A new biography of musician Janis Joplin, America’s first female rock star, tells her life story simply and well, with some of the tone and flavour of a good novel, writes Dwight Garner.
Had she not died at 27 of an accidental heroin overdose, Janis Joplin would be 76—two years younger than Paul Simon and four years younger than Mavis Staples. Singers with scorched voices sometimes settle more deeply into them. (Have you heard the most recent Marianne Faithfull album?) One wonders at the body of recordings Joplin might have made.
A new biography, Janis, by music writer Holly George-Warren, performs a service by stripping away a lot of the noise around Joplin—cackling and bawdy, she was America’s first female rock star and Haight-Ashbury’s self-destructive pinup girl—and telling her story simply and well, with some of the tone and flavour of a good novel.
This is fundamentally an Eisenhower-era misfit story, and there are a lot of those. But Joplin’s story has a special freight of pain in it. Before it embraced her, Texas turned her into a pariah.
She grew up in Port Arthur, a conservative oil town on the Gulf Coast, where her father worked for Texaco. She was a tomboy who knew early she was different.
There was her complicated sexuality. (She would go on to sleep with both women and men.) There was her instinctive and outspoken liberalism, especially as regards race, which set her sharply apart from her peers.
Then there were her looks, which she despised. “She thought her nose was too big, her mouth was too big,” a friend commented. “She had freckles.” Joplin referred to her own “little pig eyes” and mourned her unruly hair.
Critic Ellen Willis caught why Joplin’s looks came to matter deeply in the 1960s. Her metamorphosis into a Dionysian goddess meant, among other things, Willis wrote in Rolling Stone in 1976, “that a woman who was not conventionally pretty, who had acne and an intermittent weight problem and hair that stuck out, could not only invent her own beauty (just as she invented her wonderful sleazofreak costumes) out of sheer energy, soul, sweetness, arrogance and a sense of humor, but have that beauty appreciated.”
Back in Texas, however, Joplin’s whole vibe alienated people. She read On the Road and started calling herself a beatnik. She was a sloppy dresser. She wasn’t invited to her senior prom. Even friends wrote cruel things in her yearbook.
She made trips with boys across the border into Louisiana to see bands and got branded a harlot. A football player nicknamed her “Beat Weeds,” a reference to pubic hair. “When Janis walked down the hall,” George-Warren writes, “the jocks threw pennies at her and called her ‘whore’ and ‘slut.’”
Among the jocks at Joplin’s high school was Jimmy Johnson, future coach of the Dallas Cowboys. In 1993, he told Sports Illustrated, “Beat Weeds … never wore any panties.” George-Warren comments: “How Johnson came by this knowledge is unclear.”
While Joplin was at the University of Texas at Austin, which she attended only briefly, a fraternity sponsored an “Ugliest Man on Campus” competition. Someone entered Joplin anonymously and posters of her went up everywhere.
From early on, Joplin escaped into music. She was the kind of fan who, after hearing Elvis Presley sing “Hound Dog” on the radio, sought out the original recording by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. (Joplin would later have an early hit with her version of Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.”)
She learned enough about folk and the blues to stand eye-to-eye with (largely male) roots music geeks. She was a big reader, thanks in part to her shyly intellectual father. On tour she’d travel with bags of books. She named a dog Thurber, after James Thurber, the New Yorker humour writer.
Friends knew she had a powerful and unusual sound, just hearing her sing along to the car radio. This was in an era of pretty soprano voices like Joan Baez’s. Joplin was like the girl in the fairy tale who, every time she opens her mouth, out hops a toad.
Joplin made the hairs on the back of people’s necks prickle. She began playing coffee houses and hootenannies in Austin and elsewhere, and floored listeners; she had the force of an opera singer. She did a version of “St. James Infirmary” that unnerved people.
Joplin had an itch for emancipation. She began shuttling between Texas and the West Coast, sometimes hitchhiking. She became a well-known performer at Threadgill’s, the Austin restaurant and music venue, before she moved out to the West Coast for good.
Her big personality had a dark side: depression, anxiety, mood swings. She had a capacity for excess, and a nimbus of exhausted hedonism trailed along with her. She smoked, she drank people under the table, and she slowly but enthusiastically turned to drugs. She was a meth addict by the time she was 22. “Hey, man, what is it? I’ll try it,” she said. “How do you do it? Do you suck it? No? Do you swallow it? I’ll swallow it.”
The rest of Joplin’s story is better known. She joined the Bay Area band Big Brother and the Holding Company, and became an international star after the band’s 1967 performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Some felt that the members of Big Brother weren’t on her level as musicians; she eventually went solo.
George-Warren must have needed a special database to keep up with Joplin’s lovers. “Honey, get it while you can,” she sang. She took her own advice. She was an omnidirectional sexual omnivore.
Not everyone loved her music. “If I want to hear black singing, then I’ll listen to black singers,” Mick Jagger reportedly said. Joplin’s shows, like her life, were so intense they made people fear for her safety and sanity.
Writing in The New Yorker, Willis described a Joplin show that was “the most exalting, exhausting concert I have ever been privileged to see, hear and feel.” Joplin gave so much that Willis, presciently, became concerned.
“I didn’t know if I wanted the responsibility of taking; I felt a little like a vampire,” she wrote. “From now on, I decided, after two encores I stop clapping.”
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