Holly George-Warren's revealing new book Janis: Her Life and Story sheds light on one of the most influential artists in history.

By Jim Farber
October 21, 2019 at 11:00 AM EDT
David Gahr

In the nearly 50 years since her death, Janis Joplin has been seen as many things: A tragic figure, a lonely outcast, a sexual adventurer, and a tough-minded blues mama felled by her own lust for hard living. Yet, never before the revelatory new book Janis: Her Life and Music has she been fully recognized as a groundbreaking musician charting a fresh course for the blues, for rock, and for women, while, at the same time, obliterating the line between the performance of a song and essence of her soul. “There’s so much drama in her story that it tends to overwhelm the rest,” says the book’s author, Holly George-Warren. “It didn’t help that she would always tell people, ‘Oh, I’m just a chick singer.’”

George-Warren started to discover that there was far more to the story when, during her four years of research, she heard behind-the-scenes tapes from the recording sessions for Joplin’s final album, Pearl, released three months after her death from an accidental heroin overdose in 1970. “When I listened to the talk-back between Janis and the producer, Paul Rothchild, I realized that she was calling the shots,” George-Warren says. “She’s coming up with the musical direction and the guitar parts. She’s pointing out different ways they could arrange the songs, with different tempos. That’s especially notable with a producer like Paul Rothchild, because he was known to be tyrannical when he worked with The Doors; Joni Mitchell wouldn’t work with him because he was too bossy. But with Janis, I heard him completely defer to her ideas.”

The freshness of that view made a strong impression on the star’s younger sister, Laura Joplin, who wrote her own book 13 years ago, titled Love Janis. “I got to understand Janis in a way I didn’t before,” Joplin says of the new book. “I had always separated her life from her music and Holly said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that, because her music came purely out of her life.’”

By contrast, Laura’s book focused on her memory of Janis growing up, stressing the many letters she sent home from her days on the road. It’s one of several key earlier works published about the artist, including the 1973 tome Buried Alive by the late Myra Friedman, who was her publicist, and Going Down with Janis, by Peggy Caserta, who had been her lover — one of many women who shared Joplin’s bed. Caserta has since disowned her book, blaming her co-writer for its overheated tone, while George-Warren found that Friedman’s work was full of inaccuracies and misperceptions. “Myra was quite straight,” George-Warren says. “With her publicist sensibility, she tried to hide sexual things that were not the moral norm at the time.”

In the time since, the culture’s view of sexuality has evolved so dramatically that, while earlier revelations about Joplin’s voluminous romps with men and women were viewed in the media as sleazy intrusions into her life, the cover of George-Warren’s book lauds the star for “pushing the boundaries of sexuality.”

Today, George-Warren describes Janis as “sexually fluid. She didn’t want to limit herself,” she says.  Laura Joplin allows that while “things like that are fun to ponder, it’s not my job to say how Janis would feel.”

Both observers agree that because of Janis’ age at the time of her death — just 27 — it’s impossible to know how she would have developed in so many issues in her life. At the same time, she left a legacy that tells us a lot about her feelings during a period when she proved to be a transformational figure in the culture. George-Warren calls Joplin “the first female rock star,” as well as one who “gave voice to women’s feelings that no one else was giving voice to.” Though another bold artist, Grace Slick, emerged at roughly the same time, she was seen as part of a multi-talented band, Jefferson Airplane, while Joplin was always regarded as a singular act, even when she performed with her breakthrough group, Big Brother and the Holding Company. At the same time, Joplin’s fresh and bawdy image, fleshed out by her highly sexualized stage patter, balls-to-the-wall singing, and liberated presentation, made her both a riveting, and a polarizing, figure. “When you’re a change-agent, you’re always embraced by some and shunned by others,” her sister says. “Some people see Janis as a role model who helped them understand themselves better. Others find her abhorrent, preferring a more traditional woman.”

The tension between those two views haunted the singer herself, dating back to childhood. She was a rebel in her conservative and racially segregated hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. But even as she challenged the town’s racism and small-mindedness, she longed to be accepted. “Though she would do a song like‚ ‘Ego Blues,‘ which completely denounced Texas, she still had this yearning to belong,” George-Warren says. “She always wanted to prove something to them.”

Joplin on the roof garden of the Chelsea Hotel, 1970
David Gahr/Getty Images

After striking out on her own — by adopting beatnik values, getting into drugs, and hitchhiking around the country by herself — she began to scare her parents. At the same time, she wanted them to understand her choices. “It was a complicated relationship,” Laura Joplin says. “They were proud of her, even though they didn’t understand the ‘60s’ rebellion. It wasn’t their life.”

Joplin began to find hers in San Francisco in 1966, when she hooked up with Big Brother. The book makes clear just how new and revolutionary the psychedelic blues rock scene was at the time. Joplin had never sung with a drummer or wailing electric guitars before. The success of their first major album, Cheap Thrills, in 1968, gave Joplin a key place in an emerging world. “Big Brother was, by far, her happiest time,” George-Warren says. “It was a real family for her. And she was getting recognition.”

So much so that the band’s limitations, both musically and professionally, meant she would have to leave them behind to fulfill her goals. The split proved searing, both for her and for them. To cover for her insecurities and doubts as she launched her solo career with the album I Got ‘Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! in 1969, she developed an increasingly exaggerated persona: a kind of counter-cultural answer to Mae West and Ma Rainey, combined. Her sexual aggression scared some men, including a very young Bruce Springsteen who, according to the book, flinched from her forceful come-on one night. “To this day, guys don’t like brazen women who make it clear what they’re after,” George-Warren says. “In that way, she was fearless.”

The book details scores of flings she had with stars from football player Joe Namath, to Kris Kristopherson to Leonard Cohen. But, despite her role as a sexual libertine, Joplin still yearned to settle down. “Growing up, she was inundated with that Doris Day ‘50s mentality that a woman’s place is taking care of her husband and the kids,” the author says. “In some ways, she was still stuck in a traditional mind set.”

The contradictions tore at her, but even more vexing was a sadness ingrained in her from the start. That’s something she shared with her father, an intellectual who was his own kind of outcast in Port Arthur. She labelled her existential pain “the kosmic blues.” “Their fatalism bonded them,” George-Warren says. “Janis realized that no matter how successful she was, she was still going to have this nagging loneliness, this lack of satisfaction.”

The brevity of her life left her vast audience with its own kind of dissatisfaction, especially since her career ended just as it was reaching a new level. Pearl was a far more fully realized work than any of her earlier efforts, an apotheosis of blues rock with performances that stun the listener with their unalloyed emotion. The promise of the album makes George-Warren wonder what Joplin might have done next. “I think she definitely would have become one of the first female producers,” she says. “And I think she would have continued in the ‘cosmic cowboy’ direction of ‘Me and Bobbie McGee’ and, then, go on to experiment with different sounds. I could see her going in a Nina Simone direction. What’s so tragic is that we’ll never know.”

Regardless, Laura Joplin thinks the work her sister released in her truncated life serves a rare function today. “What’s interesting is the way people connect with her now,” she says. “Somehow, she continues to help people connect to something deep in themselves.”

Janis: Her Life and Music is available Oct. 22

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