Her Life and Music
By Holly George-Warren
Janis Joplin, the racy hippie white girl who — it was popular to say at the time — could sing like a black woman, should be positioned as one of the most significant cultural figures of the last half century. But though she certainly is a pop icon, her significance has been muted by the brevity of her career (she died, at 27, in 1970), which was preceded by years of dues-paying; by the way she died (heroin overdoses leave an unextinguishable taint); and by her bawdy, good-time, overly accessible image, which obscured her serious side.
Over the decades, several books have been written about her (notably Alice Echols’s 1999 counterculture-evocative “Scars of Sweet Paradise”). Amy Berg’s fine documentary “Janis: Little Girl Blue” surprised viewers with the thoughtful primness in the letters Joplin wrote to her parents. They doted on her during her girlhood in Port Arthur, Texas, and beyond, and she never stopped wanting to please them.
Now comes Holly George-Warren’s masterfully researched “Janis: Her Life and Music” — the significance-establishing project Joplin appreciators have been waiting for. Her life story unfolds in almost month-by-month narration, greatly assisted by the access George-Warren had to her diaries and letters. (Janis was a prodigious correspondent, often capping off her enthusiasm or worry or pain with “SIGH.”) George-Warren (noted for her biography of the esoteric musician and singer Alex Chilton) also tracked down people from all stages of Janis’s life.
Despite occasional over-density of detail, we get the full Janis, starting with the smart girl who skipped a grade in school and could eventually talk about antimatter with her engineer father. There is the hothead, the beatnik, the talented painter, the idealist who defied the rest of her white Texas high school class by staunchly opposing segregation. “Janis Joplin never settled,” George-Warren says. “She embraced life with a joyous ferocity, though she never could escape a fundamental darkness created by loneliness,” which she inherited from her quietly intellectual father. This may have led to the drug-taking that was part and parcel of the scenes she entered.
Born in 1943, she was raised to be a homemaker (she knitted and quilted and clipped recipes), and that domestic model loomed as a hoped-for lifesaver whenever her heart was broken or when her early amphetamine habit became especially dangerous. In one case, she wrote to a friend: “Every night … my head starts filling w/past unhappiness. … I want to be happy.”
Janis spent her late teenage years and her early 20s on the road, like her hero Jack Kerouac. Hitchhiking from one Beat and folkie haven to another — Venice, Palo Alto, Greenwich Village, the bohemian section of Austin — she hooked up with a revolving group of male and female lovers (auto-harp or pool cue in hand).
Everywhere she went, she sang: folk, bluegrass, hillbilly, country and western. But of course her main love and mark-maker was the Odetta- and Bessie Smith-influenced blues.
Between her journeys, she’d return home — to college and bridge games, trying to be conventional. She fell in love with a seemingly cultured man named Peter de Blanc (who turned out to be a total liar) and dreamed of a white-picket-fence life as a way of fleeing the talent that unleashed her emotions, which dovetailed with her drinking and her drug use. “Linda,” she wrote a friend, about the prospect of returning to music, “can you imagine the knot this all brings to my stomach! Whew, I am scared to death!”
But return she did. When, in 1966, years of musical and emotional preparation brought her to the singing of Willie Mae Thornton’s “Ball and Chain,” “Janis squeezed every bit of hurt she’d suffered into ‘I wanted to love you and I wanted to hold you, yeah, till the day I die,’” George-Warren writes.
Janis’s role in the blossoming of San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love has been written about widely. (The two mediagenic females were Janis, with her beads and big hat and cackling laugh, and her polar opposite, the cool, finishing-school-educated Grace Slick.) Still, the era’s ecstasies are recaptured here by Janis’s own real-time excitements. “Wheeee! Now these are our people!” she enthused, after a Be-In performance with the initially hapless band she fronted, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Sam Andrew, the handsome band member who would stay with her the longest, said, “Janis always had this thing of total insecurity and total power at the same time.”
Although the book is full of lovers and almost lovers (she was annoyed that Leonard Cohen didn’t respond to her), and music-world-familiar producers, musicians and compadres, it zeros in on Janis’s singing skill. In her lovely rendition of “Summertime,” Andrew was awed by how she hung on “that initial n in ‘nothing’s going to harm you.’ … It is one thing to stretch out a vowel, but elongating an n is something else,” much more difficult. It led to “a sort of consonantal melisma.”
Janis’s star-making moment — in her pantsuit and kitten heels at the Monterey Pop Festival, she sang the hell out of the bluesy “Ball and Chain” and became a sensation — has also been written about many times, so George-Warren wisely focuses on the performance: Janis, “building gradually from her vulnerable alto, to soulful stuttering, to the cathartic climax’s multitextured screams and howls.”
Similarly, the book analyzes how Janis “Otisized” (as in Otis Redding) “Piece of My Heart.” “What few at the time realized,” George-Warren writes, is that when she inevitably left Big Brother to form her Kozmic Blues Band, she “had a clear idea of what she wanted: … a cross between the funky-soul sound of Stax/Volt Records and the `brass-rock’ of fellow Columbia artists Blood, Sweat and Tears and … Chicago.”
We don’t think of Joplin as a music producer. She was. We don’t think of her as verbally self-analytic. But she consulted a therapist “because … I was building my stability and progress on sheer terror,” which was “too precarious.” Janis endured homeliness call-outs before she became famous, and even at the height of her fame she received sexist wallops that, in today’s #MeToo America, would have her critics Twitter-spanked. Rolling Stone likened her to “an imperious whore.” The beloved Bay Area music critic Ralph Gleason snarked that she should go back to Big Brother “if they’ll have her.”
Toward the end of her life, Janis fell in love with a Peace Corps worker named David Niehaus, who inspired her “Cry, Baby”; she wanted to be his perfect “old lady.” Convention died hard, even for a woman who’d invented vivid new freedoms for her gender.
Heroin was the way this woman who “never seemed to be able to control my feelings” found peace. Janis died in the motel she was staying at in Los Angeles just before her last — and biggest — solo album, “Pearl,” was released. She had done all of her boundary breaking by the time she was three years shy of 30.
George-Warren ends by quoting a highly awarded feminist singer-songwriter of color issuing a powerful compliment almost 50 years after Joplin’s death. “I use Janis Joplin as a point of reference,” Alicia Keys has declared. Now, that would have made Janis write “SIGH” at the end of a letter.
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