Another Enslow book, Janis Joplin: Take Another Little Piece of My Heart tells the story of another ’60s rock star who died at age 27–within just a few weeks of Jimi Hendrix’s death. Since I also wrote biographies of Johnny Cash and Andy Warhol for Enslow, I spent several months kind of stuck in the ’60s. (I won’t say “reliving the ’60s, because I was a pre-teen in that decade and can’t say any of the social or musical upheaval impacted much on my consciousness!)
Enjoy! And if you feel so inclined, here’s a link to the Amazon page where you can purchase the book.
Janis Joplin: Take Another Little Piece of My Heart
On Saturday afternoon, June 17, 1967, a band with the unlikely name of Big Brother and the Holding Company took to the stage of the Monterey International Pop Festival at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, eighty miles south of San Francisco.
Big Brother’s lead singer, a young woman named Janis Joplin, was nervous. She’d been singing with Big Brother for a year, and so far the group hadn’t made much headway. They weren’t a top draw even in San Francisco, their home town. Now here they were facing their biggest audience yet. Forty thousand people had turned out for the festival, but they were there to see Otis Redding and British imports like The Who and Jimi Hendrix. They weren’t particularly interested in Big Brother, which was why the band had been given a slot on the program on Saturday afternoon, hardly prime time at a rock concert.
A documentary about the festival was being filmed by D. A. Pennebaker that weekend for ABC-TV, but the cameras weren’t pointed at the stage when Big Brother and Janis Joplin launched into “Down on Me, “Road Block” and “Ball and Chain.” Instead they were pointed at the audience, where they captured the overwhelmed response of Mama Cass of the hit group the Mamas and the Papa. “Mouth agape, her ears were in music lover’s heaven,” wrote Laura Joplin, Janis Joplin’s sister, in her book Love, Janis.[i]
When Big Brother finished its set, the audience exploded. The organizers were dumfounded. Critics were ecstatic. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote that Janis’s performance left him limp and feeling that he’d been “in contact with an overwhelming life force.” Greil Marcus, another critic, noted that Janis went so far out that he wondered how she ever managed to get back.[ii]
“When I sing,” Janis Joplin once said, “I feel, oh, I feel, well, like when you’re first in love…I feel chills, weird feelings slipping all over my body, it’s a supreme emotional and physical experience.”[iii]
At Monterey Pop, the audience felt the same way when they heard Janis Joplin perform. Brought back for an encore to ensure that this time, their performance would be filmed, Janis and Big Brother wowed the audience again.
For Janis, it was vindication. Letting her feelings take hold, letting it “all hang out,” in the slang of the time, had been something she’d always been counseled against, something that had led to taunts and ridicule in high school and beyond. But now, she said, “I’ve made feeling work for me, through music, instead of destroying me. It’s superfortunate. Man, if it hadn’t been for the music, I probably would have done myself in.”[iv]
Before Monterey Pop, few people had heard of Janis Joplin.
Afterward, almost everyone had. For the next three years, like a falling star, she would blaze a trail of outrageous behavior and incredible music across the pop-culture sky of 1960s America.
But then, also like a falling star, her light would abruptly go out.
Chapter 1: Frilled Frocks and Bridge
The short but eventful life of Janis Joplin began in what might be considered the most unlikely of places: Port Arthur, Texas.
Port Arthur, located in southeast Texas just off the Gulf of Mexico and just west of the Louisiana border, was founded (and named) by Kansas railway promoter Arthur E. Stilwell. Stilwell wanted to link Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico by rail, because he had just launched the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad. He and his backers acquired land on the western shore of Sabine Lake, a freshwater lake just inland from the Gulf and connected to it by a natural opening known as Sabine Pass.
Stillwell wanted the new city to be both a major tourist resort and an important seaport. A canal was cut along the western edge of the lake, connecting the site of the new town to deep water at Sabine Pass. Port Arthur was formally incorporated in 1898.[v]
Because Stillwell wanted Port Arthur to be a tourist destination as well as a major port, he planned beautiful broad boulevards and avenues and grand homes along the lakeshore. But early in the twentieth century Stillwell lost financial control of the project to John W. Gates, a Wall Street speculator whose nickname was “Bet-a-Million” and who had made his fortune selling barbed wire across the West. (The company he formed eventually became the giant corporation U.S. Steel.)[vi]
Gates extended and deepened the canal so that ships could sail it all the way to the cities of Beaumont and Orange. Unfortunately, that cut off Port Arthur from the lakeshore, ruining the view of the expensive lakeside homes and reducing Port Arthur’s appeal as a tourist destination.[vii]
That appeal faded further as Port Arthur became inextricably linked to the burgeoning Texas oil industry. By the 1960s, the town buildings seemed almost lost among the huge oil refineries, storage tanks and chemical plants. And since in those days natural gas was simply released into the air, the whole “Golden Triangle,” as the region encompassing the towns of Port Arthur, Orange and Beaumont is known, smelled like rotten eggs. Reportedly, at Lamar Tech, the college Janis Joplin would some day (briefly) attend, the fumes from a nearby sulfur plant were sometimes strong enough to melt the girls’ nylons.[viii]
But oil also means money, and good jobs, and it was the need for both that brought Janis’s parents to Port Arthur before she was born.
