“She was an interesting junkie,” Janis Joplin’s friend, sometime lover and shooting partner Peggy Caserta tells Alice Echols near the end of Echols’ far-reaching biography of the singer, recently released in an Owl Books paperback. “I’d end up with a hundred syringes in my nightstand . . . But she was tidy till the day she OD’d. She’d be sloppy about other things. She’d pass out with a candle burning by a curtain, but she would have put the works away.” Echols has a great ear: So much of the era is distilled in quotes like these — the portentousness, the rebel pose held so long and with such knee-jerk delight in opposition that it becomes a kind of moral disconnect. But also, in other places and voices, the sheer giddy power of liberation. As good biographers must, Echols follows Joplin from one context to the next — strait-laced mother, boomtown Texas, acne, folk music, success and her own polymorphous appetites — trying to trace their influence on her life and music. In the process, however, she becomes an astute and evocative biographer of the counterculture itself, and the long, strange trip bohemia took from collegiate folk, backwater blues and shabby chic into psychedelia’s explosion of sex, drugs, rock, art, dress and social philosophy.
SCARS OF SWEET PARADISE: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin | By ALICE ECHOLS Owl/Metropolitan Books | 432 pages | $15 paperback