In a captivating two hours, Holly George-Warren brilliantly represented the music and essence of Janis Joplin, Nov. 21 at Little City Books in Hoboken, where she read from and discussed her latest book, “Janis: Her Life and Music” (Simon and Schuster, 377 pp.$28.99). It’s a powerful, intimate and thoroughly researched biography of the blues-rock trailblazer.
Singer-songwriter Joan Osborne engaged in a lively and insightful conversation with George-Warren about Joplin’s musical trajectory and her journey in securing her place in the male-dominated music scene of the 1960s.
“You hear the wailing and the screaming and the emotional release and it’s so powerful and that’s an incredible thing that she did,” said Osborne. “But she also had so much more subtlety, she had such depth and many other layers that she could have explored for decades and decades.
“She was learning not to blow her voice out. She was learning to keep what she had and that, to me, is the real tragedy. You have to be thankful she made it as far as she did. She planted this flag of, ‘This is what a woman can be’ … there was so much more that she could have done because she was a genius.”
Originally from North Carolina but now living in upstate New York with her husband, musician and editor Robert Burke Warren, George-Warren previously has written books such as “The Road to Woodstock” (with Michael Lang, 2009), “A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man” (2014) and “Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry” (2007).
Joplin released three albums prior to her death from a heroin overdose in 1970. Her fourth, Pearl, was released shortly after she died. She paved the way for female rockers by belting out unforgettable, passionate hits including “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain” and “Cry Baby.” Her vulnerability and honesty still haunt me long after I first listened to these songs, many years ago.
Little City Books co-owners Donna Garban and Kate Jacobs warmed their guests with Southern Comfort and showed videos that captured Joplin’s emotive and irreverent spirit. Jacobs enthusiastically introduced George-Warren and said she “has done a service to world by focusing on women in rock ‘n’ roll.” The evening ended with a spirited sing-along of Joplin’s hit “Mercedes Benz” led by Elena Skye and Boo Reiners of the Demolition String Band and featuring Osborne (see video below).
George-Warren’s interest in writing Joplin’s biography, which was released in October, peaked after she penned liner notes for The Pearl Sessions, the two-CD, 2012 deluxe reissue of Pearl.
She explained that in 2013 — after hearing some of the Pearl outtakes, recorded in 1970 with producer Paul Rothchild — she was awed by Joplin’s creative contributions in the studio during a time when women were not traditionally included in production. “I became interested in Janis’ musical journey — how she discovered the blues as a girl in Port Arthur, Texas, and how her own music evolved,” George-Warren said in an interview.
“A passionate, erudite musician, Janis was born with talent but also worked hard to develop it, though she would often omit this striving toward excellence from her original story. When you hear outtakes of her in the studio recording that would be her final album, Pearl, she’s taking the reins, running the show,” writes George-Warren in her book.
She has been a Joplin fan for a long time, first encountering her as a young music fan in North Carolina, in 1971, when she ordered Pearl from the Columbia Record Club.
Her love of music runs deep. “In third grade,” George-Warren said in our interview, “I discovered I could tune in at night to WABC in NYC and WLS in Chicago on my little clock radio — and those stations played great rock ‘n’ roll all night long. It was the golden era of AM radio and I got hooked. I started buying 45s, started a little band, and just became obsessed with rock & roll.”
In the book, George-Warren creates an intimate portrait of Joplin and brings us close to the musician by sharing stories about her growing up in a close-knit family. At a young age, she showed talents as a visual artist, and was an avid reader and progressive thinker who challenged and ultimately left the conservative oil town where she was raised in the 1950s.
We learn about her appreciation for beatnik culture and her adventurous travels to hear new blues recordings outside of her hometown. It was her discovery of the blues that shaped her songwriting and performance style and enabled her to transform her beautiful soprano voice that she used in her town’s church choir into a righteous sound. She revered music by Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith, Odetta, Otis Redding and Leadbelly.
