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A Celebration Of Janis Joplin And All Her Swagger

Oct 21, 2012
Originally published on October 22, 2012 8:03 am

The countercultural revolution of the 1960s may have been all about sex drugs and rock 'n' roll, but for one young Texas singer it was all about the blues. No one sang the blues quite like Janis Joplin.

Joplin was part of a legendary line-up of musicians at Woodstock in 1969: Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Joan Baez. She wasn't on the music scene long, though. Joplin died in 1970 of a drug overdose. She was only 27 years old, but in that short time her bluesy rasp helped define the music of a generation.

Her music takes center stage in a new play called One Night with Janis Joplin, playing at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Transforming Into Janis

Backstage before a recent performance, band members tuned their instruments. Backup singers did some trills. Six nights a week, Mary Bridget Davies, the star of the show, transforms herself into the Texan blues singer. The Cleveland native says it's a process that takes all day.

"You have to completely change your mindset. ... You're not first. She's first," she says. "She's the priority."

Becoming Joplin means conserving every ounce of energy she has.

"It's almost like when you're driving and the gas light comes on, how you shut off the air conditioning and everything and just kind of coasting," she says. "That's kind of how I am during the day. I do all my stuff through email if I can ... just because I have to save up every ounce for this."

There's also a physical transformation. Davies straightens her naturally curly hair just enough to give her the unruly hippie waves Joplin was famous for. And of course, there are the clothes: feathered boas, crazy hats, long necklaces and big sunglasses. Because the audience has to believe that it's Joplin standing on that stage.

"There's things in the show that I make sure that I do that are hers that are trademark," Davies says. "Because as a fan of hers, I would feel cheated if it didn't happen."

Like the scream at the end of "Piece of My Heart."

"As soon as I do the scream, its 'rahh!' and they're with us — because there's still that hesitation, like, 'Is this girl gonna be able to pull it off?' " Davies says.

The Audience Journeys Back

The show is loosely plotted. It's like a Joplin concert, only with musical numbers that pay tribute to the singers who inspired her: Odetta, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin.

The crowd here on this night is, as you might expect, made up many people who grew up listening to Joplin.

Marsha Nelson says Joplin is part of her lifeblood. When most of the buttoned-up D.C. audience was clapping politely in their seats, Nelson was pumping her fists in the air.

"I watch this crowd, and you can see the age group here, right? And it took a while. It took a while for people to stamp their feet. It took a while to remember. It took a while to get the blood boiling," she says. "And then bingo! They remember Janis! And it was fabulous."

Michael Joplin, Janis's younger brother, has been a big part of making this production happen. He has seen Davies play his sister on stage more times than he can count.

But still, he says there are these moments in the play, things that Davies does that get to him.

"There's a couple times when she raises her eyebrows that nobody in the audience would know but me," he says, "that just ... freak me out a little bit."

Michael Joplin says that when he watches the show now, he doesn't look at the stage.

"It's a beautiful thing to watch that happen, to watch the audience react much the same way they would with Janis," he says.

All That Swagger

Davies says she's rehearsed for this part since she was a teenager.

"I've been a fan of hers all my life ... It's kind of like I've been rehearsing for this role as a fan, through osmosis," she says, "and then I just had lots and lots of practice before I got to do it on stage. Because she's so fun, she's the ultimate hairbrush-mirror-sing-along artist for me when I was little."

Joplin, Davies says, had swagger.

"It's like, when you put that sequined belt on, there might as well be two six shooters on either side because you do feel like the sheriff, like there's this power that she gives you," she says.

Michael Joplin says his sister's Texan roots had a lot to do with that attitude.

A Reason To Celebrate

The production doesn't really explore the darker chapters in Janis Joplin's life, most notably her death in 1970. The show may not give a complete portrait, but Michael Joplin says that's not really what they were going for.

"We wanted to enjoy Janis. And I think the music does that, the history of Janis and where she came from and how she developed her style, that's what we were trying to talk about," he says, adding, "That's why it's called One Night with Janis, not One Life with Janis."

