Dissecting rock 'n' roll's first female superstar
'Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin'
May 24, 1999
(CNN) -- Alice Echols pushes beyond the legendary Janis Joplin and the equally familiar portrait of the messed-up star victimized by the era she symbolized to see how this sweet-voiced girl from Texas re-created herself, first as a gravelly-voiced bluesy folk singer, and then as rock 'n' roll's first female superstar. She examines the roots of Joplin's musicianship and her efforts, both onstage and off, to live on what she called "the outer limits of probability."
This text contains profanity that may be offensive to some readers.
"What's happening never happens there" was how Janis summed up life in her hometown. Port Arthur was so suffocating it felt as if it might suck the life right out of you, especially if you were a smart and curious girl like Janis. Dwarfed by oil refineries, chemical plants, and row after row of huge, squat oil-storage tanks, the town seemed like an afterthought to this vast industrial sprawl. At night when the burning flares from the refineries turned the sky "an eerie doomsday red" the place even looked like hell on earth. Then there was the smell, what some residents called "the smell of money." The whole "Golden Triangle -- of Port Arthur, Orange, and Beaumont stank like a rotten egg. There was no way to avoid the fumes; in those days the plants simply blew all the gas out into the open air. At Lamar Tech, where Janis began college, the fumes from a nearby sulfur plant could become so noxious they'd melt the girls' nylons. After a day on campus, "you'd end up feeling like you'd eaten a book of matches." To Janis and her friends, the Golden Triangle was a smelly, stultifying, mosquito-ridden swamp -- "a foot fungus" growing along the Texas-Louisiana border, wrote Molly Ivins. Even that organ of Establishment-think Business Week named Port Arthur one of the "ten ugliest towns on the planet."
Still, that wasn't the worst of it. The town that boasted "it oiled the world" seemed a cultural and intellectual wasteland to Janis and her friends. Port Arthur may have been in the technology forefront, but in every other respect it was as barren as its landscape was flat -- "all drive-in movies and Coke stands," groused Janis. Its only bookstore was a Christian one. The place offered so little in the way of diversion that Janis's father would take the kids on outings to the post office to look at the latest Most Wanted posters. "There was simply nowhere to go," sighs Janis's high school friend Dave Moriaty.
Patti Skaff blames the cultural drought on middle-class Port Arthurans who "didn't really have much of an idea of what to do except to buy a new car every other year." After all, she says, "look where they built their first country club -- directly below a refinery." Moriaty has a different explanation. Most residents, he points out, moved there to work in the refineries. It was one of the few places that people, even MIT-educated engineers, could find work during the Great Depression. "It went from nothing," says Moriaty, "to the fifth-largest city in Texas in 1940." Yet few people, he argues, thought about making it a congenial place for the children of all the professionals hired by the refineries. "Intellectual and cultural achievement didn't give you any advantage," recalls Moriaty. "Nobody cared that we were smart and talented." Harry Britt, a gay activist who grew up in Port Arthur, says it's pretty clear why Janis and her hometown weren't a match. "Port Arthur is not a Janis Joplin town. Port Arthur would see country western star Tex Bitter, who was born in nearby Nederland, as its own, not Janis Joplin."
The dissonance Britt identifies was real. It also provided journalists with a ready-made hook: Janis Joplin, red-hot hippie mama from redneck Bible-banging Port Arthur. Journalists loved the implausibility of her story. Port Arthurans, for their part, were happy to disown her. And Janis enjoyed nothing so much as nurturing her own outsized legend as the Lone Star State's most famous misfit rebel, a canny move in the years after President Kennedy's assassination, when Texas became the state it was okay to hate. Janis and her friends certainly were out of place, and they did feel cheated growing up there. The childhood reminiscences of her friends, though, begin to solve the mystery of how Janis Joplin could have emerged from Port Arthur.
First of all, Janis's hometown wasn't a typical Bible Belt backwater. Unlike many southern towns, Port Arthur boasted one of the best white school systems in Texas because the oil companies pumped money into it. And if Port Arthur's solid citizens seemed overly concerned with piety and propriety, it may well have been because their downtown was funkier than just about any other in the South, outside of New Orleans. Port Arthur was a real-life Sin City, a "wide-open town with whorehouses, casinos, slot machines -- the whole thing." Its thirty-two brothels offered a cornucopia of red-light-district delights. (None of this was lost on Janis and her teenage pals, who kept count of the town's brothels.) The whole show was run by a New Orleans mob family who made a fortune off transient sailors stuck in Port Arthur for a night or two. The police looked the other way until the late fifties, when an investigating committee from the Texas legislature came to town and shut it all down. Curious teenagers, aware of the sexual underground thriving in their midst, could hardly help being struck by the hypocrisy and "phoniness" of the townspeople. They certainly understood that not all the men slipping off to visit prostitutes were sailors passing through town and that the same cops who talked law and order were in bed with the mob. One of Janis's friends remembers watching the town's sheriff trying to explain on TV how "those envelopes of cash would magically end up on the front seat of his car while he was in a caf -- grabbing a cup of coffee."
Graft, gambling, and prostitution were not Port Arthur's only distinguishing features. A city of uprooted people, Port Arthur lacked the entrenched class structure that characterized most southern cities. There were tensions, for sure, between the educated "Yankee" professionals and the backwoods east Texan and Louisianan laborers, but their kids attended the same high school. Class distinctions were also muted because Port Arthur was a union town -- the only one in all of Texas. Blue-collar refinery workers, like autoworkers of that period, were fairly well paid. "Lots of working-class boys' dads bought them new cars," says Moriaty. In fact, blue-collar workers with seniority sometimes made more money than the town's professionals. As a result, working-class and middle-class kids didn't inhabit entirely separate worlds, especially if, like Janis, they were bent on confounding social mores. Port Arthur's relatively porous class lines help explain why Janis, who was raised middle class, sometimes came off as working class.
