One in four US adults burdened by medical debt


By Kate Randall
8 January 2016

A new survey shows that 26 percent of US adults ages 18-64 say they or someone in their household had problems paying their medical bills in the past 12 months. The Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times Medical Bills Survey shows that those from all walks of life are saddled with medical debt, with the uninsured and low-income households carrying the heaviest burden.

The survey is based on interviews with a sample of 2,575 respondents conducted August 28 through September 28, 2015. Its findings are an indictment of the for-profit health care system in America, which strains many family budgets to the breaking point, forcing significant numbers of people to go without other basic household necessities to pay medical bills or to forgo medical care when they cannot pay.

Being uninsured has a strong correlation with medical bill difficulties, with 53 percent of the uninsured reporting problems paying household medical bills in the past year. However, as the survey’s findings point out, “insurance is not a panacea against these problems.” About one in five of those with insurance—either through an employer, Medicaid or purchased on their own—also report problems paying medical bills.

Among those with private insurance, the prevalence of high-deductible health coverage significantly impacts the financial burden on households, with 26 percent of those with high-deductible coverage reporting difficulties paying their medical bills. Although the survey does not indicate which of those interviewed purchased their coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it is clear that the high deductible plans dominating the ACA marketplace are becoming increasingly common among plans sold by private insurance companies.

Not surprisingly, households with lower or moderate incomes are more likely to report problems paying their medical bills. Nearly four in 10 (37 percent) of those with household incomes below $50,000 report these problems, compared with 26 percent of those with incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, and 14 percent of those with household incomes greater than $100,000.

Women are slightly more likely than men to experience problems paying medical bills (29 percent versus 23 percent), as are adults under age 30 compared with those ages 30-64 (31 percent versus 24 percent). Residents in the South reported the highest share of medical bill problems (32 percent), while those in the Northeast reported the lowest (18 percent). At 24 percent, whites reported slightly less difficulty pay their bills than blacks (31 percent) and Hispanics (32 percent).

People with the greatest medical needs are also more likely to face problems paying their medical bills. Of those who say they have a disability that prevents them from participating fully in daily activities, 47 percent report medical bill problems. Among those who rate their own heath as fair or poor, 45 percent report these problems, while 34 percent of those who say they receive regular treatment for a chronic condition report problems.

The medical bills burdening households are for a wide variety of medical services, both one-time events and chronic conditions. Of those surveyed, bills incurred included those for doctor visits (65 percent), diagnostic tests (65 percent), lab fees (64 percent) and emergency room visits (61 percent). About half say they had problems paying for prescription drugs, hospitalizations or dental care.

Those surveyed were asked to briefly describe the illness or injury that led to their medical bills. Respondents describe the nightmare scenario in which they face the double impact of serious medical conditions and the inability to pay the bills incurred to treat them. Following are some of their accounts:

“A heart attack (MI) requiring 4 stents being placed. Also an appendectomy. Ongoing: diabetes and heart disease that require monthly visits and prescriptions. My son also has epilepsy which has impacted our medical expenses.”

“In 2002 I had a pancreatic attack, a tumor in my pancreas removed and my spleen removed, and I broke 2 arms at the same time, partial hysterectomy. And hepatitis.”

“Cancer. Current treatment not FDA approved for certain cancers, so eventhough the treatment is working, it is no longer covered by insurance and costs approximately $11,000 per month.”

“I had a tooth that went bad and had to have it pulled. I now need another tooth in its place. The dentist wants all the money for the procedure up front. I do not have thousands of dollars to give.”

“I have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis throughout my body, as well as degenerative disc disease. I have had to have at least 6 MRI’s in past 5 years, 3 back injections, 5 foot surgeries, 2 knee surgeries, wrist surgery, torn tendon repair, several joint replacement surgeries, etc.”

“I was pregnant and miscarried when I was 10.5 weeks a long. Prior to losing the baby, I had an ultrasound which cost $636 and I don’t have insurance. I was eligible for pregnancy-related Medicaid, but it wasn’t billed right and a year and a half later I got the bill. I am still trying to get it straightened out.”

“Insurance not paying for wellness care of any kind, blood work, labs, physical and only 8o% of a mammogram.

