Lit up by her own blowtorch

Sat, Mar 25, 2000, 00:00

Man, what a chick. The greatest white singer to sing the blues came a-screechin' and ahollerin' out of Hicksville, U.S.A. to find herself in the war-hating, peace-loving, dope-smoking environs of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury area just as the "revolution" was kicking off. Apart from providing the soundtrack for those much-mythologised times, Janis Joplin also wrote herself into the musical history books, courtesy of some incendiary live and studio performances. When she died from a heroin overdose, aged 27 (not long after Jimi Hendrix and the Altamont fiasco), it seemed the spirit of the 1960s died with her.

The received hippy wisdom of Joplin's life and times is one of banal rock-star cliche: live fast, die young. The handy and neat epitaph of "the undisputed queen of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" - which was awarded posthumously - does her a great disservice for Joplin was no mere "hippy chick", no matter how "far out" she seemed at the time. An excellent new biography argues, intelligently and passionately, that she should be reclaimed and re-positioned as a major cultural force - best not to associate her with Hendrix, Woodstock, drugs and hippies, better to understand her as descending from the same lineage as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Billie Holiday and Diane Arbus. There have been countless previous biographies on Joplin, all of which stayed within the familiar sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll parameters. Here, however, author Alice Echols looks behind the salacious headlines. A highly accomplished writer, Echols's previous book, Daring To Be Bad: Radical Feminism In America, teed her up nicely for this biography. Described as a "leading historian of the 1960s, Echols was actually there at the time, which helps. "I knew what it was that so grabbed me when I first heard Janis sing," she writes.

"It was the fall of 1968 and I picked up Piece of My Heart (her trademark song) on a FM station. I was startled by her voice, which was gritty and expressive in a way I'd never heard from a white woman. When Janis sang, you could hear awe and delight at breaking the rules. Rock 'n' roll was there to turn on the switch in kids' brains so they'd comprehend that life is rich with possibility . . . she refused the compromised, diminished life of her parents' generation by taking a blowtorch to her own." The phrase "breaking the rules" might have served as the title of this book. Joplin was the woman who gate-crashed the all-male rock party of the time, refusing to be defined by her gender or prettying herself up in standard "rock chick" fashion. Far from being the screwed-up star victimised by the era she symbolised, Joplin was the original of the woman-in-rock species. In a time when civil rights and political radicalism topped the agenda, the only women visible in the consciousness-raising music scene were groupies, and when it came to "free love" it was mainly one-way gender traffic. Until Joplin.

She was born in Port Arthur, Texas to a text-book middle-class family. Remembered only as a "loner" and a "misfit", she left for California when she was 17: there, she first started singing in the sort of folk clubs that prospered in the immediate wake of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Oddly enough, her natural singing voice was a pure soprano, it was only later that she developed her ballsy blues technique.

With her ever-present bottle of Jack Daniels, her regular drug use, her busy sex life (she slept with both men and women, but preferred women) and her refusal to look or sound pretty, she was an effrontery to the ruling male rock establishment (who despite all their "right on" messages were basically a bunch of unreconstructed chauvinist pigs). Echols brings Joplin's earlydays feminism right to the forefront, writing: "Janis's success had a lot to do with expressing women's anger and disappointment before feminism legitimised their expression. Her sound and look prefigured feminism's demolition of good-girl femininity and much of her music protests women's powerlessness in matters of the heart. Her best-known songs are about the inevitability of being screwed over by men . . . she was a lone pioneer, a single woman making a career in a man's world, invading male turf and claiming for herself the prerogatives typically reserved for men - artistic ambition, lust and the right to live large. She made herself a `living nose-thumb' to outmoded customs and conventions."

Whether it was these latent "messages" in her work that propelled Joplin to such great success remains a moot point. Initially hooking up with a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company (from 19601967) and then going solo until her death in 1970, Joplin not only left a fine body of musical work but also two near-legendary live appearances - first, with Big Brother at the 1967 Monterey Festival and then as a solo artist at Woodstock in 1969. At this point she was rivalling her singing heroes, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin, in terms of record sales and influence.

The footage of Joplin reveals an almost manically disturbed bundle of energy, eschewing the prettiness of her voice to get low-down and dirty. And what a voice it was: "As she belts out the first word," writes Echols of a particular performance, "soaring higher in that cranked-up style, holding the note and milking it, she suddenly cracks up instead of finishing the line. But she resumes singing with gutsiness and soulfulness. Before we can catch it, Janis parodies herself as a tormented blues diva. It is a rare moment of self-awareness, made all the more compelling because she sounds so confident, so excited."

On Joplin's sexuality, Echols writes that although preferring women to men, Joplin "lived outside categories rather than enshrining them" and notes that her "kick-out-the-jams sexuality" is still seen as freeing the US of its hang-ups. Of all the relationships she had, the most enduring and destructive one was with heroin, with alcohol coming a very close second. During the recording of her album Pearl (also her nickname) she overdosed on the drug in a Hollywood motel.

"Sexism killed her" said Country Joe McDonald on hearing of her death (echoing Phil Spector's "Lenny Bruce died from an overdose of police harrassment" line from years earlier). In death she was to enjoy her biggest hit, a beautifully poignant cover of the Kris Kristofferson song Me and Bobby McGee and a reputation as one of the best white female singers the world has ever produced. Her true legacy, 30 years down the line, has finally been done justice by this excellent book, written by someone who was determined to make Joplin come across as more than "a colossaly fucked-up woman" - as the received retro-wisdom would have it.

"Janis wasn't always happy," concludes Echols, "but she went for broke and changed the rules for all of us. In that sense, she won big, bigger than she ever could have hoped." Respect is due.

Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin by Alice Echols is published by Virago, price £18.99 in the UK