October 4th marked the 45th anniversary of Janis Joplin’s death. One of music’s most unique and powerful vocalists, Janis has become a legend, known for her raspy, gritty, soulful, and sonorous sound; as well as her tragic death from a drug overdose at the age of 27.
Janis both lived and sang about the endless search for true love, the
pain of loneliness, and the desire to face life with determination and
courage. And while she sadly succumbed to addiction, like many artists
of her time, Janis left us with a treasure-trove of songs that in turn
inspire, lull, and soothe us.
Below I’ve listed five Joplin biographies, each of which tries to
explain/capture what made Janis so irresistible and legendary. I’ve only
read Scars of Sweet Paradise myself, but plan to read the
others soon, especially the one by Janis’s sister, Laura. So check these
babies out and, while you’re reading, listen to “Me and Bobby McGee” or
“Trouble in Mind.”
(Oh, and I may or may not have named my daughter “Janis” after her. It was either that or “Mama Cass,” and somehow “Janis” just sounded better.)
Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin (1973) by Myra Friedman
Originally published just three years after Joplin’s death, Buried Alive
has gone through several editions. Comprehensive and wide-ranging, it
situates Joplin in terms of her family history and the turbulent era of
the 1960s. Friedman charts the singer’s rise to fame from Port Arthur,
Texas to Haight-Ashbury and everything in between. The latest edition
(1992) includes more information about her colleagues and
contemporaries, as well as fond anecdotes about Joplin written by
various close friends.
Love, Janis (1992) by Laura Joplin
One can only imagine what it must have been like to be the younger sibling of Janis Joplin. In Love, Janis,
however, we can come close. Here, Laura Joplin adds to the well-known
narrative of Janis’s stardom with a series of never-before-seen letters
to her family back in Texas.
Pearl: The Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin (1992) by Ellis Amburn
The back cover copy of this biography reads, in part, “Nobody sang
the blues hotter, lived the 60s wilder, or rocked harder than Janis
Joplin.” Not surprising, given the tendency many have to use as many
superlatives as possible to capture her impact and personality. Amburn
offers us a well-researched life of Janis Joplin, but ultimately we must
remember that she was human and has been turned by us into a legend.
Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin (1999) by Alice Echols
I got this biography from my university library back when I was a new grad student and desperate to read something
that wasn’t for class or a reading group. I’d always wanted to learn
more about Joplin, and this is a good place to start. Echols discusses
Joplin’s life as well as her musical influences and the ways in which
living on the edge was a part of 1960s counterculture. I also appreciate
that the cover photo, unlike most photos we see of Joplin, shows her
just being herself.
On the Road With Janis Joplin (2014) by John Byrne Cooke
I recently heard an interview with John Byrne Cooke on NPR about On the Road With Janis Joplin
and the biography sounds promising. Whereas Laura Joplin offers us
insights into Janis’s homelife and upbringing, Cooke takes us into the
singer’s whirlwind lifestyle as a performer and star. Cooke was at the
Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where Janis made a major hit, and later
became the road manager for Janis and Big Brother and the Holding
Company. When Janis joined Kosmic Blues, and then Full Tilt Boogie,
Cooke was there. He was also the one who discovered her after her
overdose. Personal photographs included in the book give us a broader
view of Janis’s life and times.
(first posted on Book Riot 10/18/15)