Oct. 8 – In a corner house on a shady street in Park Hill, you can still touch the raw, raging beat of the ’60s.
Of course, you’ll have to look past the cleaning crew that’s busily dusting the dining room and beyond the mom who’s rattling pans in her kitchen. But amid the sounds of domesticity and the scent of Lemon Pledge, it’s here all right.
Laura Joplin’s rock ‘n’ roll time warp.
There are tangible guideposts to lead you back: black-and-white, family snapshots of a psychedelic blues queen; homespun letters and funny postcards from the edge of a revolution. Most of all, though, there are the intimate memories of Janis Joplin’s little sister
For 30 years, Laura Joplin has guarded this private treasure trove, because within it she can still hear her sister’s voice.
“That’s the thing about her letters. They’re really fresh and spontaneous, not sifted through the gray curtain of her death,” says Laura Joplin, who has spent the last 18 years in Denver.
“When you read her letters, she’s alive and she’s fun. They bring you back into the moment, kind of like time (travel) on “Star Trek’ – woosh, you’re back there.”
Joplin recently shared many of those mementos with a San Francisco publishing house (Acid Test Productions) for a book detailing her famous sister’s career. It’s called “Janis Joplin . . . A Performance Diary: 1966-1970.” Photo-packed and laid out like a slick scrapbook, “A Performance Diary” takes readers onto the wild road and into the electrified concert halls with Janis Joplin’s bands.
And through the postcards she sent back to her family in Port Arthur, Texas – many written before Joplin hit it big – the book offers a pure glimpse of the woman who would become a legendary rock diva. Like this note from San Francisco in August 1966:
“The society seems to be leaning away from itself, straining for the periphery of hell, the edges, you know . . . Oh this weekend . . . we’re playing at the Avalon . . . But some good friends, the Grateful Dead are playing there – they’re also neighbors, one of 2 other groups that live out here. Just down the road a piece . . .
Through her own words, Janis Joplin comes off as smart, perceptive and driven to make something special out of her singing career. She also seems vibrant and amazed by her sudden fame:
“Wow, I can’t help it – I love it! People really treat me with deference. I’m some body important. SIGH!! . . . ”
Even better, by offering those little pieces of her heart, Laura Joplin says the book gives music lovers and longtime fans a chance to know the woman she simply remembers as her big sister.
“It’s a montage, a collection of a bunch of disparate pieces that go together to give you a sense of the times, the moments as they were happening,” she says.
“This is not a reflective or interpretive piece trying to capture the essence of being there. There’s already plenty of interpretation of (Janis Joplin). It’s nice to have something that’s more real.”
It’s the second Janis Joplin book that Laura has been involved with. Four years ago, her biography, “Love, Janis,” inspired a musical by the Denver Center Theatre Company that drew rave reviews.
Today, there’s talk of taking the musical to Broadway. And there are murmurs about a possible Janis Joplin movie. It’s all part of what Laura calls tending to “Janis’ business.” Typically, Laura Joplin spends her time raising a 12-year old daughter and playing a little rock ‘n’ roll herself.
“Oh, I sing for fun with some people in someone’s living room – acoustic rock and folk. But don’t hold your breath if you’re thinking about a career debut.
“To me, that’s what music is really about, just sharing pleasure. It’s a good way to be with people, the community that you form. It’s just great fun.”
Spoken like a true Joplin. Her sister was truly all about fun. About the moment.
The sisters – along with a younger brother – were raised in a cozy, middle-class home. Their father was an engineer in an oil company. Their mother taught school. Janis, intelligent and creative yet a bit of a social outcast, was inspired when she first heard blues records sung by classic artists like Bessie Smith and Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly).
She left home for San Francisco in the mid-’60s and gobbled up the new music and the hippie scene. She joined the band Big Brother & The Holding Company and got immediately hooked on the rush of cheering fans, according to her letters home.
“She was someone who changed in the four years of her celebrity. She was very bright and very curious,” Laura Joplin says.
Part of that curiosity led Janis Joplin to drugs, like many other young adults who experimented with experiences.
“But she clearly got too far out there,” Laura Joplin says now.
Around 1965 – before San Francisco – Janis had had a bad scare after taking amphetamines. She piled her hair into a bun, wore conservative clothes and warned friends, “Don’t drink too much.” Even after she went to San Francisco, her letters home soothed her parents by telling them that she was “in control.”
“Then, she became so successful. And everyone is telling you, “You’re great,’ ” her sister recalls. “Are your parents going to tell you to slow down? Uh uh.”
The last time Laura Joplin saw Janis was in August 1970 when her sister came back to Port Arthur to attend a high school reunion. She was 27. Laura was 21. The sisters were very different.
Laura was far more pragmatic. She had just finished college at Lamar University and was headed to Southern Methodist University to study psychology. Janis was one of a handful of musicians and philosophers trying to remold society.
“I sampled a lot of things. She jumped into it,” Laura Joplin says. “That was a big difference between us.”
Still, the sisters connected.
“We had some real good discussions, the kinds of things we needed to say to each other,” Laura Joplin says. They made plans to get together for Christmas break. But in October, Janis died from a heroin overdose. And her celebrity exploded even further.
Three decades later, though, Laura is able to see beyond the Janis Joplin persona. She’s one of the few that can still see and hear the real person.
“When Janis died, she developed a second career as a social icon. Initially, all she had to be was a singer and a person. Being a social icon carries with it a certain charge the public wants it to carry.
“I have a relationship with her as a sister. But that’s not ever going to be your perception of her – and that’s fine with me. Your perception is just as important as mine. I don’t ever want to change that.”