WRITING ABOUT MUSIC is like dancing about architecture, Lori Anderson said, at once over- and understating the case. The deep and physical reaction we have to music can’t be stimulated or duplicated by any other medium. The ecstatic sympathy brought on by, say, one of John Coltrane’s ascensions or the roar of Nirvana live can’t be codified or explained away, though thousands of critics and academics will try.
Likewise, a person’s life remains a mystery, no matter how much information researchers and biographers dig up about their subjects. The temptation to psychoanalyze and ascribe cause-and-effect to someone’s behavior years after the fact is too great. Drama–and by its nature biography is narrative and dramatic–demands a patient and thorough laying out of both how and why things happened the way they did, a strategy of artifice that is suspect even in the best fiction.
Combine these two problems with a subject who became an instant icon in life and then suddenly died young, becoming an even larger icon in death, and you’ll understand the difficulties Alice Echols faces in her biography of Janis Joplin, the unfortunately titled Scars of Sweet Paradise. Add to that the fact that we’ve already seen a half dozen biographies of Janis, some by people close to her, and the challenge seems almost insurmountable.
But Echols isn’t going to give us just Janis. The book’s subtitle promises her “Life and Times,” meaning that we’ll be reading the ’60s through Janis, using her singular life as a lens to view both the counterculture and the culture at large. It’s tantalizing, but a risky venture: imagine a biography of, say, Lou Reed commenting on the same America of that time. And isn’t that critique of the era implicit in her story anyway?
Apparently not. Echols describes herself on the book jacket as a historian, cultural critic and academic, and her only other book is Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75, so Janis provides her with fertile territory to work out her theories, a chance to revise or at least update our view of not only Janis but the culture that shaped her and our idea of her. In that sense, the book has a dated feel–the American academic popular culture studies of the late ’80s using the provocative media icon (whether it’s Madonna or Marilyn Monroe) as a proving ground.
We know Janis’s story already, the exterior facts of the case. Her happy childhood in redneck Port Arthur, Texas, and then her nearly immediate disillusion and disaffection as a teenager who sees herself as different, an ugly duckling. She falls in with fellow beatnik-wannabes around town (all of them guys with Jack Kerouac affectations) and then when she goes to a local college. She takes up folksinging and drinks hard on jaunts to bluesy roadhouses over the Louisiana line, trying to be one of the boys.
Echols does a solid job in these early sections. While all of it is familiar, an echo of the other books, and though she paraphrases generously from Laura Joplin’s memoir Love, Janis, the author also quotes from new interviews she’s done with Janis’s hometown and college friends and weaves in literary sources like Mary Karr, bringing the stultifying smalltown vibe of the ’50s alive–the straightjacketed sexism and racism that Janis seems to butt up against at every turn. All of this is admirably endnoted and indexed, though, seeing how many of the earlier books Echols uses to patch together her quilt, a bibliography would have been appreciated.
Even better is the author’s evocation of post-Beat, pre-Haight San Francisco, the whirl of drugs and booze and music that Janis indulges in after finally shedding her middle class past. Free, she remakes herself in every way, most strikingly through her music and sexuality, both, it seems, fueled by her need for love and attention–for reassurance that she is worthy of being loved.
Here is where biography turns to pathology, a notion Echols warns against in her introduction, promising she won’t pathologize Janis, as other biographers have done, or focus on the seamier, more sensational aspects of her not-so-private life, but too often the book lapses into a litany of sexual adventures and drug sprees and drinking binges with only the pathology to fall back on (“her relentless self-dramatizing,” “No highs could compete with her lows, with her conviction that she was worthless.”). The repetition of proofs of her neediness becomes as numbing and redundant as Janis’s addictions.
