Author Holly George-Warren Talks About Her New Book Janis: Her Life and Music
We’ve heard the name Holly George-Warren for a long time. We’ve seen her name in print in rock magazines and on book jackets and in our life it’s a sort of six degrees of Kevin Bacon situation with Holly. So many people in our universe know her but all through different paths. So she’s been a bit of a folkloric figure in our minds for quite some time. And when our sister and Passionista Beth Harrington nominated Holly to be a guest on The Passionistas Project Podcast, we were thrilled. Our one and a half hour interview with her barely scratched the surface of this rock journalist turned award-winning, bestselling author.
She has written 16 books including The Road to Woodstock, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry and How the West Was Worn and she’s contributed to music encyclopedias and histories for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone and so much more. She is a walking encyclopedia of music knowledge.
Her latest book Janis: her Life and Music about rock icon Janis Joplin is not just an autobiography. It dives deep into the soul of the singer, discovers how she rose to fame and reveals what made her the brilliant performer she became in her astounding, sadly short-lived career.
Here’s an excerpt from our interview with Holly about why she decided to write about Janis.
Passionistas: Tell us about why you chose to write a book about Janis Joplin and what you learned about her that you found most fascinating from writing the book.
Holly: I have to say part of it, I really believe that my subjects also choose me somehow. Following my passion, I ended up in a place where it just comes together and with Janice for years, of course I had loved her music. She was definitely an inspiration for me growing up again in this tiny town in North Carolina, that didn't have a lot going on for me as far as the kind of things I was interested in. I think I saw her on the Dick Cavett show and just her whole look and attitude and sensibility and not to mention her incredible voice. I'm like, what's that? I want to be that. She was probably actually, little did I know at the time, wearing this outfit that Nudie made for her. Of course. I was one of those people that was devastated when she died in 1970 and in 1971 I had joined the Columbia Record Blub and got Pearl.
I still have my original copy. Then once I was working at Rolling Stone and started doing projects with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Hall of Fame did a really cool symposium on Janis back in ‘97. And Bob Santelli, the head of education, VP of Education and Programming at the time invited me to be part of it. I got to go to Cleveland and give a talk about Janice's influence on contemporary women musicians, but the best part was I got to meet Janice's brother and sister Michael and Laura. I got to meet Sam Andrew, her a guitar player, Chet Helms, who was the manager for Big Brother and the Holding Company and started the Avalon Ballroom dances there back in the ‘60s. Some other people too, John Cooke, her road manager. So I got to meet all these people.
Then lo and behold, they did an American Music Masters panel on Janice, a weekend symposium, in 2009. And once again this time. Ann Powers and I were asked to give talks about, Janis, a keynote with Lucy O'Brien, a great woman, rock journalist who's based in London. So the three of us gave a joint keynote and again got to meet all these amazing people. So I just got to learn more and more and more about Janice and about her music.
The thing that really got me was I was asked to write liner notes for this two CD set called The Pearl Sessions that Sony was doing in the early teens. And for the first time they had gone into the vaults and pulled out all this talk back between Janice and Paul Rothchild, her producer, who was known for being a very authoritarian producer.
He worked with Joni Mitchell on one of her first, or I think or second, album. And she's like, “No, I can't work with him. He's too bossy. He tells me what to do.” So she wouldn't work with him. He famously produced most of the Door's albums and he would make Jim Morrison redo his vocal 10 times or whatever.
But in listening to them in the studio together, I'm like, oh my gosh, this woman is calling the shots. Janis Joplin is telling Paul Rothchild, “Oh wait, let's slow it down here. Wait, let's try a different arrangement on this. Let's have this guitar part here.” She was basically producing the record with him. She's never gotten credit really for being this very thoughtful orchestrator of music and hardworking musician. She created a very different image of herself in order to sell herself as a persona, this rock persona.
And she was very successful at that and I think I, and almost everybody else, bought it. But I realized from listening to these recordings that there was a whole other side to her, this musician side, that she wasn't just blessed born with this incredible voice that she just came out of the box singing. She worked, she really worked. And that very much intrigued me and that made me more interested in wanting to spend four and a half, five years working on Janice's life story and trying to write a book about her that shows her trajectory as a musician. Because there had been some other books, some very well researched. Alice Echols wrote a great book about Janis with a lot of research, but I felt still that somehow her musicianship and had not ever been acknowledged to the extent that it should have been.
So that was my goal for this book to really find out who her musical influences were. What did she do to improve her craft, or how did she discover her voice? What were the obstacles she had to overcome, all those kinds of things. So that really fired me up.
And again, my wonderful agent who had actually been the agent for Laura Joplin's book that she wrote called Love Janice, which told her story of growing up with Janice as her sister and used a lot of letters that Janice had written home. She reproduced a lot of the letters in the book and my agent told Laura about me and I had met her back in the nineties and so I was able to come to an agreement that they would allow me to go into Janice's personal files or scrapbooks or letters. And I could use all that in my book, but without any controls over what I wrote, they would not have any editorial approvals or anything like that. So that's how that came about.