If Janis Joplin hadn’t succumbed to that fatal dose of heroin in 1970, today she might have been celebrating her 68th birthday.
I’ve been thinking a lot about her since a recent trip to Los Angeles, where I had the privilege of reading four letters she wrote to her family in the late 1960s and early 1970, part of an excellent exhibit at The Grammy Museum. “Mother and Dad,” she begins in one from San Franciso, “Right now my position is ambivalent. I’m glad I came, nice to see the city, a few friends, but I’m not at all sold on the idea of becoming the poor man’s Cher.”
I decided that when I returned home, I would visit Joplin’s home-town in Port Arthur. It seemed appropriate, as well, to visit on Martin Luther King Day. Why? Because, even as a teenager, Janis was outspoken on racial integration, and this seemed a significant aspect of her character. One of the many things that caused her to flee the Gulf Coast for Austin and then San Francisco was the nickname she’d received from her thoughtful high-school classmates: “nigger lover.”
As her friends explain in the documentary film Southern Disomfort, that nickname expanded to include the terms “pig” and “whore.” When Joplin had lived there in the 1950s, the city had been deeply segregated. I was hoping to find it changed, at least since Janis’ notorious press conference there in the summer of 1970.Click here to watch the press conference in Port Arthur.
Part of the display at The Grammy Museum featured Joplin’s own reminiscence of Port Arthur: “I was a misfit. I read, I painted…” But the display did not include the remainder of that famous quote, which was documented (according to web sources) in 1984 by writer Laurie Jacobsen: “…I didn’t hate niggers.” I can understand why The Grammy Museum considered that phrase upsetting for many visitors. However, I don’t feel I should delete it here for adult readers who can comprehend the irony.
On Monday morning, I left Houston and headed southeast towards Port Arthur, which is only about 80 miles away, really a stone’s throw by Texas standards. I’d been there once before, during a cross-country bicycle tour. All I could remember was a horrifying stretch of oil refineries and their bad smells, and then cycling over the dramatic Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Bridge to a place called Pleasure Island, gateway to Louisiana.
Now in the comfort of my car, I listened with admiration to recordings of King’s great speeches and sermons on public radio, thought about my childhood experience of integration (having grown up outside of Hartford, Connecticut), and passed through Texan places with names like Gator Junction and Turtle Bayou. The latter, in particular, reminded me of one of Janis’ earliest compositions, Turtle Blues:
“I guess I’m just like a turtle, that’s hidin’ underneath its hardened shell. But you know I’m very well protected, I know this goddamn life too well.”
Arriving in Port Arthur, I looked for Museum of the Gulf Coast on Procter Street, which promised a permanent exhibit devoted to Joplin. The museum’s curators had also arranged to provide a special screening of Southern Discomfort. I had downloaded their map for the road trip of important Janis Joplin locations as well: St. Mary’s Hospital, where she was born; her childhood homes, the Texaco Refinery where her father worked, her schools, even the church where she was baptized. At the bottom of the brochure is a slogan from Port Arthur Convention & Visitors Bureau, “Port Arthur-Where Oil and Water Do Mix. Beautifully.” Oh, dear.
Stopping at a grocery store to buy soft drinks and antacid, I couldn’t help but notice the local daily at the cash register. The front page of Port Arthur’s The News featured the headline, “King’s Dream Alive in PA.” Curious, I added the newspaper to my purchases.
Later, at lunch, I discover that it’s one of those vaguely uplifting stories tinged with a sense of propaganda. Retired teacher Virginia Ervin, the first black teacher at Sam Houston Elementary, shares her thoughts on integrating Port Arthur’s schools in the early 1970s. If you read between the lines, however, her testimony is ambivalent. Ervin says that “Dr. King’s dream is still alive,” and cites accomplishments at Memorial High School and Port Arthur Independent. At the conclusion, she says, “Schools have integrated, with the latest major integration of the high schools.” Latest major integration? Is she serious? Isn’t this the 21st century?
Back to museum, however. It’s a pristine building in the middle of what looks like a bombed out street, with nothing for 20 blocks or so but abandoned buildings. Many of them appear to have suffered fire or hurricane damage. There are no pedestrians. The Hotel Sabine, Port Arthur’s tallest structure, is more than just an eyesore. The city has been trying to sell it for several years, but there are no takers. The windows are smashed.
I am shocked and drive slowly, taking pictures with my mobile since nobody is around to complain about it. I try to imagine what “downtown” must have been like to Janis the child or teenager: a variety of restaurants and clubs, shopping outlets, barber shops and newsstands. In 2011 it is a ghost-town in the worst way imaginable. Even the ghosts have departed.