(Kaiser Family Foundations/New York Times Medical Bills Survey)

When asked to describe their financial situation, 43 percent of those who have experienced problems paying medical bills say they just scrape by covering their basic household expenses, while 18 percent say they don’t have the financial resources to cover them. The survey also shows that compared to those without medical debt, those with medical bill problems are less likely to have a credit card or a retirement savings account.

Of those with difficulties paying bills, the total amount owed ranged from 10 percent owing $500 or less, to 24 percent owing $2,500 to less than $5,000, to 13 percent owing in excess of $10,000. For an individual or family living paycheck to paycheck, or facing unemployment, even a $500 unpaid medical bill—accompanied by calls from health providers’ offices or their bill collectors—can become an overwhelming burden.

In a further cruel twist, those facing medical bill problems also often face the complicating factor of income loss due to an illness. Three in 10 respondents say someone in their household had to take a cut in pay or hours as a result of the illness that led to the medical bills, either due to the illness itself or in order to care for the person who was sick.

The ACA is contributing to and compounding these devastating financial conditions for millions of Americans. The program, popularly known as Obamacare, forces uninsured individuals to purchase coverage from for-profit insurers under threat of penalty, offering only modest subsidies to those who qualify. The most affordable of these plans come with deductibles in excess of $5,000 and other high out-of-pocket costs and there are no meaningful restraints on the premiums insurance companies can charge.

These Obamacare plans are serving as a model for employer-sponsored coverage, where high-deductible plans are becoming more and more the norm. Architects of the ACA further predict that employer-sponsored coverage will largely be done away with by 2025.

The solution to the financial crisis ordinary Americans face paying their medical bills—along with the other scourges of the US for-profit medical system—lies in putting an end to the privately owned insurance companies, pharmaceuticals and giant health care chains and establishing socialized medicine.

Robert Reich: Martin Shkreli is just a product of American capitalism


The only thing that set the pharmaceutical exec apart was his brashness, laments the former secretary of labor

This originally appeared on Robert Reich’s blog.

Martin Shkreli, the former hedge-fund manager turned pharmaceutical CEO who was arrested last week, has been described as a sociopath and worse.

In reality, he’s a brasher and larger version of what others in finance and corporate suites do all the time.

Federal prosecutors are charging him with conning wealthy investors.

Lying to investors is illegal, of course, but it’s perfectly normal to use hype to lure rich investors into hedge funds. And the line between the two isn’t always distinct.

Hedge funds are lightly regulated on the assumption that investors are sophisticated and can take care of themselves.

Perhaps prosecutors went after Shkreli because they couldn’t nail him for his escapades as a pharmaceutical executive, which were completely legal – although vile.

Shkreli took over a company with the rights to a 62-year-old drug used to treat oxoplasmosis, a devastating parasitic infection that can cause brain damage in babies and people with AIDS. He then promptly raised its price from $13.50 to $750 a pill.

When the media and politicians went after him, Shkreli was defiant, saying “our shareholders expect us to make as much as money as possible.” He said he wished he had raised the price even higher.

That was too much even for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Big Pharma’s trade group, which complained indignantly that Shkreli’s company was just an investment vehicle “masquerading” as a pharmaceutical company.

Maybe Big Pharma doesn’t want to admit most pharmaceutical companies have become investment vehicles. If they didn’t deliver for their investors they’d be taken over by “activist” investors and private-equity partners who would.

The hypocrisy is stunning. Just three years ago, Forbes Magazine praised Shkreli as one of its “30 under 30 in Finance” who was “battling billionaires and entrenched drug industry executives.”

Last month, Shkreli got control of a company with rights to a cheap drug used for decades to treat Chagas’ disease in Latin America. His aim was to get the drug approved in the United States and charge tens of thousands of dollars for a course of treatment.

Investors who backed Shkreli in this venture did well. The company’s share price initially shot up from under $2 to more than $40.

While other pharmaceutical companies don’t raise their drug prices fiftyfold in one fell swoop, as did Shkreli, they would if they thought it would lead to fat profits.

Most have been increasing their prices more than 10 percent a year – still far faster than inflation – on drugs used on common diseases like cancer, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

This has imposed a far bigger burden on health spending than Shkreli’s escapades, making it much harder for Americans to pay for drugs they need. Even if they’re insured, most people are paying out big sums in co-payments and deductibles.

