On October 4, 1970, singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970) died from a lethal combination of heroin and alcohol at the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles. The building is still there but has been renamed the Highland Gardens Hotel. In death, she joined the 27 Club, a group of famous stars who all tragically died at the young age of twenty-seven. In stardom, she had come to symbolize the culture change taking place across America as the ideals of the 1950s and 1960s were replaced by the liberated generation of the 1970s. To some, she was everything wrong with the “hippie” culture and to others she was inspiration and an example of someone who came from humble beginnings to leave their mark on the world. To a small group of people, she was simply Janis, daughter and older sister. This book is a look at her life from the eyes of her younger sister Laura, born six years after her famous sibling.
Laura begins the story by revisiting the day she learned of her sister’s death. The news hits like a lightning bolt and no one wants to believe it. Her father had come to dread the moment, always concerned about his first born. Both parents had long realized that Janis marched to the beat of her own drum. She was different from her siblings and from an early age, showed all that she was counter-culture and willing to stand up for what she believed in. As we move into Janis’ story, Laura retraces the family’s genealogy, explaining the migration of both sides of the family from abroad to the United States. The story is similar to other stories men and women who gave up their lives in search of a better life proving that America truly is a nation of immigrants. On January 19, 1943, Janis Lyn Joplin entered the world and before she would leave it, millions of people would know her name.
Admittedly, I had the inclination to believe that the book would be more focused on Laura but it really is a biography of Janis as told by her sister. And while there are other books on Joplin, I felt that Laura’s version is by far a definitive account. In fact, the book is done so well, that at one point, I completely forgot that her sister is telling the story. It was only during the moments where Laura recalls a family issue of one of Janis’ visits, that I was reminded that Laura is the narrator. And I believe that is a testament to the skills required a well-rounded writer and editing team.
Early in the book, the story focuses on the family’s life in Port Arthur, Texas. Janis’ time in high school shows that early on, her fiery spirit was already on full throttle. Her stance on racial discrimination was a bold and telling move by a teenager who grew up in what her sister reveals was an isolated community in which no minorities lived. Her acts of defiance would help form the person she became and stayed with her throughout her life. And in spite of transgressions, it is clear that sister Laura truly admired her old sister and still does.
The book picks up pace after Joplin’s return to San Francisco to join the band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Janis is coming into her own and the band is gaining recognition in the music world. After several slow starts, Joplin and the band hit pay dirt and her life takes a new direction from which she would never return. Laura chronicles all of it, following her sister’s footsteps as she moves through the music world which found her on The Ed Sullivan Show and signing a record deal with Clive Davis. As Laura shows us, Janis’ life was a roller coaster ride composed of fame, lovers, drugs and ultimately heartache. But Janis lived on her own terms and this piece of advice to her sister which Laura vividly recalls is perhaps the theme of the book: “Let yourself go and you’ll be more than you’ve ever thought of being.”
The pace of the book maintains its speed never slowing down. As a result, I found myself glued to the pages and before I knew it, several hours had passed by before I even looked at the time. It is an enjoyable read regardless of the ending that we know is coming. But Janis has a way of pulling people towards her and as Laura tells the story, I found myself happy at her success and down during the moments where her demons took over. Her times of sobriety are scattered and the letters she sends home are moving, standing in stark contrast to the woman who took hard drugs in a game of chicken with death. But she was not a one-dimensional personal, rather a complex individual with no single adjective to describe her.
In 1995, Janis Joplin was inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In death, her fame was catapulted and she has earned mythical status as a rock star. In just a few short years she went from a struggling performer in San Francisco to one of America’s biggest stars. Forty-nine years have passed since her death but in recent years, a resurgence of material about her life has re-surfaced, including the 2015 documentary ‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’. The archival footage is good and once again she graces television screens. Yet, no examination of her life would be complete without this heartfelt and moving account by her sister. Highly recommended.