By RICHARD PACHTER
The only Janis Joplin songs on the radio these days are Me and Bobby McGee, and maybe Piece Of My Heart. But her image — larger than life — endures. Alice Echols' new biography of Joplin thoroughly examines her life and image, but the result is wholly unsatisfying.
Born in 1943 and raised in claustrophobic Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin grew into an "ugly duckling" teen. A vivacious, outgoing child ostracized by her classmates, who cruelly voted her "Ugliest Man On Campus," the preternaturally bright young woman became a social outcast. Purposely cultivating an unsavory reputation, she pushed the limits of propriety and parental authority by hanging with the town's lowlifes and beatniks until she escaped to college.
A self-professed folkie who gravitated to the music of Odetta and Leadbelly, Joplin barely attended classes, devoting all of her time to nearly nonstop partying and sexual explorations. She began singing at clubs and coffeehouses and nurtured her growing talent, which was sometimes fueled by copious amounts of legal and illegal substances.
She dropped in and out of school, and attempted to live the conventional lifestyle of her parents a final time before abandoning any pretense of conformity. She explored Greenwich Village, but eventually settled in San Francisco just in time for the emergence of the hippies of Haight Ashbury.
In San Francisco, Joplin found a community that welcomed her as a kindred spirit. The burgeoning music scene was a hotbed of experimentation, socially, sexually and sometimes even musically. Bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Charlatans recognized Joplin's talent and outrageous character. She hung out — and coupled — with many of those involved. Country Joe McDonald had a relatively long-term relationship with her, and memorialized the singer in his song Janis, on his 1967 album Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die.
The Bay Area's "anything goes" attitude gave Joplin license to party even more. When she joined Big Brother and The Holding Company, a ragged hippie rock band, Joplin's astounding voice became its immediate focal point. Hailed as the Caucasian reincarnation of Bessie Smith and other black blues singers, Joplin and the band inked a typically exploitative contract with a smallish record label, quickly producing a low-fi album that was ignored by radio.
At the first (and only) Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, a now-legendary appearance by the group and its fiery vocalist attracted rabid attention from the music business. Bob Dylan's manager quickly displaced Big Brother's home-grown handler, and the rest of the band faded into the background, forever relegated to the role of Janis Joplin's first backup band. Columbia Records bought out their recording contract, and Big Brother made its real debut album under the tutelage of producer John Simon and engineer Elliot Mazer.
Though the album, dubbed Cheap Thrills, seemed like a live recording, all but one track — Ball and Chain — were cut in the studio. Simon and Mazer figured that the band's ragged playing would be more palatable if presented in a concert context, so they added fake audience tape-loops and canned applause, crafting a simulated live album.
Though the LP sold a million copies in its first month of release, Joplin was urged to abandon Big Brother by her manager, her record company and others. Subsequent musical accompaniment inarguably served her prodigious talents better. Big Brother recorded one album following her departure, before becoming a music history footnote.
Joplin's newfound celebrity and fortune enabled the acceleration of a Sybaritic lifestyle, as she made up for lost time. Her casual pansexual couplings, drug addictions, alcoholism and other passions undercut potential artistic and career growth. Echols lists many of Joplin's lovers, including Jets quarterback Joe Namath and musician Kris Kristofferson, who composed her posthumous hit, Me and Bobby McGee. But Janis felt lonely and unloved, despite the seemingly endless parade of short-term companions.
In October 1970, at the age of 27, she was found dead after an overdose of heroin, forming an immortal triumvirate of prematurely departed rock icons. Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix — Echols says Joplin had brief affairs with both — were dead within months of her.
Her enduring image as a red-hot mama and rock archetype inspired Bette Midler's film The Rose, which was originally touted as a Joplin biopic. Another Joplinesque movie is said to be under consideration, this one supposedly starring Melissa Etheridge, who says she draws inspiration from the late singer's bold life. Other women artists similarly express solidarity with Joplin's sexuality and legacy .
Echols' book is a sympathetic but nearly clinical exploration of Joplin's life. With ample research, including scores of interviews with friends, lovers and associates, it's clear that much earnest work went into this project, but the result is a scholarly tome, contrasting wildly with the subject's flamboyant life and work. The ferocious power of Janis Joplin hinted at here may be impossible to authentically convey in any non-aural medium.
Originally published on March 14, 1999 in the Sun-Sentinel