Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Janis' tells Joplin's story

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'Janis: Her Life and Music,' by Holly George-Warren.
'Janis: Her Life and Music,' by Holly George-Warren. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Holly George-Warren's new book comes billed as the "definitive" biography of "America's first female rock star." Among music writers, George-Warren is a legend in her own right, an authority on rock and particularly on Janis Joplin's pivotal late '60s era. George-Warren took about as much time to write the book, she notes, as Joplin took to have her entire musical career — which lasted just four years, from 1966 until her accidental death of a heroin overdose in 1970, making her one of rock's strangely many stars to perish at 27.

Given her iconic status and brief career, there isn't exactly an aura of mystery around Joplin. She lived loud and proud, flaunting a joie de vivre that made jaws drop both onstage and off. Substance issues? She was so often photographed holding bottles of Southern Comfort that the company sent her a fur coat. Free love? She was famously free, openly bisexual and, in George-Warren's description, polyamorous.

She brought her whole being to the stage. Although, as George-Warren notes, like any successful performer she worked to craft her character, the emotional intensity that marked her performances was no show. Kris Kristofferson, writer of the song "Me and Bobby McGee" that Joplin seized on as one of her signature numbers, later reflected on why the line "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" resonated so strongly with the singer. "You may be free," he said, evoking the metaphor of a double-edged sword, "but it can be painful to be that free."

Janis Joplin, it seems, was born free when she arrived in 1943, the oldest child of middle-class parents in the oil town of Port Arthur, Texas. Her mother and father supported her over the years — financially, when they could, and otherwise — but George-Warren suggests Joplin's father left her with a lingering sense of anxiety around what he called "the great Saturday Night Swindle." It was his way of saying that life had a way of conning people who think they're putting in lot of hard work so they can reap the reward on the weekend: that reward isn't guaranteed, and you might just be in for a life of disappointment.

His daughter knew her share of disappointment, but she also saw astounding success — and she earned it on her own terms. It's hard to wrap your mind around just how pioneering Janis Joplin was, George-Warren suggests. At every turn, she kept it real and raw and raucous — at a time when that was rare enough for a male artist, let alone a performer who felt the constraints imposed on women.

She emerged as an iconoclastic tomboy from her youth, and she always liked to party. She was enraptured by music, but unlike the vast majority of viewers who saw Elvis Presley's game-changing "Hound Dog" on The Ed Sullivan Show, Joplin actually tracked down the original 1953 version by "Big Mama" Thornton. She took her singing style straight from Thornton and other R&B greats, later including Otis Redding, which is one reason her singing is so elemental: she was white, but she knew in her bones where the blues came from.

She sought out black musicians in nearby cities like Beaumont and New Orleans, and eventually made her way to stages in cities like Austin — where she told her parents they should go to let her be an art major at the University of Texas so she could be like fellow Port Arthur native Robert Rauschenberg. Her powerful voice was immediately apparent, and her first gigs saw her making a go of it as a "folksinger," accompanying herself on autoharp. That may seem like an odd fit, unless you remember that the folk revival was full of artists committed to studying and celebrating roots music that included the blues.

Barefoot and wild-haired, a prototypical hippie, Joplin cut a distinctive figure in Texas and in San Francisco, where she wowed Jorma Kaukonen when he stumbled on her at a hootenanny. She herself was impressed by Bob Dylan — still in the shadow of Joan Baez — when she encountered him at the first Monterey Folk Festival. Joplin and the woman she was dating went up to the future music legend and paid their compliments.

"I just love you," said Joplin, "and I'm going to be famous one day, too."

Dylan's response: "Yeah — we're all gonna be famous."

After criss-crossing the country and falling first into, then out of, an ill-fated engagement to a manipulative sound engineer, Joplin was summoned back to San Francisco in '66 to audition for the role of singer with Big Brother and the Holding Company, a bluesy band who were looking for a female voice to supplement their sound — their eyes, of course, toward Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick.

