“Janis: Her Life and Music,” by Holly George-Warren. Photo: Simon & Schuster

Janis Joplin is a name synonymous with both brilliance and tragedy.

Remembered today for her seemingly supernatural voice, her legacy has also sadly been defined by her untimely death 50 years ago this month, at the age of 27. In truth, Joplin’s time as a major artist lasted little more than four years — a period during which free love, casual drug use and far-out rock shows were taking place in San Francisco.

And, as acclaimed rock scholar Holly George-Warren details in the new biography, “Janis: Her Life and Music,” Joplin was there for many of the era’s most iconic, transformative moments.

From Joplin’s early days in rural Texas to her historic performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, George-Warren expertly re-creates the experience of what it was like to hear her sing. Featuring recollections from Joplin’s contemporaries, family and fans, the late singer’s voice effectively wails off the page in stories of her nights headlining beloved local venues like San Francisco’s now-shuttered Avalon Ballroom on Sutter Street. This year, the book was longlisted for the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence.

Bay Area readers will also delight in learning of Joplin’s deep affinity for the region. Inspired to visit North Beach after reading Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” as a teenager, Joplin would initially live in a Woodacre home named “Argentina” with her bandmates in Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Given Joplin’s presence in San Francisco during the 1967 Summer of Love, George-Warren’s book is also filled with familiar faces from the period, including Digger (and future actor) Peter Coyote, poster artist Stanley Mouse and band members from the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

Holly George-Warren, author of “Janis: Her Life and Music.” Photo: Simon & Schuster

The true stars of this riveting rock biography, however, are the numerous, deeply personal letters written by Joplin throughout her life.

This correspondence (preserved by Joplin’s siblings following her death) provides a number of insights into Joplin’s thoughts and desires. Her turning point from dutiful daughter to misbehaving beatnik at age 14 sets in motion what becomes a lifelong struggle for Joplin, who writes of craving both adoration and domesticity.

George-Warren wisely contrasts Joplin’s admissions of a primal desire to be loved and praised with stories recalling her reputed penchant for hopping between the sheets with a rotating cast of lovers. In detailing Joplin’s brief, doomed engagement to an actual con man, George-Warren relies on Joplin’s numerous unanswered letters to her would-be husband to offer a heartbreaking glimpse into the ways Joplin’s stardom seemingly failed to satiate her appetite for affirmation.

Tragically, heroin would ultimately serve as a lethal substitute, leading to Joplin’s death from an overdose in 1970. In detailing Joplin’s numerous attempts to rid herself of drugs (as well as alcohol), George-Warren also offers a sobering profile of the ravages of addiction.

More than anything, however, it’s Joplin’s voice — ragged, transcendent, booming, pleading — that guides the story.

Whether it’s through detailing how Joplin studied Otis Redding’s pronunciation of a syllable to guide her own delivery, or using her words to provide direct insight into what she made of her own wild ride to the top, George-Warren succeeds in following the cardinal rule when it comes to Janis Joplin: the mike is all hers.

“Janis: Her Life and Music”
By Holly George-Warren
(Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; $28.99)