The display on the second floor of Museum of the Gulf Coast devoted to my childhood Rock-Star-Diva-Idol turns out to be disappointing, with a few paintings by Janis (two portraits and others on religious themes), a replica of her legendary psychedelic convertible Porsche, and a glass display case with predictable mementos. Her 1958 yearbook is there, indicating that she belonged to Art Club and Slide Rule Club, along with some nice photos and a few hand-written items. But it’s far less than what I saw at The Grammy Museum.
Nearby is an entire gallery devoted to another famous Port Arthur artist, Robert Rauschenberg. He graduated from high school there in 1943, the same year Janis was born. His 1970 Signs includes a towering image of Janis at the microphone, with a silk-screened photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. laid out in a coffin below. Well, at least Rauschenberg “got it.”
The museum gift shop features a tragic collection of bad Janis T-shirts, a few of her CDs, prints and postcards, and $25.00 bricks from her childhood home (now demolished) with a rubber stamp of authenticity. I think about buying one, and then remember those episodes of Hoarders on television and decide against it. Lavern, the cheerful retiree at the cash register, explains that they can only sell what is authorized by Janis’ brother, and that “he’s not very responsive.” He doesn’t live in Port Arthur any more.
It is early afternoon as I drive by the Edison Middle School on 12th Street, which used to be Thomas Jefferson High School, where Janis attended grades 10-11. Since it is Martin Luther King Day, however, the school is closed and empty and I can’t observe students milling around after school. Back in Houston, my friend from Port Arthur told me that the town, which has approximately 60,000 inhabitants, is hardly integrated. For the most part, she says, blacks live west of the train tracks and whites to the east. All of the decent shopping is at a mall in Nederland, white territory, and drug use and prostitution are rampant in the declined area surrounding downtown, which is without doubt the worst place I’ve seen in America.
The rest of the Port Arthur News isn’t filled with many inspiring stories. Just below the cover feature on Ervin is another headline: “Eleven houses slated for CODE enforcement in Groves.” The next city north and bordered on three sides by Port Arthur, the story describes houses there to be demolished “if the owners don’t have them repaired quickly.” The acronym stands for the Council on Dangerous/Empty Structures. Since it began in 2004, the program has torn down 150 structures in the area. The story finishes with news of the City Council approving an ordinance setting curfew hours for minors.
There’s a plaque from the Texas Historical Commission in front of Janis’ childhood home. In front of the house is a chipped concrete donkey. “How Janis would cackle about this,” I think to myself, imagining how we would smoke cigarettes together and pass a bottle of Southern Comfort back and forth as we strolled away irreverently. It’s one of those momentary, strange daydream-fantasies. After a brief spur to Pleasure Island, mainly to view the smoking oil refineries from above, I head back to Houston.
In the 1960s, while some gay boys looked to Maria Callas, Diana Ross, Judy Garland, Cher or others for solace, I made Janis Joplin my first and foremost diva. Nobody has ever taken her special place in my mind. I received the record Cheap Thrills from my grandmother as a gift for my 10th birthday. At that time I considered it the most significant musical event of my childhood. I had no idea then that by the end of the year, Janis and Big Brother and The Holding Company would sell a million copies.
Of course, the stories of Joplin’s lonely childhood in Port Arthur established the idea, even to a child’s sensibility, of Texas as a place one should flee. I was won over by this concept, since I felt that same desperation to escape Connecticut, imagined it constantly and set the aspiration to make it happen once I enjoyed the mobility of an adult. Looking back, I think this horrible environment and racially divided town, Port Arthur, had also caused her imagination to flourish. It’s a cruel, bitter paradox.
Recently I was listening to one of my favorite composers, Robert Ashley, who made a strange composition rooted in a text by John Barton Wolgamot, titled In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women. The CD liner notes include this quote on Wolgamot from Ashley:
“But he lived and worked during a time and in a place where such a commitment was the only possible expression of his genius. All over America, before we became homogenized by the media (and by the ability to travel!), people lived in loneliness and dreams. This was a new people. And especially in the vast (endless) Midwest, where the European-Americans were cut off from their roots, a “civilization” – that is, a collection of memories that make sense of the present – had to be invented.”
The quote seems so apt when considering Janis. Committed and passionate, she might not have invented the blues but she certainly reinvented them and brought them to mainstream America. She hated that Dick Cavett called her “a star,” reminding him that she was rather “a singer.” She never identified as a hippie, preferring to call herself a beatnik.
Writing to her family on January 23, 1970, she revealed her ongoing struggle with fame. It’s a communiqué that breaks my heart: “I’ve been looking around and I’ve noticed something. After you reach a certain level of talent (quite a few have that talent) the deciding factor is ambition, or as I see it, how much you really need. Need to be loved & need to be proud of yourself… Maybe it’s for love. Lots of love! Ha…”
Happy Birthday, Janis.