In 1972, the famous Lester Bangs wrote about Janis Joplin, who had died two years before from a heroin overdose. Bangs took the opportunity to rail against the media and the culture of celebrity in Rolling Stone: “As soon as another Name’s dead, the slick magazines and tabloids alike … indulge in all sorts of disgusting bathetic paeans to the deceased … The composers of the Memorials make sure that we will keep on worshiping exactly that lie which contributed so heavily … to the desperate, self-consumption which killed the Name. They almost never write … about the real, different, scared individual behind the flash and its bluff.”
John Byrne Cooke, who managed Janis Joplin during most of her brief career, may well have read that piece—he actively followed Rolling Stone’s writing on Joplin when he was working with her. Many years later, we get On the Road with Janis Joplin, which attempts to get at some of the meat “behind the flash.”
Joplin found fame because of her voice—at times approximating a growling tiger—but she quickly became a potent, extra-musical symbol. Ellen Willis, one of the first great rock critics, described the Joplin effect: “Among American rock performers she was second only to Bob Dylan in importance as a creator/recorder/embodiment of her generation’s history and mythology. She was also the only woman to achieve that kind of stature in what was basically a male club, the only sixties culture hero to make visible and public women’s experience of the quest for individual liberation.”
Cooke picks up with Joplin in 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival—a good jumping-off point for the Joplin story. Her group, Big Brother and the Holding Company, played twice at the festival, the only band in the whole line-up to do so. “What if Big Brother hadn’t played at Monterey?” our narrator wonders. “They might not have signed a management contract with Albert Grossman [who worked with Dylan, among others] later that year, maybe never … In the immediate aftermath of the festival, it is Janis who gets the most notice, the biggest boost.”
In ‘60s rock memoirs, everyone exists at most three degrees of separation away from everyone else, allowing people like Cooke (also a bluegrass musician) to move between worlds with ease. He ends up as Big Brother’s manager, reporting to Grossman and handling all manner of logistical tasks.
Joplin helped Big Brother get famous; as soon as that happened, she rapidly eclipsed the rest of the band in the media’s eyes. Early in the book: “Big Brother is a democratic band. Everyone is equal.” Soon after: “It [rattled] the band’s confidence when an L.A. rock critic … put his opinion of the band in the headline of his review: ‘Janis Joplin Too Full of Soul for Holding Company Partners.’”
This problem only grew, as Grossman thought the band lacked chops and tried to suggest lineup changes. Cooke describes it diplomatically: “There is nothing phony or insincere about Big Brother, but the emotional authenticity, the enthusiasm that drives the music, sometimes outstrips the technical abilities of the band.”
Joplin eventually peeled off from Big Brother, though not before they released Cheap Thrills, usually regarded as the singer’s finest work—despite, or perhaps because of, her band’s limitations. Joplin then recorded two more full-lengths: I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! and Pearl.
She died at age 27 in a Los Angeles hotel. Cooke tells readers that “drinking on stage [was] part of an image that Janis [liked] to cultivate,” and she used heroin intermittently as well. The book doesn’t explore why Joplin used drugs; it’s taken for granted that, in the late ‘60s rock star world, partying hard was the norm.
On the Road with Janis Joplin only skims the surface when it comes to Joplin’s sexual politics. It’s not that sex doesn’t come up—it does, frequently. But Cooke sticks to descriptions like, “Backstage at a gig, [she’d] show up in the band’s dressing room all atwitter and report on her sightings just as a guy would report to his partners in lechery.” Willis famously captured more on the ramifications of Joplin’s sexually-liberated persona in her short essay than this entire book.
It’s challenging not to speculate on alternate futures for Joplin. Why didn’t she record in a southern soul studio? She participated in a Stax revue once (and the show apparently went poorly), but she sounded like a natural fit for a Joplin In Memphis album. A Texas native, she also had a knack for country. She counted Kris Kristofferson as a friend and sometimes-lover, and her recording of his classic “Me And Bobby McGee” became a posthumous No. 1 hit. A Joplin country record seems like a natural development, and it’s too bad she didn’t get a chance to record one.
But if the might-have-beens are fascinating, the have-beens are just as intriguing. Bangs’ essay on Joplin, more than 40 years old, remains prescient in some ways. “When she died,” he wrote, “it suddenly became obvious not only that we had collaborated greedily with the media in the cannibalization of the living star, but that that happened quite naturally, and would happen again, because that is the way the business works.” He was right. On the Road with Janis Joplin begins to explore why people cannibalized this singer, but there’s more work to be done.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Billboard and Salon. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and he can be found at signothetimesblog.