The flapper and the bootlegger
Dorothy East and Seth Joplin met in Amarillo, Texas, on a blind date. Dorothy, the daughter of Cecil and Laura East (nee Hansen), was known in Amarillo for her beautiful singing. She particularly liked Broadway show tunes, and in high school she won the lead role in a citywide stage production. The Broadway director the organizers brought in told Dorothy he could get her work in New York, but he recommended against it, because “those people just aren’t your kind of folks.”[ix] She took his advice and instead applied to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Disappointed that the university had only one voice teacher, who only taught opera, she returned to Amarillo after a single year and began helping at a radio station, KGNC. She was known as a “free spirit,” scandalizing her parents by adopting the “flapper” styles of short hair, close-fitting dresses, snazzy hats and high heels. She also smoked and once accidentally swore on-air.[x]
In other words, she showed flashes of the same rebelliousness for which her daughter would later be notorious.
Seth Joplin was the son of Seeb (who ran the Amarillo stockyards) and Florence Joplin (nee Porter). At the time he met Dorothy East, he was taking a break from engineering studies at Texas A&M—studies he never finished: a lack of money forced him to give up his schooling still one semester shy of a degree. A bit of a rebel himself, he made bathtub gin during the last days of Prohibition and smoked marijuana (which was legal then). While courting Dorothy, he took the only job he could find, as a gas station attendant. Dorothy worked as a credit clerk in the local Montgomery Ward department store, eventually becoming head of the department.[xi]
In 1935, in the depths of the Depression, Seth got a break: his best friend from college recommended him for a job at the Texas Company (later Texaco) in Port Arthur. Dorothy quit her job to follow, and soon found work in the credit department at Sears. With two incomes they were finally able to afford to marry, which they did on October 20, 1936.
Seth worked at the only Texaco plant that made containers for petroleum. When the Second World War broke out, his job was considered so vital that although he was called to join the armed forces three times, each time he was deferred.
Shortly after Seth and Dorothy married, Dorothy’s parents’ marriage broke up. Dorothy’s mother, Laura, and her younger sister, Mimi, came to live with Seth and Dorothy. Needing more space, they bought their first house, a two-bedroom brick bungalow on the edge of town. For fun, Dorothy and Seth liked to cross the Sabine River and party in the bars in Vinton, Louisiana.
In mid-1942, Dorothy became pregnant. Janis Lyn Joplin was born at 9:30 a.m. on January 19, 1943.
Janis Joplin makes her entrance
Janis was three weeks early and weighed only five and a half pounds, but she throve. After all, she had parents, a grandmother and an aunt doting on her. (However, Laura and Mimi moved out to a place of their own when Janis was three.)[xii]
As a child, Janis wasn’t rebellious at all. In fact, Dorothy Joplin said later she was easy to care for—not too docile, but not overactive, either—and cheerful by nature.
Janis’s mother, who believed a mother’s place was at home, quit her job to look after Janis full time. She made her beautiful dresses and blouses with ruffles and ribbons and frills, and took her to the First Christian Church for church school, which Dorothy eventually taught.
Seth, who started work at 5:30 a.m., got to spend time with his daughter when he got home in the afternoon. Janis would wait for him on the front porch, he’d give her a hug, and they’d sit and talk.
One day Dorothy overheard her husband telling Janis about making bathtub gin in college. “’Is that the proper topic for a conversation with a child?’ she asked him later,” Laura Joplin, Janis’s younger sister, wrote in her biography of Janis, Love, Janis. “Pop refused to argue the point; instead, he quit spending the evening time visiting with Janis on the front step. Janis was crushed and never knew why.”[xiii]
Janis’s mother introduced her daughter to music well before she started school. She bought an old upright piano and taught Janis how to play it. “She and Janis sat on the piano bench together, with Janis singing the simple nursery songs Dorothy taught her,” Laura wrote. “Janis often lay in bed at night singing those songs, over and over, to put herself to sleep.”[xiv]
But Janis’s father found the noise of a child practicing scales annoying. As well, Dorothy had recently undergone an operation to remove her thyroid gland. The operation destroyed her singing voice (although her speaking voice was fine). Seth Joplin thought having the piano around would be too emotionally painful for his wife, so the piano was sold, ending Janis’s first flirtation with formal musical training.[xv]
In 1949, after two miscarriages, the Joplins had a second child, Laura Lee, and moved to a larger three-bedroom house at 3130 Lombardy Drive, in a neighborhood called Griffing Park. Four years later, in 1953, Janis’s brother Michael Ross was born.
