Janis Joplin: 10 Memorable Moments

On October 3, 1970, Janis Joplin was in the recording studio where work was proceeding on her next album, Pearl, dancing around the control room in delight as she listened to her band lay down the backing track for a song by her friend, Nick Gravenites, “Buried Alive in the Blues.” She planned to record her vocal the next day. Instead, in the early morning hours of October 4, she died of a heroin overdose. She was 27 years old.

It was a sudden and shocking end to a groundbreaking career. Joplin was the first solo female rock ‘n’ roll star, gifted with a powerful voice that put her in a class of her own. Her recording career only spanned four albums, but there was no shortage of songs that became instant classics: “Ball and Chain;” “Try;” “Me and Bobby McGee” among others. Had she lived, Joplin would be 77 years old, undoubtedly having added more classic tracks to that list. But the legacy she left behind reveals a much richer catalogue beyond her best known work. Here’s a selection of songs that chronicle her development as one of the most compelling performers in rock.

“What Good Can Drinkin’ Do?”  1962

Joplin enrolled at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin, in June 1962, but she spent more time working on music than attending classes. She joined folk group the Waller Creek Boys, and also began working on her own material. She recorded one of her first compositions at a friend’s home, accompanying herself on autoharp as she sang this cautionary tale about the pitfalls of over indulgence. The blues influence is obvious, but it’s also poignant in its recognition of the problems of substance abuse, something Joplin would struggle with all of her life.

“Sad To Be Alone”  1962

Another song Joplin is said to have written during her time at UT is the heartbreaking “So Sad to Be Alone.” It’s a remarkable number, with Joplin, again accompanying herself on autoharp, dropping the tough, gruff persona she used for protection, and laying bare her vulnerability and her pain. It’s not the rasp of the blues shouter she would become, but the simple, clear voice she used when she sang in church or the with the school glee club. It’s a side of Joplin most people didn’t get to experience.

“Mary Jane”  1964

While living in San Francisco in 1964, Joplin worked briefly with jazz musician Dick Oxtot, recording four songs with his band. One song was a Joplin original: “Mary Jane.” It’s a humorous number, based on the double meaning of Mary Jane being both a woman’s name and a slang term for marijuana; though a man may let you down, Joplin sings with a wink, you can always count on Mary Jane. It also shows how easily Joplin could’ve pursued quite a different musical direction than rock ‘n’ roll.

“Down On Me,” Come Up the Years, April 25, 1967

Big Brother & the Holding Company was Joplin’s first band. Two months before their landmark appearance at the Monterey Pop festival, the band taped a short set for a local program, Come Up the Years, which aired on San Francisco station KQED. “Down on Me” was a gospel number that the group secularized “so it would sell to the general public,” as one of the band’s guitarists, Sam Andrew, explained. New lyrics played down the spiritual aspects, but a gospel fervor is still evident in Joplin’s voice.

“Ball and Chain,” Monterey Pop festival, June 18, 1967

Monterey Pop was the festival that drew national attention for Big Brother, and Joplin in particular. The band first performed on June 17, but their manager at the time refused to let the documentary film crew shoot them. Big Brother generated such excitement, they were asked to perform again on June 18, and this time, the cameras were allowed to roll. The main point was to capture the stunning set closer, “Ball and Chain.” Joplin’s immersion in the song is clear, from the way her feet jump up and down in her shoes, to how she throws her head back and shuts her eyes when she hits a high note. While the June 18 performance made it into the Monterey Pop film, the June 17 performance was later released on The Monterey International Pop Festival box set. Fans have been debating which is the best performance ever since.

“Maybe,” The Ed Sullivan Show, March 16, 1969

The Ed Sullivan Show was the most important variety show of its era, and Joplin was determined to make the most of her appearance. She turns the Chantels’ girl group hit “Maybe” into a slow burning number of white-hot intensity, a song of desperate yearning, of dreams that may never be fulfilled. Yet there’s a control in Joplin’s delivery as well; she takes her passion right to the edge, but never goes over.

