By Ann Angel
I’m stoked to introduce you to my newest biography, Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing (Amulet, 2010).
The image-illustrated project has been a magical musical journey of many years where I have lived all things Janis.
Many mornings during the past five years, I woke before dawn obsessed with tracking down photographs, posters and magazine covers. I worked long evenings interviewing photographers, Janis’s publicists, friends and fellow musicians.
My house filled with Janis singing “Piece of my Heart,” or “Down on Me,” or my favorite, “Little Girl Blue.”
Last New Year’s, I created a new family tradition when I welcomed in the day with Janis wailing “Cry Baby.”
On my journey to write her story, I discovered that my heart still breaks for this amazing rock star with the voice of a smoldering angel.
Writing this book allowed me to re-enter my early teens and revisit the love and admiration I first experienced for this iconic singer, the first woman of rock and roll.
At fourteen, when I heard Janis’s tragic voice ring out the lyrics to “Ball and Chain,” the words spoke to my absolutely moody teen sensibilities. She woke me from a disconnected existence in which I spent too much time alone in my bedroom brooding over sad music and writing bad poetry while contemplating why everyone else seemed so sure of themselves--out partying, connecting, falling in love and just plain having a wild time.
Janis’s voice crashed into my moods and crawled into my heart, encouraging me to embrace my life and challenge my creative self. I believed she was encouraging me personally.
When she died of an overdose, I swore it was a warning to me and all my friends. So because of Janis’s influence, I grew up and didn’t do drugs. Because of Janis, I studied literature, visual art and writing.
(Ann's high school graduation photo)
While editing my anthology, Such a Pretty Face, Short Stories About Beauty (Abrams, 2007), I found myself contemplating Janis’s influence on me. I knew then that I would share her life story with others. I wrote this biography because I believe her life was extraordinary and her voice can still send each of us on imaginative journeys.
Nonfiction writer Elizabeth Partridge, has said so eloquently, “I want young adults to know these intense, creative people who a found a place for themselves, and a way to bear witness.”
I want the same for my readers. While researching this book, I was also teaching writing to graduate students at Milwaukee’s Mount Mary College. I often sneak Janis quotes into my lectures and conversations. My students would ask, “Why Janis?”
I told them Janis had such an impact on me that I still try to live by her words: “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.”
When people read her story and hear her incredible voice, I hope she calls them to embrace the world, to live their “superhypermost” and to leave their own unique impression on the world.
Forty years after her death, Janis is still one of the top rock singers. Her album "Pearl" ranks as an all-time best album.
I’m not the only one haunted by her. Recently, Big Brother and the Holding Company’s drummer, Dave Getz, wrote music to go with lyrics Janis had written and he had tucked away. Getz has noted in interviews that in “Can’t Be the Only One,” Janis predicted her “own tragedy as it was about to unfold.”
While Janis’s is a story of a woman who defiantly stepped outside traditional roles as a woman and musician, it’s also the tale of a vulnerable young woman who questioned her celebrity and talent when she said, “What if they find out I’m only Janis?”
When we explore Janis’s life, we bear witness not only to her past, but to music history. We can learn from the journey and make our own lives richer and more meaningful.
As you journey into the music of the 60s along with Ann and Janis, visit Ann's website to check out additional photos and quotes. Please note that she welcomes feedback.
Ann graduated from Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in Milwaukee at age 17, just four months before Janis died.