Janis feels like the most realistic, accurate and comprehensive look yet at Joplin’s short, tragic life.
A legend in her own time, one would be hard-pressed to strip the fiction from the facts of the tragically brief life of Janis Joplin. Enamored of her own ability to self-mythologize and create an origin story worthy of the outlandish, outspoken and generally out-there hippie icon she would become, Joplin’s own recollections in the press and in candid letters to family, friends and lovers are often just as colorful as her adopted persona. Because of this, she essentially becomes something of an unreliable narrator in her own story, causing biographers to both be grateful for and curse the seemingly endless stream of correspondence that has survived in the near half-century since her passing.
It’s a difficult task, putting together an accurate account of Joplin’s short life, but one Holly George-Warren gamely sets out to accomplish with the appropriately-titled Janis: Her Life and Music. Throughout her essentially chronologically arranged narrative of Joplin’s 27 years, George-Warren seeks to set the record straight through years’ worth of on-the-ground research and reporting through corroborating anecdotes from those who knew her best, including Joplin family-assisted research. In this, George-Warren’s aim seems to be that of painting the most accurate picture yet (this being one of countless bios on Joplin out there) of the troubled artist.
And on the whole, Janis largely succeeds, proving a warts-and-all look at Joplin as she saw herself, as her friends and family perceived her and as she likely truly was. Thankfully, George-Warren has a veritable mountain of material from which to cull, given how prolific a letter writer Joplin was (something she came by honestly, as evidenced by the myriad correspondence between her then-courting parents proves in setting up the story). Indeed, given the depth and breadth of the surviving correspondences, one would hope that a collection of her letters might not be too far in the future, offering a chronological look from a first-person (albeit not necessarily factually accurate) perspective.
In an early letter from her father to her mother, the former advised the latter to write what she was feeling rather than experiencing. It’s a telling bit of advice, something that their eldest daughter seemed to take to heart from a young age and continued to adhere to in both her personal diaries and mountains of correspondences with friends, family and a seemingly endless string of lovers. From this, we get an idea of where her head was through the majority of her adolescent and (young) adult life. While not quite to the level of narcissism afflicting today’s young people, Joplin’s communiques nonetheless help to illustrate the longing for acceptance and appreciation that afflicted much of her early years and helped forge her perception of herself.
She’s well-versed in self-deprecation and clearly struggled with her sense of self-worth, made all the more challenging by those who both took advantage of her and, in her formative years, cut her down to size. It’s these Texas years that prove the most interesting in establishing who Joplin would become. From her youngest days in Port Arthur, struggling to be accepted by a community that would never understand her bohemian ways, to finding acceptance in Austin amongst the burgeoning folk scene, these years play a crucial role in understanding both her onstage persona and the life she longed for behind the scenes. If all one knows of her are the superficial bits of hippiedom, it will come as a shock that she wanted desperately to find a husband and settle into some semblance of a “normal” life even after she achieved success via Big Brother and the Holding Company and, later, as a solo artist.
It’s these types of deeper insights that help set George-Warren’s Janis as the definitive portrait of the artist. To be sure, she covers all the usual plot points along the way—as would be expected from any biography of Joplin worth its salt. But she works to get behind the scenes of the most famously known moments in order to present an account of a fully-formed, fully-flawed human being rather than simply a legendary figure of almost mythic proportions. Indeed, many previous biographies have stuck to the more sensationalist elements of her story in order to tap into the legendary aspect, often losing sight of the person behind the legend.
This helps Janis stand out from the pack in that, while George-Warren doesn’t necessarily uncover anything new with regard to Joplin’s short, often troubled existence, she does manage to put together a coherent, largely chronological narrative of the singer’s life from birth until death that presents her as a flesh-and-blood person. And given the book’s subtitle—Her Life and Music—it should come as little surprise that that is the extent of the story. In other words, George-Warren doesn’t feel the need to go beyond Joplin’s final days, essentially ending her text with her funeral and the posthumous release of Pearl. There is no examination of her lasting legacy, legendary status or long-lasting influence on popular music, both as a person and a performer. Instead, it’s as though we live her life in (drastically compressed) real time, reaching the end at nearly the exact moment she herself expires. In this, Janis feels like the most realistic, accurate and comprehensive look yet at Joplin’s short, tragic life.