“Try,” Music Scene, September 11, 1969

Music Scene was a short-lived program that spotlighted current hit acts. In contrast to the more formal theatrical setting used on other TV shows, Music Scene used a concert-style style set up, with a catwalk extending into the audience, putting Joplin right in the center of the crowd. The audience was also noticeably younger, and the sound mix was good. And Joplin can’t resist taking advantage of the extra room available to her, moving up and down the catwalk as she grooves to the music, making this one of her most engaging TV performances.

“Little Girl Blue” and “Raise Your Hand,” This Is Tom Jones, September 21, 1969

Joplin’s two songs on This Is Tom Jones couldn’t be more different in style and tone, illustrating her versatility as a performer. She rejected the set ideas for “Little Girl Blue” (from the musical Jumbo), which would have had her walking through a makeshift garden, complete with a trellis archway. “I cannot walk through plastic raindrops singing my songs,” she announced, instead opting to sing in front of a white scrim, standing at the mic like a torch singer. It’s a performance of great delicacy; interestingly, Joplin dispensed with the song’s original final verse, giving it a sadder ending.

The rousing “Raise Your Hand” had been in Joplin’s set for some time and proved to be a great crowd favorite. And in Tom Jones, Joplin found the perfect sparring partner. The set was arranged like a nightclub, couples sitting at tables or on the dance floor, with Joplin and Jones in the middle of it all. The two are electrifying together, as they trade vocals and dance, begging the question as to why they didn’t work together again.

“Mercedes Benz,” August 8, 1970

On August 8, 1970, Joplin was hanging out at a Port Chester, New York, bar called Vashen’s, prior to her show that night at the nearby Capitol Theatre. To pass the time, she wrote a song based on a line from a piece by poet Michael McClure: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” Though it wasn’t quite complete, she performed it that night, introducing it as “a song of great social significance.” Just under two months later, on October 1, while recording Pearl, she again broke into the song while the studio’s main tape deck was being repaired. Fortunately, a quarter-inch safety reel was running throughout the sessions as a back-up, capturing the performance. It was the last vocal Joplin would ever record.

“Me and Bobby McGee,” demo version, 1970

Joplin first heard “Me and Bobby McGee” when her friend Bobby Neuwirth played it for her on his guitar. The song was written by Kris Kristofferson, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter then based in Nashville, and had previously been recorded by country singer Roger Miller. Joplin immediately fell in love with it, and first performed it at a December 16, 1969, concert at the Nashville Fairground Coliseum. When she recorded it for Pearl, she was returning to her own country roots, bringing her singing career full circle. “Bobby McGee” might have started out as Kristofferson’s song, but, as she did with so many recordings, Joplin made it her own.

HIGH NOTES: People Share Their Favorite Music-Drug Pairings

Just as some wines are meant to be paired with certain cheeses and some shoes look perfect with particular outfits, some drugs go inexplicably well with certain kinds of music. Many report that drugs enhance their music-listening experience by drawing out the meaning of the song or helping them get lost in the sound. These effects are different but equally fascinating for everyone. To get an idea of the vast array of strange and compelling drug-induced musical experiences, I asked people for their favorite music-drug combinations. Here are some of their responses.

“When I was first getting to know who and what I wanted to be, I would drop acid occasionally to meditate on it. I would almost exclusively listen to the songs my dad and I would listen to on his old turntable: Joplin, anyone from the British Invasion, anyone who played at Woodstock. While I was tripping on acid and listening to an oldies soundtrack, I felt comfortable in the familiar while able to focus on the visions and creativity flashing before my eyes. I grew up reliving the ’60s through music, movies, and documentaries, so taking acid in that setting makes me feel so much deeper than just popping a tab, but really understanding where we, it, and everything came from. It’s a super therapeutic and connecting experience.” — Melissa, 25

