The howl is from the guts of the earth; sludge, heat and raw elements bubbling up over larynx, tongue and mouth. There's pain there: the rejection, ridicule, years of petty cruelty. But not just pain ... sex, power, longing, ambition, resolve, determination. The voice of the world's first rock goddess, encapsulated all the parts of herself.
Long cast as the quintessential doomed female genius, Janis Joplin was, in fact, a more complex beast. A rebel from a buttoned-down, football and cheerleaders Texas city (Port Arthur) she fought against racism, segregation, and sexism.
Although bullied and marginalised, she was indefatigable. Her drive to follow in the footsteps of her blues heroines, such as the similarly tragic Bessie Smith, led to a form of self-actualisation. She burnt brightly, was the high priestess of an epoch-shaping youth culture, then died.
Long-time Joplin fan and celebrated rock biographer, Holly George-Warren, has captured the aspects of the woman that history chose to ignore. Rather than the self-destructive, self-hating caricature that populates our cultural mythos, the Joplin in Janis is also a strong, rambunctious, unstoppable force, cackling her way from the depths of Texas to the countercultural nexus of San Francisco.
Talking over the phone from her home in upstate New York, George-Warren explains that her introduction to Joplin was in 1970, when she watched her performing on daytime talk show, The Dick Cavett Show. Living in small town North Carolina, age 13, "it opened up a world of opportunities," she reveals.
But by the time George-Warren purchased her first Joplin album Pearl (released in 1971), Joplin would be dead. As would be the giddy, impossible dream of the 1960s.
Janis took four years to write - "the same length of time as Janis' career", says George-Warren. During these four years she would seek out old friends, lovers and family members of Joplin's – intimates who had seen the ins and outs, ups and ultimately downs of rock's first (and arguably best) female voice.
Janis follows the course of Joplin's tempestuous life from its beginning. Born to an atheist father and an evangelical Christian mother (a celebrated singer herself), Joplin's two earliest role models influenced her path in equal measure.
Although celebrated for her freedom and liberation, she was also "a product of her time", says George-Warren. Dual forces wrestled in her – the desire to fit in, to find love, to make a home, to have a white picket fence and happy ever after. And the need for self-realisation, liberty, a voice of her own. The latter would win.
Rock up and rock on at the summer's free Music in Parks gigs
Tour news: Phoenix Foundation's free gig, The Beths add fest, WOMAD gets bigger
K-pop singer's death highlights pressure on female stars
O ther than oil, Joplin's hometown of Port Arthur was probably most notable for its crushing conservatism. She was born on January 19, 1943, to Seth and Dorothy Joplin. Her father was a manager who oversaw the construction of metal containers for shipping petroleum at Texas Company (Texaco); her mother an accomplished dressmaker and follower of fashion who worked in the credit department of Sears-Roebuck's Port Arthur store up until Janis' birth.
Seth was 32 and Dorothy 29 when Joplin was born. As she grew up, the rough and tumble child and "unabashed tomboy", preferred spending time with tough boys than sitting indoors. Her physicality and refusal to adhere to the feminine norms of the 1950s would lead to her being labelled a troublemaker. But she had a talent for art and, taught by her mother, the voice of a siren.
Joplin's boyish tendencies endeared her greatly to her father (he always wanted a boy) and "her tomboy rough housing pleased him". They were allies in many ways. He, an atheist in the age of ardent Christianity, was a questioning man. Widely read and opinionated, he was a much like his bolshy daughter. And she worshipped him, her self-worth bolstered by his approval.
If you are to look for the genesis of Joplin's loneliness, sense of rejection, and troubles with men (which were the subject of much of her musical output) the birth of her brother Mike may hold the key. She was 10 when he was born and, at this precarious age, between childhood and adolescence, her father's attentions were redirected towards him. Her greatest ally now distracted as she entered what would become a traumatic time.
Joplin's hellish teenage years were no secret. On The Dick Cavett Show in 1970 (the last interview she would do before her death on October 4, 1970), she would announce she was planning on going to her high school reunion: "Wanna come with me?" she chuckled to Cavett.
He responded: "I don't have many friends in your high school class."
Joplin: "I don't either ... They laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state. So, I'm going home." The crowd, briefly silenced, starts to cheer.
The bullying started early. She looked like a boy and was teased on the bus as she travelled to and from junior high. She'd get home and cry; her mother would carpool with neighbours and drop her off to prevent these incidents.
Dorothy would also help her escape in other ways. The talented and celebrated child singer (she was known locally for her glorious voice) taught her daughter to sing at an early age. She would demonstrate her abilities at the First Christian Church Choir and a glee club, and this would bring her in contact with another misfit, a young girl called Karleen Bennett, who also played saxophone in the school band.
There was a brief attempt to fit in – she was forced to wear the clothes that her mother made so she would look like her classmates - but her hurricane-force personality would not be so readily placated. She was sassy; she wouldn't settle in class. As she got older, the tension between her and the regular kids became worse.
Fourteen was Joplin's turning point, in many ways. She'd remembered that age publically, discussing how the fact she had "no tits" led to her misery. No tits, bad skin and no boys asking her on dates.
