Lynn Barber

Burnt out at 27: the tragedy of Janis Joplin

With her knock-out voice failing, Joplin died of a heroin overdose in 1970, just three years after her triumph at the Monterey pop festival

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Janis: Her Life and Music

Holly George-Warren

Simon & Schuster, pp. 377, £20

Janis Joplin hated the word ‘star’, but she loved the trappings. As soon as she made serious money she bought a Porsche convertible and had it painted with psychedelic images to make it the most recognisable car in San Francisco. She also rejoiced in her lynx fur coat, courtesy of Southern Comfort. She sent them a file of all the numerous press clippings that said Southern Comfort was her favourite tipple and they responded with a cheque. ‘Oh man, that was the best hustle I ever pulled,’ she crowed to a reporter. ‘Can you imagine getting paid for passing out for two years?’ If only she’d stuck to Southern Comfort she might still be alive (she was born in 1943) instead of dying at 27, like so many rock stars, of a heroin overdose.

Her whole career only lasted four years, which is the same amount of time Holly George-Warren spent researching this excellent biography. She has interviewed hundreds of people who knew Janis, including many from Port Arthur, Texas, where she grew up. Janis always maintained that she was a misfit there because ‘I read. I painted. I didn’t hate Negroes.’ She read Jack Kerouac and called herself a Beatnik and practised her distinctive cackle till it was ‘annoying enough’. She also collected old Blues records — Odetta, Lead Belly and, above all, Bessie Smith. One day when she was hanging out with some boys at the beach, one of them said he wished they had a record player and she said: ‘I can sing!’ They all laughed, but she sang them an Odetta song and they were duly knocked out. Everyone was always knocked out by her voice.

She went to the University of Texas at Austin to study art but devoted most of her time to drinking and sleeping around. She was bisexual, though one of her women lovers complained that she ‘went through men like Kleenex’. In 1965 she decided that ‘Texas wasn’t good enough for me’ and hitchhiked to San Francisco. She sang in coffee bars, where John Gilmore remembers that she was kind of ‘country-bumpkin looking’ in her baggy jeans, pimples and bare feet, but also ‘tough as an alligator’, a bar-room brawler throwing punches at men who harassed her. But underneath there was ‘this sad, delicate person, intimate and feather-voiced, neither feminine nor sexy, just vulnerable’.

She spent six months building her fan base in San Francisco but also drinking too much and shooting crystal meth. She became ‘emaciated, almost catatonic’ and fled home to Port Arthur and tried to fit in — she even took ‘poise lessons’. She made plans to marry her latest boyfriend, Peter de Blanc, and started ordering bed linen and planning her trousseau. But he turned out to be a conman, already married, and her dream of becoming a conventional housewife with a white picket fence gradually died.She returned to San Francisco to pick up her career.

A friend introduced her to a group, Big Brother and the Holding Company, who already had a good following in San Francisco but felt they needed a girl singer. She was perfect for them and they for her. They moved together to a country house in Marin County and she was happier than she’d ever been. They worked hard on their repertoire and within two months record companies were taking an interest.

She and the band were invited to do a one-month residency in Chicago and they were all keen to make their mark outside San Francisco. But it was a disaster. Chicagoans regarded them as freaks and laughed at their long hair and hippie clothes. And driving back west, in a scene reminiscent of Easy Rider, they were pulled over by police and told: ‘We don’t want your sort around here.’ It wasn’t till the next summer, the summer of love, that the rest of America started flocking to San Francisco with flowers in their hair, and Janis was ready waiting for them, the queen of Haight-Ashbury.

Her huge breakthrough came in June l967 at the Monterey pop festival, where everyone agreed she stole the show. Suddenly she was nationally famous and invited to New York, where she stayed at the Chelsea Hotel and Leonard Cohen wrote a song about her — ‘You were talking so brave and so sweet/ giving me head on the unmade bed/ while limousines wait in the street.’ She earned over $40,000 in two months and signed with Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager, the one who insisted on his clients being called artists rather than acts in their contracts.

But he, and others, kept telling her she should drop Big Brother — they were too sloppy. And the mood had turned sour anyway — ‘there was no friendship any more’ — so she set about forming a new band. It got off to a rocky start and kept changing names and personnel, but it finally gelled as the Full Tilt Boogie Band, which made her last great album, Pearl. But by the time it was released, Janis was dead. The verdict was accidental heroin overdose, but she had signed her will just two days before, leaving everything to her parents and siblings. And the producer Paul Rothchild recalled that when he went to one of her last concerts in San Diego, she handed him a stopwatch and said: ‘Look, I’ve only got 35 good minutes in me. When I sing my first note, start it. Once in a while, I’ll turn round and look at you, and you flash me how much I got left.’ Perhaps she felt she was already burnt out.