“I smoke weed daily and usually run through full albums while enjoying it, often ones I’ve heard hundreds of times. Top of the list for me are anything by Childish Gambino, Frank Ocean, J.Cole, Kendrick Lamar, or The Knocks. I’ll mix these in with Broadway musical soundtracks and a Disney playlist. I’m obsessed with Disney and like that cannabis calms my mind and allows me to memorize much of what I’m listening to. Mushrooms are usually reserved for more outdoor activities, but I’ve found a small dosage is perfect before a party.
While I’d like to say I go for more earthy sounds while on mushrooms, for me it’s more about melodic deep house beats, playlists that have limited words and great bass. I like feeling my body reverberate with the sound on mushrooms and feel the deeper the bass, the better the high. LSD gives you a major energy boost, so I usually find myself dancing when on it. The mix of sounds for my trips I prefer are usually in the synth/techno house/tropical house variety. Morning sets from Burning man are great for LSD, especially mixes by Lee Burridge, NSR, Bedouin.
I rarely find sassafras, but when I do, my sound goes more the direction of sexy, sultry vocals. Kat Cunning is currently a favorite, but I also love Bob Moses and will listen to them whenever I’m rolling. For ketamine, the mixes I prefer fall under a category I call sex house. It’s similar to deep house but with song choices that include sexually provocative lyrics and beats that are just perfect for getting sexy or just cuddling.” — Daniel Saynt, 35, founder of NSFW

“Though there have been many songs that I’ve enjoyed while under the influence of marijuana, here are a few that stand out as particularly gratifying for me. When I was younger and in college, a few that I remember really standing out in that mindset were ‘Dark Matter’ by Porcupine Tree, ‘3 a.m./Voices in the Fan’ by Devin Townsend, and the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Later, when I experienced smoking marijuana years later again, a couple that stood out were ‘Love Letters to the Soul’ by Entheogenic and ‘All That Makes Us Human Continues’ by BT.” — Jason, 30

“Lemon haze / sour tangie / blue crack for the drug, paired with the Young and Free Spotify playlist.” — Steve, 29
“I like a lot of combinations with drugs and songs, but I made the best memory with the combination acid and Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond.’ Acid makes your brain very active, and for that reason, you will hear sounds in this song you never had heard before. The whole song is a big fantastic journey in a fantastic beautiful world.” — Patrick, 24

“Carbon Based Lifeforms. I feel very peaceful and loving when listening to them. Combining it with mushrooms is amazing for me.” — Marianna, 29

“‘Cups’ by Underworld with MDMA and LSD. LSD demands music with long, sustained tones that is packed with subtle sound events. The song starts with electronically-generated violin sounds but very quickly a bass line drops. That is where the synergy kicks in with the MDMA, which wants fast and exciting music you can move to. In combination, you get an explosion of excitement and joy while flying in psychedelic space, forgetting the world completely and finding a unity, blurring of lines between yourself, the music, the space your body occupies, and the universe beyond the physical real.” — Dutch, 43

“It wasn’t until I was 21 that I first tried cocaine, but was instantly hooked. I was in Minneapolis at a SYSTEM party submerged in techno and the genuine community that comes with it. Rather than dancing and enjoying the music, friendly desire consumed me. Towards the end, James Patrick was closing out the night. I remember conversing with a lovely pink haired woman and out of nowhere, I turned against her abruptly ending the conversation. JP was mixing in the track ‘Doin Ya Thang’ by Oliver $, and it was that track that had me getting down for the remainder of the night.” — Brayden, 26