"I'm not at all sold on the idea of becoming the poor man's Cher," wrote Joplin in one of the many letters home that enliven the pages of George-Warren's biography. What happened, of course, was that Joplin became fully herself. While it was quickly clear that she was far more talented than her relatively run-of-the-mill bandmates, with Big Brother she finally had the right setting to shine — as well as a supportive musical family.

Part of a nationally-known scene that also included the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company won a growing following with shows at the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore, although Joplin was, for a time, physically barred from that venue by Bill Graham himself after she told a reporter that club mostly appealed to "tourists and drunken sailors looking to pick up chicks."

The turning point for Big Brother, and especially Joplin, was the Monterey Pop Festival. Their set at the era-defining event was so obviously transformative that Joplin came off the stage in tears of joy; filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker captured Mama Cass watching Joplin tear it up and mouthing, "Wow!" Amid the massive buzz and rapturous press, the band landed a record deal with Columbia. Their 1968 LP with Joplin, Cheap Thrills, produced one of the singer's defining hits, "Piece of My Heart."

By the time she recorded the first of her two solo albums, Joplin had fully arrived as the artist whose "heart was a legend" — as Leonard Cohen sang in "Chelsea Hotel #2," his moving (and, according to George-Warren, insightful) song about a brief tryst that Joplin herself remembered dismissively. She put him in a category with Jim Morrison as famous men who weren't, so to speak, up to the challenge of being with her in bed. Taking for herself the freedom that her male peers regarded as her birthright, she came on to everyone from her Big Brother bandmates to her onetime opener Bruce Springsteen. Intimidated, the still-teenage Boss asked Steve Van Zandt to help him hide.

If Janis leaves you with renewed regret that Joplin was lost so soon — falling victim to a heroin overdose when she was supplied, likely unbeknownst to her, with a much stronger strain than she was used to — it will also leave you with a new appreciation for just how much life she squeezed into those 27 years. Into that last year, in particular, despite her substance addiction and her constant seesaw between living in the moment and a "white picket fence" dream of committed domesticity she would never come remotely close to achieving.

She was growing more skilled as a songwriter, capturing her dreams and frustrations in songs like "Mercedes Benz," which she spontaneously had Bobby Womack (who was chauffeuring her because, well, that was the life of Janis Joplin) turn around and drive her back to a studio to record "Acapulco," the term co-writer Bob Neuwirth used for a capella. It seems certain she would have had more masterpieces in her, if she'd had longer to live.

That wasn't to be, though, and her final classic Pearl was released posthumously. It was a number one hit, and so was "Me and Bobby McGee." George-Warren relates how that song came to Joplin from Neuwirth, who learned it from Gordon Lightfoot, who learned it in Nashville from the then-unknown Kristofferson. Joplin immediately seized on it, first playing it live in Nashville and quickly sparking with its writer: within a few hours of meeting, they "tumbled into bed," writes George-Warren. Kristofferson didn't even get his boots off, and they shredded Joplin's satin sheets.

Even in 377 pages, it's impossible to capture the full impact of Joplin. She even helped popularize tattoos for women, writes George-Warren, hosting a tattoo party where 18 people left with new adornments. "For three years" after that, said the artist who did the work, "I tattooed almost nothing but women."

In a pithy introduction, George-Warren cites a long list of artists who've paid tribute to Joplin's influence. Among them: Rosanne Cash, k.d. lang, Brandi Carlile, Margo Price, Lucinda Williams, Pink, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Brittany Howard, Alicia Keys, Florence Welch, Elle King, Melissa Etheridge, and Kesha. An even more rarified set of artists saw Joplin live: Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Cyndi Lauper, Chrissie Hynde, Kate Pierson, Ann Wilson, and Nancy Wilson.

All of them learned from Joplin, whose ethos George-Warren captures in a quote: "You are only as much as you settle for." Janis, writes her biographer, never settled.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Nov. 27: Horror Stories by Liz Phair

Dec. 4: Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day by Joel Selvin

Dec. 11: Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues by David Dann

Dec. 18: Best music books of 2019

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