Alice Echols Scars of Sweet Paradise: the life and times of Janis Joplin

(Virago. 2000. £18.99 in hardback)

Written 30 years after her death, and by someone who did not know Janis Joplin personally, this is a biography with a degree of objectivity. Nevertheless, Alice Echols’ authoritative book gives a sense of being close to its subject, perhaps because her main sources are many interviews with old friends and acquaintances of Janis, plus, of course, extensive reading of previous biographies and analyses of the period and musical background. The distance in time has enabled Echols to give some perspective in particular to the San Francisco ‘hip’ scene of the 1960s; its origins in the ‘Beat’ culture, its reliance on drugs, its treatment of women, its ultimate commercialisation, and its transience.

The strength of the book is in its conjuring up of Janis Joplin’s early years. We are not only reminded that she grew up in the 1950s and that she and her friends were very much products of that deadening decade, but Alice Echols, who occasionally makes reference to her own age, makes us feel the dire effects that it had on those who could not fit in. For Janis, and all those who found that their particular personal attributes would never bring them ‘success’ as defined by society then, the choice was to fade into the background with the rest of the ‘losers’ or rebel. At 14 years old Janis Joplin discovered that she was not going to be the bright, pretty star of her circle, as life had led her to believe up to that point. Her terrible acne meant that she was going to lose her place in the social pecking order and become a highly intelligent object of pity. No doubt this is a disaster for any adolescent, of any sex, in any decade, but in the 1950s there existed, as Echols puts it, ‘the iron-clad connection between sexual propriety and social position for women’.

As an academic specialising in the 60s, Echols is most confident when dealing with Joplin’s life from a feminist perspective. Wider politics is dealt with but not in any great depth, except for the many references to the conscious anti-racism of Joplin. She seems to have come to this, along with the rest of her circle, through the black music and musicians which were their inspiration, especially as some of the most famous names were still alive then and working. For instance, it was touching to learn that Janis contributed half the money for a headstone on the grave of Bessie Smith, and apparently was one of the few singers who acknowledged and credited performers who had influenced her.

Almost the last quarter of the book consists of discography, notes, acknowledgements and the index, all of which, even including the acknowledgements, are useful and interesting. Particularly fascinating is a final chapter called ‘Where are they now?’ However, for a book which is good enough to make you want more, the lack of a bibliography means a time consuming search through the index and notes to track down any further reading.

Finally, the photographs are worthy of comment for portraying ‘the way we were’. Not to be missed is the photograph of Janis with her family in 1967 which is a reminder of how most people actually were. For those of us who did live through those decades this is a wonderful, dispassionate, look back.

Marjorie Tonge is financial director of Spectre.