Michael Joplin's celebration of his sister spills over into his daily life, too. He regularly hears her songs on the radio or in stores, which he says is "totally cool."

"We've had a lot of time to deal with this, and normally when somebody in your family dies, they go away, and you might be lucky to have photographs and some film," he says. "But we've got — well, I'm here, doing this. And it's mind-boggling to me ... how I get to continuously visit with Janis."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s may have been all about sex, drugs and rock and roll. But for one young Texas singer - it was all about the blues. And no one sang the blues quite like Janis Joplin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRY BABY")

JANIS JOPLIN: (Singing) I know she told you, I know she told you she loved you, much more than I...

MARTIN: Janis Joplin was part of a legendary line up of musicians at Woodstock in 1969 - Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Joan Baez. Joplin wasn't on the music scene long, though. She died in 1970 of a drug overdose. She was only 27 years old. But in that short time, her bluesy rasp helped define the music of a generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRY BABY")

JOPLIN: (Singing) It's cry, cry baby, cry baby, cry baby, honey, welcome back home...

MARTIN: Her music takes center stage in a new play called "One Night with Janis Joplin." And it's currently playing in Washington, D.C. We visited backstage before a recent performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The band tuned their instruments, the backup singers did some trills and we caught up with the star of the show, Mary Bridget Davies. Six nights a week, the Cleveland native transforms herself into the Texan blues singer. She says it's a process that takes all day.

MARY BRIDGET DAVIES: You have to completely change your mindset. You know, and you have to put - you're not first. She's first. She's the priority.

MARTIN: So, as we're catching you right now, about an hour before the show, where are you in that process?

DAVIES: Oh, I'm pretty close.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: By the way, this is probably the most Mary Bridget has spoken out loud all day, because becoming Janis Joplin means conserving every ounce of energy she's got.

DAVIES: It's almost like when you're driving and the gas light comes on, how you, like, shut off the air conditioning and everything and you're, like, just kind of like coasting.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DAVIES: That's kind of how I am during the day. Like, I do all my stuff through email if I can and, you know, just because I have to save up every ounce for this.

MARTIN: There's also a physical transformation. Davies straightens her naturally curly hair - just enough to give her the unruly hippie waves Janis was famous for. And of course the clothes - feathered boas, crazy hats, long necklaces and big ole sunglasses, because the audience has to believe that it's Janis Joplin standing on that stage.

DAVIES: There's things in the show that I make sure that I do that are hers that are trademark. Because as a fan of hers, I would feel cheated if it didn't happen.

MARTIN: Like what?

DAVIES: The scream at the end of "Piece of My Heart." As soon as I do the scream, it's (makes sound) and they're with us because there's still that hesitation, like is this girl going to be able to pull it off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF MY HEART")

DAVIES: (Singing) There's another little piece of my heart, baby, ah yeah. You know you got it. Ahhh. Take it, take another little piece of my heart, baby...

MARTIN: The show is loosely plotted. It's like a Janis Joplin concert really, only with musical numbers that pay tribute to the singers who inspired her - Odetta, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin. The crowd here on this night is, as you might expect, made up of a lot of people who grew up with Janis Joplin.

MARSHA NELSON: You think I'm a Joplin fan? Are you nuts? She's part of my lifeblood. This is it. This is the blues. This is the girl. This is it.

MARTIN: Meet Marsha Nelson. When most of the buttoned up D.C. audience was clapping politely in their seats, Marsha was pumping her fists in the air.

NELSON: I watch this crowd, and you can see the age group here, right? And it took a while. It took a while for people to stamp their feet. And it took a while to remember. It took a while to get the blood boiling. And then bingo. They remember Janis. And it was fabulous.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Toss them programs over your head. They'll give you another one. Just toss them in the air. It is time for us to get up to get down. (Singing) (unintelligible) Get up. Don't be shy. Get up. I'm gonna (unintelligible)...

