From his both photograph and his writing in the newspaper, it is obvious that television critic Bill Harris is a middle-aged man, as I am. He begins his latest article by noting that Prince was middle-aged, 57, “and everyone can agree, that’s way too young to go.” But as Harris notes, others have left us at a far younger age.
Harris has previewed this week’s PBS showing of a documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue. Janis Joplin died at age 27 in 1970. She was indeed blue: The documentary reveals a letter of hers that reads, “After you reach a certain level of talent, and quite a few have that talent, the deciding factor is ambition. Or as I see it, how much you really need to be loved, and need to be proud of yourself.” This from a woman who, according to the documentary, had been voted “most ugly” by fraternities.
On stage I’m sure Joplin felt loved. Proud. There she was happy. But not off the stage. There she abused alcohol and was often hooked on heroin. She would try to kick her addiction, succeed for a while, and always relapse. Talk show host Dick Cavett recalls having a conversation with Joplin where he asked her if she could assure him she wasn’t on heroin. He never forgot her reply: “Who would care?”
I like Harris’s paragraph:
“There are many people in this world who are unhappy. There are many people in this world who are lonely. There are many famous people in this world who struggle with fame. But not all of them end up dead from a drug overdose.”
Joplin died alone. She was found “in a hotel room in Oct. 4, 1970.” Harris includes the trifling detail of the exact date because, I think, he wants to say that her death, and the death of anyone, is not trifling.
In a further attention to fairness Harris notes that Joplin “is one of several famous musical performers… (Whose studio output) might leave you somewhat underwhelmed… but it was as a live singer that she could make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”
With that short phrase, “hair stand up,” Harris makes me miss poor Joplin, miss what might have been. I think Harris has sympathy for Joplin, and for the “several famous,” and for all of us who miss those gone too soon. Harris reminds me that, for folks like me and him, our middle age can be time for expanded sympathies. For us, no one is “most ugly,” no one is trivial, and everyone matters.
Harris would agree: If I had met Janice away from a brash party, somewhere quiet where we could connect, then I hope I would have shown her I cared. With my brash days far behind me, I know now: We all need a sense of caring.
On the prairies