Revisiting Janis Joplin’s final powerhouse performance before her death
The powerhouse performer Janis Joplin was still in the upward thrust of her rocket launcher career when she sadly passed at the age of just 27 on October 4th, 1970. At the time, the singer was a leading light of the counter-culture movement and when she took the stage for the final time at Harvard Stadium in 1970 she was rightly heralded as the Queen of the Underbelly. To put it simply, Joplin was at the top of her game and an undoubted icon of the movement.
Joplin wasn’t just a cultural figure though, she wasn’t purely thinking about her image or distracted by fame, and in the clip below, taken from the live bootleg known as Wicked Woman, we hear a singer at the peak of her power. Delivering a cultured and crafted yet utterly unrestricted vocal performance like no other. It was with performances like this that she embodied the spirit of the age and ascended to her spot at the top of the pile.
By 1970, with a new decade on the horizon, Janis Joplin was beginning to assert herself as a juggernaut of the music industry. Having worked her way through the hazy coffee houses of San Francisco the singer had traversed the most notable stages in the world and had been an integral part of what made the sixties great. The new decade offered a pathway to superstardom if she could just navigate her growing demons.
Joplin, more than any other singer, somehow took the messages from the past and turned them into something current, something expressive and new. Her covers of ‘Cry Baby’, ‘Piece of My Heart’ and ‘Ball and Chain’ marked her out as an extraordinary interpreter of art and offered audiences a staggering glimpse of her giant heart and were blown away by her talent.
While Joplin may have released three records, with her stunning studio takes charting among some of the finest ever laid on tape, it is in her live performance that her breathless passion really comes alive. The clip below is a bootleg recording known as Wicked Woman and captures Joplin’s performance at Harvard Stadium on August 2nd, 1970.
The crowd were growing to a near riot as the wait for Joplin’s arrival on stage stretched further and further into the night. It was clear the growing bullishness of the near 40,000 people crammed inside the stadium was beginning to weigh heavily on the organisers as, at the beginning of the clip, the announcer confirms that Joplin “is here” and will be out shortly despite their sound equipment seemingly being stolen.
“Oddly, while we were sitting there—and the crowd was getting into something, it became very smoky and sweet there, let’s put it that way—we could see, straight ahead, the open-scaffolding stage,” says Kevin McElroy to WBUR. The spectator was sitting near the front with his photographer boyfriend, Peter Warrack. “Janis was underneath. And she had a bottle of Southern Comfort, and she was just in a world of her own there. She just was doing what she wanted to do in the moment. After another hour-and-a-half or so—it was really quite a delay—she literally burst onto the stage. It was just electric.”
Judging by the performance below we’d struggle to feel anything but electrified as Joplin rallies through the loss of equipment and unwarranted delays to deliver a spellbinding performance that only a singer as passionate as Janis could achieve. With her backing group the Full Tilt Boogie band in riotous form, the set is a sensational one and makes for perfect listening at any point of the day.
It is a picture of not only Joplin’s powerful vocal but the final moments of a star on stage before she succumbed to the drugs and drink that plagued her off-stage life. In truth, Joplin embodied both the spirit of the sixties and the new decade ahead. She had once been a creative powerhouse capable of transcending the human condition but had now fallen folly of the darkness of drugs that were about to swamp the upcoming decade.
Listen below to Janis Joplin’s final performance at Harvard Stadium in 1970, just weeks before her death.