NATIONAL WRITERS UNION We give working writers a fighting chance. Health insurance. Solidarity. Journalists, poets, commercial writers. Fort Worth: Alice Davis-Rains E-mail: [email protected] WN hot new newsletter from full-time agitator Jim Hightower. The Hightower gives you the lowdown about what’s happening in our country. And how you can help take our country back from the GREEDHEADS of Wall Street and the BONEHEADS of Washington. Get a year of The Hightower Lowdown for the ridiculous, unbelievable price of just $10 for 12 issues. Send a check or money order along with your name and address to: The Hightower Lowdown P.O. Box 20596, New York, NY 10011 Echols fails to note that this self-destructive logic was not invented by whites who idolized black musicians. In his autobiography written shortly before he died, jazz great Miles Davis recalls in vivid detail how an entire generation of jazz musicians himself included got themselves badly strung out on heroin based largely on their awe of Charlie Parker and the delusion that Bird played as well as he did because he was high. According to Echols’ account \(based on motivated by factors other than emulation of musical idols. Most were fairly predictable and pedestrian: thrill-seeking, experimentation, escapism, and a rejection of conventional values. These same motives drove Joplin to a long series of homosexual affairs and Echols makes a brilliant case for the link between Joplin’s drug use and her sexuality: Disguising one addiction by broadcasting another was a diversionary tactic Janis applied to other areas of her life, not just heroin and booze. She concealed her feelings for women, for example, by endlessly drawing attention to her insatiable heterosexual appetite. Echols’ insights are not uniformly profound. In the introduction, she promises to challenge “the conventional view that remembers sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll as one big, happy bash.” But this can only remain the conventional view of a very naive and small group of people perhaps so young or so stoned that they think of the era as a kind of Austin Powers fantasy. Nearly contemporaneous accounts by commentators like Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson not to mention the film Easy Rider thoroughly debunked the idea of the sixties as a great liberating idyll. Further, Echols promises to make Janis an object lesson against the libertine debauchery of those times, but the lesson seems painfully redundant. The death of Janis Joplin, along with those of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Pigpen, and many others, threw a numbing, long-lasting chill on the notion that the hard partying of the sixties was anything other than realized self-destruction. But these are minor quibbles. Echols’ book is occasionally a tough read, although not because she has done her job poorly but because she has done it so well. She has created a portrait of Janis Joplin that, for once, seems to stand apart from the singer’s phenomenal talent and her considerable fame. At times that portrait is painful reading. By thoroughly defining and explaining the troublesome facts of her life in such illuminating detail, Scars of Sweet Paradise puts Joplin in a psychological and historical perspective that makes this book the definitive Joplin biography even if our insatiable morbid curiosity ensures that it will almost certainly not be the last. nd where does this leave Texas, in the state’s stormy love affair with Janis Joplin? Port Arthur \(and Texas more mother in Joplin’s fairy tale, but how many cities would have fared better? Janis was no Cinderella; by all accounts she was combative, often difficult, often disagreeable, nearly always on guard. Her successes were hard fought and hard won specifically because she defined herself in opposition to everything that Port Arthur and the vast Middle America of which it was a part represented. Indeed, she was similarly misunderstood and, to varying degrees, mistreated, in every other city in which she spent any time including such presumed bastions of tolerance as Austin, New York, even San Francisco. Joplin’s defining role in both legend and fact of the outsider not only to conventional morality, but even to the hippie music world where she was the woman among men, the blues world where she was the white among blacks, and the free-love world, where she was bisexual among both straights and gays. Yet Port Arthur and Texas will henceforth claim Janis as our own. From the sentimental but revealing evidence of her exhibit in the Museum of the Gulf Coast, it seems that even the city she despised and abandoned has reclaimed her. For better or worse, she has come home, although perhaps with the bittersweet knowledge recalled in Robert Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man”: Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in. Mark Smith writes occasionally for the Observer on popular music. This article was partially funded through a grant from the Austin Writers’ League, in cooperation with the Texas Commission on the Arts. Get ‘Em While They’re Hot! Buttons: $2 each 3 for $5 7 for $10 Be-In-Buttons P.O. Box 35593, Houston, TX 77235 El 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 20, 1999
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