A friend sent me a link to a music and humor blog the other day thinking I would get a kick out of the references to days gone by, inside jokes that only us old people would find amusing. What they didn’t know was that the Janis Joplin music that the blog was playing would remind me of Janis staring down on me from the wall of the Janis Room at Threadgill’s. Not a pleasant memory of my youth but of the location where we used to hold a weekly Libertarian Toastmasters (Politimasters) meetings and the terror I went through pretty much every week that I was expected to give a speech there. The kind of thing that should carry a trigger warning, if I believed in those kinds of things.
Anyone who’s ever tried to speak in front of a large group of people can probably commiserate with me here, if not completely understand what I’m talking about. It wasn’t just fear that I felt, standing there trying to speak, and stage fright is too dismissive to cover it. Perhaps topophobia would describe the feeling, if only I could get a definition that wasn’t the (current) generic fear of certain places or situations. But stage fright might explain why Janis (and so many other performers) resorted to numbing herself before getting onstage. I know the politimasters meetings went better when alcohol was served beforehand (at least they seemed to) How can you be expected to be entertaining when you can’t shake the feeling that you’re going to melt (or explode) at any moment? Heart racing, a feeling of the darkest dread, the desire to run away and never stop running? Is that entertainment?
Public speaking is one of the most common human fears, and this was confirmed by my own experiences within the Politimasters group. The group itself died from a lack of participation. We just couldn’t get enough people. Ten people were all we needed. Ten people, and you can run an effective Toastmasters training group. We couldn’t even get 10 people in the city of Austin interested in meeting every week to practice their speaking skills in front of an audience. That is how prevalent the fear is.
Toastmasters and stage fright in turn remind me of my high school speech class and the dreaded speech class project, another instance (and another trigger warning) of getting up in front of an audience and performing in front of other people. The teachers decided to do a mock version of The Gong Show (this was the 70’s after all) in front of the entire school body as well as guests. To make matters worse they decided we would determine in advance whether we were going to be gonged or not (I think they missed the point of audience participation a key feature of The Gong Show) A friend of mine convinced me that we should try and do Abbott & Costello’s routine Who’s on First, and we (she) decided that we didn’t want to be gonged. I went along with the plan lacking even the slightest idea what I could possibly do that an audience would find interesting. [I’ve written a piece more recently, Coping with Dysgraphia. It might shed light on why it was that I was convinced I couldn’t be interesting.]
I memorized the routine. I read it every day for more than two weeks. I performed it in front of family a number of times. I could do it backward by the day of the show. All that practicing amounted to nothing. It didn’t matter because when that curtain rose, I couldn’t remember word one of the entire thing. I am, to put it bluntly, speechless, in front of the entire auditorium. Both of us end up reading the routine from cards that we carried on stage with us. There is no other way to describe what we were doing other than bad, and we should be gonged for it. The audience wants us gonged, and can’t figure out why the judges don’t go along. I remember the feeling of thousands of people in the audience wanting my blood (although I’m sure the auditorium in Stinnett didn’t hold more than a few hundred; and ‘wanting blood’ is a bit of an exaggeration. Just a bit) when I walked off that stage I swore I would never do anything like that again.
…And Janis is looking at me from across the room. “You had a speech prepared for Toastmasters tonight, right?” Pure terror.
The website/blog that stimulated this trip down memory lane removed itself from public view a number of years ago. I searched for it using different text strings and even went to archive.org and looked for a record of the blog in the archive. Not even the URL was preserved. This gaping absence in the beginning of the story forced me to rewrite the opening paragraphs for this piece. Having then embarked on a major re-edit, I decided to do a few other wordsmithing edits while keeping the feeling of the piece that I had intended to communicate intact.
Well, that’s true as far as it goes. The real reason I’m editing today is because Chuck Barris died this week (March 2017) and as much as I hate to admit it he had a real impact on my life, as is partially related above. My family watched The Gong Show every day if my memory serves me right. The show was on in the hour after we got out of school and since we only had one TV and two channels back then, I cringed my way through most of the stupid on it. There were occasional gems to be found but I don’t think love or like are words I would apply to The Gong Show. The show was more like an inoculation for stupid than anything that I might remember with affection.
If you haven’t seen Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and you are a Chuck Barris or Gong Show fan, you might want to give it a chance. It is a very strange film about a very strange man. I personally would rate the film as meh. I know that is what I thought because it made so little impression on me that I barely recall it. The vast majority of films that I’ve seen rate a meh. So while that’s not a glowing endorsement, at least I didn’t gong it and send it back unwatched. There have been quite a few of those over the years. Too little time, too much to watch. The Wife and I wanted to see it because Sam Rockwell plays Chuck Barris, and he does a credible job of channeling the man and the madness that was the 70’s as seen through the rearview mirror. Personally, I’d rather look at the 70’s through the lens of Barris’ eyes than mine. He was always more charitable to the stupid than I could ever be. It was his saving grace.
Editor’s note, September 2019. The Texas Standard ran a segment on Texas’ Woodstock a few days ago, an event that featured a Saturday night set performed by Janis Joplin. The webpage and the audio on it are all worth listening to. It was apparently quite an event; an event that the Texas of the time was embarrassed about and tried to make us all forget. Janis got the last word. Good for her.
On the first day, Sam and Dave and B.B. King got the crowd moving despite the heat. Chicago played. They were still called Chicago Transit Authority back then. But the act that got the crowd’s biggest ovation was one of their own: Janis Joplin. She closed out Saturday’s show with a set Hayner remembers as electric.
“Texas had been pretty hard on her and so what I remember her saying is that she had really felt kind of nervous about being there but we really made her feel like she was welcome and part of us,” he says.
And she was part of them. Janis Joplin had to leave Texas to become the Janis Joplin everyone now knows. For most of her career, she stayed away from her home state. Texas was a place where she was bullied, ostracized for who she was. That experience left her, like so many in the crowd, caught between worlds that were often at odds with each other. But now here she was – an icon of the counterculture. The crowd clapped her and the Kozmic Blues Band back on for two encores. And then, as concertgoer Billy Kirby remembers it, she had something to say.
“Her band was walking off the stage, she was walking off the stage. The lighters were up, people were screaming ‘Janis, Janis, encore, encore.’ Well she comes out and everybody goes crazy again and she just kind of quiets the crowd down a little bit with her hand movements,” he says. “And she leaned to the microphone and said ‘Thank you very much. But what I want to know is where the fuck were you motherfuckers when I needed you a few years ago?’ And left.”Texas Standard
Editor’s note, October 2019.
“She never talked about how hard she worked to get to where she was and become the musician she was. And suddenly, I hear her coming up with guitar parts, figuring out different tempos, new arrangements of the songs. She was really calling the shots.”Holly George-Warren
The Texas Standard segment and the Fresh Air episode linked above contain different interviews with the author of Janis: Her Life and Music, Holly George-Warren. If I was more of a Janis Joplin fan I’d probably take the time to read the book. I may take the time to listen to Janis’ discography back to back with Big Mama Thornton’s work just to get a feel for the two different approaches to the material.
I should have been paying closer attention to what Janis was singing about back in the days when it might have saved me more time. Freedom isn’t something that you conserve. Freedom is a state of nature that admits to no tomorrows.
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.Me and Bobby McGee