In early 1970, shortly after she turned 27, Janis Joplin wrote a letter to her parents reflecting on her skyrocketing fame. “I guess that’s what ambition is – it’s not all a depraved quest for position … or money, maybe it’s for love,” she wrote. “Lots of love!”
Joplin would die of a heroin overdose within the year, and Holly George-Warren’s revealing biography of America’s first female rock star, “Janis: Her Life and Music,” makes clear that despite her outsize talent and her outward bravado, much of her tragically short life was driven by a deep loneliness and need for love that her incredible success could not allay.
Joplin has received biographical treatment before, most notably in Alice Echols’ “Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin,” and “Love, Janis,” by the singer’s sister, Laura Joplin. George-Warren’s book benefits both from new interviews with people who knew Joplin personally and professionally and from the access Laura Joplin granted the author to Janis’s scrapbooks and letters home. As a music writer whose earlier books include biographies of Alex Chilton and Gene Autry, George-Warren is also adept at describing Joplin’s singular blues-rock vocals – with influences including Bessie Smith, Otis Redding, and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton – and her exhilarating stage presence.
The biography is organized as a straightforward cradle-to-(early)-grave story, with the beginning chapters focusing on the singer’s childhood and teenage years in Port Arthur, Texas. Joplin’s offbeat personality, her identification as a beatnik, and her progressive views on race made her a pariah in her hometown, and she struggled between wanting to fit in, trying to please her conservative parents, and finding a way to express herself freely, first as a painter and then as a singer.
After an unsuccessful stint in college, Joplin made her way to San Francisco, where she embraced the counterculture, performing at local coffeehouses and hootenannies and panhandling to get by. Always a heavy drinker, she began injecting methamphetamine. Her addiction eventually forced her, sick and emaciated, to return to Texas, where she cleaned up and gave college another try. Before long, however, she again succumbed to her passion for music and the freedom it represented, returning to San Francisco to join the psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company.
As the band gained a local reputation, Joplin, ever in need of her parents’ love and approval, assured them that she was “still really thinking of coming back to school, so don’t give up on me yet.” That fiction was soon put to rest, especially following Joplin’s star-making turn at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, where documentarian D.A. Pennebaker captured the stunned reaction of “Mama” Cass Elliot, watching from the audience and mouthing “wow” as Joplin electrified the crowd with her raw, wailing vocals. Shortly thereafter Joplin invited her parents to San Francisco to see her perform “and be proud of me.” The Joplins were more discomfited by the hippie scene, however, than they were impressed by their daughter.
Joplin’s letters home make it achingly apparent that even as her fame grew, the singer continued to crave her parents’ affirmation. Already susceptible to the depression that she referred to as the “kozmic blues,” Joplin was anguished by their continued disapproval of her lifestyle; she in turn began to withdraw from her family. George-Warren argues that Joplin, who’d always been self-destructive, saw alcohol and then heroin as “numbing agents … to anesthetize herself from the pain of having lost that connection.” Despite intimate relationships with a series of men and women, her inability to form a lasting romantic attachment exacerbated her feelings of isolation.
Toward the end of her life, Joplin wrote to a friend about the two ways of facing the kozmic blues: getting high or trying to adjust to the realities of life’s difficulties. She was determined to attempt the latter, resolving to take walks in the woods and learn yoga, but the darkness ultimately won out. Her final album, “Pearl,” featuring the indelible “Me and Bobby McGee,” was released posthumously in 1971, three months after her accidental overdose. It cemented her reputation.
The book concludes somewhat abruptly with the singer’s death; the assessment of her importance and enduring appeal feels skimpy, particularly following such a detailed accounting of her life. Still, it’s remarkable to consider the impact Joplin has had despite such a brief career, influencing artists from Robert Plant to Kurt Cobain to Pink. And, of course, it’s heartbreaking to contemplate what more she might have accomplished.