Buried Alive [Reading Challenge 2020]

Buried Alive

by Myra Friedman
William Morrow & Company, 1973

[Challenge # 12 : A book where music features prominently, or about musicians.]

As a singer Janis Joplin is, unfortunately, something of a museum piece now. Her icon status has faded with the decades, unlike her contemporaries Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton, both of whom shared, to an extent, Joplin’s cartoonishness but not her vices. Both went on to have long and respected careers. Joplin, well, she imploded at the apex of her meteoric rise to fame.

It’s hard to understand how unique that trajectory was these days, when female pop stars with outlandish alter egos unfold their lives in real time in front of millions. But in the late 1960s Joplin was something new and special — a rock n’ roll wild hippie chick — and being hyped everywhere, especially in Rolling Stone magazine. She hyped herself as well, bending the truth to create her own legend. Other rock musicians have done this of course, like Jim Morrison (who famously said, on air in a TV interview, “My parents are dead” rather than outing his father as a Navy admiral then deployed in Vietnam) and more passively by Mick Jagger and Jimmy Hendrix, who were aware of but did not contest the image built for them by the press and their own publicists and managers. Unfairly, because of this self-hype as her alter ego “Pearl” Joplin is more often seen a symbol of the 1960s, rather than an artist in her own right.

Buried Alive was in fact written by a music publicist, Joplin’s own: Myra Friedman. Friedman worked for Joplin’s manager, the legendary Albert Grossman, who also managed Bob Dylan. Friedman had a background in music writing and so much of the bio read like liner notes for an album rather than a birth-to-death account of a musician’s life. This made it both perplexing and enjoyable to read. I kept looking for the  journalistic markers that are standard for today’s biographers even as I enjoyed its style and freshness (it was published less than five years after Joplin’s death from a heroin overdose.) Since it was a new beast, one of the first bios of a 1960s rock star, it grasps at air a bit and carries too much of the writer’s own slant, but it was entertaining and illuminated the era in a way that later, more scholarly  works could never do.

For example, in writing about hippie culture Friedman captures with honestly their ridiculousness and stunted speech, something which later writers, being actually of that generation, tend to overlook or glamorize (such as the Jim Morrison biographies No One Here Gets Out Alive and Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend – the latter of which had the writer trying too hard to convince us of Morrison’s talent as a poet, while he actually came off as having Tourette’s Syndrome.)

But however fresh it was, the book lacked the insights of today, particularly about Joplin’s drinking and alcohol addiction. And boy did she drink. One period toward the end of her life she started drinking pina coladas in the morning, screwdrivers for lunch, vodka and orange juice in various bars throughout the day, then a nap to recover from the binge so she could drink some more before going on stage, and then there was yet more drinking after the show. Joplin died at age 27 with her liver already damaged in spite of her legendary constitution. If she had not taken that fatal overdose, in a few more years she might have been forced to get help as her physical body deteriorated.

The author does make the point that no one thought much about addiction in the wild days of Haight Asbury. The “do your own thing” laissez-faire attitude of the counterculture was one of its crueler, more feral sides which is not much discussed today, and a major contributor to Joplin’s death. Interventions were unknown and seen as square. Real hippies shouldered on with their chemical enlightenments and expected others to do so, too.

Buried Alive was also one of the rare bios that had an actual style to the writing, one that was not cynical or kid glove. Here’s how the author punctures the Woodstock myth and cuts to its heart:

Woodstock, everyone knew, was less a festival that a religious convocation. Its ceremonies were the assertions of lifestyle, and the lifestyle included a celebration of the mystical relationship between drugs and rock, with grass as the Holy Wafer. It was as if the dope that everyone was free to use in the absence of the law had been commandeered to take that very law’s place. No fences were there, no guards, no shower stalls. What ruled was the rock world’s Realpolitik: you are only as good as the number of joints you smoke, only as blessed as you are high. It was as if Woodstock was the ultimate declaration of dope, not as an incidental euphoriant, but as some kind of necessary virtue.

The 1979 Bette Midler movie vehicle The Rose, which grew out of a failed attempt at a Joplin biopic, cribbed a lot from Friedman’s bio and its novelization copied its style. I’m ashamed to admit I read that supremely trashy book multiple times, and for a while it influenced my teenage writing. Never did I think that one day I’d get to read the original.

Overall Buried Alive is an entertaining period piece for anyone interested in a contemporary account of the 1960s as they were lived, but it’s not the definitive biography, rather a resource for later biographers. As a plus: look in the book for one of the first mentions of a young Patti Smith, described by the author as a poet, in a scene in the Chelsea Hotel.

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