Blue-collar and white-collar workers and their families may have mingled, but blacks and whites in Port Arthur lived strictly separate lives. In the fifties, Port Arthur was 40 percent black, with significant numbers of Cajuns and Mexican Americans, too. Segregation was the rule; indeed, to avoid integrating the high school, the town built another one outside city limits. Racism was so much a part of the town's fabric that "nigger knocking -- -- where whites would hang out of speeding cars wielding wooden boards and take aim at black pedestrians -- was a favorite pastime among white teens. Those who tried to breach the color line found few opportunities to do so. When one of Janis's friends got involved in an impromptu game of touch football with some black kids, the police promptly broke it up. Racial containment was pursued all the more vigorously in the South in these years when the civil rights movement -- and rock 'n' roll -- were upending the logic and practice of segregation. Rock 'n' roll concerts and dances promoted the very mixing of races and cultural styles segregationists feared would lead to the "mongrelization" of America. In the spring of 1956, the segregationist Asa Carter led a campaign to have rock 'n' roll records removed from all jukeboxes in Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama. That same year, San Antonio, Texas, banned rock 'n' roll from the jukeboxes at its public swimming pools. To many segregationists, rock 'n' roll was nothing less than an NAACP plot to pull white men "down to the level of the Negro."
Though Port Arthur had white and black schools, churches, water fountains, and everything else, whites still had to go through the black section of town to get to the refineries or the ocean. On those drives, white kids like Janis could see the hypocrisy of "equality" firsthand; they also encountered something more vital than the depleted culture in which they felt trapped. And though Cajuns hadn't yet acquired the cultural capital they have today, the area's Cajun community also seemed alive and dynamic: Cajuns "had passion," Patti Skaff felt; "they had music, they had bars, dances, and fights with each other." Once Janis and her friends were able to pass for eighteen, they'd cross over to Cajun Louisiana -- just a few minutes from Port Arthur over the Rainbow Bridge -- and haunt its dives.
Port Arthur was stultifying, but it was a city on the make. With nearby Beaumont, it boasted the largest petroleum seaport in the world. There was no reason to think the town wouldn't just continue to flourish. However, with the downsizing of the oil refineries, a process that began in the 1970s, Port Arthur lost thousands of jobs. Today, it's just "a poor, beat-up remnant of a town," as Moriaty puts it. "Malled out of existence," Port Arthur is a virtual ghost town, so desolate it rivals Rust Belt cities like Flint, Michigan. Go downtown and you'll find no hardware stores, pharmacies, or department stores, only a few scattered businesses: a nail salon, a bar, and a chemotherapy clinic -- the legacy of all that smelly air. Even the bus station is shuttered. Port Arthur's finest hotel, the elegant twelve-story Goodhue, the site of Janis's high school reunion, is gone, torn down. Small wonder, then, that what's left of the "Yankee elite" congregates at the Port Arthur Club, a windowless building where members can while away the hours reminiscing about the good old days without having to look out at the boarded-up storefronts all around.
Once controlled by whites, Port Arthur is now predominantly black, with a smaller but significant Vietnamese population. In the late seventies, whites began moving to nearby Port Neches, Groves, and Nederland, some say to avoid school integration. Like many other towns facing economic ruination, Port Arthur has tried to put a good face on its troubles by erecting a tribute to itself, the Museum of the Gulf Coast. It's perhaps the most telling sign of the town's desperation that Janis is prominently featured there. Some things, however, never change. When an elderly white volunteer learns why I've stopped in, she can't resist telling me that she has never approved of Janis, thereby allowing me to glimpse, if only for a moment, what it was like being Janis Joplin in Port Arthur.
Janis's parents, Seth Joplin and Dorothy East, met in the Texas panhandle town of Amarillo. Dorothy grew up on a farm in Nebraska and a ranch in Oklahoma. After her father's hog-farming venture failed, he moved the family to Amarillo and embarked on a career selling real estate. Dorothy's mother, a dour woman whose mood wasn't helped by her husband's womanizing and drinking, fled the family several times. Dorothy witnessed terrible shouting matches between her parents and vowed that when she was married she would always "make things work." Seth, too, grew up knowing something about hardship and pain. His father managed the stockyards in Amarillo, but the family was far from financially comfortable. To make ends meet the Joplins took in boarders. Lots of poorer Americans did this, but most didn't split up their own families. The Joplins, however, felt they had to protect their children from the rough-and-tumble stockyard workers moving in and so they settled their daughter in town and installed Seth in a small cabin behind the house.
Dorothy had a powerful soprano voice, but Amarillo afforded her few opportunities for showing it off. Her voice did land her a college scholarship at Texas Christian University. Dissatisfied with the college's singing program, she returned to Amarillo, where she found a temporary job as a sales clerk at Montgomery Ward. Although there were limits to how far a woman could go in those years, Dorothy went pretty far. In no time she'd displaced the vacationing worker, and shortly thereafter she was named department head. But while Dorothy was a dynamo, Seth seems to have been something of a slacker, nearly flunking out of the engineering program at Texas A&M. He said it was the Depression rather than poor grades that forced him to drop out during his final semester. Though only a term short of graduating, Seth never completed his degree. Returning to Amarillo in 1932, he found work pumping gasoline at a service station. After hours he was reputed to be something of a "playboy."
Seth met Dorothy on a blind date. In 1935, about three years into their courtship, one of Seth's college friends recommended him for a job in Port Arthur at Texas Company, which would later be renamed Texaco. Dorothy's boss offered to double her salary if she would stay, but she chose to go to Port Arthur instead. Seth worked at a Texaco plant that made petroleum containers, a job that doesn't seem to have involved any actual engineering work, although it did exempt him from military service during World War II. Family legend has it that even with the new job he and Dorothy were so poor they couldn't afford to get married right away. When they finally wed in 1936, it was a spartan affair without a single relative in attendance. Before long, however, Dorothy's mother, now separated, showed up on their doorstep with her youngest daughter, Mimi, in tow. Their arrival pushed Seth and Dorothy to buy their first house. When the Joplins weren't working, they were partying across the Sabine River in the bars of Vinton, Louisiana, the same town where Janis and her pals would drink and carouse. When Dorothy became pregnant, six years after they were married, their hijinks across the border came to an abrupt end.