Not to mention the impact on private insurers, Medicare, state Medicaid, prisons and the Veterans Health Administration.

And the prices of new drugs are sky-high. Pfizer’s new one to treat advanced breast cancer costs $9,850 a month.

According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, that price isn’t based on manufacturing or research costs.

Instead, Pfizer set the price as high as possible without pushing doctors and insurers toward alternative drugs.

But don’t all profit-maximizing firms set prices as high as they can without pushing customers toward alternatives?

Unlike most other countries, the United States doesn’t control drug prices. It leaves pricing up to the market.

Which enables drug companies to charge as much as the market will bear.

So what, exactly, did Martin Shkreli do wrong, by the standards of today’s capitalism?

He played the same game many others are playing on Wall Street and in corporate suites. He was just more audacious about it.

It’s easy to go after bad guys, much harder to go after bad systems.

Hedge fund managers, for example, make big gains from trading on insider information. That robs small investors who aren’t privy to the information.

But it’s not illegal unless a trader knows the leaker was compensated – a looser standard than in any other advanced country.

Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry is making a fortune off average Americans, who are paying more for the drugs they need than the citizens of any other advanced country.

That’s largely because Big Pharma has wielded its political influence to avoid cost controls, to ban Medicare from using its bargaining clout to negotiate lower prices, and to allow drug companies to pay the makers of generic drugs to delay their cheaper versions.

Shkreli may be a rotten apple. But hedge funds and the pharmaceutical industry are two rotten systems that are costing Americans a bundle.

How LSD Affects Your Consciousness


New research may be opening the way to the use of LSD in studying psychosis, as well as in the treatment of addictions and depression.
How LSD Affects Your Consciousness

Since its discovery, lysergic acid diethylamide (more commonly known as LSD) has been responsible for altering the consciousness of many people. Though scientists today have detailed knowledge of how the substance affects specific serotonin receptors, it’s unclear how these pharmacological effects translate into such a significant change in consciousness.

A new report presented at the annual conference of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology in Hollywood, Fla., suggested that LSD reduces the connectivity within brain networks — basically, the extent to which neurons within a network can fire simultaneously. It also showed that LSD seems to reduce how much separate brain networks remain unique in their patterns or synchronization of firing.

Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris and his team at Imperial College London began their experiment with sequential brain scans on 20 volunteers, using fMRI to map changes in blood flow and changes in brain activity. They also utilized magnetoenchalography (MEG) to record the magnetic fields produced by electrical currents occurring in the brain, allowing them to image brain function. The technology showed that LSD led to a chaotic brain state not dissimilar to what is seen in a certain stage of psychosis. They observed neurons that in a normal state, would have fired together, fall out of synchronicity. They also saw networks that were normally distinct fall into overlapping patterns of connectivity.

The team found a potential explanation for the hallucinations and distortions that are so common in LSD intoxication — blood flow in the visual cortex at the back of the brain. The MEG picked up a change in brain oscillations as well, specifically a decrease in alpha waves across the brain. These changes were highly correlated with visual hallucinations, suggesting that while under the influence of LSD, “the visual system is tethered more to the internal than external world.”

LSD may be able to provide a helpful model of human psychosis, since it leads to changes in the brain network that overlap with the prodromal (the first) phase of psychosis.

“With better assessment tools available today than in the 1950s and 1960s, it may be possible to evaluate potential uses of LSD as a treatment for addiction and other disorders, such as treatment-resistant depression, which we are currently investigating with a similar drug to LSD,” Dr. Carhart-Harris said in a statement.

Source: Carhart Harris r, et al. The Re-Emergence of serotonergic Hallucinogens as Tools for Neuropsychopharmacology. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2015.

Robert Reich: Why the Middle Class Is in Revolt and Susceptible to a Dangerous ‘Strongman’

“It was only a matter of time before the anxious class would revolt.”

The great American middle class has become an anxious class – and it’s in revolt.

Before I explain how that revolt is playing out, you need to understand the sources of the anxiety.

Start with the fact that the middle class is shrinking, according to a new Pew survey.

The odds of falling into poverty are frighteningly high, especially for the majority without college degrees.

