“Drinks Are On Pearl”: The Death of Janis Joplin

October 4th, 1970 dawned similar to October 3rd. People woke up, got the kids off to school, dressed and went to work. It was a seemingly ordinary day for most, save one. On the morning of October 4th, Janis Joplin lay face down in her LA motel room, dead of a heroin overdose. This was the second of three fateful deaths in the music community that year, first being Jimi Hendrix, to be followed by Janis and finally Jim Morrison. If there is one thing rock and rollers know,  it is that it’s better to go out with a bang than a whimper.

Janis Lyn Joplin was in LA recording her first solo album, Pearl (her nickname), coming out of a temporary hiatus from the music business. Her first big success came out of her alliance with Big Brother and The Holding Company, a band out of San Francisco. Their popularity as the Avalon Theater’s house band would land them a spot at the Monterey Pop Festival, giving blistering performances of their latest single, “Piece of My Heart”. After her Big Brother days ended, joined the Kozmic Blues Band for one album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama.

Her lack of self-esteem and other personal demons found her early; she fell into drugs and never looked back, in an attempt to drown out her lack of self-worth. She partied with the boys, and often out did them. Her weapons of choice were Southern Comfort and heroin, often mixing and matching the two with whatever pills she felt necessary. Despite her usage, she was dedicated to her craft, working long hours in the studio and never missing a rehearsal. Which is why, when she failed to show up to the studio on October 4th, her band mates got worried.

On October 3rd, she was last seen in the lobby of the Landmark, getting change and picking up a pack of cigarettes. She had been to the Sunset Sound Studios earlier in the evening to hear the final bits of tracking for Pearl. After that, dinner and a couple of drinks followed at Barney’s Beanery before she went back to her room to shoot up. While waiting for the drugs to kick in, she went down to the lobby, buying cigarettes and coming back to her room. That was it. She was found the next morning, in a t-shirt and panties, head wedged between the bed and the night stand. The strength of the drugs had caught her off guard and she collapsed where she stood. The coroner ruled it an accidental overdose.

It shouldn’t have happened. It wouldn’t have happened, at least not that weekend, had it not been for her dealer. Normally he used a chemist to check the purity of his product, but that was the one weekend he was out-of-town. The drugs were pushed on a hunch, and turned out to be at least 50% pure. Even for a seasoned veteran, drugs of that potency are lethal. Eight other people were killed that weekend from the same batch of heroin.

Janis was 27 when her star burned out. Hell, it didn’t burn out, it blew up. Her album was completed without her, all but one track already having the finished vocals. It was released and gave her the only #1 she would ever have, but never see. “Me and Bobby McGee” shot to the top of the charts and remains the seminal version we all know, despite its numerous recordings. Who knows what she would have lived to do, had that damned chemist been in town. Either way, we are lucky enough to have a small cache of honest, gritty, raw emotion, laid out and bunched up in just the right places, with Janis’ swagger and soul stamped all over them. So pull up a stool, pour yourself a drink and raise your glass to Pearl.

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