Saturday, December 17, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Love, Janis


A while ago,  I reviewed Alice Echols' fantastic and comprehensive biography of the legendary Janis Joplin, Scars of Sweet Paradise. Extensively researched, well written, and clearly by an admirer of Janis (but one who wasn't afraid to cast a critical eye), I declared it the definitive book on Janis. Around the same time that I bought that book, I also bought Love, Janis, written by Janis' younger sister Laura and one I had heard good things about several years ago.  Based on what I could glean from the back cover and blurbs I'd read online, Laura wrote a biography of her sister's entire life and included many unpublished letters Janis had written over the years. Armed with that bit of information, and expecting an obviously much more personal look at Janis' life, I dove into it not quite knowing what to expect but looking forward to it just the same.


Laura Joplin is six years younger than Janis, but was close to her famous older sister and thus writes from a definite position of love and affection. She starts off the book by tracing the family history on both their father's and mother's sides all the way back to the time of the Mayflower. Tracing the family's journey, the Joplins finally end up in Port Arthur, Texas, where Janis came into the world as the eldest child of Seth and Dorothy Joplin in January 1943. Born into an intellectual and creative family (Seth was a voracious reader, while Dorothy was a former singer and dancer), from the very beginning of her life Janis never quite fit in with the conservative, straight-laced society surrounding her. This was exacerbated by the Texas of the 1950s and 60s that she grew up in. Janis was a very intelligent and creative girl, especially when it came to art; she was a talented painter and even won some awards for her work as a child. What was surprising to me, especially when reading about Janis' pre-fame years, is how Laura told of a girl who was much more popular and had many more friends than has commonly been portrayed. While Janis did have her share of awkward moments and typical teenage growing pains, and certainly rubbed against the grain of her town's culture (most notably in her denouncing of segregation and racism), Laura portrays her adolescence in a much different light from how Echols did. Indeed, a common thread running throughout the book and one that became obvious to me right away was how Laura Joplin's  telling of Janis' story was much kinder, gentler, and almost apologetic when compared to the analytical and researched tone of Echols. A huge part of this is obviously down to Laura being Janis' sister and having witnessed so much of her life and career firsthand, while Echols had to rely on research, hearsay, and second-hand recollections from Janis' friends and family many years after the fact. It did seem though, in spots, that Laura was almost going too far the other way to counteract what she thought was unfair or incorrect in how Echols and countless others have written about Janis' younger days. This was most clearly seen in how she treated their parents: while Echols and others painted them as cold, uncaring, and not at all understanding of Janis, Laura tries to show them as warm, loving, and wholly supportive toward Janis. The truth, as usual, almost certainly lies somewhere in the middle. While I don't question that they loved their oldest daughter and did what they could for her, I also don't doubt that they grew to be exasperated, upset, and at some point they probably threw their hands in the air and gave up upon realizing there was nothing they could do to change her.




Laura traces Janis' life through high school and her numerous forays into college as a beatnik art student, which ran parallel alongside the development of her love of folk and blues music. Sneaking across the state line into Louisiana to hear authentic black blues and folk musicians, Janis began performing and writing her own music around Texas and developed her voice. She eventually made her way to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1960s, a stint that nearly ended in disaster when she arrived back home in Texas emaciated and strung out after becoming addicted to shooting speed. The arrival back home in Texas coincided with Janis wanting to cast off her more bohemian, beatnik attitudes and try to fit into straight society...she even swore off performing during this time. However, while she was successful at this for a short time, it was clear she was forcing it. Precipitated by a break-up with a con-man fiance of hers (Peter de Blanc), whose deception she eventually sussed out, she fell back into performing and finally began making a name for herself in Texas. Eventually, she hooked up with Chet Helms, who took her to San Francisco in 1966 to audition for a band his Family Dog productions managed called Big Brother and the Holding Company. The rest, as they say, was history.  Laura does a nice job tracing Janis' career as Big Brother made their way out of the crowded San Francisco rock scene to become one of the leading lights of West Coast American rock in the late 1960s. However, after her meteoric rise following the launching pad of the Monterey Pop Festival, friction within Big Brother led Janis to go solo at the end of 1968. After getting off to a rocky start in early 1969, her new band settled down and even headlined Woodstock. By the beginning of 1970, drug use and insecurity were taking their toll on Janis' psyche, as well as her penchant to fall head-over-heels in love with the men she was dating after only knowing them a very short time. She also created her alter-ego Pearl around this time, which struck some as bizarre and gave further evidence to many around her that Janis was letting fame detach her from reality. By Laura's account, though, 1970 and her final band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, gave her some of the happiest times of her life and career. Her final album, Pearl, saw her feeling relaxed and creatively free, but for reasons that her family and friends still haven't been able to fully comprehend to this day, true happiness and contentment still eluded her. A semi-disastrous appearance at her ten-year high school reunion and her continued dabbling in heroin depressed and subdued her as summer turned to autumn in 1970. It was a fatal and accidental overdose of ultra-pure heroin that took her and the music world by surprise when she died at the age of 27 only a mere two and a half weeks after Jimi Hendrix.



Even knowing the ending beforehand, it was sad to read her sister describe Janis' final weeks and days, even more so when Janis' letters home were used to flesh out the narrative. It's these letters that make the entire book so compelling. Spanning the entirety of her life after she left home at eighteen, and covering the days when she was in college but not yet famous to the height of her stardom, the letters do the ultimate job of humanizing and personalizing (in the literal sense of the word) Janis Joplin. More than anything, they show her as she really was: just a girl from a small-town in Texas who marched to the beat of her own drum, believed in herself yet was paradoxically insecure, and was for the most part as unprepared and incredulous at the hoopla surrounding her as her own family was. Laura Joplin also does an excellent and rather poignant job of showing how, even during the tumultuous changes of the 1960s, she, her brother, and their parents never fit into Janis world and could never understand the counterculture in which Janis was among those at the epicenter. While Alice Echols' book was excellent in the way it went into real depth regarding Janis' life, career, and how they fit into the context of the 1960s, Laura Joplin's book brings Janis down to earth and softens her in a way only someone who knew her as a family member could.




While Laura does dispel some myths there are many cases where, as I mentioned above, she seems to overcompensate in the other direction to make certain events come across better than they probably were. This was most notable not only with how she portrayed their parents, but also how she downplayed Janis' sexual promiscuity (especially her lesbian affairs) and her drug use. This seemed a bit strange because it's been pretty well researched and corroborated how she behaved in those aspects of her life. However, in a way it's perhaps understandable as I can imagine those would be painful subjects for a sister to write about so critically and candidly. Apart from these and her strange tendency to describe every male friend or love interest of Janis' as though she were writing for a dating website ("he was six foot two, ruggedly handsome with tawny brown curly hair, a strong jawline, and broad shoulders"), Laura Joplin crafted a book that, while not necessarily the definitive biography of Janis (I still think Echols' book takes that honor), is still worthy and essential. It's one that I would suggest, along with Scars of Sweet Paradise, as necessary in order to get the most complete idea of who Janis Joplin really was.

MY RATING: 8/10




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