Two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Most could lose their jobs at any time.

Many are part of a burgeoning “on-demand” workforce – employed as needed, paid whatever they can get whenever they can get it.

Yet if they don’t keep up with rent or mortgage payments, or can’t pay for groceries or utilities, they’ll lose their footing.

The stress is taking a toll. For the first time in history, the lifespans of middle-class whites are dropping.

According to research by the recent Nobel-prize winning economist, Angus Deaton, and his co-researcher Anne Case, middle-aged white men and women in the United States have been dying earlier.

They’re poisoning themselves with drugs and alcohol, or committing suicide.

The odds of being gunned down in America by a jihadist are far smaller than the odds of such self-inflicted deaths, but the recent tragedy in San Bernadino only heightens an overwhelming sense of arbitrariness and fragility.

The anxious class feels vulnerable to forces over which they have no control. Terrible things happen for no reason.

Yet government can’t be counted on to protect them.

Safety nets are full of holes. Most people who lose their jobs don’t even qualify for unemployment insurance.

Government won’t protect their jobs from being outsourced to Asia or being taken by a worker here illegally.

Government can’t even protect them from evil people with guns or bombs. Which is why the anxious class is arming itself, buying guns at a record rate.

They view government as not so much incompetent as not giving a damn. It’s working for the big guys and fat cats – the crony capitalists who bankroll candidates and get special favors in return.

When I visited so-called “red” states this fall, I kept hearing angry complaints that government is run by Wall Street bankers who get bailed out after wreaking havoc on the economy, corporate titans who get cheap labor, and billionaires who get tax loopholes.

Last year two highly-respected political scientists, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, took a close look at 1,799 policy decisions Congress made over the course of over twenty years, and who influenced those decisions.

Their conclusion: “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

It was only a matter of time before the anxious class would revolt.

They’d support a strongman who’d promise to protect them from all the chaos.

Who’d save jobs from being shipped abroad, slam Wall Street, stick it to China, get rid of people here illegally, and block terrorists from getting into America.

A strongman who’d make America great again – which really means make average working people safe again.

It was a pipe dream, of course – a conjurer’s trick. No single person can do this. The world is far too complex. You can’t build a wall along the Mexican border. You can’t keep out all Muslims. You can’t stop corporations from outsourcing abroad.

Nor should you even try.

Besides, we live in a messy democracy, not a dictatorship.

Still, they think maybe he’s smart enough and tough enough to pull it off. He’s rich. He tells it like it is.

He makes every issue a test of personal strength. He calls himself strong and his adversaries weak.

So what if he’s crude and rude? Maybe that’s what it takes to protect average people in this cruelly precarious world.

For years I’ve heard the rumbles of the anxious class. I’ve listened to their growing anger – in union halls and bars, in coal mines and beauty parlors, on the Main Streets and byways of the washed-out backwaters of America.

I’ve heard their complaints and cynicism, their conspiracy theories and their outrage.

Most are good people, not bigots or racists. They work hard and they have a strong sense of fairness.

But their world has been slowly coming apart. And they’re scared and fed up.

Now someone comes along who’s even more of a bully than those who for years have bullied them economically, politically, and even violently.

The attraction is understandable, even though misguided.

If not Donald Trump, then it will be someone else posing as a strongman. If not this election cycle, it will be the next one.

The revolt of the anxious class has just begun.


Robert B. Reich has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. His latest book is “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few.” His website is

The Economic Heartache Behind the Rise in Blue-Collar Death

‘I Didn’t See These Times Coming’: 


Dalton Mills, former textile mill in Keighley, England.   (Tom Blackwell / Flickr)

His hope had turned to dust.

He had lost a good union job when his factory shut down. He refused to take welfare, despite a long and fruitless job search, and finally landed back at the old plant, earning far less on a production line that now paid him piece by piece.

And so he was dead set on going to a lonely hilltop the next day with a rifle to take his life. That’s when I happened to call—he was one of the laid-off factory workers whose lives I had been reporting on, and I was checking in. He told me his plan, and I asked if we could meet in the morning. I was panicked. He said he hadn’t talked to any mental health workers, and I felt I had to do something.

We met the next day at a dingy basement apartment, where I nodded at his young wife and several young children, and we headed out to the hilltop.

