From a purely technical perspective, the writing of a music biography is dauntingly complex, and Phoenicia resident Holly George-Warren is a certified high adept: a master rock researcher and storyteller widely celebrated as one of the best. For her 16th book, the two-time Grammy nominee trained her lens on one of the biggest and most culturally resonant of all the rock targets: Janis Joplin. The fruit of her labor, Janis: Her Life and Music (Simon & Schuster; 2019), is quickly being recognized as a vital new contribution to the literature, as well as a kind of necessary bias correction.
Many of the myths regarding Joplin read out like cautionary, puritanical sermons, luridly celebrating her passionate performances as something inspired and beyond her control, meanwhile excoriating her for her weakness, the demons and hedonism that ultimately defeated her. The standard line on Janis has allowed precious little acknowledgment of her personal agency, her seriousness of purpose and her accelerating artistic growth and self-determination, all of which are major and richly substantiated themes in George-Warren’s deeply engaging new biography.
The luminous first 100+ pages of George-Warren’s Janis dwell on Joplin’s youth in the Texas oil town of Port Arthur. George-Warren’s eye for family psychology and cultural time and place are keen, as is her ear for the complex musical milieu in which a generational talent like this might form. From glee club and church choir singing to frequent adventures with boys to music clubs on the other side of the tracks, Janis emerges as a paradox: an uninhibited, transgressive rebel as well as a sensitive and easily injured outcast, but one who was artistically gifted and serious from the start about music.
The parallel story of Joplin’s self-destructiveness and drug- and alcohol-based coping strategies receives a candid and detailed treatment as well. In fact, Joplin’s rise out of Port Arthur happens in a series of promising solo flights to other places – Southern California, Austin – that are ultimately derailed by the singer’s addictive tendencies, with all roads leading back to Port Arthur for repair. As the narrative moves into Joplin’s meteoric arrival on the San Francisco scene, George-Warren intensifies her focus on music, again and again delivering us a Janis who really knew what she was doing in music – a practical scholar of the blues and an increasingly commanding presence in the old boys’ club of the studio, as well as on the stage.
The texture of George-Warren’s writing is masterful, an elegant distillation of ground-scouring research and a robust interpretive dimension as person, time and place and music fuse into one tragic but ultimately redemptive story.
Your previous book was about a beloved but somewhat cultic and attention-averse figure in Big Star’s Alex Chilton. How did it feel to move from that kind of challenge to a rock Rushmore figure in Janis?
Actually, I knew Alex. He produced one of my bands, and I had interviewed him and seen him play a ton of times, so I had a lot more access and up-close-and-personal interaction with him. I knew lots of people who knew Alex and were in his bands, but I still had to win their trust and get them to talk to me. I only knew Janis through her music and the image/persona she created, so to find the “real” Janis I had to really dig, go back and trace her path as a musician, which was the part of her journey that I wanted to focus on. Since she was born in 1943, I had to go much further back to figure out her early years.
Researchers and biographers tend to place a value on the original find or the novel interpretation. On that level, of revelation and adding to the body of critical work, what do you see as some of the chief contributions of your new book?
I focus on her musicianship: how she became a blues scholar as a teenager and continued in a lifelong quest to evolve as a musician and singer, and how she was moving toward becoming a producer by the time she died while making Pearl.
When you take on a long-term challenge like that, how deep in your head does the subject get? Are there times when you worry about your own psychological health, or at this stage in your career, is it easier to maintain critical detachment?
I don’t worry about my psychological health, but my subject definitely becomes part of my life. And they never leave me; I still think about/care about both Gene Autry and Alex Chilton. I never get tired of talking about them. I don’t think it’s an attribute to be detached as a writer of biographies. I think being passionate about your subject makes for better writing and better analysis of your subject. I never try to make them be “perfect” people or overlook their dark side. I am looking at the whole person, not just their artistic output. Flawed people are much more fascinating and make better subjects. I can look at their work within the context of their lives, so when analyzing their work, I try to see the whole picture.
The story of American music is largely the relationship between black and white, and Janis is right on the fulcrum of that. I myself am reluctant to describe the spread of music as “appropriation.” Without appropriation, we wouldn’t have very much interesting music. Still, just to play Devil’s advocate for a moment: For all of her fiery passion, some might say that Janis’ is a borrowed authenticity. Ultimately, how do you position her in the impossibly complex and irresolvable black/white narrative of American music?
She loved black music during a time and place where to even get to experience it was difficult…She became a student of Lead Belly and Bessie Smith, among others, and by absorbing their music, she was able to develop her own unique voice. She wasn’t trying to copy or appropriate their music; instead, their music helped her reach deep inside herself and tap into her own sorrows and “blues” and manifest them in her singing. She was attacked by male critics for trying to sound “black”; these same critics sometimes discussed her body parts and physical appearance as well. I don’t recall reading at the same time of criticism of artists like Eric Clapton or the Allman Brothers.
Holly George-Warren celebrates the publication of Janis: Her Life and Music locally with an appearance at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck on Wednesday, November 13 at 6 p.m. The author will read from the work and discuss it with Dick Hermans. Before that, George-Warren will present a reading, including music, on Sunday, November 3 at 4 p.m at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in Woodstock.
Holly George-Warren’s “Janis: Her Life and Music”
Reading with music performed by Robert Burke-Warren and Calder Mansfield
Sunday, November 3
Kleinert/James Center for the Arts
34 Tinker Street, Woodstock
Holly George-Warren’s Janis
Wednesday, Nov. 13, 6 p.m.
Oblong Books & Music
6422 Montgomery St., Rhinebeck
Reading with Janis Joplin music performed by Robert Burke-Warren and Calder Mansfield