Once Janis becomes a star–a process that takes just months–her insecurities seem to escalate, and her outrageousness. Echols tries to unravel the two strands, the simultaneous feelings of grandiosity and inferiority. As the first aggressively sexual yet not stereotypically beautiful white psychedelic blues-rock-R&B mama, Janis in her person and persona appears to smash (or subsume) all categories, and Echols celebrates this (including her insatiable bisexuality), and yet, for all of her groundbreaking, the later sections find Janis, less than a year later, as a pathetic stock character, the solipsistic rock star with a huge heroin habit, virtually friendless and surrounded by a parasitic entourage.
Knowing that she dies alone, spiked out in a hotel room, the reader sees her choices as foolish, as does Echols. A friend comments: “You know, Janis did it the way she chose. As she said, she preferred doing it full tilt for a little while to lasting a long time. It would have gotten ugly for her had it continued.”
Echols herself follows with: “Getting Janis clean–of drugs, booze, and self-inflicted pain–could only have been achieved by dislodging her feeling of being deeply unloved and unlovable. Methadone and a month’s worth of counseling wouldn’t have done it–only great discipline, support, and self-reflection would have. The world she moved in encouraged her addictions, with its commitment to living on the edge and beyond limits–its dedication to recklessness as a matter of priniciple. And Janis Joplin was that principle writ large.”
For its revisionist aims, Scars of Sweet Paradise delivers little that’s new. Its interpretations of the counterculture and the rock scene and the racial, sexual and political issues surrounding them never go beyond the obvious, laying out the contradictions (Janis becoming a millionaire from singing someone else’s blues, her ballsiness used to cover her fears) but–as the conclusions above indicate–rarely untangling them or uncovering new connections.
Musically, too often Echols brings up well-known subjects as examples of the cultural climate–like Dylan going electric–but then adds nothing to them. Her brief look at the jump from “pure” folk to “commercial” rock in the counterculture ignores the earlier, similar shift in the blues from the original Delta shouts and hollers to urban guitar boogie. Throughout the book, the reader runs into bland and obvious glosses that could have been lifted straight from the liner notes of old LPs: “Ironically, the British invasion conquered America with America’s very own music–early rock ‘n’ roll, hard-driving R&B, and the blues–black music that had been unwelcome on American Top 40 radio.”
More importantly, she misses opportunities to dig into contemporary and modern artists who shared aspects of Janis’s life and position as a performer. Grace Slick is mentioned but rarely compared to her on any but the most superficial level, though Slick preceded Janis as the brash, sexual and turned-on female star of the San Francisco scene. And the two male singers whose stage personas come closest to Janis’s passion, abandon and love of confrontation–Joe Cocker and Iggy Pop–never show up at all. In terms of later artists, instead of comparing Janis to Kurt Cobain, whose brilliance and vulnerability mirror Janis’s public and private suffering, Echols brings in minor talents like Melissa Etheridge, hoping, perhaps, to portray Janis’s story as either an inspiration or a cautionary tale for female rockers.
Ultimately, Janis Joplin’s life and impact on American culture center around her music–the albums she recorded and the concerts she performed. Echols traces Janis’s roots back to gospel, up through blues singers like Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton and then soul shouters like Etta James and Otis Redding, and does a good job of recounting in detail the formation, growth and eventual break-up of Big Brother and the Holding Company. With the advent of her second group, the Kozmic Blues Band, Janis moved toward a slicker, tighter Stax/Volt sound, a strange sideways jump from ragged psychedelic jams to punchy R&B. When they failed to gel, she gathered a third collection of musicians, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, who accompany her on the posthumously released Pearl–maybe the best of the four studio albums. But by that point in the book, Echols is too busy following Janis’s fast-unravelling life–again, that pathology of excess–and dedicates far too few pages to the music.
In the end, even the meaning of Janis Joplin that Echols delivers is already there and apparent in her musical persona–the tough, funny chick with a marshmallow heart who means to wring every last drop out of life, whatever the cost. We don’t need yet another biography to understand that Janis; for the same price the reader can buy a CD of her greatest hits, turn it up high and really feel her.