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

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.

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