Janis Joplin, who died at 27, was not a victim. She was a cultural outlaw who knew the risks of the chances she took—from hitchhiking to San Francisco at 20 to shooting heroin at 24. A hardworking musician, she strove to be the best singer in rock, no matter the cost. Her all-consuming passion for music prevented her from marrying and settling down to the “white picket fence” existence she secretly craved. These are among the truths I discovered over the four-plus years I researched and wrote the biography Janis: Her Life and Music.
Onstage and in interviews, Janis projected the persona of psychedelic-blues mama who just let go and let the music take her over. Her seismic performances certainly looked that way. But she was actually a serious student of the blues who sought hard-to-find 78s while a teenager in segregated Port Arthur, Texas. Her education included Lead Belly, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Big Mama Thornton—touchstones she discovered as a rare female crate-digger in the late 50s and early 60s.