Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplinby Alice Echols
Janis Joplin was the skyrocket chick of the sixties, the woman who broke into the boys' club of rock and out of the stifling good-girl femininity of postwar America. With her incredible wall-of-sound vocals, Joplin was the voice of a generation, and when she OD'd on heroin in October 1970, a generation's dreams crashed and burned with her. Alice Echols pushes past
Janis Joplin was the skyrocket chick of the sixties, the woman who broke into the boys' club of rock and out of the stifling good-girl femininity of postwar America. With her incredible wall-of-sound vocals, Joplin was the voice of a generation, and when she OD'd on heroin in October 1970, a generation's dreams crashed and burned with her. Alice Echols pushes past the legary Joplin-the red-hot mama of her own invention-as well as the familiar portrait of the screwed-up star victimized by the era she symbolized, to examine the roots of Joplin's muscianship and explore a generation's experiment with high-risk living and the terrible price it exacted.
A deeply affecting biography of one of America's most brilliant and tormented stars, Scars of Sweet Paradise is also a vivid and incisive cultural history of an era that changed the world for us all.
“A richly detailed portrait. Echols stares unflinchingly at the fault lines of the '60s counter-culture.” Susie Linfield, Los Angeles Times
“This Life's a real Pearl.” Bob Gulla, People
“A serious biography-it does the important stuff well.” Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“In Echol's creation Joplin emerges as a true original, compelling, confounding, and rife with contradictions.” Lisa Shea, Elle
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Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 9: Trading Her Tomorrows
The effort to kick junk and cut down on drinking was fueled, more than anything else, by turns in Janis's career. She might have been feeling lonely and used, but by spring 1970 she was finally beginning to take command of her musical development. For more than a year with the Kozmic Blues Band, Janis had fumbled around trying to assert herself as the leader -- haughty one minute, self-deprecating the next. Now she had the confidence to front a band. With help from Nick Gravenites and Albert, she'd chosen the band members by early May 1970. Other than the drummer, Clark Pierson, whom Janis discovered playing with Snooky Flowers at a topless joint in San Francisco, the new guys were seasoned rockers, despite their youth. Ken Pearson, the organist, had played in Jesse Winchester's band before joining Janis; Brad Campbell, the bassist, stayed with Janis from the Kozmic Blues Band, where he'd been from almost the beginning; Richard Bell, the pianist, and John Till, the lead guitarist, had played in Ronnie Hawkins's legendary rock 'n' roll band, the Hawks, although Till had joined Janis earlier, days before Woodstock, replacing Sam Andrew. "These guys were coming in as Janis's boys," says Myra. "And they loved her to death," says Vince Mitchell, her roadie. "I can tell those cats what to do and they'll do it!" she enthused. "It's my band. Finally it's my band," she raved. In contrast to the nameless band that preceded it, this group acquired a name right away. A throwaway remark by Bobby Neuwirth, inviting his friends to a "full-tilt boogie," provided the inspiration and the Full Tilt Boogie Band was born.
Once Bobby Neuwirth convinced John Cooke that Janis was off smack and her new band red-hot, Cooke agreed to return to the fold. As he watched Janis and the guys rehearse, he was immediately struck by her willingness to take charge. There was a huge difference, he says, "between late 1968, when she was trying to put the Kozmic Blues Band together and basically expected it to be done for her by Nick Gravenites, Mike Bloomfield, and Albert, and 1970, when she took a much more active role." At this point, Cooke notes, she was an experienced professional who'd faced all sorts of audiences and cut three records, whereas the Full Tilt Boogie boys were younger and unacquainted with the world of bigtime rock 'n' roll. "Janis knew more than they did," he says.
The Full Tilt Boogie Band hit the road in late May 1970, and at last everyone was happy -- the critics, the fans, Albert, and Janis herself. When the band played Louisville, Kentucky, on June 12, it stirred a lackluster crowd into a near riot. The local newspapers couldn't praise her enough. "Howling, screeching, and penetrating the air with...brilliance and force," Janis was phenomenal, raved the Louisville Courier-Journal. Reporting for Rolling Stone, David Dalton thought her new group had "the virtues of spontaneity and freshness without being amateurish." With a solid "wall of sound" behind her, Janis's singing was "more controlled and at the same time more inventive," he wrote. "This band is solid," Janis told him. "Their sound is so heavy you could lean on it." And "it's more of a family thing again." Finally Janis had a band so tight and so committed to her she could improvise onstage without worrying she'd lose them.
With Full Tilt Boogie she began singing country again. She had already performed Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" back in December. The song had been recorded by the country singer Roger Miller, but given the lack of crossover between genres, it's a safe bet few in the rock 'n' roll audience had ever heard his version. Janis began the song unplugged, accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar, but by the song's end the whole band was in the act, in "Hey Jude" fashion. Janis hadn't sung country since her days in Austin, but now she was ready to explore her musical roots. Her version of "Me and Bobby McGee" was "just the tip of the iceberg, showing a whole untapped source of Texas, country, and blues that she had at her fingertips," says Richard Bell, her pianist. "What we were seeing was how easily she could go back to the old stuff, and with the Full Tilt Boogie she was going to pursue that area down the road." Janis would never abandon soul music, but her new band was discovering what practically no one except her old Austin friends knew -- that Janis's repertoire was vast and that she hadn't explored it since making herself over into a rock singer.
