Janis Joplin, My Demons, and Me

By Columbia Records - Billboard page 5, Public Domain

I have a strange relationship with Janis Joplin. It all began when I was 21. I had a massive nervous breakdown. This was due to the fact that I’d spent the previous nine years of my life getting as f*cked up as I could, whenever I could, on whatever I could. It was so bad, in fact, that they sectioned me. For those of you that don’t know, being sectioned is never a good thing, and if they slap the number eight after it, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll find yourself in the nearest mental institution, with no chance of escape until they can plaster a Simpsons-like SANE stamp across your forehead.

This was down to the fact that I had a heroin habit that Keith Richards would’ve been proud of. I’d also lost my two closest friends within the space of four months. One went via the needle. The other committed suicide when she realized she couldn’t live without him. You could say I took it badly. Another way of putting it would be to say that I went batshit crazy and dived headlong into smack while topping it off with enough alcohol to kill a small country.

It was around this time that I started to notice things weren’t what you’d call normal. I was sleeping all day and waking up at around 10 pm to sit up through the night getting sh*tfaced. I must’ve gone about six months without seeing daylight, outside of the time I’d spend watching the sunrise. Yet, as far as I was concerned, everything was just peachy. One night, I went to the bathroom and couldn’t shift the feeling that there was somebody in there with me. I ran around in circles, trying to catch up with whoever it was like a dog chasing his tail and when I did, it was me. Wild-eyed and as mad as a bag of badgers that had been poked with a pointy stick. Under the circumstances, I feel I reacted as most people would and ran screaming for the bedroom to hide under the duvet. I suddenly snapped back into reality and figured that I had either been on the nod or tripping balls. But I still couldn’t shift this feeling that something wasn’t right. For some reason known only to my twisted brain, I had to look out of the window, and when I did, I saw another version of myself, stood in the pissing rain, staring up at me with a look of insanity so etched onto his face that it still gives me nightmares some 30 years later.

I’m not sure what happened next. According to my partner at the time, she found me in the kitchen, screaming at the top of my lungs and brandishing a carving knife. I have no recollection of this. What I do remember is four very large police officers kicking the hell out of me for my “own protection” before slinging my ass into the back of a car and taking me to the local station. From here, my life didn’t get any better. I ended up being thrown into the local asylum. If I wasn’t insane before I went in there, it didn’t take long for me to acclimatize to my new surroundings—when in Rome and all that.

As we weren’t allowed anything sharp I took to biting. Anything or anyone that came in the range of my teeth was on the receiving end of missing a chunk of ear. Or in my case, flesh from my arms.  Back and forth we went. The Orderlies tried to restrain me from myself, doing my best piranha impression. When a few weeks had passed and I’d realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere with this act of defiance, I decided to be a good boy so I could at least get 30 minutes a day outside my room.

On the first supervised trip to the garden, I met a young lad who changed my life. We’ll call him Stevie. I was sat on the bench feeling sorry for myself when this teenager approached me and gestured to sit down. I motioned that it was okay and he joined me in my pity party. He wasn’t big on talking and that suited me down to the ground, but he did have some earphones on and seemed to have a smile on his face like the Cheshire Cat. I was curious. In this sea of madness, what could he possibly have to be f*cking happy about?

Before I had the chance to ask him, a woman about 30 came over and joined us.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey yourself” I managed to reply.

“Stevie giving you sh*t?” she smiled.

Stevie looked up at this point and laughed the weirdest laugh I’d ever heard.

“No” I replied, smiling for the first time in months “He’s no problem.”

“Oh good” she continued “It’s time that he went inside anyway.”

Nodding at her, he stood up, then paused and pulled out a notepad and a crayon. He wrote on a piece of paper and handed it to me along with the old-fashioned Walkman he had been listening to. Then he walked back into the madhouse, waving all the way. I looked at the woman.

“Ok…that was strange.”

“Not really,” she said, “Stevie likes to help out.”

“But what’s with the notepad?” I inquired

“Oh” she replied “Stevie can’t talk. When he was 13 had undiagnosed manic depression. He was always complaining that life didn’t feel right and that he didn’t know where he was going or what he wanted, but nobody listened to him. So he got tired of people not listening to him and cut his tongue out.”

Stunned, I sat there, not knowing what to say.

“But,” she smiled “He’s obviously taken a shine to you. He doesn’t just let anyone borrow his Walkman, you know.”

As she walked away from me, I looked down at my hands and opened the note, it simply read;

“You need this more than me.”

Dumbstruck, I placed the earphones on my head and hit play.

I’m not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. Sh*t, if there is a Hell, then I’ve done more than enough to earn my seat at the head of the table, but the first time I heard Janis Joplin cry;

“Summertime…and the living is easy”

I heard the voice of God.

I sat there transfixed. Every Jack Daniels soaked word that fell from her lips soothed my ravaged soul. The passion, the desire, the blatant pain she had been through washed over me like a baptism of fire and I felt reborn. I managed to get two more songs in before they shuffled me off back to my room, but I was a changed man. I didn’t care anymore about the drugs or the booze or getting my shots in against ‘The Man’. All I cared about was hanging out with Stevie and listening to the same Janis Joplin tape, over and over.

For the next 12 months, Stevie and I were inseparable. We’d spend all of our time discussing every last intonation of every single note that Janis sang, which is really hard to do with a guy who has to write everything down. He even snapped off one earpiece so we could listen to it together. Every song on that ‘Best of…’ was dissected, bisected, and resurrected by two madmen trapped inside a nightmare. But we were together. And we had Janis Joplin to light the way.

When they cut me loose a year later, I was sad to see the back of the place. Mainly because I knew I’d never see Stevie again. Still, even now, when the whisky runs hard and the demons in my head starting whispering, I know all I have to do is put on some Janis, and it all goes away.

After all;

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’, it ain’t nothin’ honey, if it ain’t free…”

For Stevie, wherever you are.

Written by Neil Gray

The Grandmaster of Asian Cinema.

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