OK, so I don’t write personal reviews.
If that’s how you like it, skip this one.
Unless you suspect you’re an artist.
Some 2,000 years ago, a sculptor whose name we have lost worked
long and patiently, with all he (or she) had learned and lived, upon a
block of marble. What emerged, after long effort, was a statue of Apollo, “god of music, truth, and prophecy” (in the perfect phrasing of an unnamed Wiki editor). The sculptor died.
Somewhere between ancient Greece and the modern era, the statue ran into “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (in the phrasing of an English poet). The Apollo was beaten, broken, and forgotten. But it did not die. What remained, to be discovered by an unnamed archaeologist, was a torso — arms and neck broken off, legs long since lost. Still, so beautiful it became a museum piece.
Just 50 years ago last month, a young Texas woman of 24 stepped on the stage at a pop music festival in California and started singing. Three years and four months later, she died.
But her singing didn’t stop. One day, it reached the Italian city of Verona, where a young girl heard it and could not stay the same.
This summer, the girl from Verona — now a woman, with careers in dancing and film — has been performing a brief tribute to the Texas singer as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Using all she has learned and lived, Arianna Veronesi puts Janis Joplin back onstage for 30 minutes — 30 minutes that changed the singer’s life. And can change yours, if you let them.
The first 10 minutes introduce us — with movement only, no words –to a woman who’s fought for sobriety but is lonely, lost in her new life, hungry. The next 10 minutes, she wrestles through a call from a friend in San Francisco with an offer she can refuse; but she doesn’t.
For the last 10 minutes, she snatches clothes from her suitcase and jewelry from her side table to create what will be her world-famous persona. Then, quietly, she reaches deep inside to fetch her wry blues song, Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz? (which will be the last song Joplin ever records).
Janis was a musically gifted kid who’d had terrible acne and been bullied all through school, and then was overwhelmed by drugs when she ran away to San Francisco. The second time she went there, she ate the music world alive, becoming a rock superstar.
Far more importantly, Janis Joplin was one of the greatest blues singers ever. She tore her songs out of her, each one a little piece of her heart (you could hear the blood), scattering her deepest secrets and suffering and love like seeds mixed with rain. The coroner said she died from a heroin overdose; but really, she died from the pain and grief of being mortal. It’s the thing that gets us all.
And she left a record of her intensely lived journey that’s indelible. Thanks to how we can capture sound on plastic, it will last about as long as marble.
Just 110 years ago, a young Czech poet walked into a room in a museum and saw the broken Apollo. Rainer Maria Rilke knew he could never be the same, and he wrote a poem about it (here in an American poet’s perfect rephrasing):
We cannot know his legendary head,
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise the stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Arianna Veronesi’s intense, delicate, consummately artistic living portrait lasts only a half-hour. Then it lives on, in what it’s done to the lives she’s touched. If you ever get the chance, meet Veronesi’s Janis, and let her become yours. And then listen to the recordings.
You’ll never be the same.
And If you’re an artist, you’ll know what you have to do — whatever the cost. After all, whichever road we take, they all end in the same place. So take out that gift, set it alight, and burn it to the end.
My Janis: An Intimate Portrait, written and performed by Arianna Veronesi.
At the New Collective Theater, 6440 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90036.