Janis Lyn was born on the morning of January 19, 1943. She remained an only child until she was six and, for those years at least, she was the undisputed star of the Joplin family. She also shone outside the home, doing so well at school she skipped the second grade. Up through the ninth grade, Janis was a popular girl; she even had a boyfriend, Jack Smith. Their relationship was "real tame," according to him, amounting to nothing more than going to a few church outings and movies together and playing bridge with her parents. He also accompanied the Joplins to church, where Janis was getting a reputation for her singing. Jack reports that Janis was among the featured soloists in the church choir. She only sang solo on a verse here and there, but it was a big deal for Janis, who corralled Jack and others into going to church to hear her. Janis never mentioned this part of her teenage years to the press, preferring to tell apocryphal stories about stealing hubcaps. But contrary to her legend, Janis didn't start out feeling like a nobody in Port Arthur. Far from it, contends Jack. "She was already a little star." She was also, he says, "the apple of her mother's eye."
Janis's beautiful soprano voice must have pleased her mother -- but it also pained her. Just before Janis's sixth birthday Dorothy had bought her a secondhand upright piano and had taught her how to play nursery tunes. Janis loved pounding away at the piano, but it didn't stay in the Joplin house for long. Seth got rid of it when Dorothy's crystalline singing voice was destroyed by a thyroid operation that damaged her vocal chords. Unable to sing, Dorothy found it too painful listening to Janis, and Seth had always disliked the nightly cacophony anyway. One wonders how Janis absorbed their justifications for the piano's removal.
Around the time Janis lost her piano she gained a sister. Shortly after Laura's birth, the Joplins moved to the fringes of Griffing Park, a wealthier area of Port Arthur. Though their home was still modest by any standards, it signaled their arrival in the middle class, even if only on its lower rungs. Four years after Laura's birth, when Janis was ten, Michael was born. The Joplins had high hopes for their three children, whom they encouraged to read and study diligently. Self-improvement was the rule in the Joplin household. Dorothy arranged private art lessons for Janis, who loved to draw from an early age. In contrast to many of their peers, Janis, Laura, and Michael did not spend hours pasted in front of the family television set. "The biggest thing in our house was when you learnt to write your name," recalled Janis. "You got to go and get your library card." Janis considered her father, who refused to get a TV, "a secret intellectual, a book reader, a talker, a thinker." He was also an inveterate tinkerer, putting his creative energy into building unusual playground contraptions that delighted -- and, on occasion, injured -- neighborhood kids. Dorothy was the parent who tried to instill discipline and the value of perseverance in the children. Although Laura writes with great affection about her mother, calling her the "best teacher" she ever had, she says Dorothy always "monitored" their lives, pushing them to excel, suggesting how they might improve on whatever they were doing, even if they were only playing.
To most Port Arthurans, the Joplins seemed like the proverbial nice family. Like so many other Americans who lived through the dislocations and deprivations of the Great Depression and the Second World War, Seth and Dorothy Joplin wanted nothing so much as a "normal" home. What was understood as normal in the postwar years, however, was qualitatively different from anything that had preceded it. As historian Elaine Tyler May points out, the legendary nuclear family of the fifties was not, as is commonly believed, the "last gasp of `traditional' family life" but rather the "first wholehearted effort to create a home that would fulfill virtually all its members' personal needs." According to the new gospel of family togetherness, parents were supposed to be friends with their children, and husbands and wives each other's closest companion. Unfortunately, the harshness of their own early years put the Joplins at a disadvantage as they set out to raise a normal "fifties" family of their own. They tried to be good parents, but they had each grown up in families with little intimacy or emotional warmth. Asked if Janis had received much affection growing up, Dorothy Joplin tellingly replied, "Well, she got her share." It's an unsettling response but hardly surprising, given Dorothy's own lifelong feelings of deprivation; well into her seventies she continued to complain "half-bitterly" about having been fed plain oatmeal for breakfast every morning of her life until she went off to college.
Dorothy Joplin was an attentive mother -- she read Dr. Spock faithfully -- but she was hardly warm or affectionate. Bernard Giarratano, a social worker who counseled Janis when she was in her early twenties, describes Dorothy as "very straight, very staid, very somber. If she had passion, it was in the dark of night somewhere." Jim Langdon, one of Janis's closest friends from Texas, agrees. Dorothy was "very straitlaced, critical, rigid, and cool -- not a warm person." Another friend remembers her as very forceful and extraordinarily controlling -- destructively so. And though Seth could not be accused of being domineering, he too was emotionally distant and may well have been an alcoholic. An intensely private man who likened himself to a monk, Seth was "kind of in the background," which usually meant in the garage, the only place Dorothy would permit him to drink. Seth apparently spent hours in the garage tinkering and drinking, away from the rest of the family. He was a discreet drinker, never a sloppy, public drunk. In fact, it seems only Dorothy knew that he drank; it must have pained her that he preferred solitude and the bottle to her company. And as a Sunday school teacher at Port Arthur's First Christian Church, she could hardly have been pleased that her husband was a nonbeliever.
Despite their differences, Seth and Dorothy didn't fight, probably because Seth made himself scarce. Once, when Janis was still a young child, Dorothy upbraided him for regaling Janis with stories of his college days making bathtub gin. Seth didn't take Dorothy on; he simply put an end to his nightly afterwork chats with his daughter. This was his way of getting along, and as he retreated further into himself, he increasingly came to view life as a big cheat. "The Great Saturday Night Swindle" he called it. As an adult, Janis spoke proudly of her father's cynical philosophy, as if it revealed how cool he was rather than how unhappy.
Janis's own chronic unhappiness is such a large part of her legend that biographers have scrambled desperately to explain what went wrong. But as hard as they've looked, they've found nothing to suggest her family was uniquely pathological. The Joplins had their share of problems, but they were not spectacularly dysfunctional in the ways Americans have come to expect of their celebrity families. This is not to say that Janis fabricated stories of a painful childhood or that everything was just fine. But whatever the discontents and dissatisfactions within the Joplin household, they remained subterranean until Janis became a teenager.
