all of the selves we Have ever been
I am infected by an earworm.
Janis Joplin singing Me and Bobby McGee.
The song was written by Kris Kristofferson and first recorded by country artist Roger Miller in 1969, but I became familiar with it sometime later in the 1970s after Joplin’s album Pearl was released and her version of Bobby McGee moved up to number one on the music charts.
Kris Kristofferson and Gordon Lightfoot made their own recordings of Me and Bobby McGee as have more than 45 others artists. I had many of the early versions in my teenage record collection. Back then teens didn’t walk around with ear buds listening to their music. In the time before the smartphone, iPods, MP-3 players, before the cassette tape and the Walkman, before boom boxes and CDs, teens lay around their bedrooms with the stereo playing, the arm set to automatically replay a new or favorite album over and over and over again. The repetition was like a drug. We craved just one more hit. The song got into our heads and left us anesthetized on the floor or flopped across the bed. Each repetition seemed to become more illuminating, more meaningful. The lyrics were deep. Heavy, man!
Perhaps it was my generation that gave birth to earworms. Listening to a song that many times in succession was bound to lead to brain damage and hearing issues.
In high school, I preferred the softer Kristofferson and Lightfoot versions of Bobby McGee, but I think Joplin’s rendition might be coming back to me now as the anthem for this pandemic. No one else of her generation could sing the blues quite like Janis. Even if her screeching sometimes became too much, Joplin was mesmerizing. It was evident from her vocals that Janis lived on the edge of danger and heartache. Janis knew what she was singing about. The proof came later when she died at the young age of 27 from an accidental heroin overdose. Janis Joplin did not live to see the success of her album Pearl or hear that her version of Me and Bobby McGee rose to number one on the Billboard charts.
Biographers report that Janis was born different and required more attention than her siblings. She was bullied in high school, already a thing in 1960. In college, Janis went her own way, going barefoot and carrying an autoharp in case the music moved her. Joplin was known to be rebellious, a drug user, and a heavy drinker. She was often seen or photographed with Southern Comfort in her hand or at her side.
Janis was a talented young woman with a fluid identity in a confusing time. Young people felt shackled and wanted to defy the rules, push beyond the boundaries of society. They didn’t trust anyone over 30. Janis embodied the rebellious, push-the-limits, raw, edgy, unconventional, youthful outlaw of that era.
All of this is sounding familiar. And contemporary. I hum along with my earworm:
Busted flat in Baton Rouge…Feeling near as faded as my jeans……my dirty red bandanna…Playing sad while Bobby sang the blues…Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…..I would trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday…
Though the song is about a relationship, loss and regret, Janis’s life and the song’s words speak to me of the present pandemic circumstances. Despite the song’s sad storyline, the strains of Janis’s lively, soulful, bluesy, voice and the amazing piano accompaniment energize me. Somehow singing along and remembering relax me and momentarily relieve me of my pandemic worries. I feel good.
And feeling good is good enough for me.