An editor’s foreword to “Janis: Her Life and Music” calls this “the first major biography of Janis Joplin,” which is not exactly true. The first bio, “Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin,” appeared just three years after the singer’s death, and it was by the late Myra Friedman, ostensibly Joplin’s publicist but, like so many others in her life, someone who quickly became an intimate. Perhaps for that reason, “Buried Alive” is, if thorough, emotionally red-hot and often overwritten. There’s also “Love, Janis,” a 1992 memoir by Joplin’s younger sister, Laura, which became the basis for the musical of the same name. At any rate, there’s no need to hype any book by Holly George-Warren, an award-winning author whose previous work includes the superb “A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton,” one of the best rock biographies of the past 10 years. Her account is sober and thorough, and it amounts to the last word on a brief candle of an existence, a life whose peaks and valleys make your average mountain range look as flat as an acre of Texas farmland.
No matter who tells the story, though, it doesn’t end well. That’s why this review begins with a succinct recitation of Joplin’s final moments — I’m giving you the bad news first. Let us now celebrate one of the greatest soul voices and incandescent stage presences of our time: “It was as if the earth had opened up,” wrote rock historian Joel Selvin of Joplin’s performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and guitarist Darby Slick of the San Francisco band the Great Society said that, as Joplin pranced, strutted, shrieked and whispered at an earlier show, “It was nearly impossible not to stare constantly at her.”
It wasn’t always that way. A kindergarten teacher noted Joplin’s refusal to “rest quietly,” and the qualities that took her to the top of the entertainment world made her both enemies and friends along the way. A misfit in her hometown of Port Arthur, Tex., she was nominated for the ugliest man on campus competition as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, her picture on posters all over the school. Not long after, she made her way to the West Coast with fellow dropout and future concert promoter Chet Helms, thumbing rides like the protagonists of “Me and Bobby McGee,” a Kris Kristofferson song she’d later make famous. Helms managed a band that needed a “chick singer,” and in more ways than one, Joplin became a key member of Big Brother and the Holding Company. In the spirit of the times, she and the other band members became more of a family than a business arrangement, making it that much harder for her to part company with them, even after they made mistakes while playing or forgot their parts.
Joplin’s next band, Kozmic Blues, was put together hastily by her manager, Albert Grossman, but the musicians were chosen for their individual prowess, and the group lacked chemistry. Her third band, Full Tilt Boogie, was the charm: The members were picked thoughtfully over time, and Janis loved playing with them. She only had a few months to live.
Joplin took such joy in performing that she made it look effortless, but George-Warren reminds readers how hard she worked, not only doing take after take in the studio but also doing the kind of behind-the-scenes research associated more with musicologists than whiskey-swigging blues shouters. As a ninth-grader, Joplin watched Elvis’s pelvispalooza on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and become so enamored of “Hound Dog” that she tracked down Big Mama Thornton’s 1953 original. “How a thirteen-year-old white girl in segregated Port Arthur found the R&B single remains a mystery,” writes George-Warren, “but she did.” During her Big Brother days, Joplin heard Thornton sing “Ball and Chain” at a San Francisco club and asked her if she could cover it. Thornton gave her the okay but warned, “Don’t [mess] it up.”
Joplin was the first female rock star at a time when rock was almost exclusively a boys club, and she had to put up with appalling sexism from musicians, the press and industry pros. Yet she showed other women what to do and taught men to accept them. The hotel where Joplin died is now the Highland Gardens Hotel, and it’s possible to stay in the room where her life ended. Recently I spoke to the manager and asked what it’s like to spend the night there, and he said, “Everyone who has ever booked that room says they love it.”
David Kirby is the author of “Crossroad: Artist, Audience, and the Making of American Music.”
Her Life and Music
Simon & Schuster. 400 pp. $28.99