My Curious App today tells me:
On this day in 1971, Janis Joplin’s Pearl peaked at #1 with a song that reflected the troubled musician’s many ‘hurts and confusions.’ The tune Me and Bobby McGee, had actually been written and released by singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson months earlier, around the time he and Joplin had been lovers. His original version of the ballad began with a tale of two seemingly platonic drifters, only to reveal that one of them – Bobby – is a woman and the lost love of the other, the narrator.
It goes on to say that while Bobby McGee brought some success to Kristofferson, it was Joplin who made it a hit. In fact, I think it was her defining hit. Its melancholy story became one of those many creations in which art imitates life: Janis would die of a heroine overdose months before Bobby McGee topped the charts.
It’s a simple song, really. Just 274 words if you don’t count the la da das.
I’ve often tried to figure out exactly what it is about this song that makes every word memorable to me and many of my peers.
Maybe it’s the imagery: succinct, clear to envision, relatable. “feeling nearly faded as my jeans…” describes not just any jeans but your favorite jeans. The jeans you were wearing when. The jeans that haven’t fit since the internet disrupted our communities. The jeans you worked forever to fade, not realizing how quickly the time in which you rocked them would also fade.
Maybe it’s the fact that she died long before we were ready to let her go. Before she had a chance to get the help she needed and we had time to hope she would get through rehab and stay clean and sober. And in her death, she joined too many whose art that might grace our days, was lost with them.
Maybe it’s that one line that does NOT conjure up an image, but instead, invites us to contemplate the full meaning: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. In a time of history in which we can see up close and personal a diverse population of people dying for freedom, being denied their freedom, and celebrating newfound freedom, it’s a bit of a puzzle to consider the way it is framed in this song.
Now that I’ve been to Baton Rouge and New Orleans, busted a flat, and waited for a train. Now that I have the precise sound of windshield wipers slappin’ embedded in my memory sound vault. Now that I live in a world where the gender of Bobby matters little, and my collection of bandanas represent mile markers along my lifelong road trip, I have a full memory bank of images that play automatically like a Netflix binge whenever I hear this song.
It also seems kind of eerie, that shortly after recording “I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday,” she did, in fact, cash in all of her tomorrows.
Sometimes when I think about who I might reunite with when my time here comes to an end, I imagine myself walking into that place where life springs anew, and finding her there. She is alone, usually, sitting cross-legged on a big rock, holding a pick in her mouth while tuning her guitar. As I approach, she begins to play the familiar intro and I start to sing. She laughs in her distinctive rasp, and then she says to me: “So you’re the one who went on to sing my song even better than I did!” And I reply, “shoot, Janis … I bet you say that to every one of my sisters when they find you here.”
She motions for me to join her on the rock. I do. And we sing every song that driver knew.
[You can find out a little more about Joplin and hear some of Me and Bobby McGee here.]