‘She knew where she wanted to go – and just kept going’: the real Janis Joplin, by those closest to her

<span>‘Music exploded within her’ … Janis Joplin on stage in 1968.</span><span>Photograph: Crawley/Kobal/Shutterstock</span>
‘Music exploded within her’ … Janis Joplin on stage in 1968.Photograph: Crawley/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Janis Joplin is important to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, and it’s not my job to tell them that they’re wrong.” It’s 8am in Tucson, Arizona, and the late singer’s brother Michael is being diplomatic as he considers the legacy of an era-defining woman who so many people feel they know. But he has a job to do nonetheless: “When she passed, I had an obligation to protect her history,” he says, against a backdrop of gleaming gold and silver records.

Michael was only 17 when Joplin was found dead of a heroin overdose, aged 27, on the floor of a hotel room in Los Angeles. Fifty-four years later, journalists such as I are still knocking on his door, searching for new insight into the life of a singer whom the talkshow host Dick Cavett once introduced as “a combination of Leadbelly, a steam engine, Calamity Jane and Bessie Smith”.

The tale of the wide-eyed Texan who ran away to the beatnik hills of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood – and became a poster woman for the Summer of Love as a result – remains popular: a musical dramatising Joplin’s life, A Night With Janis Joplin, opened on Broadway in 2011 and arrives in London in August. “Janis is like a Shakespearean story in a lot of ways,” Michael says. “It’s a perfect scenario of redemption and loss.”

There were so many twists and turns in just four years of recorded music. In the summer of 1966, Joplin joined the psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, fusing her tempestuous folk-blues sound to the group’s acid-drenched reworkings of Erma Franklin’s ballad Piece of My Heart, Big Mama Thornton’s sweltering blues classic Ball and Chain, and George Gershwin’s languid aria Summertime. A pivotal performance at Monterey pop festival in 1967 launched her as an overnight star. But beneath the hyperbole (“she slinks like tar, scowls like war,” Vogue declared in 1968) was a deeply cerebral woman heading down a path of drug use and alcoholism.

Joplin’s life is still defined by how she died – she’s inevitably invoked in discussions of pop’s notorious “27 club” of people who died at that age – and yet we should return to her songs to glean insight into how she lived. She didn’t just sing the blues, she felt them too. As Randy Johnson, the writer and director of the stage musical, puts it: “She made it OK to be yourself. We came out of that 1950s Betty Crocker period” – of housewives and repressed emotion – “and all of a sudden there was this prophet called Janis Joplin.”

Johnson’s “rock and blues opera”, as he calls it, features Joplin songs alongside ones by her influences: Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith. It’s also guided by Michael and his sister Laura and centres on her family dynamic, which Johnson hails as “as authentic as you could possibly get”. Cleaning day in the Joplin household was always set to music, he tells me – and it’s intimate scenes such as this that inform the production’s story. Joplin’s mother, Dorothy, “loved to play show tunes, so they would clean to West Side Story and play all the parts”.

Born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1943, by her teens Joplin felt at odds with her surroundings, routinely bullied at school for the attributes that set her apart: the beatnik clothing, her love of the blues, the acne that blighted her skin. “She rocked the boat in a very small conservative town,” Michael says. “There were ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ restrooms. She spoke up against that. And in that town, that was tough.” She was also curious about her sexuality, and had relationships with both men and women. “That was an extra burden that made her more conscious and aware.”

“They laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state,” Joplin quipped on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970. Wisecracking aside, the taunts wounded her. “I remember her having social issues with people at school; she’d come home in tears and frustration,” Laura recalls on a video call. And yet, encouraged by a mother who had also been a singer, music filled Joplin with purpose in a house where “words and melody were a part of life”.

Joplin found kinship in the blues – Lead Belly, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey – and taught herself to sing with the aid of an autoharp. She was also a very gifted visual artist. “I don’t know if you can see this painting behind me,” Michael says, gesturing to a “Modigliani-ish” milk-white figure, all elbows and shoulders. “Who knew that?” Johnson says of her aptitude for painting, which features in the musical. “They’re remarkable.”

Multi-dimensional women aren’t always treated with a lot of nuance and Joplin is an obvious example. As the singer Cat Power said of her childhood icon in 2015: “At the time, I don’t think there was any female that was really that free on stage, that loving, that open.” Yet, off stage, her complexities meant she never quite found peace in a world that required her to fit a particular mould. She was fiercely independent but craved acceptance from her family; she was opinionated but worried about causing offence; she was a nonconformist but was desperate to belong.

For Dave Getz, Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company bandmate, the musicianship of Joplin is too often overlooked amid these contradictions. Take her elemental voice: something she tirelessly tended to. “She was very serious as a singer, and she did evolve as a singer,” the band’s drummer, now 84 and still working as a visual artist, emphasises on a call from California.

