Holly George-Warren Chronicles a Saga of Defiance
The counterculture revolution is an event which, while mostly being relegated to classrooms nowadays, actually had an impact on the world which couldn’t be overstated. It was as if completely new, original and better ways of life were being discovered, and though it certainly had its fair share of opposition, the youth eventually triumphed and paved the way onward. Many of the great icons of this revolution happened to be musicians whose songs were more often than not portrayed as the voices of this great rebellion. In her book titled Janis, Holly George-Warren explores such an icon: Janis Joplin, the Queen of Rock & Roll.
History seldom remembers people as they truly were, instead taking their most important characteristics and inflating them to grandiose proportions until we believe this was all there was to them. In Joplin’s case, she is collectively remembered as this brash and defiant legend, doomed by her own pain and suffering for a better world. However, George-Warren has taken it upon herself to try and show the world the hidden sides of Joplin, and depicting her not as a larger-than-life incarnation of the counterculture, but as a human being caught up in life, just like the rest of us.
She takes us back to the beginning and traces Joplin’s formative years, her shaky life in a small conservative Texan oil town as a tomboy who was both intellectually capable and artistically-inclined. We learn about how she used to draw the ire of her peers for her racially and socially-progressive views, as well as for her love of the blues. We see it through the eyes of her parents, ever-adoring of her but still put off by her incessant defiance. We learn about the sensitive soul which lay inside Joplin, how she pushed boundaries few even dared think about, and how her endless passion for music guided her life until her tragic demise.
The Young Lady of Infinite Talent
I’ll be the first to admit I don’t exactly have a whole wealth of knowledge on Joplin, probably the same as most people. I vaguely know her meaning to the counterculture movement, a few of her popular songs, and about her ultimate fate. On the surface, it felt like I knew enough about her to have a good picture of who she was as a person… however, as this book showed me, there was a lot more to Joplin than even she herself possibly knew.
From the first snippets we get of her life as a girl in the small Texan town it’s difficult not to form a connection with her. While in her own times she was an outcast, from today’s perspective she seems like the sole reasonable person in a sea of dimwits. Even though we all know how the story ends, I still couldn’t help but sort of root of her, always hoping to see her surpass her peers and essentially the persecution they inflict on her.
I think the author did a commendable job at exploring the sort of environment Joplin grew up in, from its geography to the people within and the ideas they shared. The more we learn about how much this immensely talented young lady didn’t fit in with her own home, the more surprising it becomes she managed to achieve what she did… and thus, the more respect it deserves. With this being said, her life wasn’t all misery and suffering, and George-Warren makes sure to point this out, delving into her loving family and few good friends she did meet along the way. Ultimately, I got the sense Joplin was a woman born far ahead of her time, with too much talent to control or reign in considering her environment. There is definitely a bittersweet character to her story, the contrast between the incredible person she was and how much more she could have achieved with better circumstances.
Janis the Revolutionary
Admittedly, I haven’t really read much literature surround Joplin, but George-Warren’s writing struck me as particularly empathetic and understanding, at least when compared to other types of biographies I have read over the years. Rather than simply stating facts or giving superficial observations, the author pays a lot of attention to chronicling Joplin’s emotions, thoughts, ideas, hopes, dreams, unrealized ambitions, and pretty much everything else which comes with being an icon of the counterculture revolution. While her death certainly has its notable characteristics, the author understands her life is what really set her apart, and it’s what needs to be focused on.
Writing biographies about people who are no longer with us is always a very tricky business. All we have to go on, besides official records and videos if there are any, are word-of-mouth stories, often coming from people far removed from the person whose biography we are talking about. As such, these types of books often leave many blanks for the readers to fill in, and I find it quite acceptable. I feel the author deserves a very large commendation for going above and beyond most people in her research, leaving as few blank spots as humanly possible.
George-Warren’s decades of experience in studying the history of Rock & Roll are certainly paying off, having allowed her to get her hands on some of the most complete information on Joplin’s life so far. She had access to her family, friends, band-mates, as well as archives and interviews which hadn’t seen the light of day for decades. If you are interested in learning facts about Janis Joplin and the life she led, I could not think of a better source than this book, a conglomerate of pretty much all we know about the legend.
The Final Verdict
Janis by Holly George-Warren is, in my opinion, one of the best biographies I have read in recent memory. Even for someone such as myself who had only a passing interest in Joplin, it proved to a truly interesting excursion into an extremely unique and tragically-short life, one which ended up shaping the future for decades to come. If you are interesting in learning all there is to about Joplin, or are simply curious about the counterculture revolution and its leaders, then I highly recommend you give this book a shot.
Holly George-Warren is an award-winning writer, as well as an editor, producer and music consultant whose contributions have been laid across over two dozen books about rock and roll. In addition to having written for the New York Times, she also published some highly-acclaimed books including The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock & Roll, A Man Called Destruction and Public Cowboy No. 1.