Published by New Haven Publishing LTD
Originally published in 1992 by Warner books, this biography of Janis Joplin has been reissued at the request of the estate of the author, editor and journalist Ellis Amburn. Sadly Amburn died in August 2018 after a long illness.
Amburn describes his approach to gathering material and memories for this book in the first chapter, Town Without Pity. It’s clear from the start that there is some resistance and misunderstanding from her family. Her sister Laura was in the process of writing her own memoir of Janis, Love Janis, based on her correspondence with her family. I’ve been reading that over the last week or so, on a recommendation of a friend who knew I’d recently reviewed a newly published collector’s edition of her scrapbooks, Days and Summer 1966-68. So I have been reading a lot about Janis, rediscovering her as an artist and as an individual. I remember reading Peggy Caserta’s 1973 book Going Down With Janis and thinking it was too much information.
This book, for all its research and detail, gave me the same sense of voyeurism that I continue to be uncomfortable with. Janis Joplin as an artist and performer was someone I admired during her lifetime. I was interested in her as a singer and I was saddened to learn of her death from a heroin overdose. Personally, I don’t need the details of her sex life and drink and drug use to appreciate the tragedy of her loss. However Amburn does do what he sets out to do in the title, so I can’t say I wasn’t warned! He interviews people she knew as friends, lovers, fellow musicians and managers. Many of them were as recklessly and destructively involved in the drug scene of the time, using heroin and speed more than LSD and marijuana. Some have lived to tell the tale, but others didn’t make it out alive.
As a journalist Amburn has created the illusion that he was there, weaving together a narrative from other people’s memories. Soon you realise that he can’t have been present and that some of these testimonies are from unreliable witnesses, not least because of the amount of drugs they claim to have been using. So how could he know what really went on behind closed doors? Perhaps this is about myth making. Janis certainly had a lust for life and a lot to prove. She used sex like a drug and was actively bisexual. One night stand groupies and famous musicians of the time were all part of her scene. Huge amounts of alcohol and heroin got her through the day and night. Her stage performances were fuelled and sometimes jeopardised by drugs.
I’m amazed by her resilience and her achievements, by her ability to function as well as she did, but I am also deeply saddened when I realise that this lifestyle was fuelled by deep insecurities and an addictive personality. It seems she was always looking for love and acceptance. Sometimes she found it by being ‘one of the boys’. Other times she found it through music and performing. Often she found it in a bottle or a needle. Looking back on this sensational version of her life, which confirms her status as the original wild woman of rock, it’s hard not to see her as a victim of her times. She and her closest friends find themselves in situations that could be seen as abusive and dangerous. As a fan of hers, this was a difficult read because I knew there was no happy ending. If you are curious about the level of excess an artist can go to and still produce work that continues to amaze and inspire, then this is a compelling read.
There are currently plans to make a film based on this account of Janis’ life and career. The Rose (1979) starring Bette Midler was also loosely based on her life. As a proposed film it will have plenty of drama and emotion and huge amounts of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. The book name checks many of the famous musicians of the time, including Country Joe MacDonald, members of the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez and Dylan, Kris Kristofferson of course, Eric Clapton and more. Albert Grossman, Bill Graham and others who were managing and promoting bands of the day also play their parts.
In among the sex and drugs, I discovered that John Cooke, her long time road manager is the son of Alistair Cooke of Letter From America fame. The origin of the name Pearl, adopted by Janis and the title of this book and her second solo album, came from an unlikely source. She fantasised about running her own bar, where she could sing, get drunk and hang out. A friend saw pearl barley on a shelf in a health food shop and that became her new name for that dream.
For all the descriptions of recklessness, excess and disaster, Amburn does make one thoughtful observation. ‘Sexually, she’d arrived at the point where she could have anything she wanted – and get away with it. This is true of most rock stars at the apex of their fame. She was no different from Elvis or any one of the Beatles in this respect, except that as a woman she would be judged more harshly than her counterparts.’
Pearl can be bought from New Haven Publishing LTD
All words by Nicky Crewe. More writing by Nicky on Louder Than War can be found at her author’s archive