didn’t even know Joplin covered the track until after her death but it did not take long for the rest of the world to take notice. It became her first Number One single when it topped the Billboard charts in March 1971 and was only the second posthumous Number One in rock history after Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’. To this day, it is linked inexplicably with Joplin’s legend.

From ‘Cry Baby’, where Joplin defiantly states, “All you ever gotta do is be a good man, one time, to one woman, and that will be the end of the road” to ‘A Woman Left Lonely’, Joplin rides the rollercoaster of heartache and makes sure you’re in the passenger seat. And with a history of unsteady boyfriends and even dalliances with women, you know there is very real sincerity behind her words.

Never straying far from her duties as ’60s wild child, the social commentary returns in the self-penned a cappella track ‘Mercedes Benz’. Asking the Lord to buy her a Mercedes-Benz, colour TV and night on the town, she takes a stab at the materialism that surrounded the strange juxtaposition of fame and hippy ideals that was her every day life.

Whether it was love or politics, Joplin did it with her heart and her soul. She wasn’t afraid to let it out, on stage or on record, and it was this that earned her great respect in both white and black musical circles – a mean feat in those racially tense times. Fast forward to 2009 and work like ‘Pearl’ not only bridges the gap between black and white, but is a timely reminder of why Joplin has grown into such an iconic figure for generations of musicians and music lovers to come.

Words by Jennifer Wilson

Janis Joplin – ‘Pearl’
Released: February 1971
Producer: Paul A. Rothchild

1. ‘Move Over’
2. ‘Cry Baby’
3. ‘A Woman Left Lonely’
4. ‘Half Moon’
5. ‘Buried Alive In The Blues’
6. ‘My Baby’
7. ‘Me And Bobby McGee’
8. ‘Mercedes Benz’
9. ‘Trust Me’
10. ‘Get It While You Can’

Janis Joplin: vocals
John Till: guitar
Richard Bell: piano
Brad Campbell: bass
Clark Pierson: drums
Ken Pearson: organ

1971: In the news
Apollo 14 lands on the Moon
Jim Morrison is found dead in a Paris bathtub
Richard Ashcroft is born

1971: The Albums
Don McLean ‘American Pie’
The Electric Light Orchestra ‘The Electric Light Orchestra’
John Lennon ‘Imagine’

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