Janis in Wonderland


Because Janis Joplin’s recording legacy doesn’t live up to her performing legend, because she’s a symbol of boomers’ hegemonic hold on cultural history, because as a rare and extravagant female in a male world her meaning has been stiflingly overdetermined, because, dammit, we never saw her live, it’s hard for those of us who have known her only through 2-D representations to envision the woman in her full, frizzy-haired glory— the oracle of the “superhypermost,” as she put it. Scars of Sweet Paradise, the first important biography of this deeply fascinating subject, strips away many of the myths that enshroud the first female rock star. Echols’s book is well-timed, revealing how far the women who currently rule pop have come. But Scars also makes many of today’s idols look like mere button-pushers. The sight of Janis’s erect
nipple— whether in the Bob Seidemann photo that made her “the first hippie poster child,” or poking through her shirt during the sort of performance she likened to orgasm— was not a titillating gimmick, but the advance guard of the sexual revolution.

Joplin once speculated to a reporter on why journalists paid more attention to her lifestyle than her singing. “The only reason I can see is that maybe a lot of artists have one way of art and another way of life: in me, they’re the same.” She was right, insofar as her music was as emotion-driven as her life. Joplin was a great singer— that husky tone, those belter’s lungs. But her voice was most remarkable for its raw power, the way it packed a range of feelings and desires that were uncowed, unrefined, and, in her post-’50s milieu, distinctly unfeminine. Given that the source of that emotion was an acned high-school outcast who now wore feathers in her hair and no bra, cursed and drank and shot up without apology, hung out with bikers, Beats, and movie stars, and gave quotes about wanting to “lay life”— well, who wouldn’t write about her lifestyle?

Treating women as interesting personalities rather than great artists is a classic way to keep them out of the canon, and to a certain extent this has been Joplin’s fate. Unlike her fellow ’60s casualties, “Janis disappeared from the airwaves soon after her death,” Echols writes. The author of Daring To Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967­1975 never explicitly waves the banner for historical revisionism in Scars. Rather than simply lament Joplin’s fall from superstardom, Echols works to correct the damage chauvinism has done. One of the book’s major points is that Janis was not just a singer who sang from a crude, natural place— as Joplin tended to mythologize herself— but one of the most dedicated musicians in a field crowded with both great talents and hippies who thought talent was an elitist concept.

Echols serves her subject well by not forcing upon it narratives of either heroism or victimhood; as she says, she expressly sought neither to pathologize nor normalize an extraordinary life. She presents Joplin’s sexual experiences without trying to label them, revealing a long history of female lovers and letting the reader decide whether Janis was repressed (as Jill Johnston claimed in the Voice, rummaging through the Janis closet after her death), or open. She explores the racial implications of a white Texas woman spearheading a blues renaissance without making simplistic conclusions. Her ability to synthesize and contextualize a diverse array of sources— mixing pop-cultural and activist history, Ann Douglas and Paul Buhle with Bill Graham and Robert Christgau— is Scars‘s intellectual engine, which particularly works at full throttle, with lyric clarity and original perceptions, in the introduction and epilogue. Echols applies the lessons of politically correct theory without falling into its jargon or dogma, not always an easy feat.

Thankfully, Echols doesn’t force feminism on a corpse that has already been claimed as a casualty, a pioneer, a lesbian, an erotomaniac, a joke, and a tragedy. Previous biographies of Joplin, even those written by friends and family, have been hard-pressed to avoid the easy sensationalism of a sensational life. The genre hit an early rock bottom in Going Down With Janis, the 1973 kiss-and-tell memoir written by Dan Knapp and Peggy Caserta, the singer’s longtime lover. Echols balances Caserta’s overdramatized perspective with that of Buried Alive, the confused but hitherto most reliable Janis bio, by Myra Friedman, Joplin’s publicist and self-proclaimed best friend. Scars of Sweet Paradise is the first scholarly book on Joplin, and with the exception of Ellis Amburn’s Pearl, the first not written by a friend, sister, lover, or associate.

Unfortunately, in her determination to be informative and objective where others have been overly psychoanalytical, judgmental, or self-involved, Echols can drone into quote-laden dryness. The sometime professor has an academic’s interest in texts and wariness of personalities. She possesses a great ear (or eye) for quotes, but there are probably more bon mots from critics than from Joplin— this, in a biography of a woman who practically invented the sound bite, who told one reporter that she frequently asked men, “Do I ball like I sing?”

Scars of Sweet Paradise provides few significant factual revelations; although she has dabbled in journalism, the author is more adept at analysis than reportage. Her measured tone is sometimes in harsh contrast to her subject’s sweat-pumping, booze-thumping, thigh-humping wetness. Janis, who spent her life bursting out of impossible barriers until her life was spent, struggles to emerge from the careful rendering of outrageous anecdotes— at one point, Echols describes Jerry Lee Lewis punching Joplin as a “charged encounter.” Just once, I wish Echols would let her nipple poke through.

In the end, like all of Janis’s previous biographers, Echols does have an agenda: to analyze the performer as a symbol of the ideals and excesses of the ’60s (ho-hum). This is one of the curses of Janis’s death: it confined her work to one decade. As much as she benefited from the relative freedom and tolerance of that period, Joplin was no hippie chick or protofeminist; she drank Southern Comfort and hated acid, and she was hopelessly romantic about men, masochistically so. To understand Janis Joplin, you have to compare her to not just the ’60s, but to frontier women, Texas rebels, Bessie Smith, Beats, free-love advocates, folksingers— and then appreciate a woman who called herself an anachronism, who felt overwhelmingly, fatally alone.