3 Dec 2019

Kozmik blues: Janis Joplin’s brief and brilliant life

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 3 December 2019

A new book on Janis Joplin gives fresh insight into the troubled singer's life, thanks to unprecedented access to her personal archives, friends and family.

Janis Joplin 1969

Janis Joplin 1969 Photo: Public Domain via Wikipedia

In June 1967 Janis Joplin performed a blistering set at the Monterey Pop Festival with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Little known outside of San Francisco, she played alongside now legendary acts The Who, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. There was a Beatle and a Rolling Stone in the audience

Joplin was immediately signed by Colombia Records, becoming the world’s first bonafide female rock star. Tragically, she would die three years later of a heroin overdose.

A new book by author Holly George-Warren, Janis: Her Life and Music, delves into Joplin's life, with the help of the singer's personal archives, and unprecedented access to her family and friends.

Janis Joplin grew up in the 1950s and 60s in conservative and segregated Port Arthur, Texas.  

A school chorister with a fine soprano voice, things changed for the teenager when she discovered the blues of Lead Belly and Bessie Smith.

She also fell for the bohemian Beat writers of the era.

“When she was 14 years old a book called On The Road by Jack Kerouac was published," George-Warren says, "That completely changed her head around, she realised there was this whole other way of life, this way that you could follow that was not the traditional middle class lifestyle that her parents of course wanted for her.”

Port Arthur was an oil town, and Joplin’s parents, products of the Great Depression had moved there to build a better life – but Joplin soon began to push back against the town’s conservative mores.

“Janis began getting ideas outside of that traditional middle class American way from reading books by Kerouac, discovering the blues, driving around in cars with boys, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes.

"She'd go out to road houses in Louisiana where she could sneak in and hear bands play. It just opened up the doors to a whole other world.” George-Warren says.   

Joplin’s unconventional life and forthright opinions did not endear her to her classmates at Thomas Jefferson High.

“She was not afraid to speak her mind, to be different, but at the same time, it was very hurtful to her when she was bullied, when she was chastised and made fun of and literally called all kinds of really horrible names by these popular 'jocks'.

“Football is king in Texas and these guys were football guys and definitely made her life as miserable as possible and that was very painful to her.”

Soon Joplin was on the road herself, hitch-hiking to San Francisco in the early 1960s.   

Joplin was by now developing her distinctive singing voice and started to play small venues in San Francisco accompanying herself on autoharp.

“She immediately floored people when she began performing at these little small coffee houses. And people were just amazed at her voice, the way that she could embody a song.”

Joplin was also developing her relationship with drink and drugs.  

“This was 1963, this young white woman, she’d just turned 20 years old, she had no place to live. She was making maybe $5 or $6 from people passing the hat at these little folk scenes and coffee houses.

“So, it was a very difficult lifestyle. How easy to get over the pain of sleeping on the floor at night than chugging down a bottle of wine? And sadly, methamphetamine was everywhere in San Francisco at that time, it was a drug of choice among The Beats.”

Joplin drifted east to New York in 1964 and was soon addicted to methamphetamine.

“She ended up in New York City, the lower East Side in ’64 – same thing. It [methamphetamine] was very predominant then, so horribly, she ended up becoming addicted – injecting methamphetamine.

"By 1965 she was down to about 88 pounds and barely singing anymore.”

Joplin’s concerned friends clubbed together for her fare back to Texas, and she went home to recuperate. It worked, and Joplin was soon singing again. In 1966 she headed back to San Francisco, which was by this time the epicentre of the counter-culture.

Once there she hooked up with a local band, the Big Brother Holding Company, who were part of San Fran's burgeoning psychedelic scene.

She also embraced the many hedonistic pleasures the city offered.

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Photo: HarperCollins

“She was happy having relationships with women as well as men, she was polyamorous and this was again a period of time when all of these kind of ideas were verboten among traditional Americans.

“In fact homosexuality was illegal in Texas until the early 2000s. So she was completely going against the grain. She wasn't trying to hide it, she was openly involved with both women and men.”

Joplin’s stage craft was developing too, George-Warren says.

“She became this incredibly dynamic performer on stage; both physically dancing and reaching out to the audience. And then of course after seeing Otis Redding, who was another huge idol of hers, this real sensual, sexy style on stage, which we know was just amazing for a white woman, really unheard of at that time.”

Monterey in June 1967 showed off Joplin’s astonishing voice and stage presence to the world, DA Pennebaker, who was making a film of the festival, saw Joplin’s first set and insisted she and her band play again so he could film their performance.

“For the first time she is seen by a large audience and also very importantly, by journalists from all over the US and also from the UK and overseas who just were completely blown away by her - they'd never seen a woman like that before on stage, heard a woman like that before, so she got these rapturous reviews.”

A period of huge success followed, but ever restless Joplin decided to branch off on her own with a new band, and by 1969 was increasingly using drink and hard drugs to take the edge of the pressures of stardom.    

“The year 1969 was very fraught for Janis, that was the year of Woodstock, she was leading a band for the first time, there was a lot of pressure on her.

Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin Photo: Pixabay

“She began to fall into using heroin, which was pretty predominant at that time. Originally, she just started doing it occasionally. And as it became more frequent, she did get addicted.”

But by the time she came to record Pearl, which would turn out to be her last recording, in 1970 Joplin had been clean for some months, George-Warren says.

“After a couple of relapses, she’d quit heroin in the spring of 1970, and had been clean for about four or five months by the time she started recording her final album, Pearl.

“She was still drinking quite a lot and to be honest, drinking is much worse on the vocals than heroin is, so in order to cut back on the drinking...

"It was just one of those horrible twists of fate. She was in this hotel that she always stayed in, in Los Angeles and ran into her former dealer who gave her some heroin.”

Tragically that heroin was very pure.

“She thought, ‘Oh, I'll just do a little bit, you know, so I can stop drinking. And she had done it a couple of times in this week or two period, when she got a really pure dose called China white - first time in America.

“She had no idea how pure it was. It's kind of like what's happening with the Fentanyl today. She was by herself after being in the recording studio and did the heroin and it was so pure, it killed her. And it was just a tragic accident.”

Joplin’s drug overdose death cemented her reputation as a rock ‘n’ roll wild child, but George-Warren says her letters show a complex and intelligent woman.

“She was an amazing letter writer, she was very self-analytical, she was very descriptive, she was funny, she was sad, she was excited, she was happy, she was angry.

“She exhibited all forms of emotions in these letters to her family to boyfriends, girlfriends. And from reading those I really began to feel like I could understand what a complicated person Janis was.”