Janis viewed her life as rent by a "geologic fault." She saw her early years as idyllic. "Then the whole world turned. It just turned on me!" she said. In interview after interview, Janis placed the fault line at age fourteen, the age she lost her looks. "She'd been cute and all of a sudden she was ugly," reported one classmate. Years later, Janis half jokingly attributed her high school troubles to the fact that she "didn't have any tits at fourteen." Most of her classmates were older and that didn't help, but Janis's flat chest was the least of her problems. At fourteen Janis started to put on weight and her face began breaking out in what her sister calls "a never-ending series of painful bright red pimples." Janis's acne was so bad her mother took her to a local dermatologist, who applied dry ice to the worst outbreaks -- one of several ineffective treatments at the time -- and blamed Janis when her skin failed to clear up.
Her transformation couldn't have come at a worse time -- just as she entered senior high in 1957. As her high school friend Grant Lyons argues, "once you turned fourteen in Port Arthur, Texas, you were in a kind of sexual race if you were a girl. And if you didn't have the goods, well, then, you fell behind. The girls who were popular were good-looking, and Janis wasn't." Janis's metamorphosis must have played a role in her failure to be selected to the Red Huzzars, her school's elite drum and bugle corps. Thomas Jefferson High was a perennial football powerhouse and much of the school's culture revolved around sports. The Red Huzzars (or "Red Huzzies," as Janis called them) performed at the Cotton Bowl, and it was considered quite a feat to earn a position on the squad. Janis began high school certain she'd be chosen: after all, she'd always been popular. The rejection devastated her. Janis was supposed to be a star, not a runner-up, a loser. To Janis, her physical transformation must have seemed a terrible betrayal.
Of course, there were plenty of other homely teenage girls in Port Arthur and they were largely ignored. Janis could have chosen to be inconspicuous, but she decided to fight what other girls accepted as fate. As a precocious only child for the first six years of her life, Janis hadn't grown up feeling like the other girls of Port Arthur, anyway. She was extremely bright, very inquisitive, and headstrong -- not the sort of child to accept the prevailing wisdom about much of anything. When she set about getting people's attention again, she not only made a point of her difference but embellished it. Better negative attention than no attention at all. Janis began high school in regulation fifties dress -- demure skirts and white shirts, bobby sox and loafers, but within a year she'd abandoned it all for skirts cut daringly above the knee or, even more risque, tights -- sometimes black, sometimes purple -- which she'd wear with a man's white shirt and a black belt. She remade herself into a beatnik girl -- the only one in all of Port Arthur. Janis was bent on becoming an eyesore, an affront to everything the townspeople believed in. She worked up a special cackle and tried it out on her friend Karleen Bennett. "Was it loud enough, Karleen? Was it irritating enough?" she'd ask. It was a risky strategy, but it ensured she wouldn't be invisible. They might revile her, but they couldn't ignore her.
Seth and Dorothy were completely mystified by Janis's determination to flout as many social conventions as she could. "Our parents were in a sad situation," Bob Dylan would later observe of the emerging generation gap. Predictably, the person most aggravated by Janis's bad-girl drag was her mother. Dorothy may have wanted Janis to be assertive, as Laura contends, but she would never have encouraged her daughter to be sexually forward. "She just changed totally, overnight," claimed Dorothy. "A complete turnabout from her former self." Dorothy wasn't exaggerating. Janis had been a good little girl. Years later Dorothy would describe Janis's early childhood as perfect. "I even worried about it a little," she recalled, because Janis "never did anything for me to correct!"
Faced with the new Janis, Dorothy said, she didn't know what to do. But if she felt confused, she acted decisively. "Think before you speak," she'd lecture Janis. "Learn how to behave yourself." Everything became a fight between Janis and her mother. Laura felt so "emotionally terrorized" by all the turmoil that she "started going to church and prayed for everyone," a move that undoubtedly further solidified her position as the good daughter. For Dorothy, the tumult must have evoked memories of the fighting that had ravaged her own family. As a woman who had scrambled to get a toehold in the middle class and understood the iron-clad connection between sexual propriety and social position for women, Dorothy probably felt that her own reputation was at stake, that Janis's provocative behavior reflected badly on her and the whole family. One night, angry that Janis had stayed out with Karleen past midnight, she accosted her at the front door and screamed, "You're ruining your life. People will think you're cheap!" On another occasion, Dorothy called Janis a harlot. "We had to look it up," Karleen remembers with a laugh. "But Janis couldn't believe that's what she was calling her, because she hadn't done anything to deserve it."
Janis made no secret of her rift with her mother. Her home life in Port Arthur had been a "drag, a big drag," she told reporters once she became famous. "I was one of the girls who always wanted to do things that my mother said I couldn't because only boys get to do those things." By contrast, Janis talked fondly of her father. "He was very important to me, because he made me think," she told one journalist. "He's the reason I am like I am, I guess." Eventually, though, Seth pulled away from Janis, a move that baffled her all her life. "He used to talk to me and then he turned right around from that when I was fourteen -- maybe he wanted a smart son or something like that -- I can't figure that out." Despite his withdrawal, she seemed more mystified than angry at her father. Janis's friends all say she adored Seth, who, they claim, remained fairly tolerant of her behavior. To Patti, who felt her own father ran his family as if it were Du Pont, Seth seemed ideal, "one of those Henry Fonda-type dads." But one of Janis's college friends was struck by the disjuncture between Janis's description of her father as warm and open and the emotionally distant man he met. In truth, Seth wasn't necessarily more tolerant than Dorothy, he just "didn't want to be the bad guy, which forced Dorothy further into that role," according to social worker Giarratano. You'd never know it from Janis's rosy retrospective portrait of Seth, but Janis and her father "clashed a great deal," just less noisily than she and Dorothy.
Seth and Dorothy used different strategies in dealing with Janis. Seth tried reasoning with her whereas Dorothy argued on the basis of what was right -- a category Janis was always eager to challenge. Her mother implored her to "be like everybody else." Janis did go through the motions, for a while at least. At school she joined the sorts of "good groups" Dorothy would approve of -- the Future Nurses of America, the Future Teachers of America, the Art Club, and Slide Rule Club. But Janis continued to misbehave, and Dorothy's dreams of a "good family" seemed dashed forever, as the Joplins took on the appearance of one of those troubled families whose every misfortune becomes grist for the town's gossip mill.
