Janis Joplin: Port Arthur and the Thomas Jefferson Class of ’60 may never be the same again
This story in the Chronicle’s Sunday Zest magazine on Aug. 23, 1970. Excerpts of the story, as it ran then, follow.
Janis Joplin, the celebrated demigoddess of blue-eyed soul, the heiress to the legend of Bessie Smith, the lady with sheetmetal in her voice, tattoos on her wrist (and God knows where else) and abandon in her soul, grew up in Port Arthur. She has said it wasn’t a very pleasant experience and she has told it to enough reporters and television cameras that news was bound to get back home. You can understand then, that when Janis announced she was headin’ home to catch her high school class’ tenth reunion … well, it would sound a little like uh, a threat.
Last weekend it happened.
THE GOODHUE HOTEL, in downtown Port Arthur just off Proctor St., is … well, venerable. On a certain Saturday afternoon in August, hot in the unique way it gets hot in towns on the upper Texas Gulf coast, a couple of oscillating fans in the Goodhue lobby were playing ping pong with what passes for atmosphere in Port Arthur: Equal parts of humidity and whatever the refineries were exhaling that day.
The Schedule of Events board in front of the elevator listed a dinner-dance in the Scenic Room for 7:30. It was the 10th reunion of the class 1960, Thomas Jefferson High School, and it was to be preceded at 6:30 by a cocktail reception in the Petroleum Room on the second floor.
“I’m going to my high school reunion, man. Yeah. I’m gonna show up with bells and feathers and I’m gonna say, “Remember me, man? You laughed me out of class. What are you doing? Still pumping gas …?”
Janis said that in an interview once, and now it had happened. She didn’t have on bells, but she did have on feathers. There was an orange one, ostrich, I think, that was anchored to the center of her head and took off over her right shoulder down to her waist; and a blue one that headed the other way. She had on electric blue bells (bottoms) with rhinestone filigree. She had on some kind of silver slippers, and her toenails were painted DaGlo orange, baby.
She had on an undeniably see-through blouse and had those immense rose-colored round sunglasses that she wore exactly halfway down her nose. One of the girls from the class of 1960 was the one who compiled all the addresses and sent out all the letters and had her name on things as one of the persons who was ramrodding the reunion. She had said on the phone to newspaper people who had called about Janis and the reunion: “This is NOT a reception for Janis Joplin.”
No indeed, the lady said, this was not a reception for Janis Joplin, there were 566 other member of TJ ’60 and this reunion was for everybody to have fun at, not just for Janis Joplin.
But face to face (she had a very pleasant face, and a green dress with a corsage), there in the petroleum room three or so days later, things had gotten a little less tense.
“I asked Janis to come over to my house Thursday night to get this problem straightened out. I had all these reporters calling me, and I just didn’t know what to do. When I got married, I put my picture in the paper and that’s all I’ve ever had to do with them. At first Janis was very on her guard. But then she loosened up and we didn’t have any problems at all.”
So, as compromise between the public’s curiosity and this-is-not-a-reception-for-Janis-Joplin, there was a press conference in the Petroleum Room just before the cocktail party began.
They had put a table with a white cloth up on a little raised platform at one end of the Petroleum Room. When Janis walked in, she said, “O wow, man, the Last Supper” and made a sharp right and headed for the bar.
She wanted vodka but there wasn’t any. It was a Texas bar: Scotch, bourbon, gin.
“Man, I can’t drink any of that,” said Janis. “I can’t drink scotch and bourbon. It’s bad for the voice” and she did one of those incredible little Janis riffs that sounds like glass tearing. Upon assurances that a bottle of vodka could be had later, she accepted gin and orange juice in a plastic cup as compromise.
Somebody asked Janis what she’s been up the last 10 years and she said something naughty. People giggled. “That’s off the record,” said Janis. “It’s the truth. Listen, I just came for the party, man.”
How was Port Arthur changed in the last 10 years?
“I’ve been here two days, man, and it’s really loosened up a lot, man, since I left. It’s lookin’ good. People are getting’ together, getting’ down. I see a lotta freaks, that means a lotta rockin’, a lotta drugs. It’s looser. Of course that’s relatively speaking, man. I live in San Francisco, and you can’t get any looser than that.”
Think she’ll remember her old classmates?
“I remember a few of them, but most of my friends left school before they graduated, man, and I’m gonna catch them after this is over.”
“Come on over here, Laura Lee … this is my little sister, Laura Lee … Only she ain’t so little anymore … As a matter of fact, she’s looking good …”
Time for one of those nasty leading questions: Do you think you’d have wanted to come back to your reunion if you hadn’t have become famous?
Pause. Everybody listened.
And in a kind of parody of little-girl sadness: I don’t think I’d even have gotten a letter telling me about it…”
A chorus of “Oh come on’s” from TJ ’60.
Janis had arrived two days early with four people (“three dudes and a chick,” as she itemized them.) They were described by the lady with the corsage as: ”…a fellow from her agent… not her AGENT, but a fellow from her agent… and a photographer from the Dick Cavett Show… and a guy she said was her chauffeur ... and a girl … well, they said they picked up the girl along the way…”
Did you entertain when you were in high school?
