(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 28)

Scars of Sweet Paradise, the title of Alice Echols’s biography of Janis Joplin, comes from the Bob Dylan song “Where Are You Tonight?” (1978): “If you don’t believe there’s a price/ For this sweet paradise/ Just remind me to show you the scars.”

Bad girl rock superstar Janis Joplin was never more in character than on The Dick Cavett Show in June, 1970, four months before her death, chortling about the stir she would cause at her upcoming ten-year high school reunion. “They laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state, so I’m going home,” she cackled. Daring and resilient, she put on a brave face to win over audiences with tomboy charm and charisma. Few knew how thin was her veneer of bravado, how fragile her ego. To “Sixtophiles,” those baby boomers to whom the decade was a golden Age of Aquarius, the mythic Janis was an avatar helping an uptight society shed its inhibitions. In human affairs, Echols reminds her readers, nothing is as simple as it seems. Joplin overcame stifling family pressures and suffocating adolescent humiliations but could not escape the relentless grip of alcohol and drug addiction.

In 1973, Myra Friedman’s Buried Alive portrayed Joplin as victim of a narcissistic society without moral boundaries. That same year, Peggy Caserta’s Going Down with Janis presented her as a lusty hedonist who preferred defying death to compromising her full-tilt lifestyle; typical of that book’s tell-all flavor was an anecdote describing Janis and Peggy shooting up inside a portable toilet at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, in the midst of excrement “piled up so high you couldn’t sit down.” Literary bottom-feeding (Echols’s phrase) continued with David Dalton’s Piece of My Heart: A Portrait of Janis Joplin (1991) and Ellis Amburn’s Pearl: The Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin (1992). Biographers blamed Joplin’s unseemly demise on such disparate sources as her oppressive upbringing in a sterile setting, the excesses of her pleasure- seeking generation, uncaring friends and business acquaintances, and her own self-destructive tendencies.

Echols avoids excessive finger-pointing, although she offers caustic comments about the sexist orthodoxies of postwar America, in particular the music business. A sophisticated historian of American popular culture, she demonstrates her understanding of the complexity of personality development and the subtlety of Joplin’s environmental influences. Joplin’s weak-willed father Seth, in all likelihood a closet alcoholic, compared life to “The Great Saturday Night Swindle,” where things never live up to expectations. Pretty and precocious until she started high school, Janis suddenly found herself stereotyped as an acne- scarred, frizzy-haired loser. Alienated from her hometown, which she considered “The Great Nowhere,” she discovered the honky-tonk bars of nearby Vinton, Louisiana, where she was exposed to Cajun and black music far richer than the Top 40 fare consumed by most teenagers. Like musical contemporaries Dylan, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, and Patti Smith, she found validation and inspiration in the Beat writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Attending the University of Texas in 1962, she fell into a small but growing folk music scene, playing jams with the Waller Creek Boys at the student union and Kenneth Threadgill’s beer joint, a converted gas station.

Thumbing her nose at the still-dominant university pecking order headed by crew-cutted frat rats and bouffanted sorority bubbleheads, Joplin was featured in a Daily Texan article entitled “She Dares to Be Different.” According to legend the first University of Texas coed to go braless, she acted like one of the boys, living in an enclave nicknamed the Ghetto, eschewing makeup and female clothes, and looking to get laid. Pranksters at the university entered her name in an ugly man contest, but Joplin refused to accept the indignities traditionally heaped on outsiders like herself by the collegiate “in” crowd. At a time before the feminist movement provided a support system for nonconformists, she was struggling against the tyranny of societal standards of beauty and codes of etiquette, such as a Cult of Domesticity that pressured coeds into feeling guilty if they were not preparing to become compliant homemakers. While virtually nonpolitical in the traditional sense, Joplin was a vocal critic of double standards such as the segregationist practices in place in Austin during that time and other institutional intrusions on personal freedom.

Setting out for California in 1966 with her friend Chet Helms in pursuit of a singing career, Joplin ultimately joined a band with the satirical, antiestablishment moniker of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Along with the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, Big Brother became identified with a burgeoning hippie scene centered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. This milieu was far from idyllic but held a fascination for many dropouts who viewed the “straight” world as a “rat race.”

Old verities evaporated in the wake of war, riots, and assassinations; the central question of the 1960’s...

(The entire section is 2140 words.)