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Janis - Her Life and Music by Holly George-Warren

Janis Joplin died of an accidental heroin overdose in the closing months of 1970 after releasing just three of her four albums. Many rock legends from that era with a short career and relatively small body of work have faded into obscurity. Yet Janice Joplin is still making waves almost 50 years later.

And this recently released biography by respected music journalist Holly George-Warren is already longlisted for the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence. The legend goes on, with Janice Joplin remaining at the forefront of rock music fame. Not bad for a Texan tomboy nobody expected to amount to much.

In 1970, when Janice Joplin’s fourth album Pearl was released, I was just sixteen years old and already a major fan. I began by borrowing Big Brother and the Holding Company LPs from the library, playing these over and over on my tiny portable record player.

To my generation Janice Joplin was an icon – a free, wild, self-determining woman who refused to be defined by background or gender. To say we were inspired by her would be a massive understatement.

Her death offered a cautionary message about the dangers of drug abuse. But it did not taint the messenger in the minds of many young women of my generation. Especially those of us who sought permission to slip the constraints of a provincial upbringing – just as Janice had.

It’s a strange thing when you read a book knowing the grisly ending. You could view the entire story as a slow train wreck if you wanted, yet I remained thoroughly engrossed by the extraordinary behind the scenes and fly-on-the-wall perspectives offered by those who knew her.

Full kudos to George-Warren for the depth of research and collaboration from former colleagues and co-conspirators of the rock legend. All spoke with candour about some of the less than wholesome levels of drug abuse and promiscuity.

Janice Joplin was openly bi-sexual at a time when it was not only socially inappropriate, but also illegal. She flipped easily between lovers of both sexes, yet she still craved the wedding and white picket fence of a conventional upbringing.

In retrospect, it looks almost certain that Janice Joplin was dogged by her sexuality as much as she was by what would appear to have been a profound depressive spirit inherited from her father. She was always searching for approval and lacked self-esteem.

But boy could she belt out a tune - and it is this unparalleled skill which helps retain her rock legend status half a century after she passed on.

I loved this book. I hope you will too.

Reviewer: Peta Stavelli

Simon and Schuster, $46.95