What Janis Joplin Forgot

I imagine a great experiment when we replace all the hymns and music on a particular Sunday with the music of Janis Joplin.   We don’t say anything, we just sit back and watch.   I imagine that the level of discomfort that would fill that church would be staggering in mere moments.    We would have countless folks sprinting out of our buildings.  It would be the pinnacle of making service uncomfortable.

To be honest, I was never a fan of Janis Joplin before just recently.  Sadly, that had less to do with her music, then it had to never really sitting down and listening to it and learning who she was.    Regardless of my impression of Joplin, the music of her generation, that hippie love fest type of music, is still popular among a younger generation today.

In the end, I knew little of Janis Joplin.   That was until I went about searching out who she was.   That search began in response to something I read in a book .   It was a passage on Janis that moved me incredibly.  In her book; “Please Stop Laughing at Me” by Jodee Blanco details the incredibly heartwrenching journey the author took through school as she was a victim of bullying.    

Jodee was different.

She was smart, pretty, and funny…but she also had that fiercely intense sense of right and wrong that so many kids have.  Yet Jodee was in a constant battle with how to manage that character trait in the social circles of her school.   At first she tried to be a voice among her peers, but eventually became seen as weak.    When in her teen years that weakness was also joined with the  physical issues of adolescence, and soon the girl was labeled a misfit.

The book details an incredibly painful battle with bullying and its lifelong psychological effects.    If you ever have the opportunity to pick up this book, I urge you to do so.    If you work with kids, or would just like a good read, I highly suggest it.

Anyways, in the book there is a moment, in high school when Jodee is asked to give an impromptu speech in a public speaking class.    She decides to give on one of her hero’s which tells the story of her life.    After reading it in the book, I decided I needed to find out for myself about Janis Joplin.

Janis was born in 1943 in a small oil town in Texas.   Her parents were super artistic, and pushed young Janis to be as creative and expressive as she could.   Unfortunately, both of these aspects were not especially encouraged in her small and conservative hometown.

Janis was never like the other kids.    She preferred to be a loner,…she was happiest when she was off on one corner of the playground writing in her journal.     When she was little she said that she had songs in her head, that had to come out.    It took the form of poetry, and all her time was spent writing those poems, in that little black book she carried everywhere.

She didn’t have friends, and she wasn’t concerned with those things that her classmates thought important.     It wasn’t long before she was labeled as a misfit, a freak, and a loser.

As so often is the case, her problems in school and around town, manifested itself in that little 11 year girl in the form of a weight issue.   Not only was she a misfit in the eyes of her classmates, she was overweight.   With adolescence came awkwardness and an acne problem that was so severe that she needed derma abrasion as an adult to correct the scarring.

The kids were merciless to her.  They tormented her.   She was picked on.  She was insulted.  They spit on her.   They threw stones at her.   The beat her on the bus, on the playground, and on walks home.

To protect herself from the bullying she descended further into herself and her music.    By chance, late in her teens she discovered the guitar.    Eventually she graduated high school and moved to San Francisco.   Once there she joined a band called “Big Brother and the Holding Company”.   The band performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and became an overnight success.

But despite the fame and the money that came from it, Janis was still that bullied 11 year old girl.   She had scars from years of torment, and was, as best as I can put it, broken.   To ease that pain, she turned to heroin.  

In the height of her fame, she appeared on the Dick Cavett show.   Anyone who watched it saw a fiercely confident woman, who had this fairy like persona, that brought with it a charisma that once experienced one would be hard pressed not to smile at, and to feel good in its company.

But there was a moment in that show, when she said something revealing.    She made mention of a high school reunion that she had just attended, as this huge mega star.    When she was asked how it went…   She replied that it was a nightmare.      She said… When she saw them,…and saw who they were… She wasn’t ready to forgive them….  She wasn’t ready to give up on her anger and her hurt.  She wasn’t ready to offer her forgiveness to them.

In a few days she was dead, due to her addiction.  At 27, Janis was found dead in a Los Angeles hotel room.

In her speech to her class,…she warned, and to use her words, “that the next time you poke fun or insult or hurt….you could be killing the next Joplin, the next Bette Midler,…or the next great voice”.

When I heard, and subsequently learned more about who Janis Joplin was, I was most taken by her comments that on the Dick Cavett Show.