Facing bullying in high school and later at the University of Texas in Austin, she reacted by creating and choosing songs that exposed her loneliness and revealed her pain, rage, sexual desire and shame. Her vocal range enabled her to wail and laugh with uninhibited expression, and that made for an incomparable stage presence and a rare ability to connect with her audience.
Despising the football culture of her town in 1959 and dressing in bohemian attire, Joplin was bullied by her peers. “One of Janis’s tormentors would become the second most famous TJ High graduate,” George-Warren writes in her book. “The future head coach of the Dallas Cowboys (and Fox network football sportscaster) Jimmy Johnson was about Janis’ age, though a grade behind … seated in alphabetical order in history class, Janis was stuck at the desk behind Johnson, who, by his own admission, made her life miserable because she ‘ran with the beatnik crowd.’ ”
George-Warren recounts in her book that Johnson said: “Her crowd was, to say the least, anti-jock. Our crowd was made up of jocks … and the cheerleaders and majorettes who hung out with us and wore our letter jackets. Janis looked and acted so weird that when we were around her, mostly in the hallways at school, we would give her a hard time. One of my football teammates nicknamed her ‘Beat Weeds.’ Beat was for beatnik …’ (W)eeds had a meaning rooted in the jock vernacular of Southeast Texas. Put it this way: in other areas of the country, she might have been known as ‘Beat Bush’.”
George-Warren writes in the book that when Joplin attended the University of Texas, a frat sponsored an “Ugliest Man on Campus” competition. Someone entered Joplin into the competition anonymously and posters of her were posted all over campus.
Having open relationships with women and singing about her experiences as a woman, she gave voice to many women who kept quiet under the patriarchal control prevalent within and outside of the music industry in the 1960s. She refused to compromise and embraced her uniqueness, George-Warren said at the reading. Her pursuit of the blues (not typical for a young woman from Port Arthur) and her identification as bisexual led to ostracization.
She bravely left her band Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968 to pursue a solo career and “(w)hen critics and fans expressed umbrage at her audacity to quit her role as ‘chick singer’ in a band that she felt was holding her back, she did it anyway,” George-Warren writes in her book.
While Joplin’s tragic death casts a shadow throughout, George-Warren focuses on her artistic mastery and her electrifying, emotionally raw performances. She paints a full picture of Joplin’s intellectual side and the tension between her desire for a conventional marriage with a white picket fence house and her restless, searching nature. In our interview, George-Warren discussed “how hard she worked to become the musician she was … Also she was working toward becoming a producer (extremely rare for a woman then) — she loved being in the studio and wrote letters about the process.”
Relying on Joplin’s diaries, letters, memorabilia and artwork, and interviews with colleagues and relatives (including Joplin’s sister Laura Joplin), George-Warren goes well beyond the stories of addiction and defiant behavior. Laura Joplin gave her access to interviews she conducted with family members and childhood friends for her 2005 memoir, Love, Janis.
George-Warren explained at the reading that Laura Joplin did not use interviews with her parents and letters her parents wrote to their siblings in her book, possibly because they were so painful. These valuable letters gave her a clear sense of family dynamics, family members’ interest in encouraging Joplin to pursue her artistic goals, and their concern about her risky behavior.
George-Warren believes that Joplin – who sought recovery from addiction and relapsed to abuse alcohol, speed and heroin — was not a victim. She acted with intention and her choices allowed her to successfully claim her authentic voice.
If you’ve ever felt out of place, this biography of a creative rebel will resonate. Joplin was a truly a rebel with a cause.
For those of us who grew up before the 1980s, there was often a prescribed manner in which women were expected to behave. At times, we were expected to follow limited professional, political and sexual paths. Joplin’s persona — her uninhibited behavior and outspoken demeanor with wild hair, bisexuality, keen intellect and outrage at racial injustice — was a revelation. We need her spirit of non-conformity today as many of our young people still fight to be different.
