‘Her tragedy was just one dimension’: Janis Joplin’s siblings on her private scrapbook, Days and Summers

In June 1967, a rising young singer named Janis Joplin performed at California’s Monterey Pop Festival and stepped off the stage a star. After several years as a solo artist playing small venues and coffee houses, she had joined the psychedelic rock band Big Brother & the Holding Company in 1966.

Their Monterey performance was a major turning point. In DA Pennebaker’s famous film Monterey Pop, in which Joplin belts and hollers her way through “Ball and Chain” while dressed in a gold tunic and matching gold shoes, you can see Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas watching from the crowd, her mouth hanging open in astonishment.

It is one of several pivotal moments documented in Janis Joplin: Days & Summers, an extensive (and eye-wateringly expensive) scrapbook showcasing Joplin’s personal archive of photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, flyers and sundry souvenirs spanning two years from 1966 to 1968. Next to pictures of the Monterey performance are assorted reviews of the festival, with very 60s headlines such as “A Warm and Groovy Affair”, which rave about her performance.

Elsewhere in the book, fans can bask in memorabilia from Joplin’s show at Woodstock in 1969; her appearances on The Dick Cavett Show; and a letter sent from Joplin to her father from the Chelsea Hotel, that famous magnet for bohemians and musicians in New York – her stay was immortalised, in somewhat ungentlemanly terms, in Leonard Cohen’s song “Chelsea Hotel #2”.

Janis’s younger sister, Laura Joplin, says the scrapbook is a celebratory reflection of the singer at the peak of her career, and “invites us into deep moments with her. These artefacts are small pieces which come together to give us a thorough picture of the life she was living.”

Laura and her younger brother, Michael Joplin, have spent most of their adult lives as caretakers of their late sister’s estate. All things Janis come through them, from official merchandise and books to film proposals (so far only the documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue has got off the ground).

Janis Joplin (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Initially, they regarded her scrapbook as not for public consumption but then had a change of heart. “It’s not a diary and it doesn’t have intimate information,” says Michael. “It’s really tokens of events and it’s just a nice thing that Laura and I would look at occasionally. Finally, we thought: ‘Should we share this? Is it time?’ Just the fact that Janis would snip out articles and glue things down. It was like she was watching things happening to herself – like: ‘Oh my God, I’m in the San Francisco Chronicle!’ I remember how excited she was about all that.”

While the history books tend to paint Joplin as a tragic figure – she died from an accidental heroin overdose in October 1970, aged 27 – Michael says that version of her is “just one dimension. There were 15 other dimensions.”

At the height of her fame, he and Laura saw a woman who was excited at how her career was going. “When she was around people, [her mood] was so up,” Michael recalls. “The thing that everybody remembers about Janis is how she liked to laugh. She had this insanely cool cackle. But, of course, there was this dichotomy – because when she went out, she was really out and when she was alone she was really alone.”

Laura remembers Janis struggling to find focus and direction in her late teens – “and then she found music, she found [San Francisco’s] Haight-Ashbury and she found people who she felt were like her. And that allowed her to blossom emotionally as well as musically. She had found something that connected with her, that she could do and that made her feel elated.”

The year after the Monterey performance, Joplin had hits with covers of the soul standard “Piece of my Heart” and Gershwin’s ­“Summertime”. A 1968 article in Vogue, which appears in the scrapbook, describes Joplin as “assault[ing] a song with her eyes, her hips and her hair. She defies key, shrieking over one line, spluttering over the next and clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave… Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.”

Michael believes Joplin’s uniqueness as a performer lay in her ability to “just let it go. She didn’t hold back, and that was why people related to her… The choice of music, the choice of clothing, the choice of lifestyle, the whole bit – she laid it all out on the table. People were somewhat in awe and somewhat in fear of that.”

Janis Joplin in London in 1969 (Photo by Malcolm McNeill/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, both siblings recall their parents as unusually progressive for the time. Art in all its forms was encouraged at home. “Singing, drawing, painting, there was experimental stuff going on everywhere,” recalls Michael. The five of them often played instruments together and the children were exposed to everything from classical music and show tunes to the blues that would inform Joplin’s singing career. Still, theirs was a conservative town and Joplin found herself cast as an outsider at school. She was, says Michael, “outspoken, outlandish and she was treated horribly because of it”.

Joplin’s eccentricities were loved by her fans, of course. Few women talked so openly about sex and the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. “By publicly speaking about things that weren’t normally spoken about, she liberated others, especially women, to do the same,” explains Laura.

“In terms of self-expression, as a family we always talked honestly. Our parents talked to her about the problems she was having – they had some really emotional discussions. As the younger sister, I wasn’t in on that but I absolutely felt it.”

While Michael and Laura were excited about their older sister’s fame – they went to as many concerts as they could, and never missed her TV appearances – they recall their parents’ anxiety as her star rose. “I think they saw [her success] as a mixed blessing,” Laura says.

“They worried about her getting too far out there by herself.” Michael remembers “definite apprehension. I think everyone was concerned but at the same time there was faith and hope [that she’d be OK].” Still, for him, Janis was great for his street cred.

“I thought she was the coolest thing on the planet. I was at high school when she was [hitting] major fame; I was getting dates because she was on the radio.”

It is only natural that Joplin’s scrapbook entries don’t dwell on her darker moments, though the written testimonies by those who knew her, including Jimmy Page, Tom Jones, Dick Cavett and Grace Slick, don’t shy away.

In his afterword, written as a poem, the singer Kris Kristofferson asks: “Lord, why was she born so black and blue?” And Mick Fleetwood observes that “she was like a child in a toyshop and it just became too much”.

When Joplin died, her parents left Port Arthur in the middle of the night to go to her house in San Francisco, leaving Michael, then 17, at home. He recalls visiting his school friends first thing in the morning to tell them what had happened, and was shocked to find they already knew. “It was all over the radio,” he says. “Janis was national news.”

Both siblings say looking after Janis’s affairs is less an arduous task than a healing one, and they long ago stopped trying to influence the way the public sees her. “Our responsibility is to be as ethical and true to what we know about her,” says Laura. “I experience what we do as a gift, because it means that, in some ways, she hasn’t quite died.”

Janis Joplin: Days & Summers is published by Genesis (£495),


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