“Only when I walked down the hall, man I was a recluse in high school. I was a painter. Painting keeps it in, man, but since I’ve started singing, I’ve changed. Singing lets it out.”
Were you an eccentric in high school?
“I thought of myself as an eccentric.”
And Port Arthur wasn’t ready for an eccentric?
Did you go to football games?
“Uh … no … yes, I guess so. To tell ya the truth, man, I don’t even remember the high school.”
Well, did you go to senior prom?
“Nobody asked me.”
“Aw come on!” Said TJ ’60.
Did you feel different from your classmates?
“I felt apart from them.”
Still feel the same way?
“Uh … no comment. Look, man, I been away for 10 years and most of these people have stayed here, and what that boils down to is different strokes for different folks, right? I been doin’ one thing, they’ve been doin’ another. There is still some common ground here somewhere. We can talk about…birds…”
Yes, Janis remembers some things fondly about Port Arthur. “Yeah, man there was the Black Cat Club and the Big Oaks and the Pleasure Pier-”
Like in Galveston?
“No, man, it was some crummy place you went to park and make out … You looked at a dirty canal … Do people still go there to make out?”
“No,” said lookin’-good Laura Lee. “The bridge is broken, you can’t get there.”
Then the lady with the corsage said it was 6:30 and time to let the rest of TJ ’60 in.
“Sure,” said Janis, “Let ‘em in, give ’em a drink. Listen, man,” she asked no one in particular, “was I too randy? Did I offend anybody?” She really seemed to mean it. Her retinue, the three dudes and a girl, smirked.
No, no, no, said TJ ’60
“Monteel? Did I do anything wrong?”
“No sweetie,” said Monteel” who was part of TJ ’60. “You were fine.”
So Janis Joplin, who didn’t have on one of those little stick-on labels that say “HELLO MY NAME IS,” went down to meet the rest of the TJ ’60.
It would be something, poignant, I guess, to say that the poor famous little rich girl was ignored by her classmates. She wasn’t ignored. People came up and were pleasant to her and she was pleasant back. She may be gone from Port Arthur. But she’s still a part of the Global Village. Young Middle America wanted to know how tall Tom Jones was (“about to here,” she said putting her hand at the level of his forehead), what Ed Sullivan was like (“like a rock with make-up”) and how tall Dick Cavett is (“he’s tee-ninesy but he´s nice”).
She was stared at. She signed autographs. She posed for Instamatics. But Janis had a hug only from John Coyle and his wife.
The Goodhue’s air conditioning was unable to keep up with the heat of nostalgia and it was beginning to get sweaty. The wallflowers (still, after 10 years), sat against the wall with their Instamatics and watched Janis talking to one clot of people, then another. Walk by and you could over hear bits …
″... Then what you’re doing is really a rat race,” said a classmate
“Well, man” said Janis, “it’s better than bein’ a keypunch operator…”
Why did she come?
If she wanted revenge, she was taking it out on no one that you could see. She was conspicuous, certainly, but she wasn’t flaunting anything. But people knew she was there.
“Which one is she?” asked a woman in a pants suit and a $20 frost job.
“She’s got purple and pink feather in her hair,” said the woman she asked.
And I watched pants suit walk over, with this big Miss Personality, Miss Ten-Most-Beautiful-TJ ’60 charm masks on her face and say:
“Janis: Sue Ellen.” (not Sue Ellen, really, but she looked as though she should be named Sue Ellen)
Janis looked at her “HELLO, MY NAME IS” sticker.
“Yeh, Sue Ellen”
“I … uh, see you on TV a lot.”
Janis Joplin smiled. “Yeah I do what I can …”
No, it might not be revenge but whatever it was, it was sweet.
Just eight weeks after swishing through her hometown in bell bottom jeans and a large colorful feather flowing from her hair, Janis Joplin was dead.
She was found beside the bed in room 105 of the Landmark Motor Hotel (now the Highland Gardens Hotel) in Hollywood on Oct. 4, 1970. The autopsy followed the tracks - “numerous needle marks are present in the arms bilaterally” - to a conclusion of acute heroin/morphine intoxication. Her blues got the best of her.
She’d been recording songs for her second solo album, which would emerge three months after her death as “Pearl”; the title was one of Joplin’s nicknames. “Pearl” quickly moved to No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart, pushed there in part because of her passing, but also on the strength of the music. “Pearl” yielded Joplin’s only solo pop hit, a chart-topping cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
“Pearl” would be the defining recording of a promising career interrupted. It also included posthumous Joplin calling cards like “Cry Baby” and “Mercedes Benz.” The album went on to sell more than 4 million copies. “Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits,” released in 1973, nearly doubled that figure.
In death she became an icon, a hippie blues queen who channeled her anguish into affecting song. The scarcity of her work - just four albums, two solo and two with Big Brother and the Holding Company, made over four years - only further codified her standing as an elusive, iconic artist just finding her artistic voice before it was silenced. Joplin’s short career initiated and inspired scores of subsequent singers, who admired the emotional rawness she brought to the music, even if they were unable to replicate the pained sound of her voice.
- Andrew Dansby