In Janis: Her Life and Music (S&S, Oct.), Holly George-Warren explores the life and music of singer Janis Joplin.
What led you to write about Janis Joplin?
I’ve been a fan going back to my preteen years. I had read other bios of Janis, and most of them failed to capture the complexity of Janis Joplin. Myra Friedman’s bio, the first one that came out after Janis’ death, portrays Janis negatively. Then, a few years ago, Sony/Columbia asked me to write the liner notes for the Pearl set they were releasing. For the first time, I got to hear all the sessions, all the back talk, and all the various takes on the songs. Janis was calling the shots in the studio. I mean, here’s Janis coming up with all these ideas for guitar parts or keys. I didn’t realize what a hardworking musician she was.
What were some of the things that surprised you in your research?
People don’t realize how voracious a reader Janis was; she was a huge bookworm, though she was always self-deprecating about it in public. She was a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac. She read the biography of Zelda Fitzgerald just before she died. She named her dog after James Thurber. Her designer even made Janis a beaded book bag so Janis could carry her books on the road. I asked myself, “What was on her mind?” I read all the books she read; I listened to all the albums she listened to.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Describe her performance there.
By the time she went on stage at Woodstock, after midnight, she hadn’t slept for at least 48 hours; she had a brand new guitar player; she went on in the middle of the night. Even the photos of her on stage show how tired she is, but they also show how she gives everything she has in that performance. Ellen Willis, then the music critic at the New Yorker, said she wasn’t willing to keep applauding Janis to bring her out for more since Janis gave too much of herself.
What were some of Joplin’s most memorable traits?
She had this joyfulness and fearlessness. Her dogged determination: she had an iron will to make it as a musician. When she discovered her voice, she pursued her singing relentlessly. She was incredibly open-minded when it came to pursuing her real self—she was very open about her bisexuality—even though it was outside of the norms of society at the time. She always blazed her own trail.