Though Janis fought with both her parents, Dorothy's relentless criticism seems to have scarred her more deeply, solidifying her feeling that everything about her was wrong. One friend insists there was nothing Janis could have done to make her mother accept her. "She could never win her mother's approval," she says. And by this point, even had Janis stopped acting like a bad girl, she would never have occupied center stage again. She wasn't pretty and she wasn't a malleable child any longer. Her sister, Laura, had now become the perfect daughter. Of course, none of this would stop Janis from trying to undo the rejection. It would be her life's project.
Years later, Janis told reporters that her mother threw her out of the house when she was fourteen. While it's unlikely Dorothy Joplin literally kicked her out, Janis did suddenly feel like an outsider. She began spending more and more time at Karleen's house. "My parents were a lot more lenient than hers were," says Karleen. "And they liked Janis. I mean, Janis was part of the family. The only time I ever remember my parents being rude to anybody was years later when Janis was on The Ed Sullivan Show and somebody was at the house and was making derogatory remarks about her, and my parents asked him to leave. `She's our second daughter and you're not gonna talk like that at our house,' they said." Janis became so much a part of their family that Karleen's grandmother once asked, "Don't you ever leave her at home?" They rarely did; Janis even went to temple with the Bennetts. Janis's two closest friends in high school -- Karleen and Arlene Elster -- were both Jewish, a coincidence that may not have been entirely random. Port Arthur was overwhelmingly Baptist and Catholic, and the town's very few Jewish families were outsiders of sorts, too. For that matter, anyone not a good white Christian would feel like an outsider in Port Arthur. Janis seemed to find solace in the company of others whose difference likewise caused them pain. She also became close to the African American woman who worked as a domestic for the Joplins. This woman, who was "kind of plump and sang and was very soulful," was a fixture in the Joplin household. According to Patti, "she taught Janis secret things, mysterious things you didn't get from white culture. It was solely between them." Through her, Janis glimpsed another world, apart from what Patti calls Port Arthur's "nonsense environment."
Port Arthur's dos and don'ts may have seemed like nonsense to Janis and her friends, but in fact, everyone knew the rules. Appearance was everything. Nowhere was this truer than at Thomas Jefferson High School. All high schools have a pecking order, but TJ High was particularly "vicious," contends Patti. "Once you got singled out, that was it," remembers Karleen's younger brother Herman Bennett. "You were a target. There were winners and losers and a definite caste system." He fared better than some, but he learned all about TJ's caste system when he woke up one morning to find a swastika burned into his family's lawn -- the football team's way of retaliating for his dating a girl who'd broken up with one of them. At least Karleen's brother wasn't the effeminate boy who was nominated Homecoming Queen. Mary Karr, the author of The Liars' Club, her memoir of life in the Golden Triangle, claims that in her hometown you knew what to expect: "Your greatest weakness will get picked at in the crudest local parlance. In fact, the worse an event is for you, the more brutally clear will be the talk about it. In this way, guys down there born with shriveled legs get nicknamed Gimpy, girls with acne Pizzaface." Herman Bennett reflects, "If people weren't already traumatized enough for being different, I'm certain the constant antagonism from these people made life pretty miserable." For a girl like Janis, says her friend Grant Lyons, it was "absolute poison."
TJ High was huge, as big as most community colleges. Vocational education was its strong suit; the school had a completely equipped print shop and metal shop and offered welding, architectural and mechanical drafting, and a carpentry program in which seniors actually built a house. It was one thing to excel in carpentry, however, and quite another to do well in English or mathematics. "In Port Arthur, man, if you were an academic-award winner you'd be just as happy if no one knew about it," recalls Dave Moriaty. "That would open you up to being beaten. So you didn't let on you read books. It was a cultural minus if you read anything." Janis not only read books; she even, at her mother's urging, took a class in mechanical drawing, thinking it might help her with her art. The lone girl, Janis was relentlessly harassed by her classmates. Then there was the time in another class when Janis spoke out in favor of integration. Karleen agreed with Janis but kept quiet because she knew she'd be ostracized. "It didn't so much turn people against her," recalls Karleen, "as make people think she was crazy."
But what really sealed Janis's fate as a social untouchable was her growing reputation as the school slut. At some point in her junior year, Janis felt compelled to appear promiscuous. Among her friends there is no consensus on how Janis came by her new role. It may have developed because word had it that Janis was sleeping around and she simply decided that, if people were going to call her a slut, she might as well act like one or because Janis was tired of being ignored and threw herself into the one activity that was sure to get a Port Arthur girl talked about. Whatever the reason, Janis certainly knew it wouldn't take much to earn a bad reputation at TJ High. By her senior year, the rumors were flying that Janis Joplin read pornography and was making it with guys right and left. At TJ, like so many other American high schools, "you could do it one time and everyone in the whole school would know and say they'd slept with you," says Path. Once the kids started calling Janis a whore, Patti figures Janis might have said, "Oh fuck, I'll just go ahead and do it." Other friends suspect Janis did go all the way but not nearly as often as many other girls who simply had the sense to keep quiet about their sex lives. And yet several good friends contend that, while Janis did everything in her power to suggest she was loose, she never really "put out." Grant Lyons thinks "it's possible Janis could have played the make-out queen without actually having intercourse." Karleen insists Janis remained a virgin until after graduation. So does her classmate and friend Tary Owens, despite the fact that to this day "every guy down there says they slept with her." As for the porn, Karleen says, "You want to know what it was? Mickey Spillane novels." Whether or not Janis lost her virginity in high school matters less in the end than the lengths to which she went to appear loose.
As Janis's reputation grew, so did the ostracism. Every year the local country club threw a dance for high school seniors. Karleen belonged to the club, but her classmates excluded her from their planning meeting because of her friendship with Janis. "I found out later that I had not been invited because they said I would invite Janis to the dance and that would just totally ruin it." A decade later, Janis would complain about the "country club" girls in the pricey front-row seats -- often the only girls she could really see at her concerts. "Sometimes they think they're gonna like you. And then you get out there and you really damage and offend their femininity. You know, `No chick is supposed to stand like that.' I mean, crouching down in front of the guitar player goin' `uuuuhhhn!' You know, lettin' your tits shake around, and your hair's stringy, and you have no makeup on, and sweat running down your face, you're coming up to the fuckin' microphone, man, and at one point their heads just go `click,' and they go, `Oooh, no!' ... and the expressions on their faces are of absolute horror. The girls are going, `Oh, my God, she may be able to sing, but she doesn't have to act like that!'"
