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Music

Revisiting the moment Janis Joplin was arrested for swearing

@TomTaylorFO

A retrospective view of the sixties paints the era in the glow of a spiritual orgy perfuse with peace, love and liberation, sadly permeated by horrific events and governments at odds with the times. In truth, however, it was as divided a decade as any. This division often came to the fore when liberal LA-based rockers like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison left for the road and found themselves at loggerheads in Tampa, Florida. 

In March 1969, Jim Morrison was arrested while in The Sunshine State for allegedly exposing his Johnson while onstage. Morrison fervently denied the charge claiming the bulbous cylinder on display was merely a microphone. However, the incident left a scar on the memory of Tampa locals, whose backs were up when the free-loving Janis Joplin came to town the following November. 

In what now seems like some fictional Judd Apatow style portrayal of the times, midway through her performance, the lights went up in an attempt to quell the excitement of the crowd. Reports from the time do not indicate any specific incident that sparked the mid-show halting of the performance other than a simmering excitement that the conservative authorities worried would spill over and develop into a full-blown ‘good time’. 

Fearing a knees-up en masse, and the chaotic smiling hysteria that comes with it, the brave officers present did all they could to restore banal order. They clambered onto the stage and kindly asked the famed rock ‘n’ roll insouciant performer, Janis Joplin, whether she would perhaps reverse her intent and try to assist them in subduing the happy crowd into a more manageable state of ennui. In short, her response was “fuck off.” 

After a flurry of obscenities, it would seem that the officers accepted a deferral of legal order and departed the stage to the relative safety of the crowd, away from the caustic ridiculing of the foul-mouthed, bravura, Joplin. Unlike Jim Morrison, whose alleged spam javelin baring antics called the show to an instant halt, Joplin was allowed to continue and put the powers of her voice to use in a different way. 

After the show, with the insults and a healthy dose of rock ‘n’ roll still ringing in their ears, the police entered Joplin’s dressing room and sent her and her potty-mouth to a cell for the night, where she was presumably landed with the equally flimsy legal demand of washing her mouth out with soap.

Eventually, the charges were dropped when a judge concluded that swearing and singing were not in fact illegal. The judge declared that the rockstar was simply exercising her freedom of speech, an often flexibly celebrated amendment. 

Aside from a pithy anecdote, this story is also an example of music’s essential cultural voice and the rightful racket it creates in social dialogue. What might seem like an old-hat caricature of rock ‘n’ roll is still relevant today in the discourse of civil liberties. Hopefully, we will one day arrive at a time when the condemning of Colin Kaepernick’s knee-taking in a stance for freedom, liberty, and egalitarianism is deemed equally ridiculous. For now, this story stands as a humorous yet nettlesome example of the joke that the future often makes of the present.

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