“MDMA — house/techno. Been loving the Cityfox Foxcast 26: Anja Schneider (September 2018) track. Would love to roll to that. Cannabis — seriously that’s too hard. Everything sounds better on weed. A favorite entire album is Nightmares on Wax’s Smokers Delight (top song: ‘Nights Interlude’). I love a good dreamy indie rock song like Blouse ‘Fountain in Rewind’ or Japanese Breakfast ‘Road Head,’ or something more upbeat like Bonobo ‘Kerala’ or ‘Samurai.’ Shrooms I like actually being outside and listening to the sounds of nature. I did do it at a Six Flags Adventure Park… I probably won’t likely do that again, but you never know. Ketamine — music doesn’t sound so good compared to the other drugs to me, but usually it’s an at an afterparty after a night of rolling so the chiller house/techno.” — Phillia, 40

HIGH NOTES: 10 Female Artists Who Reference Drugs in Their Music

When you hear the phrase “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” you usually picture male musicians: Lou Reed croaking out the words to “Heroin” or “Waiting For My Man;” The Weeknd’s famously numb face; Kurt Cobain finding God in “Lithium;” The Beatles on LSD; Neil Young’s coke booger immortalized in The Last Waltz.

Stereotypes about drug users aren’t flattering to any gender, but female celebrities are held to especially high standards of behavior, with sex, drugs, and other supposedly hedonistic behaviors deemed “unladylike.” Maybe that’s why more women seem to avoid drug references—and why those who make them convey a special brand of “IDGAF.” Being unladylike, after all, is part of many artists’ images. Here are some women who have changed the public’s perception of women and drugs through drug references.


Halsey sprinkles drug references throughout her songs, which looks like a way of solidifying her image as a rebellious woman, until you realize few of them actually describe her taking drugs. “Are you high enough without the Mary Jane like me?” she sings in “Gasoline,” inspiring a remix by K.A.A.N. titled “Mary Jane.” In “Hurricane,” she sings of someone who “tripped on LSD, and I found myself reminded to keep you far away from me.” “Colors” centers on another toxic person: “You’re only happy when your sorry head is filled with dope.”

These songs may tell an anti-drug message, but in “New Americana,” she sings, “We are the new Americana, high on legal marijuana.” Confirming that “we” includes her, she said at the 2016 VMAs, “I smoke a lot of weed.” Altogether, her songs give an (accurate) picture of drugs as potentially both positive and destructive.


The opening lines of Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz are pretty telling: “Yeah I smoke pot, yeah I love peace, but I don’t give a fuck, I ain’t no hippy,” she sings on Dooo It!” and that’s only the beginning of an album littered with drug references. A year prior to its release, she sang about dancing with either “Miley” or “Molly,” depending on if you know,” prompting headlines like Miley Cyrus sings about molly again; experts warn of its dangers and Demi Lovato warns pal Miley Cyrus of the dangers of drugs after star confirms MDMA reference.”

But Miley’s not ashamed of her drug use. “I think weed is the best drug on earth,” she said in a Rolling Stone interview. “One time I smoked a joint with peyote in it, and I saw a wolf howling at the moon. Hollywood is a coke town, but weed is so much better. And molly, too. Those are happy drugs – social drugs. They make you want to be with friends.”

She did, however, announce last spring that she’d stopped using alcohol and drugs. “I haven’t smoked weed in three weeks, which is the longest I’ve ever [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][gone without it],” she told Billboard. “I’m not doing drugs, I’m not drinking, I’m completely clean right now! That was just something that I wanted to do.” Her reason? “I like to surround myself with people that make me want to get better, more evolved, open. And I was noticing, it’s not the people that are stoned.” Halsey might beg to differ.


Rihanna’s “We Found Love” video is believed to be an ode to the relationship-healing powers of MDMA, with montages of pills, raves, and expanding pupils as she and a male actor rekindle a dying love, though she then appears to leave him after they crash back to reality. The lyric “yellow diamonds” is thought to refer to the drug. But mostly, Rihanna’s a proud stoner, singing in James Joint,” “I’d rather be smoking weed whenever we breathe.”


