Janis Joplin Celebrated in ‘Blisteringly Honest’ New Bio: Review

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Does the world need another Janis Joplin bio? Yep, it does, especially when it’s by Holly George-Warren, a two-time Grammy Award winner for Best Album Notes and the award-winning author of 16 books. George-Warren, who interviewed Joplin’s family, friends and bandmates, has produced Janis: Her Life and Music, a bio that’s rivetingly alive and deeply intimate.

We all think we know Janis’ story: the black-sheep Texas girl desperate to escape her conservative oil town and mocked for her looks, who became one of the queens of rock ’n’ roll. But George-Warren is after something different.

Here, we actually get to experience just how hard Joplin worked to get the sounds she wanted, and what the cost was for her, including leaving her popular band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, behind. George-Warren details how Joplin’s stubborn refusal to compromise produced some of the most exciting music around and made her a cultural icon.

Watch Janis on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970

Janis Joplin, Chelsea Hotel, NYC, March 14, 1969 (Photo © David Gahr; used with permission)

Deeply moving and sensitive, Janis is also—like Joplin herself—riotously funny. She reports that Leonard Cohen was a Grade C lover and that Jim Morrison was the biggest asshole Janis had ever known. She wasn’t fond of Jerry Lee Lewis, either: “The Killer” insulted what he considered her non-feminine looks, resulting in Joplin slugging him. Lewis slugged her right back, because, he said, if she was going to act like a man, well, then, he’d treat her like one.

Related Janis Joplin gave a riveting performance of “Ball and Chain” at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival

What’s so fascinating about Joplin in this account is that she was a constant paradox, a white woman who could wail the blues and whose persona screamed wild rocker even while she wanted nothing more than to have what she called “a civilian life,” with love, family, marriage and even that white picket fence. She was desperate for the approval of her family and her hometown and truly believed her accomplishments would win them all over; instead, all of the boundaries she was pushing—musically and sexually—just turned them further away from her. Her visits home were cut short, the expectations shattered.

Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Woodacre, CA; late 1966 (Photo © Lisa Law/Cache Agency; used with permission)

What saved Joplin, at least for a while, was her laser-focused dedication to her work. So destroyed by Jimi Hendrix’s drug death that she herself had been clean by the fall of 1970, she was obsessed with finishing and perfecting her album Pearl.

But the stresses were enormous, and there was a particularly deadly kind of heroin available to her, China White, and that October, she overdosed. Three months later, Pearl was released, staying at the #1 spot in Billboard for nine weeks and ultimately selling more than eight million copies.

Janis Joplin near the Chelsea Hotel in NYC, June 1970 (Photo © David Gahr/Getty Images; used with permission)

Joplin said that music was the one thing in her life that never let her down. This blisteringly honest, moving new bio never lets the reader down.

Janis: Her Life and Music is published Oct. 22 by Simon & Schuster.

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Listen to Joplin sing “Me and Bobby McGee” from her Pearl album

Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of 'Pictures of You' and 'Cruel Beautiful World.' Her 12th novel, 'With or Without You,' will be published in 2020.
Caroline Leavitt

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  1. EliM
    #1 EliM 22 October, 2019, 10:16

    How could Janis have been affected by Jimi’s death and decided to clean herself up if she died from an overdose only 2 weeks and 2 days after Jimi?Something doesn’t add up…

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