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Janis & Jimi

Last October, toward the end of the month, I made one of several trips to Ukiah from Clearlake, where I was living at the time. Several of the local Ukiah businesses had Halloween window displays, but the one that really caught my eye was the one at Dig! Music on State Street, which featured a graveyard, with headstones displaying the names of prominent musicians of the “past,” who had “passed” on far before their time. I couldn’t help but commend the proprietors on this sincere tribute to the late, great musical artists of the past who have contributed so much to the roots of modern music, as well as making their own indelible marks on the social and political evolution of our American culture over almost the past five decades.

I was delighted to note that the “Cannabis Card” in the April 17th AVA featured Janis Joplin and the one in the May 8th edition featured Jimi Hendrix, given the uncanny parallels in their lives in terms of their impact on the culture in which they lived, performed, faced their own private demons, and then died, at 27, long before we were fully able to acknowledge their true value as performers, human beings, and change agents. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of their music, at 20, as a junior in college, I was keenly aware of the fact that these two great legends and icons of my generation had met an untimely end, and, as such, they deserved to be remembered and cherished with a fitting tribute to their memory. To that end, as my own personal contribution, I purchased a large black-and-white poster of each of them and displayed the two of them on my dorm room wall, with the letters “R. I. P.,” cut out of black construction paper, sandwiched in between. Although many of my dormmates referred to my display as “morbid,” even at that tender age, I was aware of the importance of ritual and ceremony in honoring those who have passed on, while leaving us a potent legacy for honoring their unique contributions to our ever-evolving way of life.

Janis Joplin was born on January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas, and died on October 4, 1970, in Hollywood, exactly 32 years before my mother, who died on the same date (in 2002), at 87. Jimi Hendrix was born on November 27, 1942, in Seattle (exactly two years before my brother), and died on September 18, 1970, in Kensington, London. In addition to both of them performing at Woodstock (where Hendrix did his unforgettable guitar rendition of the national anthem), Janis’s band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, performed on both the west and east coasts with Jimi’s band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, along with other popular recording artists of the late 1960s. Both causes of death were drug overdoses, within 16 days of each other.

1970 was a year of huge changes in my life, on both a personal and global level. When American troops, under order of President Nixon, invaded Cambodia, Sacramento City College, the school that I was attending at the time, closed down for several days, mostly in response to fights breaking out between the more conservative Aeronautics students and the more liberal University bound students. Being one of the latter, my major concern was being able to graduate, so I could move on to what I believed then would be “bigger and better things.” The first of those turned out, upon my enrollment at CSU, Hayward (now CSU, East Bay) to be the discovery that one of my (older) closest friends was a lesbian, and that one of my (newer) closest friends was having an affair with one of our married instructors. Adjusting to the untimely deaths of Janis and Jimi was just a precursor to a year spent watching increasingly larger chunks of my innocence fade away — at least what was left of it, having already survived the deaths of several civil rights leaders, a president, and his brother, a presidential candidate.

One of the major advantages for me of living in the east bay during that time was the close proximity to Berkeley, to which I had become fully acculturated when my brother began there as a student in 1962. I recall that a friend and I took the bus there one weekend right after Jimi died, and the Berkeley Barb had printed a beautiful tribute to him, in which the author pointed out that because racial prejudice was quite alive and well in this country in the 1960’s, Jimi did not truly achieve the success that he deserved until after performing in England, where ethnic diversity was much more widely accepted and honored. In a sense, it seemed as if the events leading up to his death constituted a full circle for him, bringing him back to the same country where he had initially attained fame and stardom before his eventual success in the US.

As far as Janis, she was a role model for many of the young women of my generation, particularly those with musical aspirations. With her husky, soulful voice, flamboyant style of dress, and unabashed bisexuality, she paved the way for us to break out of the molds in which we had been raised during our childhood and adolescence, to embrace the freedom of expression of all of our unique and individual qualities, however much they may have differed from what our parents had determined was “acceptable.” The message she delivered to us was that life, love, and, yes, even lust, should be enjoyed to the fullest, treating every moment as if it was your last. That moment arrived much too soon for both of those folk heroes of my generation, and although their legacy still lives on through their music, we will remember them fondly as shooting stars whose lights burned out long before they had the chance to shine their brightest.

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