In her book’s acknowledgments, George-Warren thanks “Janis Joplin, whose music changed my life by opening up a world of possibilities to a thirteen-year-old rock & roll fan living in small-town North Carolina. If only I could have witnessed her 1968 gigs at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and my son’s school, Wesleyan University.”
I asked George-Warren if she identifies with Joplin. “Definitely her teenage years in Port Arthur resonated with me,” she responded. “I wanted to escape my conservative hometown, too. I also discovered music and the Beats, both of which motivated me to eventually move to NYC.”
Joplin was prone to melancholy, writing in her stunning song, “Kozmic Blues” (from I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, her first album released after leaving Big Brother and the Holding Company):
Time keeps movin’ on
Friends they turn away
I keep movin’ on
But I never find out why
I keep pushing so hard the dream
I keep tryin’ to make it right
Through another lonely day
Joplin sang a memorable version of “Ball and Chain” — written and originally recorded by Thornton — with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, ushering in the “Summer of Love.” She made the song her own, baring her soul and emotional intelligence with her unique, raspy voice. Through her performance we feel the complicated, painful side of love, not the sugarcoated version encouraged by 1950s pop lore. Mama Cass Elliot watched from the audience and was captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop” documentary reacting to the end of the performance by saying, “Wow, wow.” I agree.
Inspiring so many women to launch their own musical careers, Joplin has created a legacy “from Lucinda Williams to Pink, Amy Winehouse to Carolyn Wonderland, Lady Gaga to Brittany Howard, Alicia Keys to Florence Welch, Grace Potter to Elle King, Melissa Etheridge to Kesha,” writes George-Warren in her book. “Williams has written a song about her (‘Port Arthur’); Pink hoped to play her in a film; Wonderland does a killer version of a 1962 Janis original (‘What Good Can Drinkin’ Do’); Etheridge helped induct her into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. That night Etheridge said, ‘When a soul can look on the world, and see and feel the pain and loneliness, and can reach deep down inside, and find a voice to sing of it, a soul can heal.’ ”
George-Warren also writes: “While Janis’s era is largely considered a time of release from the strictures of the 1950s, rock was, in fact, almost exclusively an all boys’ club, and Janis suffered appalling sexism, from both the mainstream and countercultural press, and cold, occasionally cruel dismissiveness from industry pros. Yet she blazed on. Through force of will and unprecedented talent, she showed how rock could include unapologetic women musicians, writers, and fans.”
Osborne said she appreciated learning about Joplin’s strong family bonds through George-Warren’s book and felt those bonds were “the missing piece and an explanation” for Joplin’s ability to endure.
“I knew about the emotional abuse that she took when she became an adolescent and being such a misfit in a conservative town in Texas in the 1950s and it shocked me that anyone could survive that with any sense of self intact. But to me the answer is that she did have a very close relationship with her parents. She was the only child for a long time and judging from what you said in the book, her parents realized she was an exceptional person, an intellect … she was very smart and talented … she must have had a kernel of that inside of herself from her early childhood to be able to weather all of the abuse she was taking … and she didn’t take it lying down … she had a core belief that she was a worthy person … and then she also had something to bring onto the stage and to her art with some sort of notion that she was worthy.
“I think she may have had some notion that she wanted to be what her parents wanted her to be … but that was not available to her. She was not pretty in that way. She was not somebody who wasn’t going to speak her mind … so that must have been a very lonely place to be, in an environment like Port Arthur, Texas.”
George-Warren serves on the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is the director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Oral History Program. She teaches arts journalism at the State University of New York in New Paltz, N.Y., and has lectured at The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University and elsewhere.
She said in our interview that high points in her career included her Grammy nominations for co-producing the 1999 five-CD box set compilation, RESPECT: A Century of Music by Women, and for writing the liner notes for The Pearl Sessions.
In “Janis: Her Life and Music,” George-Warren succeeds in showing us all sides of Joplin. The following quote she picks by Joplin in her book contain wise words that resonate today:
“Don’t compromise yourself. It’s all you’ve got.”
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