From raving about a guy who “might sell coke” in “Super Bass” to saying she’s “high as hell, I only took a half a pill” in “Anaconda,” drug use is one of the many things Nicki Minaj is unapologetic about. She also establishes herself as defying conventions of femininity by dropping sports references in her songs. (Billboard counted 42.)


With music embracing female sexuality and celebrating clubbing as a way to lose your inhibitions, Madonna created a new archetype of femininity. MDMA was such a central part of this image, she named an album (and a skincare line) MDNA. But when she tried to speak to a younger generation of drug users, it backfired. “Have you seen molly?” she asked a crowd at Ultra, eliciting criticism from Deadmau5 and Paul van Dyk. In response, she claimed she was simply referencing a Cedric Gervais song, tweeting, “I don’t support drug use and I never have.” One notable exception: urging a lover to “get unconscious” in 1994 hit “Bedtime Story,” which she promoted with a pretty trippy video. 


Like most of Jenny Lewis’s music, her drug references paint depressing images. In Rabbit Fur Coat,” she sings of her estranged mother, “She was living in her car, I was living on the road, and I hear she’s putting that stuff up her nose.” In the eponymous track for her first solo album, “Acid Tongue,” she sings, “I’ve been down to Dixie and dropped acid on my tongue, tripped upon the land ’til enough was enough.” But drugs seem to be a thing of the past for Lewis. Later in the song, she sings, “To be lonely is a habit like smoking or taking drugs, and I’ve quit them both, but man, was it rough.”


Long before Halsey or Miley Cyrus, perhaps the OG of female stoner artists was Janis Joplin, whose ode to marijuana, “Mary Jane,” is somewhere between a celebration of the drug’s benefits and a confession of addiction. “I spend my money all on Mary Jane,” she sang. “Now I walk in the street now lookin’ for a friend, one that can lend me some change, and he never questions my reason why ’cause he too loves Mary Jane.” Of course, she would later lose her life to another addiction, dying of an accidental heroin overdose.


Aside from publicly refusing to go to rehab, Winehouse referenced her drug habits in lyrics like “I’d rather have myself and smoke my homegrown” in “Addicted” and “You love blow, and I love puff” in “Back to Back.”

In 2007, she told Rolling Stone that the change in her musical style from jazz to R&B reflected a change in her drug of choice from weed to alcohol. “I used to smoke a lot of weed,” she said. “I suppose if you have an addictive personality then you go from one poison to the other. The whole weed mentality is very hip-hop, and when I made my first record, all I was listening to was hip-hop and jazz. The weed mentality is very defensive, very much like, ‘Fuck you, you don’t know me.’ Whereas the drinking mentality is very ‘Woe is me, oh, I love you, I’m gonna lie in the road for you, I don’t even care if you never even look my way, I’m always gonna love you.'”


Drugs were a central part of 1930s jazz culture, and Fitzgerald was no exception. In “When I Get Low I Get High,” she sang about numbing her pain with drugs, and a few years later, she got more explicit in “Wacky Dust,” a song about a substance that “gives your feet a feeling so breezy” and “brings a dancing jag”—presumably, cocaine. It ends on a less celebratory note, though, warning listeners that “it’s something you can’t trust, and in the end, the rhythm will stop. When it does, then you’ll drop from happy wacky dust.”


“I can’t lie,” Tove Lo told BBC of “Habits (Stay High),” whose video features her downing drink after drink at a club (and whose lyrics reference the munchies). “What I’m singing about is my life. It’s the truth. I’ve had moments where that [drug-taking] has been a bigger part than it should be. It’s hard to admit to, and I could filter it or find another metaphor for it — but it doesn’t feel right to me.”

“There are so many dudes singing about the same subject,” she elaborated to Untitled. “I wonder if they get the same question or is it because I’m a girl that people ask me, ‘Don’t you feel like you have a responsibility to be a role model?’ And I think: do I have that [responsibility] more than dudes because I’m a girl and I sing pop? I think there’s a kind of denial on how much drugs are a part of people’s lives.”