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Behind a mighty voice, her soft, quiet side

Special to The Times

Thirty-five years after her death from a heroin overdose at 27, Janis Joplin is known as much as a wild casualty of the ‘60s as a music legend. In a newly reissued paperback edition of “Love, Janis,” her younger sister Laura Joplin fondly reveals a multidimensional person. Though Janis Joplin’s brief life was filled with excess and rebellion, her sister shows an introspective, subdued, and even bookish side to her as well.

Raised in Port Arthur, Texas, Janis was the oldest of three children in a household that emphasized religion, music and formality -- her parents were always called “Mother” and “Father,” not Mom and Dad. Janis was a precocious, charming and sensitive child. “People might have found her features plain if a buoyant spirit and zest for life hadn’t overshadowed her looks,” Joplin writes.

On special occasions, their mother fixed Janis’ hair “in ringlets pulled and draped to the side” and she wore “pretty organdy dresses with ruffles, skirts and blouses trimmed in ribbon and lace, and cute sailor outfits for play clothes,” all hand-sewn by their mother, Joplin recalls.

Yet there were early signs of the exuberant, untamed persona so familiar to her music fans. As a child, Janis was creative and independent, willfully defying her parents’ authority when she pleased. A leader among neighborhood children, she vied for power among the boys. In creative pursuits, such as drawing, acting, writing and singing, she excelled. But by junior high, she behaved too assertively for some teachers, questioning what she was taught and refusing to follow directions. “She wore her skirts right above the knee when most of the others placed their hems right below it,” Joplin writes.

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At 19, Janis escaped Texas, hitchhiking to Northern California, where she began performing folk and blues songs at small venues around San Francisco, eventually hitting the road to perform in clubs in New York and Austin, too. While “focused on developing her artistic expression,” Joplin writes, her sister experimented with male and female lovers. She consumed alcohol and drugs with abandon, was determined to live entirely in the present, and reveled in a nonconformist hippie lifestyle.

Despite her excesses, her powerful voice -- which could growl, roar and purr, all in the same song -- prevailed. Her inimitable voice is preserved on just a few albums. Those recordings, along with her stunning performances at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and at Woodstock in 1969, secured her status as a music icon.

Even though Janis’ quick rise to fame and tragic fate has been well documented, Laura Joplin refreshes the story with an intimate, familial perspective. Janis loved to read (F. Scott Fitzgerald was a favorite), she considered becoming a sociologist if her music career didn’t work out, and she found solace in her home and in the many dogs she adopted.

The singer’s experiences of those heady times are preserved in postcards and lengthy letters back home that brim with giddiness at her musical success. Excerpts from these writings to her mother and siblings give this biography its most compelling and tender moments. “Your first born is really doing great in the music business,” Janis writes to her mother. “Did I tell you about all my reviews? Can I tell you again? This is all so exciting to me.” After receiving birthday presents by mail from her family, she responds gratefully. “I loved the nightgown, but I dyed it purple & aged it 10 yrs.” She ends her letters with a simple sign-off -- “Love, Janis” -- and a promise to deliver more news soon.

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In one, she also expresses disbelief that she has lived to be 25. Two years later, she was gone.

Not surprisingly, the author emerges as someone who (along with brother Michael) has lived in her sister’s shadow. Joplin doesn’t come across as bitter or jealous -- but she must have recognized early on the futility of competing with her larger-than-life sister.

Throughout, Joplin’s prose is earnest, dutiful and sometimes incoherent. After Janis’ death, she writes, “My own grief settled into my life like a cat settling into a sun-warmed spot on a rug, except its claws were always extended to cause piercing pain if I ever loosened my stiff control of my life.”

Yet “Love, Janis” is a valuable biography, a reminder that the singer’s death was a tremendous loss to the music world. Anyone who has forgotten that, or who simply doesn’t know, should listen to “Piece of My Heart” or perhaps “Me and Bobby McGee” and feel seduced by Janis Joplin again or -- even sweeter -- for the first time.

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Carmela Ciuraru, editor of six anthologies of poetry, including “Motherhood: Poems About Mothers,” is a regular contributor to Book Review.


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