Janis was bright, friendly and inquisitive. Laura wrote, “She had a full face, small, twinkling blue eyes, a broad forehead that Mother always said showed her intellect, and fine, silky blond hair that had a soft curl in it…People might have found her features plain if a buoyant spirit and zest for life hadn’t overshadowed her looks. She was a child who liked people. She always made strangers welcome. Her sensitivity to others showed in a considerate willingness to go out of her way to include others in play.”[xvi]
Aside from singing herself to sleep and singing in the church choir (and, in junior high school, in the Glee Club), Janis showed no particular aptitude for or interest in music. She was much more interested in art. She began to draw as soon as she could hold a pencil. Her mother even arranged private art lessons for her when she was in the third and fourth grades.
Janis also loved to read, a love that continued throughout her life. She learned to read before she entered school and had a library card even before that.
Janis Joplin: her own tall tale?
Dorothy Joplin said that Janis particularly loved magical, fantastical tales. (In one of the letters in Laura Joplin’s book Love Janis, Janis recommends J.R.R. Tolkien’s books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to her younger sister.)
“She studied about the theater. She studied ‘tall tales of America,’” Dorothy said. She wondered if some of the over-the-top accounts of her own escapades Janis told the press once she became famous were her own versions of those tall tales.
“She’d spin these tales. It was so far out that you were supposed to understand that it was that way. She tried the same thing with the press–in my opinion. And it backfired.
“I overlooked that marvelous capacity of hers to trust people.”[xvii]
Janis even began writing her own plays in the first grade and staging them with her friends as puppet shows in a puppet theatre her mother built for her in the back yard.
A “strikingly timid child”
Janis entered junior high with a good but unspectacular academic record. Several of her childhood friends moved out of town when she was in the sixth grade, and she had to ride a bus to the junior high, which was further away than her grade school had been. She found the rowdy kids on the bus frightening—she was a “strikingly timid child,” Myra Friedman wrote[xviii]—but once she started traveling to junior high via a car pool instead of on the bus, she adjusted quickly. Her mother didn’t remember any behavioral problems at all. “I even worried about it a little,” she said. “She never did anything for me to correct!”[xix]
The limitations of Port Arthur meant that finding something interesting for the whole family to do took some imagination on the part of Janis’s father. He hit upon taking them down to the Post Office to look at the Wanted posters. “It was a little unusual,” he agreed later, “but it was somewhere to go. That wasn’t the real reason, the Wanted Men. We’d just roam around the deserted building and read about all the people who were wanted for murders. We’d go any unusual place we could.”[xx]
Everyone who knew Janis when she was a child praised her when Myra Friedman interviewed them not long after Janis’s death. “Janis helped out in the library; Janis helped out at the church. Janis won an artwork contest for the cover of a junior high publication; Janis did posters for the library. Janis was cooperative; Janis was shy. Janis was ‘just like everybody else,’” she wrote.[xxi]
But in junior high, as Janis approached adolescence, signs began to appear that perhaps Janis wasn’t “just like everybody else” after all. Her teachers began to give her unsatisfactory marks in work habits and citizenship because she “talked too much and didn’t get her work done on time,” her sister Laura noted. “…She was more inquisitive and energetic than the school program allowed.” [xxii] She was also, according to her friends, naïve and gullible, someone who could be led to believe all kinds of preposterous stories and who was always eager to please other people.[xxiii]
Janis did all the things expected of a proper young girl in Port Arthur in the 1950s. She joined the Junior Reading Circle for Culture, and Tri Hi Y club, and the Glee Club, which gave her her first public singing opportunity outside of church: she sang a solo in the Christmas pageant. She even took bridge lessons. (Bridge was a passion of her parents’.) In fact, she met her first boyfriend, Jack Smith, when they played bridge together in the seventh grade in the Ladies Aid Society’s ‘Bridge for Cultural Improvement’ club.[xxiv]
Despite occasional problems with talking too much in class or doodling when she should have been taking notes, Janis seemed destined to sail smoothly into Port Arthur society, following the course prescribed for young ladies: high school, university, marriage, house, kids.
But in high school, smooth sailing gave way to stormy waters.
[i] Joplin, Laura, Love, Janis, New York: HarperCollins 2005 p. 237.
[ii] Echols, Alice, Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin, New York: Metropolitan Books 1999 p. 165.
[iii] Ibid, p. 166.
[iv] Ibid, p. 168.
[v] Storey, John W., “Port Arthur, Texas,” The Handbook of Texas Online, <http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/PP/hdp5.html> (September 22, 2006).
[vi] Joplin, Laura, Love, Janis, New York: Penguin Books 1992 pp. 22-23.
[viii] Echols, Alice, Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin, New York: Metropolitan Books 1999 pp. 4-5.
[ix] Joplin, p. 19.
[x] Ibid, p. 20.
[xi] Ibid, p. 21
[xii] Ibid, p. 22-24
[xiii] Ibid., p. 25
[xiv] Joplin, p. 25.
[xvi] Joplin, p. 27.
[xvii] Friedman, Myra, Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin, New York: Harmony Books 1992, p. 10.
[xviii] Friedman, p. 11.
[xx] Ibid, p. 12.
[xxi] Ibid, p. 13
[xxii] Joplin, p. 38.
[xxiii] Friedman, p. 14.
[xxiv] Ibid., p. 15.