Album Assignments: Pearl

Janis Joplin died on October 4, 1970, at age 27. The cause of death was a heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol. When she died, she was in the midst of recording Pearl. She hadn’t finished the sessions, but her survivors determined that there was enough material completed to release the album.

This is an absolutely magnificent album, but it cannot escape the long shadow of Joplin’s awful death. Though ironic and tragic echoes are everywhere, there’s one song that just screams loss, and that song is “Buried Alive In The Blues.” Joplin had been scheduled to lay down her vocals for this song on October 4, but she never arrived — her band’s road manager found her dead in her hotel room that morning. The track appears on Pearl as an instrumental only.

Listening to Pearl this time, I didn’t know the song’s history. It just seemed deeply weird that an album credited to Janis Joplin would feature an instrumental, given that her star attraction was her singing voice and style. Once I did the research to learn the story behind the song, I couldn’t hear it without a deep sadness about what might have been. The presence of a fantastic instrumental track, without Joplin’s vocals to complete it, strikes me as mournfully emblematic of a life cut short far too soon. Not to mention, its eerily apropos title seemed to describe her situation exactly, so much so that her publicist Myra Friedman appropriated it for the biography she wrote a few years later.

Album cover for Pearl

It’s not just “Buried Alive,” though. The context of Joplin’s death seeps into almost every song, recasting their meanings in melancholy tones. “Half Moon” joyfully extols a love that makes Joplin sing, “You fill me like the mountains / Fill me like the sea.” But this wasn’t her reality. She struggled with a constant sense of emptiness, which she tried to fill with men, with Southern Comfort, with heroin. “Your love brings life to me” is a heartrending line in light of her impending death.

The grief spreads outward like ripples in a pond, broadening in scope though lessening in obviousness as it goes. “My Baby” has much the same message as “Half Moon”, albeit expressed with less painfully apparent contrasts against Joplin’s reality. “Cry Baby” says “I’ll always be around if you ever want me.” “Mercedes Benz” jabs at the notion of finding happiness in material possessions or alcoholic revelry, but doesn’t identify where that happiness can really be found. “Trust Me” asks for more time, “A Woman Left Lonely” talks about how “the fevers of the night” can burn an unloved woman, and “Get It While You Can” forms its philosophy around the fact that “we may not be here tomorrow.”

Even “Move Over”, though it lacks any of the lyrical knifepoints that specifically cut to the catastrophe of Joplin’s overdose, still gets its meaning darkly clouded by historical circumstance. The song is forward-looking, demanding that an ex-lover stop hanging around, to make room for new paramours. As it turned out, it was Joplin herself who would no longer be hanging around.

Yet “Move Over”, like so many of the songs on Pearl, is absolutely bursting with life. Joplin’s band at the time was called Full Tilt Boogie, and they lived up to their name gloriously — a tight, swinging rhythm section surrounded by triple dervishes of piano, organ, and guitar. The organ in particular gives the music a gospel feel — when it comes in on “Move Over”, the song elevates to a new level, like hands thrown upwards to the heavens.

Then there are Joplin’s vocals. A critic in 1968 wrote that if she were presented in the proper context, “there would be no adjectives to describe her.” This is 100% accurate, and Pearl is that proper context. So I’m not going to ladle adjectives onto her prowess as a singer. Suffice it to say that her voice on this album embodies pure life force. More than any other aspect of the album, more than its lyrics, more than its music, it is this voice that hurts the most in light of the album’s history. Pearl captures Joplin at the highest artistic peak she would ever reach. What a sickening loss for all of us that she’d never get the chance to go higher.

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