Janis Joplin passed away 50 years ago today, but rather than a dour post that rehashes the details of her final hours, I’m taking a more celebratory slant just as a reminder to anyone who might need one what an amazing talent she was. She, along with Jimi and Jim, was the embodiment of a shooting star. She arrived on the scene with soulful bombast and maintained it, uncompromisingly, until the end.
It’s easy to forget, given the legends that have grown up around the late 60’s generation of artists, that festivals such as Monterey Pop and Woodstock were introductions to the greater listening public to folks like Janis, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, and others. Janis was 24 years old at Monterey, insecure about her talent and herself in general, and without any formal musical training. Yet I can’t watch her performance there without chills. Neither can the audience, who were blown away. Mama Cass’s jaw dropped, probably with a knowing that the game was over for some of the mid-60’s class of pop entertainers, a few of whom were on that same stage during the festival. And Janis knew she’d nailed it when she skipped off the stage at the conclusion of her performance. She was the absolute real deal.
Like many Gen X-ers, I discovered the brilliance of Jimi Hendrix for myself in the mid/late 80’s, probably due to the numerous twentieth anniversaries at the time in music and pop culture in general. His death fifty years ago today is usually presented as just a given, and in the grand scheme that’s what it was. As with some of his contemporaries who died young, it’s hard for me to imagine Hendrix as a septuagenarian, but who knows? I wasn’t even aware until recently of the concern that extreme negligence of others if not foul play may have been involved. It never occurred to me that there might be more to it than the generic narrative of the overindulgent musician who had one too many pills, drinks, or both.
As with other artists I’ve listened to most of my life, my interest in Jimi’s music has shifted and evolved. While I still love his three core albums, I’ve begun to hear his posthumous releases such as the tracks on First Rays of the New Rising Sun in a much more enjoyable light (pun not really intended). Where would he have gone with his music? Would anything have come of his developing association with Miles Davis? What if he were alive today?
At the same time, now when I watch his performances such as at Monterey Pop or Woodstock, I’m hearing the magnificence of his renditions of Wild Thing and The Star Spangled Banner, performances which to me in the past were overshadowed somewhat by his showmanship. A handful of songs and his persona drew me in as a fifteen year old, but the substance of the music keeps it fresh for me as I approach my own fiftieth anniversary of life. Now that Hendrix poster which adorned my various teenage/early adult bedroom walls has its place in my son’s apartment at college. And on it goes. It may be hard to imagine Jimi Hendrix at seventy-seven, but it’s unfathomable to think of the music world without his incalculable contributions.
There’s a great deal of joy for me in the music I celebrate on this blog, and generally that’s where I prefer to focus my attention. But with that yin comes the inevitable yang. Beginning with the death of Brian Jones in July of 1969, followed by the darkness of the Manson murders the following month and Altamont in December of that year, the positive vibes of the Peace & Love movement had taken a major hit. The great music played on, but all was not well. Fatigue had set in due to the ongoing mess in Vietnam, riots at home, Kent State, etc. Drugs of choice had become more dangerous, and some folks weren’t equipped to handle it in the long term. Canned Heat co-founder, guitarist, harmonica virtuoso, and singer Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson was a casualty of the times. In the weeks and months following his passing, the bad news kept coming.
The Massachusetts born Wilson became a musician, and specifically a serious blues enthusiast and student, at a young age. His falsetto vocal style was directly influenced by Skip James. Wilson also helped Son House re-learn his own songs after years away from music. He studied music at Boston University before moving to Los Angeles with guitarist John Fahey. It was Fahey who gave the extremely nearsighted, intellectual, and introverted Wilson his moniker, “Blind Owl.” In L.A. Wilson met Bob Hite, and together they formed what became one of the greatest blues rock bands of all time, Canned Heat. That band’s two most commercially successful singles, Going Up the Country and On the Road Again, feature Wilson on vocals (the latter song also featuring him on tambura, harmonica, and guitar).
Unfortunately, Wilson was also prone to depression. He had spent a short time in an L.A. hospital after a suicide attempt a few months prior to his death, and on this day 50 years ago he was found behind bandmate Bob Hite’s Topanga Canyon home, dead from an overdose of barbituates. There was no note, and his death was officially ruled an accident. He left an important musical legacy in his brief time on Earth. Like Brian Jones, he championed the cause of the original blues masters who had been nearly forgotten, while creating some of the enduring sounds of the Woodstock Era. Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson: 7/4/43 – 9/3/70.