Standing on the cold, windy field, we talked about his former factory mates: how they suffered and struggled and somehow got by. I had gotten to know nearly all of them in the year’s reporting on the lives of the workers at a small Michigan auto parts plant.

There was a long awkward silence, and then the babv-faced 33-year-old worker told me he wouldn’t harm himself. He wasn’t a weak man, he explained. But everything had just overcome him. “I didn’t see these times coming,” he said.

He was among many souls badly bruised in the early 1980s as waves of layoffs, cutbacks and shrinking benefits and wages ambushed the nation’s blue-collar workers. Most of those workers I met then and afterward were like him: men without much schooling who thought they would just keeping riding the American dream with their strong arms and backs.

I suspect that more than a few fell victim, eventually, to the trend recently pointed out by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton and Anne Case: There has been a surprising upward turn in the death rate of middle-aged white Americans, especially those with less education. The “turnaround” in the once-falling mortality rate was mostly driven by the deaths of men with a high school degree or less, the researchers report.

Looking at the death rate for white men ages 45 to 54 between 1999 and 2013, they found that the rate suddenly began increasing after years of steadily declining. Yet the death rates for similarly aged black and Latino men continued to fall. The surge in death rates for middle-aged white men is a situation without parallel, they say, in any rich country.

Driving this tragic reversal, they explain, were increased death rates from suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. If the downward trend had continued at the same pace, there would have been 96,000 fewer deaths among these middle-aged white men over those years.

What brought this on?

The researchers are uncertain, but they suggest several causes. A major one, they suggest, has been the dramatic growth in the fatal use of painkillers, along with cheaper and greater availability of heroin. Along with these changes, they point to interviews that show increases in these workers’ “distress”: greater loneliness and isolation, emotional unease and physical pains.

They also point to a more nebulous factor: the sudden downward slide in prosperity for workers with limited schooling. They wrote:

After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents.

That’s no surprise to anyone who has spent any time these last few years at an unemployment office, union hall or bar in a community where decent-paying blue-collar jobs have vanished and for those lucky enough to find a job, pay and benefits have withered away. Between 1999 and 2013, for households whose primary earner had only a high school degree, the median real wage fell 19 percent.

As unions have disappeared, so have the pension plans that once gave workers security. And so have job safety protections, as workers hustle to get even dangerous jobs that come with no oversight by a union or anyone else.

Marriages have collapsed, and others have been put off or cancelled. Lonely jobless men rush to the oil fields, or wherever there’s work, to labor in isolation with their lives in deep freeze.

Lower pay and fewer jobs have meant an eagerness to grab as much income as possible while they are employed. That is what motivated a middle-aged miner from southern Illinois whom I talked with recently as I was looking into the growing nationwide effort to trim workers’ compensation.

Until not long ago, he would put in seven days a week on the job, even though the decades of hard work had taken a toll on his body. The damage finally caught up with him, however. Virtually paralyzed in both arms by the years of repetitive stress, he lives alone, his marriage shattered and his savings gone. He is getting by today on a meager workers’ compensation check—won after a long legal battle—that’s a slim fraction of what he once earned.

Maybe you can’t measure this number, but the collective heartbreak suffered largely by blue-workers seems to me to surely have been a killer, taking lives before their time.

I know because I’ve watched it grab hold of workers, who have drifted off into silence, depression or alcoholism because of their despair. I was struck by the pain of wives of striking workers in a small Illinois town in the 1990s, who had come together to talk and bond because their husbands wouldn’t, and because some of the men were drinking themselves numb.

After their middle-class career dreams have shriveled up and their marriages, and communities evaporated, these are likely to be the men who succumb to depression, alcohol or drug addictions. This is the flesh-and-blood line-up of the statistical trend the economists discovered.

From town to town and factory to factory, I’ve come to realize that the most lethal impact of the hollowing out of the American workplace is the psychic wound it deals.

It’s a wound that cuts into American workers’ deeply held belief that they can do better than those before them if only they keep their heads down and work harder. It’s a wound that leads to the crippling realization that you are on your own when everything falls apart. And the wound slices even deeper as workers struggle to live up to the very American mantra that you need to stand alone, on your own two feet.