"She thought her nose was too big, mouth was too big ... her waist wasn't small. This was the days of cinch belts, girdles and 18-inch waists," remembers Bennett, in Janis.
She did have a gang – free-thinking boys she'd met at a theatre workshop. They had longer hair and a hunger for ideas. She fitted in as one of them; her conversations around art, life and philosophy often outshining theirs. They'd drive around in cars, smoke cigarettes, play music and pontificate.
But more importantly, at age 14 Joplin read Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Suddenly it all made sense.
"Prior to Kerouac, she was struggling to find her identity," writes George-Warren. "Was she a wannabe "popular" God-fearing girl with curls in her hair? Or the wise-cracking, whip-smart, sexless mascot of a loquacious crew of older, self-styled intellectual boys?"
On the Road gave her a context for her displacement. She was one of the "sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation" (in Kerouac's words). Music and sex and the road, man. An alternative America that Joplin would willingly become a citizen of.
And there was the musical discovery. At 14 Joplin bought folk-blues singer Odetta's Odetta Sings the Blues and taught herself to sing in that style (a story in Janis has her belting out an Odetta song at a Coast Guard shack with some friends and stunning them with her voice. She also became switched on to blues folk legend Lead Belly: "That started it," Joplin shares.
It's here that the story of Joplin's rise to the musical stratosphere, and the development of her vocal style, really begins. With the blues, sung by black people well-versed in the minutiae of life's horrors, she found her language.
But it was a two-edged sword. Already unpopular, the fact that she didn't "hate Negros" but, in fact, celebrated the music of African Americans, would further her status as a social pariah. In a school where everyone was opposed to integration, loud-mouthed, blues-loving, beat kid Joplin would find herself more alienated than before. She would be called vile names like "n****r lover" and actively despised.
Much of the pain and rejection she would become known for stems from this period of her life. The ongoing sense of loneliness and not fitting in (that would stay with her until her death) are evidenced in the hatred she experienced.
From George-Warren's perspective, this is just one aspect of the story. She posits that movement towards counter-cultural freedom was intentional. The work that she put in to hone her craft, and the tenacity with which she kept going in the face of constant rejection, reveals a young woman with an incredible drive towards success.
"She was a working student of the blues. She made these choices after reading On the Road and taking on its philosophy. She was a risk-taker and she made a conscious decision to move out of the mainstream.
"She really self-actualised through the discovery and creation of this music," explains George-Warren. "And I think this gave her the strength to keep going."
Nevertheless, it was painful. She was hated as senior at Thomas Jefferson High School. She wasn't invited to the senior prom; her year book was riddled with insults. But the end of school meant freedom and she soon left the city behind.
California was the dream. Joplin moved to Santa Monica in 1961, got a flat and established a beatnik hang-out with people who would encourage her art and music. She would later move to Austin, the quintessential music town, where she studied art and joined her first band, the Waller Street Boys.
But it's San Francisco that Joplin is synonymous with. More specifically, Haight Ashbury, the ground zero for hippie culture. In 1966, her third trip to San Fran would see her join Big Brother and the Holding Company, a band formed the year before in the psychedelic scene that also produced Grateful Dead.
She hadn't sung electric music before, her earlier bands being in the folky vein and it took a while for her to click with the fans of the band, which was known for their more experimental drug-induced meanderings. But she won them – and the world – over. Her performance at the Summer of Love's Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and the subsequent signing to Columbia Records, was the rocket ship that launched her career.
In San Francisco, the sex and drugs came to their fore. She'd been an experimenter in polyamory (with men and women) and a speed freak during a sojourn in New York that led to her shooting methamphetamine and becoming addicted but she'd got clean.
In a city that boasted the first-ever head shop (selling the then legal LSD and marijuana to hippies), drugs were part and parcel of the scene. It was heroin - soporific, numbing heroin - that would bring her the greatest relief and eventually the ultimate escape. She was introduced to heroin by Big Brother guitarist James Gurley. It was her drug–it numbed those intense emotions, it made the loneliness fade.
Musically, however, things were bright. In 1968, the second Big Brother and the Holding Company album Cheap Thrills spent eight weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. Piece of My Heart was a smash hit single. She had money to burn. But by the end of 1968, Joplin was a bona fide star. She quit the band and went out on her own.
Sadly, the heroin habit left with her. Within two years and one album (the less well received I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!) she would be dead of an overdose after skin popping a particularly potent strain of heroin, China white, five times stronger than what she was used to. She died alone in a hotel room in Hollywood. The myth of loneliness becomes entrenched.
When asked how she would sum up the forces in play within Joplin, the interplay between power and vulnerability, George-Warren points to the words of her bandmate, Sam Andrews.
"Janis had this thing of total insecurity and total power at the same time and it was really something to be confronted with both of them. You never knew which one to relate to."
If Joplin had lived, she would now be 76. George-Warren believes that her desire for love may have been fulfilled.
"I think she would have kept playing music but I also think she would have settled down. It mightn't have worked out but she would have found someone. She needed a lot of reinforcement; she looked for it from everyone. Maybe she would have found it."
Janis – Her Life and Music by Holly George Warren (Simon & Schuster, $38) is out now.