Holly George-Warren is a seasoned journalist and biographer and her biography of Janis Joplin, JANIS, HER LIFE AND MUSIC is one of the best rock and roll biographies I’ve read in years. Through interviews with friends, family, former band members, and other musicians George-Warren helps us to understand the enormously talented, but deeply conflicted, Janis Joplin.
Spanning her early years in Port Arthur, Texas, where as a bright student she skipped a grade and endured relentless bullying from her fellow students, to the birth of Big Brother and the Holding Company and the painful break with them as she outgrew them musically, to the eventual launch of the Kozmic Blues Band, George-Warren gives us a glimpse of the inner life of the tormented artist through letters home to her family and diary entries.
“I never seemed to be able to control my feelings, to keep them down . . . when you feel that much, you have super-horrible downs. I’d run away, freak out, go crazy . . . “ Janis wrote.
More than anything, except perhaps fame, Janis desired the love and acceptance of her family. Her father, an engineer, took Janis to the library weekly as a youngster and engaged with her intellectually, but after her brother was born, he spent less time with her. Her mother, a deeply religious former church soloist, didn’t approve of Janis’s art, clothing, or music. Her parents’ and classmates’ rejection left deep wounds, but also fueled her rebellion. Openly bi-sexual, , Janis had difficulty forming any lasting relationship and soon developed a drug and alcohol addiction. After leaving Texas for California with a summer in New York, her musical career started to take off, but she returned home to kick an addiction to methamphetamine. Once home she enrolled in college and became engaged to her boyfriend Peter de Blanc, writing him letters filled with dreams of domesticity. But de Blanc turned out to be a conman and a liar and after months of being put off, she finally broke it off him, refocusing on her music. Her parents wanted her to finish college and have a more reliable career.
“ . . . although I envy many aspects of being a student and living at home, I guess I have to keep trying to be a singer,” she wrote in a letter home. “Weak as it is, I apologize for being so just plain bad to the family. I realize that my shifting values don’t make me very reliable and that I’m a disappointment and, well, I’m just sorry.”
A huge fan of Bessie Smith and Otis Redding, Janis studied their voices and techniques and worked hard to develop her own, finally hitting it big at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967. As Janis developed her talent, learning to produce as well, she began to outgrow her band Big Brother. But her loyalties ran deep; the band was a surrogate family and she resisted leaving them. As Janis was recognized more and more as a star, and the main attraction when band performed, resentments started to build within the group. By the summer of 1968 there was so much animosity among the band members, that Janis left and formed the Kozmic Blues Band.
Janis continued to grow as a musician, but was plagued by anxiety – something her father referred to as the Saturday Night Swindle – if she got out of Port Arthur, things would get better; if she got married, things would get better; if she became a famous singer, things would get better – but things never got better. Nothing seemed to bring lasting happiness. She became increasingly dependent on alcohol and drugs to numb her pain, eventually shooting up heroin.
She met David Niehaus on a beach in Brazil during a three-month hiatus after trying to come clean, and they fell in love. But Janis wasn’t willing to give up her career and he wanted to travel the world, so the two parted, hoping that eventually they would find their way back to each other. On October 4, at the age of 27 years old, Janis died of a heroin overdose. In her mailbox at the hotel, was a letter from Niehaus, “Sure would dig it if you were here . . . if you can come for a few weeks or a few years . . . really miss ya. Things aren’t the same alone . . . Love ya, Mama, more than you know.”
Janis had finally succumbed to the Saturday Night Swindle.
Holly George-Warren’s JANIS HER LIFE AND MUSIC, was particularly enjoyable as an audiobook. Nina Arianda does a masterful job of capturing Janis’s Texas twang, as well as her cackling laugh. When she reads Janis’s letters home, her longing is palpable. I highly recommend JANIS HER LIFE AND MUSIC for fans of Patty Smith’s JUST KIDS.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota http://www.wtip.