Her whole career only lasted four years, which is the same amount of time Holly George-Warren spent researching this excellent biography. She has interviewed hundreds of people who knew Janis, including many from Port Arthur, Texas, where she grew up. Janis always maintained that she was a misfit there because ‘I read. I painted. I didn’t hate Negroes.’ She read Jack Kerouac and called herself a Beatnik and practised her distinctive cackle till it was ‘annoying enough’. She also collected old Blues records — Odetta, Lead Belly and, above all, Bessie Smith. One day when she was hanging out with some boys at the beach, one of them said he wished they had a record player and she said: ‘I can sing!’ They all laughed, but she sang them an Odetta song and they were duly knocked out. Everyone was always knocked out by her voice.
Janis is a serious-minded and professional work, commendably unsensational and even-handed, although it lacks the passionate engagement and deeper cultural context that Joplin’s status deserves... Janis joins a growing canon of Joplin biographies, mostly written by women, and most keen to salvage the singer’s reputation from the sexism that elevates outlaw male musicians to hero status while undervaluing their female counterparts. As a rounded portrait of an explosively exciting artist, George-Warren’s book is never less than engaging. But as a feminist reclaiming of pop history, it is frustratingly tame.