The resurgence of women in rock in the mid-to-late `90s has brought with it a long overdue critical reappraisal of the career of Janis Joplin. Public and vocal homage paid by Joan Osborne, Meredith Brooks, and most vehemently by Melissa Etheridge (among others) have highlighted the work of the first, and some would say the only, real female rock god. Like great American vocalists before her – Sinatra and Billie Holiday in the jazz world, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline in country music – Janis gave voice to the heartbreak and loneliness lurking just below the surface in the lives of so many. And her vocal attack, an eclectic mix of the sound of the (mostly black) blues growlers with the sensibility of more traditional, folk, and bluegrass greats, shaped the sound of rock vocals for the decades that have followed, even – and especially – the male vocals. Janis is to harder rock vocals what Buddy Holly is to pop vocals (or what Huckleberry Finn is to American fiction, if you want a more literary example). Her short career was both groundbreaking and stunningly influential; that her life was so colorful and intense both clarifies and obscures the work as well as the woman.
Janis Joplin was always a larger than life figure, to all who knew her and to all of us who came later. Dionysian wild woman, reincarnated old soul blues mama, voracious lover, shamanistic stage performer and full-tilt boogie queen – all these and more were parts of her multifaceted jewel of a life, which she always lived on the outer edges. Consequently, since her death critics and fans have tended, as they have with Marilyn Monroe and JFK to harness her energy and write their own message on her life, to make her into the Janis they want or need. The appropriation is all the more ironic since in life Janis would never, ever submit to others’ views of who she was. Her journey was a tenuous, uncertain one (despite her cocksure stage presence), but it was indisputably her own.
The biggest surprise of Alice Echols’ new Joplin study, Scars of Sweet Paradise, is that she doesn’t fall prey to that classic biographer’s malady – for the most part she actually gives Janis room to move and breathe and live her own crazy life without trying to force her into a schematic of Echols’ own. Echols’ restraint is all the more impressive considering her membership in two groups, feminists and sixties historians, who have been among the most egregious offenders of the square-peg school of historical writing. Scars of Sweet Paradise could have easily fallen into the trap of presenting the womyn’s Janis or the boomer’s Janis; instead Echols does an admirable job of letting Janis speak for herself.
Much of that restraint probably comes from her lengthy and intimate conversations with Janis’ friends, family, bandmates, and associates; the book is impressively documented. The sixty pages of footnotes that close the book are testimony to the exhaustive research that preceded its writing. It’s difficult to diminish a woman from a historical figure to your personal version when you’ve spent so much time with those who knew and loved her.
Echols in especially effective toward the middle third of the book. Here she interweaves her considerable insight into the real history of the sixties (as opposed to the media-driven version of time), and into the transition from beats to beautiful people to hippies, with Janis’ move to San Francisco, the formation of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and their subsequent rise to club fame. She is a first-class historian, and of course it’s impossible to really understand any artist of any time, much less the sixties in America, without understanding the time and place that produced them. Just when you’ve fallen under the spell of Echols’ analysis of San Francisco in the mid-`60s, for example, with thirty pages barely mentioning Janis, the Texas whirlwind sweeps into town (and back into the story), tying together all sorts of threads that you thought were just being presented for their own sake. It’s a deft trick, and Echols follows it up with a compelling story of Big Brother’s early days. Structurally this is great storytelling, Echols at her best.
Unfortunately, authenticity, expertise, and structure can only take a writer so far, and for all her strength in those three key areas, as a stylist Echols is very weak, even awful at times. Perhaps due to her background as an academic historian, Echols feels the need to support each point with a documented direct quote, to identify each player, however minor. The result is that most of the book reads like an outline, with each paragraph beginning with a topic sentence, followed by supporting quotes. You can almost see the next point coming: "I. Janis’ Growing Problems with Alcohol. A. Friends’ Reactions B. Family’s Reactions C. Band’s Reactions." It’s tiresome after ten pages, grating after fifty, and nearly unbearable by the end of the book.
She also spends too much time and energy bashing the small-town Texas world that Janis grew up in, one of the only times Echols’ boomer bias gets in the way of her story. It seems that Echols has too much invested in the boomer mythology of the stultifying, soul-killing middle America of the fifties to recognize that Janis had a real love/hate relationship with her hometown, and that her feelings toward it were much more textured (and interesting, really) than Echols’ two-dimensional portrayal of the situation would indicate.
But, ultimately, these are minor quibbles with a good book about a great subject. Janis’ story is a thrilling, inspiring, and finally a heartbreaking one, and even with her flaws Echols is an excellent guide. It’s a shame that it has taken so long for Janis’ work to come back into the critical mainstream. It’s a shame, too, that her genius wasn’t recognized more universally during her lifetime, because that recognition would certainly have gone a long way toward healing some of the hurt that lay naked at the heart of so many of her performances. Echols takes her title from a line from Dylan’s "Where are You Tonight?": "If you don’t believe there’s a price/For this sweet paradise/Just remind me to show you the scars." In the end, if the biographer has done the job well, a reader should come away from a journey through Janis Joplin’s life with a new appreciation for the wounds behind those scars, and for the beauty that they produced. Echols gives the reader both in spades.