It seems almost inconceivable that Janis would have embarked on this strategy of deliberate provocation had she known how vicious the backlash would be. Students spat on her and threw pennies at her in the hallways. Tap/Owens recalls that their senior year "it got really bad because there was a group of guys -- future fraternity guys who made up stories about her and called her a pig. Of course, most of them now say they loved her and she was just wonderful." One reason the harassment was so relentless, Owens says, was that the guys wanted to "get a rise out of her, get her to say, `Fuck you' -- and she often took the bait." After these confrontations, he says, Janis would "be hurt and she'd show it through anger mostly." She'd also seek solace with a group of kids who were as disaffected as she was.
Janis's entree to this world came through Grant Lyons, whose mother ran Port Arthur's Little Theater. Lyons's family came from back East; his mother, especially, was determined to introduce some culture into the local scene. Janis was one of several kids who took part in the theater. She painted sets and even played an ingenue in a musical called Sunday Costs Five Pesos. Lyons was a football star, but that's where his resemblance to TJ's most popular boys ended. At first, he says, he didn't have "any friends at all, either jocks or non-jocks. I wasn't dating. My social life was nil." Gradually, five smart rebel boys - Grant Lyons, Dave Moriaty, Adrian Haston, Jim Langdon, and Bandy Tennant - began hanging out together, drawn to one another by their love of jazz and folk music and their exasperation with the town's parochialism and blandness. "We were saboteurs," claimed Jim Langdon.
Like many other sixties rebels in the making, they were drawn to the Beats. Mass-circulation magazine stories about beatniks invariably vilified or ridiculed them, often calling into question the masculinity of the men. These articles may have scared off most Americans, but they also alerted all those kids who felt like mutants in fifties America to an alternative existence. Maybe they could escape the awful gray dullness looming before them. Janis first learned about the Beats in Time magazine. Years later, after she was already a star, she made fun of her teeny-beatnik past. "Port Arthur people thought I was a beatnik, and they didn't like beatniks, though they'd never seen one and neither had I." Janis had never seen one in the flesh, but the piece in Time was enough - she was entranced.
Like the Beats they admired, Port Arthur's tiny gang of beatniks was a male fraternity. Janis was the only girl who managed to insinuate herself into their ranks. Four of the five boys had girlfriends, but the girlfriends weren't part of their group; girls, and femininity in general, were synonymous with conventionality and domesticity. But Janis wasn't your typical teenage girl. She came into the group not as one of the guys' girlfriends "but as somebody who'd be there to party, go across the river to the bars, those sorts of things," Lyons says. Unlike other girls, Janis "wore pretty much what we wore, and no makeup," and she was "extremely expressive," which was "part of what made her such fun," he adds.
Patti thinks there were lots of reasons Janis and the guys got on so well. They were all outsiders, she says, and "emotionally destitute." And then there was Janis's high-voltage energy. "She would enter a room of people and say, `Hey, baby, what's happening?' in this loud, ballsy voice, and get immediate attention." Sometimes the group would use Janis as a "secret weapon" in situations where people were putting on airs. Jim Langdon remembers a party given by a "Beaumont socialite" where Janis cruised in with a bottle of booze under each arm and said, "Cut this bullshit." People were incredulous, says Langdon; the punch was so much more powerful coming from a woman than from a man. And Janis delighted in shocking people.
Still, it wasn't easy muscling in on the guys, especially because at TJ High hanging out with Janis, says Dave Moriaty, got you "weirdness by association." She was also a grade behind the others. At first, "the gang didn't make space for Janis, she shoehorned her way into the group," according to Moriaty. "She'd call us up and say, `Where are you going? Come pick me up.' "And they would, because they were polite. "I mean, she was whining and pouting and demanding to be included and so we'd take her along." But Moriaty admits Janis also got her way because "she was fun, you know, and very smart and very talented." Lyons never felt Janis wheedled her way into their group, but he acknowledges she may have had to go to extra lengths. "Obviously she was a girl, and we were boys, and that took some doing, but she did it." Janis did it by coming across as one of the guys - probably the only way in for a girl. She put on a great act, says Jack Smith, who wasn't at this point a part of the beatnik crowd. Janis never allowed Jack to curse and joke with her the way Moriaty and the other guys did. "She was a chameleon," Jack contends. She acted tough with the rebel boys because "she'd just figured out what that group was after."
Being one of the guys meant not having a boyfriend, of course, and Janis was conspicuously without a boyfriend throughout high school, though both Jack Smith and Tary Owens say they had a crush on her. "She was not perceived by us as a potential sexual partner," says Lyons. "I know it must sound odd," he adds, "given the sexual persona she developed." Moriaty used to call Janis a "good old girl," which she hated. "She always used to say, `Goddamnit, don't call me a good old girl.' She thought it was patronizing and condescending," he recalls. It certainly was a term that underscored the boys' lack of sexual interest in her. "Patching" herself into their group would be good practice for crashing the boys' club of rock 'n' roll, but it left her with a sense of being sexually nullified. Lyons thinks that feeling was "permanent," one she was "always trying to work through or away.
When Janis wasn't hanging out with the gang, she was often holed up somewhere painting. She loved painting nudes, but her parents found her choice of subject "inappropriate," yet another of Janis's sexual provocations. "Her parents thought a lot of art was pornography," explains Karleen. They tried steering her toward landscapes and seascapes. Laura remembers her father driving her and Janis out to Pleasure Pier so Janis could paint ocean scenes. But Janis persisted in painting nudes. Things came to a head when she painted one on the inside panel of her bedroom closet door Her parents, determined to protect their other children from being "exposed to such visions," forced her to paint over the offending image. For the work of a teenager stuck in the Golden Triangle, Janis's paintings are remarkably strong, but her passion for art counted as a deficit in Port Arthur, where it only made her seem more peculiar to the kids outside her gang. "The rumor was that she went to an old abandoned drive-in near the high school, ... set up her easel and did artwork there," remembered a classmate. "She was wild and strange and unusual." For her parents and almost all her classmates, her artistic expressiveness confirmed her sexual precocity.
