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New book adds a layer of history to Janis Joplin's tragic story

Janis Joplin came out of Texas a self-style beatnik loyal to folk music and the blues. By the time she came out of San Francisco, she was an international phenomenon yet hid her loneliness behind a crass exterior as one of the boys. Very few knew the sensitive soul existing simultaneously with the outrageous larger-then-life rock star. Holly George-Warren's exquisite new book encapsulates her duality and makes her come alive again.

Janis: Her Life and Music
Holly George-Warren
(Simon & Schuster)

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By Mike Greenblatt

Janis Joplin started smoking at 14, resorted to prostitution to have some chump change in her pocket in order to travel. She shoplifted, sold meth, hustled pool, popped pills, and even stayed drunk and homeless on the mean streets of New York City. She took on lovers of both sexes and was a full-blown speed freak at 22 injecting herself multiple times a day.

Then she discovered heroin.

Let me start over.

Janis Joplin was an intellectual. A voracious reader, a talented painter, a prodigious letter-writer, a soft, sensitive and secretive soul, a true artist of unfathomable depth who sang poignant folk songs from a bygone era.

Then she discovered the blues.

Humans are complex.

In Holly George-Warren’s cinematic new biography, Janis: Her Life And Music (Simon & Schuster), Janis comes alive, if only for 322 pages.

In high school, she was bullied. One of her tormentors who made her life hell was a classmate named Jimmy Johnson who would grow up to be the Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys. She found her respite in music and literature, fashioning herself a beatnik and carrying around her copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. She found a wellspring of songs that she loved by her favorite artists Lead Belly and Bessie Smith plus tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey, Lonnie Johnson and Josh White.

Then she discovered rock’n’roll.

By the time she set the world on fire in Big Brother & The Holding Company in a burgeoning San Francisco psychedelic scene, she was already wooed by corporate suits to leave the band. Elektra Records wanted her to form a band with Taj Mahal. Loyal to her band, and having an affair with Grateful Dead’s Pigpen (as well as with a few Hell’s Angels, Country Joe McDonald and her own guitarist, Sam Andrew), she stayed. (It was Big Brother’s other guitarist, James Gurley, who turned her on to heroin.)

In a letter to her family, she says how she can’t believe she even made it to 25.

Blue Cheer drummer Paul Whaley was probably the father of the fetus she aborted in Mexico.

She was close to Kris Kristofferson, Joe Namath, Leonard Cohen and Dick Cavett. She wanted to be closer with Bruce Springsteen and Clive Davis. She had fights with Jim Morrison (whom she clocked over the head with a bottle), Todd Rundgren (verbal only) and Jerry Lee Lewis (who hit her back...hard).

It’s a shame that the book—and her life—had to end so abruptly.