New Janis Joplin Biography Reveals the Woman Behind the Superstar Persona

It was the summer of 1962 when a blues-loving, wild-haired hippie with a soulful voice left her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, and arrived in Austin. Janis Joplin was starting her first semester on the Forty Acres with dreams of becoming a visual artist, but quickly came to realize she was a natural musical performer, playing gigs in campus dining halls and at Austin staples like Threadgills on Lamar—which is still adorned with Janis Joplin memorabilia—and later Armadillo World Headquarters. 

 Though she left Texas just a few months later for San Francisco, where she would front for Big Brother and the Holding Company, Joplin remains an Austin darling. Her stint in Austin is just one brief period of time that makes up the groundbreaking but tragic life of one of pop culture’s greatest icons, detailed in a new biography, Janis: Her Life and Music, by music writer Holly George-Warren.   

The Alcalde spoke with George-Warren about her new book, and the challenges of capturing the dynamic woman dubbed music’s “first female rockstar.”  

 Why’d you choose to write about Janis? 

I’ve been a fan for a long time. I started getting curious about her musical past growing up in Port Arthur. The other books that have come out over the years hadn’t gone deep enough. I was writing liner notes for [Pearl, Joplin’s last album before her death] and I got to listen to tapes from her recording session with producer Paul Rothchild. I heard her sharing her ideas and telling the producer, “Let’s do it this way,” which was very rare for woman to have that power at the time. She always had this image of a blues mama who let it all hang out and just sang what she felt. But there was more to it than that. She worked hard to hone her craft. I wanted to know about her process. That’s the story I wanted to tell.  

 You interviewed High school and college friendS and family—how did you find them?  

Janis’ brother and sister were very helpful. They connected me and told everyone it was OK to talk to me. There were people that still live in Austin that I talked to, and others that have scattered around. 

 What were you most surprised to learn about her?  

I really bought her image, as having been a wild partier all the time. I discovered there was a studious side to her. She hid that she was a bookworm, but she always had a book on her. She also seemed to long for a traditional kind of life. Maybe it was a “grass is greener” kind of thing. But she wrote about wanting the white picket fence and husband. 

 What kind of influence did her brief stint at UT have on her?  

She was at UT from the summer of 1962 to January of ’63. There’s a theme in Janis’ life. Though she was an outsider and oddball, she wanted to be loved and appreciated. When she got in the music culture, she became an outcast and it really hurt her when she was shut out by her peers by the 11th grade. A similar thing happened in Austin. She was sexually fluid, and she had a girlfriend. People didn’t like that. As a spiteful thing, this fraternity nominated her for the “Ugliest Man on Campus” award they gave out every year. It was very painful for her. That’s when she decided to go to San Francisco.  

How would you describe her legacy?  

There has never been another Janis Joplin. She was not only a great technical singer, but she was able to tap deep into herself through her music. She was so incredibly emotional. There are so many people who saw her in ’66 who still remember it like it was yesterday. She wasn’t singing to them but for them. And she’s a role model. She was so ahead of the curve in her role in the music business as the first huge female rockstar. She was so fearless and willing to kick down any barriers to do what she needed to. She’s an inspiration to those who were afraid to be their true selves. 

This is a tough one: What’s your favorite Janis song?  

Oh man … it’s going to have to be “Kozmic Blues.” It expresses her philosophy in life. She was dogged by depression and existential angst that she learned from her father. He believed no matter how much you attain, there’s always going to be something wrong. It’s a really amazing song on her first solo album that came out 50 years ago.   

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photographs from top: Janis Joplin performing at Fillmore East in February 1969, courtesy of Jay Good/Frank White; book cover for Janis: Her Life and Music; Joplin with her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966, courtesy of Lisa Law/Cache Agency.

 
 
 

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