Music, too, became a passion for Janis and her fellow rebels. Music wasn't just background noise; it was a declaration of difference. Listening to late-night radio or combing the bins at the local record store, they searched out music they'd never hear at a TJ sock hop - in particular, folk, jazz, and the blues. To them, this was renegade music, untainted by commercialism. By contrast, rock 'n' roll in the late fifties and early sixties - its Frankie Avalon years - seemed hopelessly commercial, just so much mass-produced dreck. "It seemed so shallow, all oop-boop," explained Janis years later. "It had nothing."
At their parties or as they drove between Port Arthur, Orange, and Beaumont"making the triangle," they called it - the gang would sing folk songs. Like other young folkies and white blues aficionados, they idolized Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, who had grown up just across the state line in Louisiana. "This is the thing," was Bob Dylan's reaction on first hearing Leadbelly, Grant Lyons brought a Leadbelly record to a party, where Janis heard it. She later said his music was "like a flash. It mattered to me." An ex-con, pardoned twice (once for murder) by southern governors, Leadbelly was irresistible to disaffected young white kids, a lightning rod for their sense of marginality and alienation. Discovered by a musicologist, John Lomax, on one of his song-collecting trips to southern prisons and penitentiaries, Leadbelly became the darling of white lefty intellectuals in the thirties. He made his professional debut, amazingly enough, at the tweedy Modern Language Association convention, where literature professors and graduate students gather each year. Leadbelly died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1949, but his voice was so powerful - like "the force of a sledgehammer hitting steel"-that it helped spark the folk music revival of the late fifties and early sixties.
Janis claimed the first record she ever bought was a Leadbelly, but the first singer she tried imitating was Odetta. Before Joan Baez came along, Odetta was the queen of folk music. Born in Los Angeles, Odetta was, with Richie Havens, Len Chandler, and Jackie Washington, one of a handful of younger African American folksingers of the sixties. Legend has it that Janis discovered she could sing when she mastered an Odetta song. Although people disagree about their whereabouts that day, they all remember the moment Janis "did" Odetta. Tired of listening to her friends butcher an Odetta song, Janis suddenly broke out in a voice that sounded like she'd conjured her up. The guys fell silent from the shock, "dumbfounded," recalls Moriaty. "She just burst out and sounded exactly like Odetta. That showed us up. We used to sing folk songs on our way driving anywhere. Well, after that, we still did, but it wasn't the same. We weren't all in the same class anymore." Tary Owens remembers Janis declaring, "Hey, I think I have a voice." Janis probably did say this, but she already had a hunch she could sing, even if the guys didn't. Maybe what she discovered was that singing allowed her to express herself, not just sound pretty for the benefit of others.
The gang's passions were folk, blues, and jazz, but they also spent many a night across the line in the Cajun town of Vinton, Louisiana, where Jim Langdon began getting gigs playing trombone in rock 'n' roll bands. Vinton was the sort of place where, "if you were old enough to look over the bar, they'd sell it to you," claims one of Janis's friends. While Port Arthur bars had only beer and wine licenses, Louisiana bars could serve hard liquor. On the Louisiana side of the state border the road was lined with bars - Lou Ann's, Busters, the Big Oak, and Shady Rest were favorite spots. Lots of girls, not just "bad" girls, crossed the line, but they didn't go to the really raunchy bars like Busters and Shady Rest that Janis and the guys preferred. (Karleen, for example, never went on these excursions.) There the gang would hear white soul bands like the Boogie Kings and Jerry LaCroix and the Counts. At Lou Ann's they might hear black musicians cranking out what Janis called "great Jimmy Reed down-home funky blues music." Some accounts rave about the "swamp rock" they'd hear in the bars, but Patti says the music was "loud, hard, beating rhythmic music, rock-around-the-clock music. It was just the beat. And you could go there at eleven in the morning or eleven at night and it would be pretty much the same. It was just bad, bad music, but to us it was Disneyland."
Of course, lots of white kids (including some of the musicians with whom Janis would later play) were crossing over to catch glimpses of cultures that seemed more "authentic" than their own. Future blues musicians like Michael Bloomfield, Nick Gravenites, and Paul Butterfield were hanging out in South Side Chicago blues joints. Big Brother drummer Dave Getz had been among the thousands of kids to catch deejay Alan Freed's first rock 'n' roll show at the Brooklyn Paramount. And other teenagers, including James Gurley and Peter Albin of Big Brother, were haunting jazz clubs like the Black Hawk or Jimbo's Bop City in San Francisco. Despite the best efforts of their parents, middle-class white teenagers were fascinated with those on the margins of American society-truck drivers like Elvis Presley and dishwashers like Little Richard who became the stars of early rock 'n' roll. Since the 1920s, this process of "prestige from below" had been at work among a tiny minority of jazz-loving white kids, but with the rise of rock 'n' roll in the fifties and sixties it threatened to become a mass phenomenon.
When it came to music or the struggle for justice - and the two were linked white America in the fifties was definitely "drawing its juice" from blacks. The power of black culture was first transmitted to white teens by two groups of white men whose paths rarely crossed-radio deejays and Beat writers. In the forties, radio programmers had to scramble to fill up all the air space left empty when programs like I Love Lucy or Amos and Andy deserted radio for TV. They began targeting black audiences, among others, and white kids were the unintended beneficiaries, hearing music rawer and wilder than the usual AM fare. The repercussions were immense. Michael Bloomfield was just one of many teenagers whose lives were irrevocably changed by radio. With his tiny portable AM transistor radio pressed to his ear he'd stay up late listening to hometown stations, to Nashville's megawatt WLAC and to XERB in Mexico. It was "another realm," like a "jungle in the city," he recalled. Janis and her friends tuned in to some of the same stations, although they also listened to locals such as Beaumont's Big Bopper of "Chantilly Lace" fame.
