Janis by Holly George-Warren
I love Janis Joplin and love being immersed in her story. I can’t say I really learned anything in this bio that I hadn’t from the several others that I have read. This one leaned heavily on Janis’ copious written correspondence with her family; and seemed less focused on her relationships with men, and more on those she had with women. Janis here is presented as frankly bisexual, if not lesbian with a daddy fixation.
I took issue when lyrics were misquoted. The most egregious example was the part in “Piece of My Heart” where Janis sings, “Nowma nowma nowma nowma nowma HEAR me when I cry-y-y-y, and baby I cry all the time!” This was transcribed on paper as “Never, never, never hear me when I cry.” I can only think that when another artist wrote or transcribed the song, the word was “Never.” If so, tell us what you’re quoting. Because you’re not quoting Janis. On no planet does “Nowma” mean “Never.” (It means, obviously, “Nowma”.)
My thoughts on the medical nature of addiction have evolved since I last immersed myself in Janis’ life story. With so much attention to the opiate crisis, so many obituaries of young people in my local paper, and a harrowing recent book club meeting covering DOPESICK by Beth Macy accompanied by a gut-wrenching story of the addiction-related death of the son of one of the members of my own book club, I now more than ever consider addiction to be a brain-altering medical condition.
And this makes me ponder in a new light the narrative of Janis Joplin. How would it be different if she had lived? Luck played a huge part in who among her cohort lived and who died in the 60s. What if she had lived, cleaned up, moved on; would we still dwell so much on the “tortured soul” angle of her early years?
She indisputably had a lot of difficulties in her background. She tried to kick heroin multiple times, sometimes seeming to come oh-so-close, only to relapse – how it always goes. In the past, I would think, “What tortured her soul so much that she had to keep going back to it?” Now I simply think, “She was an addict. The addiction kept her coming back.”
What is it about Janis? Right in the introduction, George-Warren nails it: “Janis was a walking live nerve capable of surfacing feelings that most people couldn’t or wouldn’t.” When I’m asked what it is about Janis that so enthralls me, the only phrase I can come up with it “out there,” accompanied by expanded arms. “She was so out there.” It was all out there. Being “14 with no tits,” as she put it. The acne, the high school hall put-downs that didn’t seem to end with high school. She puts it all out there in a way I can’t or won’t. Janis is my live nerve.