I’VE BEEN FEELING MIGHTY GUILTY about taking a little summer staycation in my hot, moist hometown of Toronto, Canada—a city of cheap condos that rain sheets of glass curtain wall onto the bed of a lake that evaporated ten thousand years ago—because, as I swelter in my kinky Mormon undergarments that I purchased second hand from Kijiji Salt Lake City and drink Fresca Shirley Temples garnished with parasols, I am neglecting to regale you with tales about my unfiled taxes, the last of the summer strawberries and the current roommate—whose confidentiality I will breach just a little by saying he is awaiting a bed at St. Michael’s Hospital for his emergency personality bypass.
Then it hit me. Hit me like a hockey puck hits the forehead of a disabled boy in a wheelchair attending his first, and last, Stanley Cup game. Hit me like Andrew Scheer hits his handmaids in the uteri with The New English Bible, Basic Vocabulary Edition: FOBBING OFF.
Fobbing off is when I appropriate something from the innerweb that moves, because I heard you like things that move. I haven’t moved since 2013, the year my ambition was shot, and, for the record, it was a conspiracy, and, for that matter, do you remember where you were?
Things That Move that I might share include an endlessly looping animated GIF of a parakeet feeding French fries to a puppy; a purloined documentary about the Illuminati’s plans for an underwater theme park on the former site of Miami Beach and for which I fail to honor the Creative Commons license; a YouTube video explaining how to earn money making concrete ashtrays or touring with your Nazi volleyball team.
These are just off the top of my head. Then I take The Media That Moves and tart it up with some sassy, possibly even relevant, commentary to distract you and make you think I’m actually doing some work, here. If I’m lucky, you may actually think I have depth.
So, fobbing right along, let’s pay homage to a member of the “27 Club,” a sweet misfit, a woman struggling with substance abuse even as she brushed her dirty fingernails against the stars; a big little girl from Texas named Janis Joplin. Watch and marvel as she gobsmacks her stunned audience at Monterey in 1967 with her raspy, miraculous caterwauling that can switch effortlessly and unexpectedly to a pure, perfectly placed phrase worthy of Schubert. Musicians of this era still knew music, all music, and you can hear operatic arias and counterpoint as much as blue grass and soul. Music still resonated with history.
Included in the footage are shots of Mama Cass in the audience, her jaw dropping as she watches, then at the end mouthing “Wow!” twice to her companion.
Janis Joplin had a pudgy, pock-marked face, she was “kooky,” because she wore jeans to her university classes and carried a guitar. She was once voted “Ugliest Man on Campus” by the ugly men on campus. She once joked about this on the Dick Cavett Show, but it was obvious that an insult that crass could get under anyone’s skin; with someone as emotionally vulnerable and isolated as Joplin, it must have been a knife blade in her brain.
I want the men who bullied her so nastily and so unnecessarily so wake up one morning and realize what they did. I want them to realize what they did every time a woman comes forward who’s been abused; every time they see a young woman with anorexia; every time they hear of addiction or suicide. I want them to look at their wives or daughters or sisters and recall a time when they were distraught, helpless or sick.
I want them to know that emotional abuse can be fatal; it’s always harmful, sometimes irreversibly. I want them to cry a thousand tears for every tear that Joplin cried and feel that agony.
In a society that treasures women’s docility it is a big deal for a woman not to be docile; in a society that judges women by a standard of beauty set by entitled men, it is a big deal for a woman to be judged publicly as ugly. When men call the shots and are the final arbiters of your worth, to be a woman and judged worthless is capital punishment.
I used to think that such an intense gift can burn itself out, especially when the gift, calibrated to limn the territories of psychic pain, creates a perpetual cycle of increasingly spectacular highs and reckless lows. Maybe with art this raw, with a flame burning this bright, you can only last twenty-seven years. Maybe artists have an innate sense of how much time they have…?
But these days it’s more my style to resist layering narrative onto the sheer sketchy randomness of our lives. An artist’s early death does not unfold according to an arcane watchmaker’s directive; it’s not the demonstration of an orderly clockwork universe—it delivers the anarchic shock of an assassination.
Mozart’s eccentricity was tamped into a classicizing container, both musical and societal. He had the consolations of religion, and, fortunately, a rock-solid sense of his own worth. This core of self-assurance helped him survive the suffocating neediness and emotional blackmail of his father, whose neurotic possessiveness threatened to cripple Mozart’s independence and creativity. Born two centuries later, he could have survived the rheumatic fever that killed him at thirty-five, using our science-based medicine that does not bleed you or force upon you curatives like “a pinch of the black powder in a glass of Sekt.“
Beethoven would have written twenty symphonies and invented Viennese jazz if he’d gone to rehab, tried cognitive therapy, stopped going to swingers’ parties and sleeping with his groupies’ wives, and rejected his family doctor’s advice to bathe in the damned Rhine. (You can make up your own what-if scenarios for your own treasured artists.)
That’s the tragedy. There was so much more for them to give before they slipped on banana peels and got run over by the clown car. I’m recalling a news item about a woman who purchased a can of beer, drank it straight from the can, and died: because in the warehouse where the cans were stored, a rat had urinated on this particular can, thereby depositing traces of the rat poison which it had ingested.
I don’t know if this woman was an artist, but I know that no one deserves to crack open a cold one and die from arsenic poisoning. No one deserves the bathos of quotidian, cocktail-hour death.
We should do artists better. We should create safe communities, idyllic retreats in which we could coddle them, nourish them, give them smooth passage, protect them from life’s fault lines, and from themselves. (But without a history and experience, would they have anything to sing about, paint, write?)
Instead we treat artists —the truth-tellers, visionaries, iconoclasts, the most emotionally vulnerable of our species—as though they’re just like everyone else, when they’re skirting the edges of insanity. We’re like parents who blindfold our children and send them running naked through a firing range.
Janis Joplin, as was the case with Amy Winehouse, traveled in tandem with her self-doubts and her drugs and her art. She set her locus of control to other and filtered out anything that called her good, talented or beautiful. Her self-doubts, drugs and art egged each other on and dared to walk on broken glass on the edge of the cliff until they all fell together.
I’m not brave or talented—if this performance is any baseline for bravery and talent, I’m just a broken, craven old stick—but I’m eternally grateful for the blood splattering on my awestruck face.