It’s been nearly half a century since her tragic death at 27 from an accidental heroin overdose, but Janis Joplin’s life and music are still hugely resonant. In her landmark new biography, Janis, writer Holly George-Warren cites Pink, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, and Lucinda Williams among the many artists who have been influenced by the first female rock star’s courageous passion, earthy, genre-defying sound, and self-emptying vocal power. Joplin was a white kid from a small town in Texas who fell in love with the blues and went on to define the liberating spirit of San Francisco’s psychedelic scene in the late Sixties, growing in leaps as an artist during her brief career, even as she fought the era’s chauvinism and her own demons. “She embraced life with a joyous ferocity, though she could never escape a fundamental darkness,” writes George-Warren.
Joplin grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, during the Fifties and early Sixties, a “tomboy” who ripped off her shirt to roughhouse with the neighborhood boys. Influenced by her nonconformist father, she was soon pursuing a “beatnik” lifestyle, exploring her bisexuality, and singing Bessie Smith covers for coffee-shop folk crowds. Janis teems with awestruck descriptions of her singing and the complex, often troubled person behind it. “Janis always had this thing of total insecurity and total power at the same time,” recalls a bandmate in the pioneering Bay Area blues-rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Big Brother’s set at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 made Joplin a superstar — “Haight-Ashbury’s first pinup,” as she dubbed herself. But by boldly putting herself out there in a male-dominated rock scene, Joplin endured sexism that now seems almost primordial: Critics commented on her weight and appearance; one Rolling Stone reviewer described her onstage as an “imperious whore.” There are other even more shocking moments of physical violence, including a run-in with Jerry Lee Lewis, in which he punched Joplin, saying, “If you’re gonna act like a man, I’ll treat ya like one.”
George-Warren, a veteran journalist and longtime Rolling Stone contributor who has written important biographies of Alex Chilton and Gene Autry, respectfully handles the gossipy side of Joplin’s free-loving Sixties hedonism (fun fact: Joplin had a one-night stand with NFL great Joe Namath). The author’s main focus is Joplin’s increasingly ambitious music, vibrant personality, and hard emotional journey. After leaving Big Brother, Joplin patterned a mix of blues, soul, rock, and country that culminated in her classic 1971 album, Pearl, released just months after her death.
Throughout the book, Joplin’s own voice comes alive via old interviews, accounts from friends and peers, and, most movingly, in letters to her parents in Texas, describing everything from the thrill of playing live to the process of mixing an album. “Played a hippie party in Golden Gate Park yesterday,” she wrote home in early 1967. “Co-sponsored by the Hell’s Angels who, at least in S.F., are really very nice.” Her family’s disapproval of her hippie lifestyle led to a fracture that would play a large role in pushing her deeper into an aloneness she’d respond to by falling further into drugs, which she claimed helped to “bury all her thoughts and deaden her from the world.” It’s a heartbreaking admission coming from someone who gave the world so much.