PORT ARTHUR, Tex.- It is difficult to imagine Janis Joplin in such surroundings. Port Arthur is just a little oil refinery town of maybe 70,000 persons, tucked away in the southeast corner of Texas, a bastion of Middle America. Her death went unnoticed or ignored by most of the populace, who knew only that she was some kind of hippie singer who was ungrateful to her Port Arthur heritage and who had occasionally maligned their town.
Because if this, the sentiment after her death was not totally unexpected. “My God! I hope they don’t bring her back here for the funeral. We’ll be overrun with hippies,” was the stock man-in-the-street reaction recorded in the local paper.
The Joplin home is a neat, three-shaded pink frame house in a comfortable neighborhood. It is a long way from the Fillmore.
Janis’s father, Seth Joplin, the supervisor of one of Texaco’s three Port Arthur plants, is sitting in the Joplin living room. It is spotless and orderly, down to the copies of Bazaar and Nation’s Business displayed on the coffee table, but is almost choked with flowers sent by well-wishers. At Seth Joplin’s right is an enormous stack of telegrams, cards, and letters from all over the world. One card says, “I know what happened. Janis killed herself out of sorrow over Jimi Hendrix’s death.” That draws wry chuckles from Seth and the interviewer.
Seth, a quiet, introspective man, has agreed today to talk for the family. His wife, Dorothy, is resting. Their son, Mike is at work and daughter Laura is away at college. He settles himself on the couch and lights the first of many cigarettes.
Do you feel the media have been fair to Janis, both before and since her death?
No. By and large the media have not been fair, although they have been fairer since her death. I guess it’s harder to attack someone in death. Even so-much of what has been printed has been totally untrue. Since her death there has been so much speculation-and that’s all it is. The coroner’s report won’t be issued for two weeks yet. The newspapers said it was an overdose. They don’t know that it was. We were out there in Los Angeles and there were no drugs found in the room. There were some sleeping pills. There might have been an accidental overdose of those. No one knows yet.
Most news reports seem to dwell on the fact that she had “run away from home.” My impression was that she simply went away to college and didn’t come back much after that.
She didn’t run away from home. There was never any violent separation. I’ve seen stories that said she ran away from home when she was 11, or 14, or 17. She left home with our approval and our funds. It was not approved in the strictest sense. We would have preffered that she didn’t do it, but there wasn’t much we could do about it…but the media have been quick to seize upon superficialities without knowing what she was like. She was trusting and lonely and put all the hell-raising to cover up. Yes, she was a wild woman and a willful child. She cursed and carried on. That was her act, but it was mostly act. Although she led a wild life and tried everything there was to try.
But that isn’t the full story…
No. Now the papers are trying to sensationalize her. In the past, for example, there have been interviews printed that never took place, written by people who never met her. She didn’t try to show her best side. She showed what she thought was her individual self. Since her death, I haven’t watched many of the TV reports but I’ve read some of the news reports and they’re more sympathetic now.
How did the family hear of her death?
We heard about the death about one AM Monday. John Cooke [her road manager and friend] called us after he discovered her in the motel room. I heard she was in excellent spirits and happy over the record. Then she wasn’t seen all day Sunday, which wasn’t like her.
Would you have preferred that she be buried here?
The disposition was handled the way she wanted it. Cremation. And what she wanted was what we wanted.
What was she like as a child?
She went to church, sang in the choir and glee club, and painted. She was an artist, a good one. But she quit because she didn’t think she would be as good as she wanted. She was a real nice, bright, smart child.
When was she born?
January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur. She finished high school right after her 17th birthday. She was really a little young for her contemporaries. She was advanced a grade, so she was at least a year younger than everyone else in her class, which we felt was one of her problems. She was emotionally not as mature as she was mentally at that time. From about the age of 14, Janis was a revolutionary-dressing and acting differently.
When did she start college?
The summer after she graduated from high school, she started at Lamar Tech [Lamar Tech College of Technology in nearby Beaumont]. She was studying art, I think. She went to Lamar Tech three different times and the University of Texas two different times. And she went to Port Arthur College where she learned keypunch and then went out to the West Coast and worked in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Before, in Port Arthur, she worked in the library here one summer, was a waitress for awhile, and addressed envelopes. She really got on the beatnik scene, or whatever you want to call it, her senior year in high school.
Was she pretty much a loner in high school?
Yes, she mostly kept to herself. She had a pretty rough time of it in high school. She insisted on dressing and acting differently and they hated her for it. There were no people she could relate with, talk to. As far as Port Arthur was concerned, she was one of the first revolutionary youths. There’s lots of them now.
Was she doing much singing before she left?
No, I don’t think she paid much attention to singing. She said once that she was at a party one night and tried imitating Bessie Smith, and I guess that’s the way it was. She was doing a lot of painting then, going to parties, reading. She was gone a lot, running around.
Do you recall what type of music she listened to?
No. I don’t recall her listening to music much. We had Bach and Beethoven going and she liked some of that. I don’t remember what she listened to, other than Bessie Smith and Leadbelly and some of those old blues singers. She listened to them. Her records, most of them, are still around here. I remember when she came back to Austin, she had a guitar and was playing and singing. And at Lamar Tech the last time, she sang at coffeehouses and sang at some in Houston and Austin and around. Mostly, she sang for drinks, but I think she made some money in Austin. At Lamar Tech, she was doing real well, making straight As, but at the end of the term, she lost them. She came back here for summer school, but met up with Big Brother’s manager and the next I heard, she was in California and been there ever since.
