Saturday, October 16, 2010

"Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin" by Alice Echols (1999)

It was probably just coincidence that led me to this book on the 40th anniversary (give or take a few days) of Janis Joplin's death. I mean, I'm a big fan, but when I ran across this in Smith Family a couple of weeks ago it hadn't yet registered that this year made 40, or that it happened in October...

Alice Echols seems to have been trained as a cultural historian, with an emphasis on gender studies. She certainly writes like one, and I mean that as a compliment: this is a much more literate work than most rock biographies, it's carefully documented, and it pays studied attention to many of the larger forces shaping Janis's life and choices. This is Echols's strength, plainly, and where the book succeeds, it's because of this.

What this book does well is to give us Janis as a real person, with all her contradictions and complexities. For the longest time I listened to Janis and heard only the tough broad, the brave hedonist, the spaced-out hippie, the devil-may-care nonconformer. Echols shows to what extent this was a pose and to what extent it was real, what drove Janis to adopt this pose, and what price she paid.

Which is to say that this book is mainly interested in Janis as an example of a woman raised in an oppressive society (America in the '50s and early '60s, and specifically Port Arthur, Texas, which seems to have been especially oppressive) who chose to rebel. Without saying so in so many words, Echols seems to locate the roots of Janis's lifelong suffering in a low self-esteem caused by the unrealistic and inhuman expectations of her family and peers. Janis struggled mightily to be free to express herself artistically and sexually, being both a strong female artist and a more-or-less open bisexual at a time when neither were widely accepted positions; while her art gave her enough fulfillment to keep her going for a while, still her inner demons conquered her, leading to the dependence on alcohol and heroin that killed her.

The latter part is, of course, the archetypal story of rock'n'roll, and the former sounds glib when summarized baldly like that, but Echols really does provide a compelling story. It's hard not to empathize with Janis as presented here, the proverbial ugly duckling (she's obsessed with her putative lack of beauty) who becomes a swan, but is forever tormented by fears that she's not. The lack of a happy ending is at least partially due to the fact that while the SF counterculture did create for its participants a pretty wide zone of freedom, that was mostly for men: hippies were pretty sexist until the '70s were well underway. This is an old story, but it's still worth repeating; it helped do Janis in. (A great deal of the flak she took for leaving Big Brother had to do with being an uppity woman betraying the men who had, supposedly, given her her big break. Her career never recovered; to some degree, neither did her reputation.)

This is the book's strength: it evokes Janis's life very thoughtfully and evenly.

The book's weakness is that Echols seems to be basically uninterested in music except as a social phenomenon. She writes very little about Janis's actual singing, about her records, about her artistic ambitions and achievements. Most of her great performances get little more than a mention. Monterey Pop gets several pages, but it's the exception; her Woodstock performance is dismissed in a sentence, and the only song from her last album even mentioned is "Me And Bobby McGee." What few attempts Echols makes to deal with Janis's music tend to be quotations from other critics' opinions (she cites Christgau a lot).

I'm not sure how big a weakness this is. Certainly it made the book less enjoyable for me: without the music to enliven things, it tended to read like, well, an academic monograph. I suppose one could argue that I already know what I think of Janis's recordings, so I don't need Echols's opinions; but I think I always approach a music bio hoping for some critical insight that will help me appreciate the music better. There's no attempt at that here.

Maybe Echols just doesn't like Janis's music all that much. I mean, she does make a case for the importance of what Janis does, but she ignores Pearl and has nothing much good to say about the other three albums; she hardly attempts to disguise her disdain for Big Brother as a band, and doesn't give the Kozmic Blues guys much of a chance. In this she's merely following the prevailing critical opinion, but maybe it was time, in 1999, to listen to these things with fresh ears. There's a lot to appreciate in every phase of Janis's work, every band she worked with.

But in fact Echols's indifference to Big Brother is symptomatic, I think, of an overall antipathy to the San Francisco scene as a whole. She doesn't have anything good to say about any of the bands, and in fact spends an inordinate amount of space exposing the immaturity and hypocrisy of the scene. Worse, she seems to present all of this as if it's meant to be some kind of revelation. I mean, people have been talking about how miserable Woodstock was from the very beginning, but her discussion of it focuses on the dark side of it in tones that suggest she's speaking truth to power or something. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against an even-handed treatment of the counterculture. Far from it. But if all you knew about it was what Echols writes you'd have to wonder what all the fuss was about - and then you'd wonder, why write about Janis Joplin at all?

To this indifference and occasionally hostility toward the music scene Janis helped define, I have to add a couple of other music-related flaws. One, Echols's lack of interest in the music seems to have led her to be less careful in her research there than elsewhere. She misidentifies at least one band (calling the Sons of Champlin "the Champlin Sons" on p. 206). More importantly, her presentation of some of the music-related details tends to be a bit misleading - she presents Columbia's signing of Big Brother as if the company was rushing to get in on this rocking-and-rolling thing, neglecting to note that Columbia was already a major player in '60s American rock, with not only Dylan but the Byrds on their roster.

Second, and I think most seriously, in her treatment of the music she frequently sets up straw men. The one that stood out to me most was in her introduction, where she repeats a certain well-circulated but also well-debunked myth about Elvis and blacks, by way of playing up Janis's racial egalitarianism. This wasn't necessary, first of all; it's a mere convenience, and it just doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would be done by a writer who was writing out of love for music.

A music biography that gets the music wrong isn't worth much, you might think. Well, I'm not going to argue with you very strenuously. But I'm sincere when I say that even with its flaws, this is one of the best music bios I've read.

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