Over the years, we’ve tended to focus instead on Joplin’s psychology, her pain and rejection – something that is all too common when it comes to discussing female artists, Getz argues. She might not have been in control of some aspects of her personal life, but the same can’t be said for her approach to music. According to Elliot Mazer, who did the mixing for Joplin and Big Brother’s 1968 album Cheap Thrills: “For two weeks, only Janis, myself, and the engineer would stay from two in the afternoon until seven in the evening,” he told her biographer. “Anything about her just having a good time and not working was just bullshit.” Michael pays tribute to his parents when it comes to this work ethic: “They taught her how to take care of herself. We grew up in hurricane country, so we were always prepared.”

At the heart of it all was Joplin’s artistic flexibility – and a generosity on stage. “She had a desire but also a sensibility for music,” Getz says. She loved Lead Belly and Odetta, but she was also influenced by the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. It’s something that doesn’t always get mentioned alongside the more obvious blues and R&B influences, Getz points out; the omissions in Joplin’s story are as telling as the narratives we’ve clung to. “I get asked: ‘Why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you talk about that,’” Johnson says of his musical. But for him, “it’s a celebration of her music, not a journey to the depths of whatever you want to call it”. He reminds me of her motto: “‘Don’t compromise yourself, you’re all you’ve got.’ She sang what she wanted to sing. And she sang songs that spoke to her soul.”

None were more soulful than those she sang with Big Brother. “When Janis first joined, she was a folk singer, a blues singer, and she had a certain kind of voice,” Getz says. For all their “faults and roughness”, he says, the band had “a certain aesthetic” as pre-punk rockers that helped shape Joplin’s sound in those early years, as well as her look. “The image people have of Janis is the feather boa and the sunglasses,” he says: the defining bohemian. But when she joined the band in 1966, “she was completely east Texas, which is funky, you know?” Before the beads, bangles and flares, there were the Mexican sandals and shorts, with her hair pulled back in a bun. “Cheap crappy clothes,” he chuckles with deep affection.

Joplin left the band at the peak of their fame in 1968: an inevitable departure, Getz says. “Big Brother was a family and she had to break away from that,” he says. “James Gurley [Big Brother’s lead guitarist] couldn’t go where she wanted to go.” Seduced by the brass-led clarion call of Otis Redding, she formed a new group, the Kozmic Blues Band, in order to pursue a funkier sound that pushed her beyond Haight-Ashbury. For Getz, there are no “what ifs” when it comes to their split, recalling a 1970 gig in San Diego where she was playing with her third and final group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band. “She had asked Big Brother to open for her,” Getz recalls. “She wanted to show us how good her band had gotten. They sounded good, she sounded good.

“We were riding back to San Francisco and she and I were sitting together on the plane. And she says to me: ‘I’ve got a new name now, I want everyone to call me Pearl [the name of her final studio album, released a few months later].’ And I go: ‘Ah.’ Like, I’m not going to do that, Janis – you’re Janis. And then she said: ‘I’ve been clean for four weeks, I feel fabulous.’ I said: Fantastic!’” He pauses. “I thought she was going to be around for a while, but I was way wrong with that. It was only about a month and a half later that she died.”

When it comes to the mythology and the circumstances of Joplin’s death, “I choose not to go there,” Laura says. “Janis was driven by the beauty of music; it exploded within her, and she wanted to grab all her fans and have them feel it, too. That’s what she was aiming for.” Her parents worried about her lifestyle, Laura says, but Joplin was determined to live her life in her own unique way. “There was never one ‘her’,” she adds. Joplin contained multitudes. “She was a richly endowed woman with emotions and stories. Janis knew where she wanted to go – and she just kept going.”

Related: Golden daze: 50 years on from the Summer of Love

Ask Getz about his lasting memories of Joplin, and it isn’t the beads-and-boa caricature of Pearl he returns to – “I just didn’t buy it” he says of her alter ego – but a set of lyrics she scribbled down for him in 1968. She had already announced that she was going to leave Big Brother, but stayed for one last farewell tour. And so the band were in New York – a small rehearsal studio that they were renting after the recording of Cheap Thrills when Getz started playing a riff on the keyboard. “She liked it a lot, we jammed on it for a few minutes, then she said: ‘I’m going to write words to that.’” Although they never got to rehearse again, he released the song, Can’t Be the Only One, in 2010. Getz recites her last lines: “‘Reachin’ too high babe, can’t help from getting burned.’ I know what she was reaching for. She was looking at herself and saying: I’m going to try something and I might fail.”

For Joplin, failing and flying were two sides of the same coin. The lyrics, and the voice she sang them in, tell us all we need to know. Everything was autobiographical for Joplin, Getz says: “She always wrote from inside herself.” The Janis he knew was “a very vulnerable person” but also “a very funny person”, a woman “who was super intelligent” and yet “could be hurt very easily”. In contrast to her brash reputation there was fragility, too. “All of her emotions were right under her skin,” Getz says, fondly. And onstage and off, “it was kind of a beautiful thing”.

A Night With Janis Joplin is at the Peacock theatre, London, 21 August to 21 September