Janis: Her Life and Music
By Holly George-Warren
Simon & Schuster
Rock’s first female superstar has already been the subject of a numerous biographies, memoirs by those who loved and worked with her, documentaries, and even a musical play. But nearly 50 years after Janis Joplin died from a heroin overdose and joined the 27 Club, Holly George-Warren really reveals the woman behind the brassy, bawdy mama persona in this masterful work in which Joplin becomes a person - and not a Southern Comfort-swilling caricature.
Longtime music journo George-Warren does the deepest dive yet of Joplin’s life growing up in conservative, buttoned-up Port Arthur, Texas during the 1950s and early 60s where even then she was a nonconformist. A Beatnik wannabe, as a young teen she was obsessed with the Jack Kerouac novel On the Road, dressed unlike area debutantes, and loved black music and arts (especially the singing of big influences Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, and Odetta).
Joplin also had ideas about freedom and doing what she wanted when she wanted – often expressing that loudly and in an “unfeminine” manner. The reader also sees a Joplin who craves fame and attention, yet is shockingly insecure in her voice, place in society, and especially her looks.
The book also gives us the clearest portrait of the family who she would alternately embrace, return to, or run away from. That included an atheist, glass-is-two-thirds-empty father, a conservative, devoutly Christian mother, and a younger brother and sister who didn’t know quite what to make of their wild sister.
She was a sibling who might disappear for months, and then return home with incredible tales of adventure or, at one time, weighing 88 pounds and strung out. There’s also details of her seemingly sincere attempts to “go straight” – down to enrolling yet again in a college and pining for a fiancée who turned out to be a slimy, lothario con artist.
George-Warren also debunks a couple of Janis myths that have loomed large in her legend. First, that she was a nice, normal, buttoned-down girl until getting to San Francisco and hoisting her freak flag (she had been an enthusiastic user of drugs and alcohol and had lovers of both sexes for years). Another longtime myth was that during her ill-fated stint at the University of Texas at Austin, she was voted “Ugliest Male on Campus” in a frat boy-driven election. Joplin was indeed nominated – with her picture splashed on posters – but never actually “won.”
While in Austin, she gained early and valuable performing experience singing with the bluegrass band the Waller Creek Boys at Threadgill’s restaurant, where owner Kenneth Threadgill took a fatherly shine to her. It’s also where she really discovered herself as a singer but – of course – not with ease.
“Yet, while surrounded by a tribe of like-minded bohemians, she continued to push her own emotional extremes boozing and brawling—and foreshadowing a long pattern of self-sabotage,” George-Warren writes.
Houston appears a few times in the narrative, including when at 17, a night of drinking wine and popping pills landed her in a city hospital. She also occasionally sang at the folk clubs the Jester and Sand Mountain Coffeehouse to mixed reviews (on patron recalls that as a singer, “she was just too damn strong for everyone”).
Finally, at one of the last shows she did with Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968, disastrous events led the city of Houston to ban all rock concerts. And even when it was lifted, George-Warren says Joplin was barred from ever performing in the Bayou City “for her attitude in general.”
After fellow Texas and concert promoter Chet Helms encouraged her to try her luck in San Francisco a second time in 1966, things began to click for Joplin. First, as the new singer for psychedelic rockers Big Brother and the Holding Company, and then in a career-making, mesmerizing, show-stopping performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, her profiling only growing after the movie was released.
And while that footage of her is iconic today, it almost didn't happen, as the band’s manager at the time refused to allow their show to be filmed. Crestfallen and heartbroken, Janis begged and pleaded that the opportunity for exposure far outweighed what they wouldn’t be paid. The band was given another performance slot the next day that was preserved on film. Joplin, of course, was absolutely correct. But it was already clear that she was simply too big a star and force of nature to stay with a band whose musical skills and scope were fairly limited.
Unfortunately, George-Warren writes that one band member, guitarist James Gurley (with whom should would also have an one/off romantic relationship, despite his marriage) had a more lasting impact on the singer. He introduced her to shooting heroin. Soon, she was an avid user. Post-Monterey and Big Brother, the book’s narrative picks up speed as Joplin struggles to find the right new bandmates and a sound with a more R&B groove, and direction, all while amping up her drinking and heroin use.
A series of romantic adventures doesn’t fail to quell her loneliness, insecurity, and anxiety. And her screaming, stomping, and sweating stage antics which at first made her unlike any other performer now seemed more exorcism than performance. And for every musical step ahead that seem to put her career in perspective (like putting her heart and soul into Kris Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee,” a posthumous No. 1 hit), there were personal steps back.
As when she returns to Port Arthur (which she had been deriding in the press) for a disastrous visit to her 10th high school reunion, looking like an alien in beads and feathers and swagger. That the evening ends with a drunk and depressed Joplin instigating then getting into a fistfight with Jerry Lee Lewis in a Louisiana night club with the Killer punching her in the face and offering “If you’re gonna act like a man, I’ll treat ya like one” is not surprising.
George-Warren posits that the heroin overdose that killed Joplin in a Los Angeles hotel room happened because of a combination of factors: her tolerance has been down after yet another effort to clean up, she injected it differently that her normal routine, and she had a much purer form of the drug than usual. But just as she looked to her blues heroes for inspiration, two generations since her have looked toward Janis Joplin as the O.G. of a woman in rock.
Janis is truly an amazing piece of work, and the highly-skilled George-Warren had virtual free access to Joplin’s archives while conducting scores of original interviews. And unlike many just-the-facts rock bio narratives, this one really conjures its subject up off the pages with a vividness and clarity.