PORT ARTHUR TEX. Jan 19: For years communities across the country have been making their peace with the troubled 60’s, usually with belated homecomings for the men who fought in the nation’s least popular war.
Tonight this Gulf Coast refinery town of about 60,000 residents in southeast Texas turned out in a memorial to honor one of its own, whose dizzying rise to fame and fatal infatuation with excess symbolized the other side of the 60’s. Had she not died of a heroin overdose 17 years ago, Janis Joplin would have been 45 years old today.
It was a bittersweet event that perhaps had as much to do with economics as with affection. But for a night at least it put a healing glow on an era here that even critics no longer view as grim as it once did.
“It’s a different time now,” said Tim Romero, who helped coordinate the events for the Chamber of Commerce. “She was the biggest thing that ever came out of this area. Sure, she had problems with drugs, but there has never been any sin yet that’s unforgivable.”
There was something wildly unlikely about the gathering that officials said drew about 5,000 people, the largest crowd in the history of the convention center here. Miss Joplin, whose eccentric habits and gawky adolescence drew taunts of “pig” in local high school hallways, never missed a chance to dismiss her blue-collar hometown as a bastion of small-town intolerance.
Port Arthur, in turn, was always torn between admiring her success and deploring her way of life to the point that even an editorial in The Port Arthur News on this week’s events took pains to note: “The important thing to remember here is that no one is trying to glorify Janis Joplin’s lifestyle or drug use.”
But there were no such reproaches this evening. Local elected officials and chamber members were on hand with warm praise, as if honoring a football star, before the unveiling of a sculpture in her honor. The sculpture and momentos of her career and that of other local musicians ranging from the Big Bopper to Johnny Winter will become the heart of what local officials hope will be a major tourist attraction.
The crowd mirrored the eclectic nature of the event. Her brother, Mike Joplin, a 35-year-old artist from Tucson, and her sister, Laura Joplin-Pelley, a 38-year-old writer from Houston were on hand, beaming with pleasure at the tribute. Beverly Zawadzki of Houston, who bore a eerie resemblance to Miss Joplin right down to her frizzy long hair, multi-colored pantsuit, leather vest and moccasins, was there happily posing for pictures.
Joe Lablanc, whose leather shop specializes in Cajun trick wallets, was there with handmade leather momentos with a mirror on one side and this quotation from Miss Joplin on the other: “I think you can destroy your now by worrying about tomorrow.”
For the rest, the occasion was a chance to pay tribute, hear some of the area’s best-known musicians, and gawk at Joplin memorabilia ranging from album covers and concert posters to her high school slide rule, yearbooks, and paintings, the most striking of which was a crucifixion.
“It’s a wonderful gesture, and I think she would have really appreciated it,” said her sister, Mrs. Pelley, “everyone else gets to age gracefully, but Janis got imprisoned in people’s minds because of her early death.”
Some friends, many of whom remember wild jaunts with Janis to hear rhythm and blues bands at the Big Oak, the plankboard-floor dance hall across the border in Louisiana, enjoyed the gathering but took a wry view of the town’s belated tribute.
“The whole damn economy has gone bust, and they’re desperate for any kind of tourism they can find,” said Jim Langdon, a high school friend who now lives in Houston.
In fact, the drearily stable refinery town of the 60’s that seemed like such a prison to Janis and her friends, in retrospect looks pretty appealing to most of those still here. The downtown streets where kids cruised on Friday nights is now a boarded-up ghost town of vacant storefronts and empty shops. The unemployment rate quadrupled from about 6 percent when she died in 1970 to a peak of 25.8 percent at the depth of the oil bust. It now stands at 15.9 percent.
It is an utterly different world than the Port Arthur of her time could have imagined. But then, no one in their wildest dreams back then could have expected the Mayor, the Chamber of Commerce and 5,000 people to turn out to honor Janis Joplin either.