To call Janis Joplin the Judy Garland of the Woodstock set is in some sense a fair characterization. The brassy, carnal, extravagant, and ultimately pitiable queen of psychedelic rock is indeed a cultural icon. And while Joplin reveled in her own ballsy, boozy legend, its needy, inebriated, real-life equivalent was a shadow that darkened her short life and, in the decades since her 1970 drug-induced death, has come to eclipse the party-girl persona.
To her great credit, author Alice Echols reconciles the two faces of Joplin in this ambitious, thoroughly readable biography. She does so by tracing Joplin from her youth as a natural-born libertine in dreary Port Arthur, Texas, to her emergence as the sole female rock superstar of her era--a period when beneath-the-surface sexism hampered Joplin's progress even while women's liberation was being widely touted. The author does not shy away from sordid sex-and-drugs episodes, and there's plenty of raw material---the singer was promiscuous, bisexual, and, at various times, an alcoholic, a speed freak, and a junkie. Echols, however, elevates this biography above run-of-the-mill rock profiles by painting her subject against an elaborate and ever-changing cultural backdrop. Here is Joplin the aspiring folksinger, the white-picket-fence wannabe, the wayward daughter, the hit-and-miss recording artist, and, finally, the ill-starred spirit with nothing left to lose. --Steven Stolder, 1999
"In the introduction to this richly textured biography of the trailblazing blues-rock superstar who succumbed to a heroin overdose in 1970, Echols (Daring to Be Bad) informs us that she is not going to give us "a blow-by-blow account of Janis's every fuck and fix." That is not to say that Echols sidesteps the sordidness of Joplin's short life. There's certainly enough drug use ("She even shot up watermelon juice one day") and sex (with both women and men) to keep the reader titillated. But by tracing Joplin's place in the psychedelic movement, vibrantly reconstructed here through more than 150 interviews, Echols presents the singer not just as a rock casualty but as a contradictory icon of female power, "neither just the ballsy chick who helped throw open the doors of rock 'n' roll nor the little girl lost who longed for the white picket fence." Joplin's outrageousness, her sexual conquests, inhuman consumption of Southern Comfort, and eventual heroin addiction, is presented as an expression of her insecurities. Stifled in her hometown of Port Arthur, Tex., by rigid gender roles and the cruel taunts of fellow teenagers who thought she was ugly and weird, she turned her teenage rebellion into a successful career as rock's first down 'n' dirty bad girl. Outside of Port Arthur, however, she found that even the hip Haight couldn't handle a woman who was neither a folkie nor the girlfriend of some guy in the band. Rock critics may have loved her, but as Echols reveals, even they seemed more concerned with her raw sexuality than with her talent: following the Monterey Pop Festival, which launched Joplin's career, the L.A. Free Press ran an article titled "Big Brother's Boobs" while Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice wrote, 'To hear Janis sing 'Ball and Chain' just once is to have been laid, lovingly and well.'" --From Publishers Weekly (Amazon)
Notes: Also available in paperback, Owl Books 2000