Something else that has been made much of in articles was alienation from her family. Was that so?
She was never alienated from the family. Although we disagreed with the way she lived, she liked us and we liked her. She came back more than I would have thought.
Did she noticeably change?
No, she remained the same person basically. Although the one-night stands ruined her health, never eating right, living in motels and going to parties. She was driving herself too hard. She never thought about the day after tomorrow. She abused herself physically, there’s no doubt about that.
The last time she was here, for the Jefferson High School reunion in August, did she still seem about the same to you?
At the reunion, she seemed very much the same. I never did understand why she came back for it, it was so out of character for her. Maybe the ten years made her a little nostalgic. She was just the same. She never seemed to sleep, always in motion, people always around her. It was never dull around her, even when she was a kid.
Did Janis ever have many friends in Port Arthur?
No, she never had many local friends. People were kind of afraid of her, they didn’t know what she might do. Apparently since her death more people here were her friends than she knew. We didn’t have any idea of all the friends she had everywhere. We’ve gotten flowers and messages from all over the world. Something strange, we got as many cards from North Carolina as from Port Arthur. Just like with anybody else-while you’re alive people remember the bad things. When you’re dead, they remember the good things. She said so much bad about Port Arthur, the people and the media here didn’t like her. You’d be surprised at the number of obscene phone calls. While she was alive, we’d get them mostly after she was on TV. Since her death, they’ve mostly been persons laughing or just silent callers.
We got one call from a girl in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She had run away to Los Angeles to be an actress and she was working as a waitress there when she met Janis in a restaurant, she waited on her. They got to talking and Janis told her to get back home. Janis took her to the bus station, bought her a ticket, and put her on a bus for Lake Charles. She called us up to say how much she appreciated that. She’s now married and has a child and she said she would have gone wrong if she had stayed in L.A.
That’s not the sort of thing that was usually associated with Janis.
No. That’s a side of Janis no one saw. She would only do that if no one was around that she knew, if none of her friends were around. She didn’t want to reveal her true feelings.
Were you at all surprised by her success?
No, I wasn’t really surprised at her success. Like with her art, she generally managed to do well at whatever she tried. But when she would start to be really good at something, she would quit. I really expected her to quit music.
Did she talk to you much about her music, her success?
She liked the adulation of the crowd. It was her whole life. But you’d be surprised at how lonely a person like that could be-one night stands and motels. She had no stable life of any kind. About a year ago, she brought a house north of San Francisco and was fixing it up at the time of her death. It was a nice place, back in the redwoods. She really liked it, she was very happy about the house and her dogs.
Did she ever express any unhappiness?
She wasn’t dissatisfied with life. She remarked about the loneliness of it, the lack of stability, the lack of friends. But that’s just the way her life was.
What sort of painting did she do?
She painted practically everything, even some religious themes, although she was never a religious person. One night she had a painting she wanted to do, on a great big canvas, six or eight feet long. So she took it out into the garage. It was a cold winter night and she ran the clothes dryer for heat and painted out there all night long.
What was the subject?
It was of the Three Kings. But she painted it as her feelings of the Three Kings. One painting that we still have, which is unfinished, is of Christ on the cross, very cubistic. My wife plans to finish it herself. She was a singer in high school and got a voice scholarship to Texas Christian University. But she quit singing after college.
Had you heard much about the progress of the new album?
They had eight songs finished out of the ten that were planned for the album. I think it will be released in the middle of November. Of course they want to capitalize on it. While I was in L.A. one of the papers there had a kind of James Dean thing about Janis, saying she died before she reached her prime. Her managers thought she was just coming into her best singing. That’s what Albert Grossman said. She had a band this time that she really liked, that suited her style. They were willing to play as a back-up group, rather than as individuals. Big Brother wasn’t good enough, they didn’t care. The brass in her second group didn’t suit her. Her voice was like an orchestra in itself. But this new group was just right for her. This will be far and away her best record. I didn’t particularly like the others.
Did you ever see her perform?
We saw her shortly after the Monterey Pop Festival. We saw her at the Fillmore and I’ll never get over that. I couldn’t imagine the volume of sound-truly incredible. But she was good. The band put on a special performance free for our benefit. And we saw her twice in Houston, at the Coliseum and the Music Hall.
Are Janis’ brother or sister musically inclined?
Laura [who is 21 and a graduate student in psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas] plays guitar and has a sweet little voice, as far as folk songs go, songs like “Long Black Veil.” I think she’s really good at it. She was youth director at her church here and she sang there. She graduated from Lamar Tech in three years.
What about Mike?
Michael is 17 and he’s kind of a willful one, too. It ain’t easy. But he’s a real nice boy. He could be an artist, he’s good at drawing. He can look at something small and draw it larger in perfect proportion. Janis could do the same, but she blocked things. He doesn’t have to.
* * *
We both fell silent and a strange, tangible, almost uncomfortable stillness fills the room. Seth stands, signaling the end of the talk, and says, “She was a pretty good kid, really, in most ways. As a parent you look at her differently. She wasn’t easy to raise, but then a lot of people aren’t. Maybe you weren’t.”
On the way out, Seth took me to the garage to show me something he had found while cleaning it out earlier in the day. He points to the floor, saying, “See those? She scratched those into the concrete when she was just a kid.”
There, in two corners of the garage, are “JANIS” and “JLJ” (Janis Lyn Joplin).