“She wasn’t ready to offer her forgiveness”

There are a great many things we get wrong in our faith;  we are all guilty of it at times.   Maybe it’s how we sometimes view faith as a Sunday only type of thing, or maybe it’s how we start viewing church as what we do to get our afterlife ticket punched;    If we do things right, hopefully we can take the ride up rather than down.   Whatever these things may be it seems like one that will forever make the listing is the many diverse and often times wrong ways we define and view forgivene4ss.     Forgiveness seems to be, for so many of us, something we offer up or do for another.   That is not what forgiveness is.  

Building on the foundation that God is Love, I have overtime come to the conclusion that all we do from the moment of our births to the moment we die is built upon the desire to love or to be more loveable.    Along the way we horrifically screw up our definitions of love and as a result we screw up those pursuits.

We think our jobs, our income, or our possessions make us more loveable.   We think how we look or how we dress will do it.   We think changing the ‘who-we-are’ down at our core, might be our answer.    None of these things are.    It is only as we grow older we be begin to catch a glimpse of the truth.

That truth is the most profound and life changing imaginable.   In the end, the love we spend our whole life chasing is not 100 yards ahead… its right here… its right in front of us.   Our faith tells us, in the most simple of ways, that we are loved.   We have found love, and we are infinitely loveable.   Jesus tells us, once and for all, the pursuit is over.

Because of that gift of God’s love, we need to love others.   Yet, and here is the crux of this message, to offer that love to the world we have to embrace a side of us that we have been told since we were little children to hide.   To be loved, or to pursue love, or to love others, exposes our vulnerability.    To be the people that we are supposed to be, we need to be vulnerable.

That’s scary.   Offering up your soft or weak spots is risky.   Overtime, we lockup or hide our vulnerable parts.    We hide them from the school yard bullies, or the stranger.    If we let them out,…they are the very point of attack.

Consider this;  After heart surgery, scar tissues form around the patient’s incision.    This scar tissue is tougher, and causes issues for subsequent heart operations in some cases.     When our vulnerable parts are hurt by the bullies around us, scar tissue forms over.   The more scar tissue the harder the heart is to penetrate.    We cover our vulnerability with the scars of old hurts, betrayals, and disappointments.

What Janis didn’t remember, was that forgiveness is something we don’t do for others, but we do for ourselves.    Forgiveness is about becoming whole again.   Forgiveness allows us to be vulnerable again.   Its about peeling back the scar tissue.

We I was just barely a man, I made a decision.   It was the stupid, crass decision to be a tough guy.   There was an argument brewing and for a moment, I was an innocent bystander.   Yet, I was empowered by beer and the fraternity brothers that were forming a circle around the pair arguing.   With the swing of a fist, I professed my disdain over the chatter between the parties, and I committed to my course of action.  I don’t know the person I hit, or even the nature of their debate, but I do know this,…there was nothing that he did to deserve what followed.

In a moment’s notice, the impact of what I had started was upon me.   In an instant, the swarm of blood thirsty fraternity brothers who stood behind me, swarmed the guy I had just hit,  and who was now backing away from the crowd.

In a minute or two, the beat and bloodied him up.    At the first indication of that swarm, I stepped back,… my head reeling.   I keep saying to myself…   I can still hear the voice in my head…  It said “wait”.   It said “this isn’t right”.  

But the words never made it to my lips.   I didn’t land the punches that hurt him, but I didn’t stop it either.   I didn’t punch him again, but my failure to act like a man, led to what followed.  It wasn’t my argument.   It wasn’t my business.   It was of no concern to me.   Yet, I made it mine with a simple, and probably pathetic, swing of the fist.

Today, I thank God that the stranger wasn’t hurt worse.    I thank God….And I still cannot forget that moment.   I have recalled it every day since.    I had caused the hurt of another, which in the end, they did not deserve.  I was mad, and I am still mad, that twenty years ago, I didn’t make a better or a wiser choice.  In that moment, a decision was made about the role of alcohol in my life, the person I wanted to be, and how I chose to express strength. 

I still think of that random person, despite never knowing his name, or recalling any other aspect of the evening.  It’s a piece of me I hate.

Somehow, I need to figure out a way to put that moment away.              

Here is a simple fact that each of us must remember:   If there is a piece of you that you hate, how can you ever fully love yourself?   Its simple, you can’t.   How can I be whole, if I refuse to embrace everything?