She wasn't, however, in the forefront of the country turn. Gram Parsons, the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Tracy Nelson, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage were already experimenting with country music by the time Janis joined their ranks. Like Janis, many of them had played country blues and bluegrass as folkies. Until the late 1960s, though, most rockers viewed country as a hopeless bastion of squareness. Significantly, the country move coincided with the rise of Black Power and a shift by the counterculture from the city to the countryside. Gram Parsons even tried promoting country music as "white soul" music. Although the new interest in country reflected the redrawing of America's color line, for Janis it also had a more positive meaning -- the beginning of her journey home, musically speaking, to Texas.
In July, Janis literally returned to her musical roots when she traveled to Austin to help friends celebrate Kenneth Threadgill's birthday. She arrived after a solid month of touring, the highlight of which was the Festival Express, a booze-fueled five-day train trip across Canada that the Full Tilt Boogie Band took with the Grateful Dead, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, Buddy Guy and his band, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, among others. They stopped in three cities for gigs, but some of the hottest music was made on the train. It was full-tilt boogie time, with Janis -- according to David Dalton -- "the presiding spirit of the journey," getting everyone drunk, including those notorious acidheads the Dead.
Once in Austin, Janis assumed a low profile, although she did sing a couple of songs for the crowd of eight thousand that turned out to honor Threadgill. After announcing she couldn't sing rock 'n' roll without her band, she asked for her "gitar." "Will someone tune this thing?" she said, adding she couldn't tune "worth shit." She then launched into two Kristofferson tunes, "Sunday Morning Coming Down" ("Almost as bad as Tuesday morning coming down -- or Thursday morning coming down," she joked) and "Me and Bobby McGee." After Threadgill expressed his heartfelt thanks to Janis for attending, she presented him with a gift. "I was in Hawaii and I bought him one thing that I knew he'd like," she said, smiling mischievously. As she placed a wreath of flowers around his neck, she explained: "A good lei."
That month, Janis's musical fortunes took another positive turn when Paul Rothchild reentered her life. It was Rothchild who had tried to lure her to Los Angeles to join a band with Taj Mahal and Stefan Grossman in 1966. Four years later, Rothchild was a big-time producer best known for his work with the Doors. Cooke, who'd kept up with Rothchild for eight years, was keenly aware of Janis's need for a smart, simpatico producer, someone who would both understand her singing and teach her something about how to use and preserve her voice. Rothchild had last seen Janis with the Kozmic Blues Band, when her voice sounded wrecked and she looked wasted from junk. So when Cooke approached him about working on her next album, Rothchild declined. He agreed to catch her San Diego show only when Cooke told him she was doing great, had quit using heroin, and had even cut back on her drinking. Rothchild was "enraptured," and for the first time, Janis, who always agonized about being an imposter, had the chance to work with someone who appreciated her talent.
And not just her talent. After a day spent drinking piña coladas at Janis's home and running around with her to restaurants and bars in Sausalito, Rothchild reported to Cooke, "I learned something very important yesterday. Janis Joplin is a very smart woman." At some point during the day, Rothchild had asked her where she wanted to be in twenty or so years' time. "I want to be the greatest blues singer in the world," Janis replied. She could be, he assured her, if she didn't blow out her voice. "Paul could learn how to talk to anybody," says Cooke. "If he could find the key to a musician's language, he could describe what wasn't happening that needed to happen.... It's how he could get what he needed in the studio from musicians. Janis had three albums' worth of studio time but had never had a producer who taught her the difference between singing in the studio and singing in a performance."
Janis was ecstatic about the Full Tilt Boogie Band, but despite talking of living for the moment in "superhypermost" mode, she was hardly nonchalant about the future. After the more modest success of her Kozmic Blues album -- it rose to number five on the charts but didn't yield any hit singles -- she was even more anxious about being displaced as rock's leading lady. Bette Midler had just begun performing at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse on the Upper West Side, and Janis saw her there several times that summer. She loved Midler's raunchy, campy act but told friends, "That's my next competition." When Janis failed to sell out a few shows, she fretted her star might be fading. "I can't sleep!" she confessed to Myra after a gig in Miami early that summer. "I go to bed worrying and I wake up worrying every morning, worrying that they'll have found out I really can't sing."
In addition, Albert was adopting an increasingly hands-off approach with his clients -- leaving most of the day-to-day work to his new partner, Bennett Glotzer -- which did nothing to allay Janis's fears. With too many clients in a battle with heroin and his once-close relationship to Dylan gone sour, Albert was growing weary of the business. He spent more and more time away from his Manhattan office, supervising the construction of his recording studio in Bearsville, New York, and tending to his garden in Woodstock. "Albert always said he wanted to be the architect, not the janitor," explains Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. In any case, Myra says Janis understood Albert's flagging interest in the business as desertion, brought on by her own unworthiness. When she was in Brazil she'd cabled him, "I know I'm not the Band or Dylan, but care about me too." Sally Grossman paints a different picture, however, saying Albert continued to answer Janis's phone calls when she'd ring him up at three or four in the morning, distraught about her life. He even flew out to see her and hear the new band several times that spring and summer. And Lyndall Erb remembers the time Albert turned up in San Francisco with a present for Janis -- a malamute puppy from his own dog's litter. Albert may have grown tired of managing musicians, but by all accounts he adored Janis. Indeed, Yarrow believes Albert saw something of himself in her. "As powerful as he was, Albert never viewed himself as the massively charismatic person he was." He identified, Yarrow suspects, with Janis's fragility and low self-regard.