It was Alan Freed, sensing the huge market for this music among white teens, who first applied the term rock 'n' roll to the R & B sounds he and others were playing on the radio. White deejays like Freed, John "R" Richbourg and Gene Nobles in Nashville, and George "Hound Dog" Lorenz in Buffalo were race rebels of sorts, playing records by black artists rather than white cover versions and often affecting a "black" speaking style on the air. Jive-talking John R and Gene Nobles of WLAC had many in their audience - black and white alike - believing they were black. Like a number of other young white men in early rock 'n' roll - the songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, for example - they were enamored of black culture, going so far as to engage in a kind of racial drag, and occasionally something much more meaningful. Johnny Otis, an R & B musician and impresario, married a black woman, lived in the black community, and carried on a life-long struggle against racial discrimination.
A jazz aficionado, Jack Kerouac wasn't especially interested in rock 'n' roll, but he, too, was drawn to black culture, writing in On the Road of wanting to "exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America." No one captured white Beats' and hipsters' infatuation with blackness better than Norman Mailer in his controversial 1957 essay, "The White Negro." For Mailer, "the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body." Mailer's essay was so rife with racial objectification that it raised quite a few eyebrows even at the time. The poet Kenneth Rexroth, the "Daddy-O of the Beat Generation," denounced white hipsters like Mailer for believing "the Negro is born with a sax in his mouth and a hypodermic in his arms.... In Jazz circles it's what they call Crow Jimism." In "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy," James Baldwin accused white men of seeing the black man as "a kind of walking phallic symbol." For all their efforts to break free, the next generation of white kids trying to cross America's color line absorbed uncritically this fetishizing of blackness.
Janis and the gang drew much of their inspiration from black culture, but they weren't living in New York or San Francisco, frequenting clubs and cafes where whites and blacks mixed. Port Arthur's one coffeehouse closed after six months; Janis and her pals were its only customers. They were in segregated east Texas, where hanging out on the margins meant hanging out in rough redneck joints in Louisiana. "You didn't have to mess with anyone to get into trouble there," recalls Dave Moriaty. "All you had to do was to go in and act funny and you'd get into plenty of trouble." Fashioning themselves as outlaws, he and the others became familiar with the hard-living working class that frequented the Vinton bars. As Dave Getz of Big Brother points out, Janis had a real ease with that world "even though her family was definitely not white trash. Janis had this southern, trashy thing she was drawn to. It was the thing in her personality that made her comfortable with bikers, even though her friends were educated and so was she. In that part of the world where she grew up there were a lot of people like that and that's where you went if you didn't walk the straight and narrow. And she didn't walk the straight and narrow." Of course, affiliating with that "white trash" world was one sure way Janis could declare herself different from her parents, who had left that world behind in the great postwar class shift.
In fact, by the time Janis was a senior in high school she was doing everything she could to show her parents she would never become the Port Arthur schoolteacher of their dreams. She began drinking. "My mother fixed Janis the first drink she ever had," Karleen says. "My mother said, `If you're gonna drink, you're gonna do it at home.' She fixed us a whiskey sour, which was really sophisticated. We drank it and that was it." Except it wasn't for Janis, who refused to confine her drinking to home. "Then," says Karleen, "Janis started going across the river." One weekend Janis went even farther than Vinton. She lied to her parents, telling them she was driving her father's work car for an overnight stay at Karleen's. Instead she drove with Jim Langdon and two other male friends to New Orleans to listen to music. Had they not had a minor accident she might have gotten away with it. But when the Louisiana police looked at their papers and noticed they had three overage boys with one underage girl - all from Texas - things turned scary. Jim Langdon says, "They were talking the Mann Act, statutory rape, and the trip was all her idea!" When the police called the Joplins in Port Arthur, Dorothy pretended nothing out of the ordinary had happened, but Laura reports that Janis's behavior "was so bad, our parents didn't know what to say about it."
If transgressions were met with silence in the Joplin home, they weren't at school, where rumors of Janis's promiscuity abounded. Janis was even called into the school counselor's office to answer charges of "drinking and improper behavior." She denied the accusations, but she later told Karleen she'd had to be real careful about how she put her purse down on the floor in the counselor's office because she had a wine bottle concealed in it. The Joplins felt so helpless in the face of her wildness they sent her to a psychologist - a highly unusual step for parents to take in the fifties, especially in Port Arthur, where seeing a psychologist was tantamount to admitting mental illness. Janis managed to graduate without incident. Prom night she spent cruising around Port Arthur with Karleen, whose boyfriend was in the air force and stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi. The night's highlight occurred when they picked up two guys looking for a ride to nearby Port Neches, drove them there, and dropped them off. That was it.
In 1970, at the age of twenty-seven, Janis said, "I've been this chick for twelve, thirteen years now. I was younger then, more inexperienced, but I was the same person with the same drives and the same bails and the same style." The mythic Janis Joplin - the tough, raw, trashy broad - was a creature Janis began crafting as a teenager. It gave her a version of control. She could say it wasn't her they were rejecting, it was the cackle she'd devised, or her swearing, or her drinking, or her cheapness. Perhaps she imagined the facade she so skillfully constructed could take all those blows while her core would remain untouched. Her ballsy chick impersonation also got her lots of attention, even if it was negative. Jim Langdon acted tough as well. "Port Arthur was hostile.... I wouldn't stand for being victimized by the Neanderthals of the world. Being tough worked." But it didn't work very well for Janis, whose toughness only seemed to invite further abuse.
Elvis had been a misfit in high school, too, but the experience didn't haunt him. He made Memphis his home and built a mansion there, while Janis would flee Port Arthur. Being an unpopular boy was no cakewalk, but popularity wasn't absolutely demanded of boys. For girls, popularity was the whole show, and Janis inhabited the most despised category among fifties teens, the girl who couldn't get a date. A decade after she'd graduated from high school, Janis was still locked in battle with her hometown, complaining on national TV that she'd been "laughed out of class, out of town, and out of the state." As David Dalton, a reporter, observes, "It just seemed like every time something went wrong, that big, ugly, sprawling oil town would loom up and say, `We know you, and we'll always be the truth about you." Years later, Janis said, "Anyone with ambitions like me leaves [Port Arthur] as soon as they can or they're taken over, repressed, and put down." Janis made it sound easy, a matter of simple resolve. But when it came time for her to go to college Janis found herself still living in what writer Mary Karr calls "the great Nowhere."
Copyright 1999 Alice Echols. All rights reserved.
|Back to the top||
© 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.|
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.