Forgiveness is about letting go of the decisions made against us…   People have and will hurt us.   We will be victims from time to time.   We will have people in our lives who seem to find joy and satisfaction in the misery of others.    There will be people who will pursue the vulnerable spots.   It is forgiveness that tells us, that reminds us, that we are better and more than the hurt.   We deserve to be loved, and to love fully.   Forgiveness is the act of revealing the vulnerable spots again.  

Forgiveness is also about laying down our burdens.   Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves.   Forgiveness is about me.    Forgiveness is about putting aside the stupid, crass, or selfish decisions of the past, and saying to yourself that you are more than that.    Forgiveness is the act of saying that I am more that the sum of that moment.   Forgiveness is about me too.

Somewhere along the way, you and I need to figure this out.    Our pasts will consume us if we let it.    The past will consume our lives and our hearts, whether they take shape in the actions of another, or our own.     What Jodee learned, and Janis did not,…was that someday we will need to make a choice.

We will need to make a choice to let the pain consume us,….or chose to let go.

You and I, we have a gift.   We all have a gift, if we are willing to take it.  It’s a gift that says, that despite what we do, or don’t do….Despite what the world says we are….  Despite what we think we are….   We are worthy, We are loved, and we are forgiven.  Christ Died for us, while we were still broken,…and that is his love for us.   Thanks be to God Amen.


Note:  I certainly recommend reading Jodee’s book “Please Stop Laughing at Me!”.   It is  a quick read, but one that will open your eyes.   Its published by Adams Media, and can be purchased at Amazon (via this link), for under $10.00 new.  (BTW…This isnt a paid endorsement!  🙂  )

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  1. HelenG

     /  September 20, 2011

    I had a minister who was very fond of saying that the thing we forget most as people of faith is that we are worthy and that message was central to the gospel itself. I certainly appreciate your post and thank you for the reminder that we too often miss. Gods Blessing Paster Scott!

  2. I agree. Both the worthiness comments and the forgiveness reality check are something that we need to remember. I also appreciate your willingness to share the story of your own mistakes. I will check out Jodie’s book.

  3. As compared to cocky insouciance of Jim Morrison and voodoo haze of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin’s insecurities about her background, talent and looks were there for all to see. Ironically she was the most rugged stage performer of them all.http://modernartists.blogspot.com/2011/09/full-tilt-boogie-kozmic-blues-of-janis.html

  4. In doing a music piece for Janis Joplin, I came across your blog. Ironic, the thing I find the saddest and most unnecessary was the fact she was such a target for so many bullies. In junior high all the way through my mid twenties, I was the bully that everyone talks about in the ads and commercials. I was the one that every story describes as the hateful, insecure brash coward who had to prove their self worth by ripping others’ away. I am still haunted by what I said and did to people. It was unimaginable. If someone was ANYWHERE CLOSE to as evil to a child as I was, I would absolutely lose it. If someone said to me NOW what I said to MANY – and I mean MANY girls in high school – oh dear. I might get an assault charge.
    But you are right – you HAVE to forgive yourself. You have to. You have to get to the whys and hows first though. That’s the hard part. Accountability. Ouch.

    Still working on that. Not a bully anymore, though. 🙂 Thanks for this. It was a good read.

  5. Dani Y

     /  March 3, 2015

    It was listening to Janis’ music that brought me back home to God. It’s not easy to put in to words…but something in that voice reached down and ignited my soul..I remembered what love was, i KNEW that voice and i had wandered far from it..I too, like Janis and Jodie, was bullied at school, it terrified me and bit by bit i lost touch with myself. By adulthood I had descended in to alcoholism and drug abuse trying desperately to find acceptance within different groups in society, never realizing i was drifting further and further from home, i was so lost and by the age of 27 i was spiritually dead. It wasn’t until 4 years later, when stumbling upon Janis’ music, quite by accident, that i felt warmth in my blood and a pulse in my heart..a memory of home! I prayed to God fervently and down crashed waves and waves of hot electric, vibrating, love..it was almost too much to bear but was beyond words beautiful! And so began my journey home to Jesus..I’ll be forever aching for the lost life of Janis Joplin but eternally grateful for the fire she weaved in to her music! A true lost sheep, her mind had lost it’s way, but that heart was AFLAME with Love!

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