One of more famous members of the 27 Club, Janis Lyn Joplin was an American rock singer, songwriter and renaissance women in the prime of her life and at the height of her career when she was found dead in her hotel room at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood, California from a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. Though some say we all die alone in one way or another, drug addicts almost always literally do, and Joplin was no exception.
Along with Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix (who died just weeks before Joplin), Joplin never lived to see her 30th birthday—but much like her talented comrades, she managed to live a lot during her short time. By the age of 20, Joplin had dropped out of college and was living in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district recording music and shooting speed. By 22, her drug use had escalated to the point of noticeable physical consequences and her friends helped raise money to ship her back to her hometown in Texas to recuperate. This began Joplin’s first earnest run at sobriety, which lasted about a year.
In 1966, at just 24 years old, Joplin was drawn back to the Bay Area when she was recruited to be the front woman of Big Brother and the Holding Company—a hippie rock group with a strong cult following. It was her involvement with this band that gave Joplin her first push into the public eye. By 1968, Big Brother and the Holding Company were gaining a lot of traction and made their television debut on The Dick Cavett Show. The band was good but it was Joplin’s uniquely smoking voice that stood out and caused the group to end up being billed as “Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company,” which reportedly caused jealousy amongst her band members. Joplin’s hard and fast relapse back to drinking and intravenous drug use probably didn’t help matters much either.
By the end of that year, Janis Joplin and Big Brother parted ways and Joplin went on to form her own backup group, the Kozmic Blues Band, which she performed with for just over a year. She made her second valiant attempt at sobriety in early 1970 while on vacation in Brazil. It was there that she met a man, an American tourist, and they fell in love. But the relationship ended as soon as Joplin return to the states—and to shooting heroin with her sometimes groupie/sometimes lover Peggy Caserta.
In the spring of 1970, the year that Joplin died, she formed her final and most fruitful band—The Full Tilt Boogie—whom she toured with during the summer of that year. Producer Paul A. Rothschild, who had ironically also produced recordings for The Doors, was set to work with Joplin and her band on their first LP. Since Joplin made her primary residence in the town of Larkspur in Marin Country, California, she flew down to Los Angeles in late August (after having attended her 10-year high school reunion) and set up camp in the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood, which was well-known for both its apartment-style living and drug activity amongst the guests.
Less than a mile from her hotel, at Sunset Sound Recorders, Joplin and The Full Tilt Boogie Band laid down tracks for Pearl, the album that featured “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Mercedes Benz” and “Buried Alive in the Blues” (which ended up being just an instrumental since Joplin died before laying down the vocals for that track). These are the songs that Joplin is most known for and they weren’t even released until 1971, three months after she died.
In AA, they warn newcomers not to leave the program before the miracle happens. It’s heartbreaking to know that Joplin’s most popular and celebrated contribution to American music was nothing more than a rough recording in a dumpy little sound studio when she unknowingly took her own life with heroin. Is the moral of the story perhaps that no matter how strong you may feel, it’s probably best to avoid your high school reunion?