Tracking down the heads of troubled union locals in the 1980s, when massive waves of job losses were galloping across US factories, I was moved by how many outwardly seemed determined to stand tall amid seemingly hopelessness situations.

But I was also struck by the disappearance of these mostly middle-aged men. Where had they gone?

I began to understand the toll of the despair that leads to drugs, pain killers, depression, or simply intense stress, and ultimately shortens lives.

One day, after repeated calls to the union local, I finally reached the widow of a former shop chairman at a small plant in central Michigan. Not long after the abrupt closing of the plant where her 55-year-old husband had spent much of his life, he had died of a heart attack.

“We really had nothing to live on but our little savings,” she told me. “I knew it did have an effect on him. He held it inside.”

Stephen Franklin wrote for many years about workers’ lives at the Detroit Free Press and Chicago Tribune.

Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is ethnic news director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans(2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East. He can be reached via e-mail

Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side: what became of Candy, Little Joe and co?

Holly Woodlawn, the transgender ‘superstar’ namechecked in the classic hymn to Warhol’s New York, died at the weekend – but she outlived most of her contemporaries
Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, and ‘Little’ Joe Dallesandro at Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1971.
Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, and ‘Little’ Joe Dallesandro at Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1971. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Holly, who came from Miami, FLA – hitchhiked her way across the USA –died this weekend, aged 69, suffering from brain and liver cancer. Holly Woodlawn had been one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars”, one of the first transgender celebrities, and a character who was – literally – straight out of a Lou Reed song. Alongside Candy, Little Joe, Sugar Plum Fairy and Jackie, she was one of the principals of Walk on the Wild Side, Reed’s hymn to New York and the Warhol underground. In her later years, Woodlawn had undergone something of a revival, appearing on screen again and performing on stage. But what happened to the others?

Candy Darling “never lost her head even when she was giving head”, Reed sang. He’d sung about her before – she was the Candy who said “I’ve come to hate my body / And all that it requires in this life” on the third Velvet Underground album in 1968. Reed had feared the reaction of his characters to Walk on the Wild Side, but, he later recalled: “Candy Darling told me he’d memorised all the songs and wanted to make a ‘Candy Darling Sings Lou Reed’ album. It probably wouldn’t sell more than a hundred copies!” Darling, too, was a transgender Warhol superstar, appearing in Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971). There were other films, too – but it was a brief career. Darling died of lymphoma, aged 29, in 1974.

Little Joe

Joe Dallesandro “never once gave it away / Everyone had to pay and pay” – perhaps because he was famed as the great sex symbol of American underground film and gay culture (he is actually bisexual, and has been married three times, fathering three children). A teenage delinquent, he ran away from a rehabilitation centre and found his way to the Warhol set via nude modelling and homoerotic short films. Unlike Reed’s other characters, he crossed over to the mainstream, becoming a magazine cover star and acting in the kind of films that get shown in multiplexes. His greatest presence in popular culture these days comes from two photos – his crotch on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, and his head and torso on the cover of the Smiths’ first album. Dallesandro, now 66, lives in Los Angeles.

Sugar Plum Fairy

Joe Campbell – who “came and hit the streets. Lookin’ for soul food and a place to eat” – has the oddest story, albeit by association, of any of the song’s characters. The name comes from the role he played in Warhol’s 1965 film My Hustler, but his strange associations have nothing to do with Warhol. In 1955, he entered into a love affair with an older man, with whom he lived for seven years – that older man, Harvey Milk, would later find fame as the highest profile gay politician in the US. His late 60s boyfriend, Billy Sipple, became famous in September 1975, when he thwarted Sara Jane Moore’s attempt to shoot Gerald Ford. Campbell himself died at home in California in 2005, after 29 years of a relationship with Stanley Jensen.


Jackie Curtis was the one “just speeding away / Thought she was James Dean for a day”. She sometimes performed as a woman, sometimes as a man, and her glitter-and-lipstick style was claimed to have been an inspiration to the glam-rock look. She wrote musicals and poetry, and sang – and her 1967 play Glory, Glamour and Gold gave Robert de Niro his first stage role. Craig Highberger, who made the documentary Superstar in a Housedress about her, recalled Curtis bringing home a sailor one night. “His lipstick was smeared all over the sailor’s mouth and neck. We deposited him on the sofa and Curtis came to the kitchen with me to get some beers and whispered, ‘Craig, he thinks I’m a real girl, what am I going to do when he finds out I’m not?’” Curtis died of a heroin overdose in 1985, aged 38.


