Desert Isle Keeper
Janis: Her Life and Music
I am, admittedly, a very hard sell when it comes to Janis Joplin biographies. I adore her music and have read multiple biographies about her life, as well as her sister Laura’s intimate, heartbreaking chronicle of Janis’ world and progress from bullied adolescent to worldwide superstar, Love, Janis has been my gold standard for Janis biographies ever since I read it in my twenties. (The musical created from the book is also fabulous). Holly George-Warren’s Janis: Her Life and Music is the only biography besides Joplin’s sister’s that has risen to my personal high watermark. It’s definitive, handsome and fascinating.
George-Warren’s research is intense and impeccable. She digs into Janis’ family tree before taking us into her formative years in Port Arthur Texas, where she yearned to belong and find love and yet desired to smash the norms around her – the staid expectations of southern small-town living.
An intellectual and a daredevil, Janis stormed through life, winning early acclaim for her painting skills but refusing to shed her tomboy rebel ways. At fourteen she discovered Kerouac and became a member of the beat generation, discovering roadhouse bars filled with jukeboxes playing blues recordings. By seventeen, rumors had turned her into a That Girl, a woman with a reputation. Her parents doted on her but could not abide her rule breaking; busy with her siblings, they could only scold Janis and try to make her conform.
At eighteen, she became a songwriter, picking up the guitar and finding her own voice. By the time she hitchhiked her way across Texas to San Francisco, her destiny seemed to be etched in stone and tears. Janis and Big Brother and the Holding Co. are where they need to be in the Haight, but destiny is cruel and kind in equal doses.
The rest is, naturally, tragic history. The drug addiction (amphetamines, heroin, booze) the failed relationships (an engagement to a cheating and already-married con-man that falls apart; multiple same-sex romances), the sterling songs, many written by Joplin, who sometimes comes off as Sylvia Plath-like when vacilitating between girlish gushiness and lacerating yearning.
George-Warren expands the known record with a phalanx of fresh interviews, digging up close high school friends and bullies, old music industry associates (Albert Grossman, BBAHC’s manager and an infamously judgmental perfectionist, comes in for a bashing), lovers, and family members, who all have their say, but the central voice belongs to Janis herself, whose bald-faced neediness, sharp sarcasm, wistful dreams of stardom (Janis got along famously with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Ian, but had a terrible encounter with Jim Morrison) and push for artistic relevance all resonate with the reader.
Ultimately the reader is given the best picture yet of Janis and her world with this biography. Janis: Her Life and Music sings because like Janis herself it never, ever compromises.