There’s a quote in Holly George-Warren’s new biography of Janis Joplin that captures some of what inspired the author to write about her childhood idol.
It described the iconic singer as a “tough-talking, pushy, hard-nosed brawler” who was also a “sad, delicate person, intimate and feather voiced, neither feminine nor sexy, just vulnerable.”
Joplin’s stage persona may have seemed fearless but the pain conveyed when she sang the blues betrayed the inner turmoil that brought her to that stage.
“She could be so out there, so rambunctious and outspoken, but at the same time she had a kind of shyness, from being beaten down so much, from being ridiculed and being snubbed in school,” said George-Warren, who also wrote the biographies A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton and Public Cowboy #1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, plus more than a dozen other books about music and Americana.
George-Warren’s latest biography, Janis: Her Life and Music, offers a sensitively detailed portrait of the singer’s life and short incandescent career, intimately acquainting readers with the shy girl who created a tough-talking public image to protect herself.
“Janis knew how to come up with a great soundbite,” said George-Warren. “Artists, rock stars, stars, they all have a degree of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. They are creating persona.”
George-Warren, whose own fascinating career includes performing in a punk rock polka band, serving as an editor for Rolling Stone, winning a Grammy for co-producing Rhino’s five-CD box set, R-E-S-P-E-C-T: A Century of Women in Music, and serving as director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Oral History Program, identified with Joplin at a young age.
Growing up in a small North Carolina town, she found herself drawn by music early on. Joplin’s record “Pearl” was the first she ever bought.
“I got it from the Columbia Record Club; you paid a penny and got 12 albums.”
George-Warren, a longtime Hudson Valley resident, enjoyed reading other Joplin biographies but felt compelled to provide a broader perspective.
“It’s granted that she was an amazing singer, really talented, but none of them really told us how she found her voice. I was really interested in her musical path.That part of her story hadn’t really been told, so there was room for another book.”
As a biographer, George-Warren had new sources to work with, including access to materials from the Joplin estate that had not previously been available to other biographers.
“A lot of people don’t know the whole spectrum of her music, they just associate her with the screaming, kind of Big Brother and the Holding Company sound. They don’t know her nuanced singing, don’t know about her blues singing, the kind of jazzy sound she could do. She had such versatility that people don’t realize it until they do a deep dive into listening, I think if she had lived, she would have continued to diversify her sound, explored a lot of different genres.”
Joplin’s role in producing her music was also not well known. George-Warren’s interest in that aspect of Joplin’s career was piqued when she heard recording studio tapes, that included conversations between Joplin and legendary producer Paul Rothschild.
“That was the first glimmer I had of how she was a tech head. When she was in the studio she was very engaged in the process; she had all these ideas about guitar parts in the song, tempos, arrangements. She was really calling the shots. I picked that up listening to these never-before-heard recordings that they bought out of the vaults at Sony Music when I got asked to write liner notes for a two-CD set.”
The richly detailed biography offers new insight into a very complicated, talented woman.
“There’s been some horrible stuff written about Janis. She’s been so exploited, so misunderstood, and because she was this outlaw cowboy, a lot of people, men in particular, just savagely ripped her to shreds.”
Learning more about Joplin’s early years helped George Warren feel even more connected to her subject. Having grown up in a small town as a self-described “weirdo,” George-Warren knew what it was like to be an outsider. She could relate to the ways being different had shaped Joplin’s life, with how the music Joplin heard as a teen shaped her destiny.
“To be able to look at someone and really explore their life when they definitely had a huge effect on me as an adolescent, to explore the period of time that talked to Janis, when she was 14, that difficult time when she was trying to find her path, and to be able to have the incredible resources and the ability to explore and learn about her life as a musician was so exciting. I loved it.”
George-Warren, who teaches writing for digital media (scriptwriting) at SUNY New Paltz, is planning a book tour to follow the biography’s October release, which will include a few Hudson Valley talks. At 4 p.m. November 3 she will speak at the Golden Notebook at Kleinert James Art Center in Woodstock. At 6 p.m. November 12 she will speak at the Honors Center, SUNY, New Paltz, on November 13 she will speak at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, and at 4 p.m. November 16 she will be at the Emerson Resort in Mount Tremper.
Having written about topics as diverse as cowboy wear, punk and Woodstock, George-Warren never has to search for a subject to write about. She’s not sure what’s next but her topics tend to find her.
“Being a writer you go down a path and you go down the rabbit hole and it ends up opening up this whole new world of writing possibilities, which is what I love about writing.”