MARTIN: The day after the show we caught up with Mary Bridget Davies and Michael Joplin, Janis's younger brother. He's been a big part of making this production happen. Joplin has seen Mary Bridget play his sister on stage more times than he can count. But still, he says there are these moments in the play, these things that Mary Bridget does that just get to him.

MICHAEL JOPLIN: There's a couple times when she raises her eyebrows that nobody in the audience would know but me kind of that just, like, freak me out a little bit.

MARTIN: Michael Joplin told us that when watches the show now - he doesn't look at the stage.

JOPLIN: I love watching the audience react and how I want them to react and how Mary gets them and how Randy, the director gets them to move. And, you know, it's a beautiful thing, to watch that happen, to watch the audience react much the same way would with Janis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DAVIES: (Singing) Sugar, 'cause all I ever got to do is call out my name (unintelligible) my baby, oh...

MARTIN: In the process of putting together this portrait really of this woman, this musician, what did you study?

DAVIES: Well, I've been a fan of hers all my life. And my parents got a VHS kind of documentary of her called "Janis: The Way She Was," and I was a teenager. It's kind of like I've been rehearsing this role as a fan, like, through osmosis and then I just had, like, lots and lots of practice before I got to do it on stage because, oh yeah, she's so fun. She's the ultimate hairbrush, mirror, sing-along artist for me when I was little.

MARTIN: Did you kind of focus in on a couple of different things? Did you say to yourself, OK, I'm going to do her eyebrows. I'm going to do Janis's eyebrows and maybe I'm going to do the...

DAVIES: Do the eyebrows. Janis had so much swagger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALL AND CHAIN")

DAVIES: (Singing) You got a hold on me, baby, feel just like a ball and chain...

It's like when you put that sequined belt on, there might as well as be like two six-shooters on either side because you do feel like the sheriff, like there's this power that she gives you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALL AND CHAIN")

DAVIES: (Singing) Feels just like a ball and chain...

MARTIN: Did she always have that?

JOPLIN: Well, first and foremost, she's a Texan, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So, yeah.

JOPLIN: So, yeah. She had some swagger. And I do think that that was developed as well. She liked the character of that swagger.

MARTIN: Janis died in 1970 and she was 27. She died of a drug overdose. And the play makes only really a passing reference to her death. Let's take a listen to this moment.

DAVIES: (as Janis) You know, people come up to me and they say, hey, Janis, do you think you'll die a young, unhappy death? Well, I hope not, man. But if I have to start worrying about every little thing it is that I'm doing, I'd just as soon quit now. You know, and I'm...

MARTIN: As we mentioned, she died of a drug overdose, but the production doesn't really explore the darker chapters of her life. Is this some way an incomplete portrait, Michael?

JOPLIN: I don't know if we really were trying to make a portrait so much. We wanted to enjoy Janis. And I think the music does that. The history of Janis and where she came from and how she developed her style, that's what we were trying to talk about. We didn't really want to - I didn't want to do a cradle to grave thing. I wanted to do a celebratory thing with Janis. And that's why it's called "One Night with Janis," not one life with Janis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I wonder what it's like for you to hear her voice now. I imagine you flip through radio stations, like we all do, from time to time. You hear some Janis Joplin. Maybe you go into a grocery store and they're playing it on the sound system and elevator. Does that happen to you?

JOPLIN: Oh, yeah. It's totally cool. You know, we've had a lot of time to deal with this. And normally when somebody in your family dies, they go away. And you might be lucky to have photographs and some film. But we've got - well, I'm here doing this. And it's mindboggling to me. And how I get to continuously visit with Janis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DAVIES: (Singing) Baby, when you're down and feeling so blue, when, oh, you won't drown, honey, I'll be there too...

MARTIN: That was Michael Joplin, and Mary Bridget Davies. She's currently starring in "One Night with Janis Joplin," which you can catch at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DAVIES: (Singing) Whatever your troubles, honey, I don't care. A man and a woman have each other, baby...

MARTIN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.