Even so, Janis confided her worries about Albert and her career to Myra, who suggested she begin thinking about quitting the business. "This is killing you," she said. Myra's advice must have sounded ominous to Janis, who began crying uncontrollably, much as she had years earlier with Dave McQueen on that road outside of Port Arthur. "I don't have anything else," she kept saying between "horrible, wrenching sobs." There were no counseling programs then for a woman addicted to drugs and alcohol, and Myra surely offered the only advice that came to mind, telling Janis to walk away from her profession. As an unattached twenty-seven-year-old female with a career, Janis was something of an anomaly in 1970. Myra may have inadvertently exacerbated Janis's insecurity by continuing to suggest that she quit the music business whenever she voiced unhappiness with the road or a gig. On one occasion, Janis sat backstage in a crummy theater in Port Chester, New York, waiting to go onstage, and complained that she couldn't take it anymore. Myra was emphatic. "Then quit, Janis," she snapped. But Janis made it clear she wanted better bookings and more attentive management. "I wanna know why I'm playing this dump," she said, and "why I'm doing two shows." In fact, Janis had reason to complain that summer, as she was sometimes booked into lousy venues or overbooked in an area. She was certainly still popular: when she appeared in Cambridge at Harvard Stadium she drew forty thousand fans, suggesting that poor planning in Albert's office and inadequate advertising by concert promoters may have caused these problems.
Despite all her worries, there could be no question of quitting. Janis continued to talk about finding one good man and getting married, as she had always done, but sometime that summer a new note of understanding and self-knowledge crept into her statements. She began to talk of herself as a musician first and foremost and to acknowledge more realistically than she had in the past the sacrifices involved. "Women, to be in the music business, give up more than you'd ever know... You give up an old man and friends, you give up every constant in the world except music.... So for a woman to sing, she really needs to or wants to," she told a fellow singer, Bonnie Bramlett, during the Festival Express. Janis was weary of the road and all the "people tryin' to get something out of you, tryin' to talk to you. Try to sleep, you can't sleep, nothin' on the tube. At two the bars are closed. It's just uuuuuugghh!" But she couldn't walk away from it, she told Bramlett. From the very first time she'd sung with Big Brother, she "never wanted to do anything else. It was better than it had been with any man." Then she added, "Maybe that's the trouble."
Her commitment set Janis even further apart, not only from the conventional society in which she was raised but from her own counterculture milieu as well: turning her back on marriage and family was about the most radical step a woman could take. Janis had made her choice in 1966 when she threw her lot in with Big Brother; then, however, her decision was driven more by the conviction that she'd never fit in anywhere than by faith in her singing. Now, four years later, Janis was taking herself seriously as a musician. But her choice was never unambivalent; she never made a clean break with the expectations of the straight world. Thus there was always a self-punishing quality to her life as a singer. Janis told herself that real musicians lived recklessly and carelessly and that being a singer gave her license to do the same. In truth, though, Janis's hard living hurt her musicianship: her voice took a beating from the booze and the cigarettes, and when she got really drunk her voice wasn't just raspy, it would break as she tried to hold a note. That summer her concert raps were often sodden and incoherent. On Joplin in Concert, Elliot Mazer, its producer, captured just such a moment from a show in Calgary that July. Too drunk to sing "Ball and Chain," Janis talks her way through much of the song, borrowing from raps she'd developed for "Try" and "Get It While You Can," as though the songs have all merged in her brain -- one big alcoholic blur. Sounding weary and bitter, she tells the crowd to live in the moment because "tomorrow never comes, man, it's all the same fucking day."
Despite her attempts to straighten out her life, she continued to live on the edge. When Nick Gravenites saw Janis in September he was alarmed and laid into her. "This life is bullshit. Your real life is with people, relationships, cookin' breakfast, takin' out the garbage, dumb things, dumb shit." He made no headway, though. "Aw, man," Janis said, "I don't want to live that way. I want to burn. I want to smolder. I don't want to go through all that crap." At the point that Gravenites ran into Janis, her will to bum, indeed to self-destruct, might well have been magnified by her disastrous trip home to Port Arthur only a month before.
Excerpted by permission of Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt. Copyright © 1999 Alice Echols
Meet the Author
Alice Echols, author of Daring to Be Bad ("fascinating"--The Nation), is a leading historian of the sixties. She has taught at UCLA and USC and has written for The Nation, The Village Voice, and the L.A. Weekly. She lives in Los Angeles.
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This book is so insightful. The details make you feel as if you are right there with Janis on and off the stage. Alice Echols makes you feel her life.