342 pages. $22.50. For two years, while she searched for her rock and roll soul, Janis Joplin wrote wonderfully vibrant, funny, smart, tender letters to her skeptical parents and younger brother and sister back in Port Arthur, Texas. She gushed about music, clothes and boyfriends, her hippie lifestyle, her dog, her dreams and insecurities. The plain-faced girl who never thought she was good enough desperately wanted her family's approval.
June 6, 1966, from psychedelic Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco: Mother & Dad . . . I'm sure you're both convinced my self-destructive streak has won out again but I'm really trying. I do plan on coming back to school -- unless, I must admit, this turns into a good thing. . . . I'm awfully sorry to be such a disappointment to you. . . . please believe that you can't possibly want for me to be a winner more than I do.
After a year spent recovering from an addiction to speed, Janis had left Texas, without notice, to audition as a singer with Big Brother & the Holding Company, with whom she would make her reputation.
Feb. 20, 1968, from New York City: Dear Mother -- . . . From all indications I'm going to be rich & famous. Incredible! . . . Wow, I'm so lucky -- I just fumbled around being a mixed-up kid (& young adult) & then fell into this. And finally, it looks like something is going to work for me. Incredible.
Oct. 4, 1970: Janis Joplin, 27, is found dead in Los Angeles' Landmark Hotel of an alcohol-related heroin overdose. Another crash-and-burn casualty of the '60s.
Joplin may have belted out raunchy blues, while belting down endless beers, but the two dozen letters that her sister Laura, now 43 and an educator living in Denver, collects in "Love, Janis" are endearing, almost girlish. But the rest of the book -- a must-read biography for fans -- is unsettling. Underlying Laura's portrayal of the defiant sister whom she idolized and then lost lurks unreconciled grief and anger.
The superstar Janis had publicly characterized herself as an outcast mistreated by her family. Her apparent lies deeply wounded Laura: She wants to love Janis again, but her intellect resists. Thus, "Love, Janis" mixes Janis' full-blown emotions and flamboyant narcissism with Laura's pain-filled reasoning and introspection. Both women elicit sympathy and affection, but the best writing belongs to Janis.
Had Janis Joplin survived her alcohol addiction, drugs and notoriety, she would be 50 on Jan. 19. Surprisingly, like many women of her generation, the rock star was torn between marriage and her liberating career. "Take another little piece of my heart now, baby," she dared in one of her most famous songs. Yet the little-girl Janis yearned to be "saved" by love. In a sense, "Love, Janis" is her salvation.
Ms. Sjoerdsma is book editor for the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot. She lives in Baltimore.