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Janis and Jimi—40 Years Later

It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since we lost two of my favorite artists of the twentieth century, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. I began reflecting on this fact as I was creating my “Top 5 Albums of 2010” list for the WKNC blog. Number 5 on my list is Jimi Hendrix’s posthumous release Valleys of Neptune which includes previously released material as well as never-before-heard tracks. It occurred to me as I was adding it to the list that it had been just over 40 years since we lost Jimi (November 27, 1942-September 18, 1970), and I recalled the loss of Janis Joplin (January 19, 1943-October 4, 1970) in an autumn forty years ago that must have seemed like a devastating blow to a counterculture already reeling from the backlashes against the “Summer of Love” in 1969.  Less than a year later, they lost Jim Morrison (July 3, 1971) of The Doors as well.

I remember the first time I heard “The Wind Cries Mary.” My dad always listened to Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, and Stevie Ray Vaughan when I was younger. I was bugging him while he worked in the garage one weekend morning when I was probably about 11, and the classic rock station started playing this song. It was magical, and even though I’m sure I must have heard it before that morning, that was the first time I realized that music could move a person in a way that nothing else could. I stopped talking (which my dad probably thought was a miracle) and just listened. The hushed electric guitar, the riddling lyrics, the slowly swaying drum beat—they all captured me for three and a half minutes while my dad continued working away. When the song was over, I asked, “Who was that?” He told me it was Jimi Hendrix. I asked if he was still around, and my dad told me no. It was devastating, but it started me on a quest to hear as much of the wonderful music as possible.

Janis Joplin came to me later in life. As a kid she always came paired up with Jefferson Airplane for some reason. If I heard “Piece of My Heart,” I always felt like “Somebody to Love” or “White Rabbit” should follow. For all I knew, they could have been the same person. But before you all shriek in terror at the idea of confusing Grace Slick with Janis Joplin, let me say that at least I was aware of the innate greatness of both. My memory of how I “discovered” Janis is a bit hazier than my memory of Jimi, but when I heard “I Need a Man to Love” in high school, I felt like I had found my soul.  Janis’ performances of such songs (and if anyone’s seen footage of her live performances you know what I mean) awakened a feeling in me I hadn’t felt since the first time I heard “Voodoo Child.”

While I would never argue that either Janis or Jimi revolutionized music forever (they certainly had a lot of help at a great time in music), I would say they changed my experience of music forever. It’s been a long 40 years, and now we have artists like The Black Keys resurrecting blues rock and The Black Angels making psychedelic rock accessible again.  Artists are taking the polish back off their work and getting back to a more raw sound.  40 years later, Jimi and Janis are gone, but their influence lives on.

Which artist(s) completely changed the way you listen to music?  Use the comments to share your memories.

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