Janis: Little Girl Blue–Amy Berg’s valuable documentary about singer Janis Joplin

By David Walsh
5 December 2015

Janis: Little Girl Blue, the documentary about rock and roll singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970) is currently playing in New York City and Los Angeles. It will have a digital and television premiere on PBS’s American Masters early in 2016. Wewrote about the film when it was shown at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Amy Berg

Amy Berg is making a name for herself as an interesting documentary filmmaker. Her Deliver Us from Evil (2006), about a Catholic priest who admitted to molesting and raping 25 children, and West of Memphis (2012), about the frame-up of a number of young men for the supposed “satanic” murder of three eight-year-old children, were both systematic and compassionate.

In Janis: Little Girl Blue, Berg turns to the life and career of rock and roll singer Janis Joplin, who was immensely popular for the last several years of her life until her tragic demise from heroin and alcohol in October 1970.

Joplin grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, a sea port on the Gulf of Mexico and at the time the center of a large oil refinery network. Her father was a mechanical engineer in the oil industry. In high school, as Little Girl Blue details, Joplin felt persecuted and an outcast.

The civil rights movement and the social developments of the late 1950s and early 1960s were obviously critical to the course of her life. One of her first musical memories, Berg’s film notes, was hearing folk singer Odetta’s version of “Careless Love.” Joplin tried folk singing in Austin, Texas, before first moving to San Francisco in 1963, where she sang but also developed a methamphetamine habit and became “skeletal.”

After a brief period back home in Port Arthur, Joplin returned to San Francisco in 1966 and became the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, a “psychedelic rock” band. A major breakthrough took place at the Monterey Pop Festival, one of the first of the large, well-publicized music festivals, in June 1967, where she sang a memorable version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.”

Janis: Little Girl Blue

Berg’s film follows the vicissitudes of Joplin’s professional and personal life. She left Big Brother in 1968 and went out on her own as the leader of her own band. She continued to use serious drugs. A friend says blithely, “We shot heroin for fun.” She eventually took off for Brazil to clean herself up, where she fell in love with an American traveler.

Berg treats Joplin’s life with a great deal of sympathy. The singer, who exuded confidence and bravado on stage, was beset by anxiety and insecurity. She told a Montreal reporter in 1969, “Send me your review. I agonize over all of ’em. Man, I’m really neurotic. I really want people to love me.”

Joplin’s recordings are not generally as good as they could be and she tended, as filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker remarks, to “shout and scream.” It will elicit cries of outrage from some, but, in my opinion, there is very little of the “San Francisco Sound” that stands the test of time: too much self-indulgence, too many drugs, too much self-delusion.

However, anyone who saw Janis Joplin in person, especially in a more intimate space, is not likely to forget it. This writer saw her in concert three times in 1968 and 1969, including on a bill with B.B. King only a few hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. I have never from that time to this seen a performer as generous and as giving—and as vulnerable. One almost inevitably fell in love with her.

Janis Joplin in 1970

Her last boyfriend David Niehaus comments in Berg’s film that Janis “could feel everybody else’s pain.” She could not be oblivious, Niehaus explains, to suffering, her singing represents an “entire honesty.”

Laura and Michael Joplin, Janis’ younger siblings, participated in the making of Berg’s film and are interviewed in it. They were present at the public screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015. Each makes a highly favorable impression. They spoke with considerable affection, four decades or more later, about their elder sister. Laura described Janis’ emotional life as a “roller coaster” from early on. She made clear that her sister hated “racism” (Port Arthur had an active branch of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s) and felt strongly about “integration” and “equality.” Footage of Janis’s mother, after her daughter’s death, reading a letter from one of Janis’ admirers explaining how the singer had affected her life, is also very moving.

The final and perhaps most apt comment in Little Girl Blue comes from John Lennon, on a talk show following Joplin’s death. Lennon observes that no one is asking the most important question, why people take drugs in the first place. He suggests that it comes from a “problem with society. People can’t live in society without guarding themselves from it.”