O Janis

She loved her family but she left them. She hated Port Arthur, but she kept coming home. What demons drove Janis Joplin to her death?

JANIS CAME HOME TO PORT ARTHUR one last time in August 1970, seeking satisfaction: revenge, acknowledgment of her superiority, perhaps an apology or two from those who once called her a pig and a whore and threw pennies at her, perhaps simply acceptance at last, at last. It was her tenth high school reunion, and in those ten years the world had gone crazy. In that span of time, Janis had become a star, an icon of the counterculture, a wealthy woman, an alcoholic, and a heroin addict. Her whole world revolved at high speed. For that matter, even the world of Port Arthur had begun to spin. Some of the kids wore long hair. The schools had integrated. And when cars trolled along Procter Avenue with the windows down, you no longer heard the Coasters, Chuck Berry, and the sweet nothings of girl groups bubbling out of the radio speakers. Now you heard Janis Joplin.

But the essence of Port Arthur hadn’t changed anymore than Janis herself had changed. It was still a small town where appearances counted, and she was still a thin-skinned rebel—“needing acceptance,” as one of her close friends put it, “while at the same time rejecting the society from which she needed the acceptance.” Janis was still of Texas, in her music and in her soul. No matter how frayed the bond, no matter how much she slashed away at it, no matter how much it tortured her, there it was. Unlike Janis, her tight circle of high school friends hadn’t bothered to attend this gathering. Reunions weren’t their trip; they didn’t give a damn if Port Arthur accepted them or not. And not one of them had achieved the fame and fortune Janis Joplin had. Yet all of them had found a way to make peace with their pasts.

Janis had not, nor would she. She arrived at the Goodhue Hotel in full flourish, wearing purple and pink feathers and open-toed silver slippers and oversized sunglasses and fluorescent orange paint on her toenails and enough metal on her wrists and forearms to build a prison cell, accompanied by three long-haired guys of undetermined origin. Her peers spent the evening gawking at her or making catty comments out of her earshot. Several asked for autographs. At least one of them, who had never been close to the singer, assured Janis that she’d given the media the wrong impression about Port Arthur’s treatment of her. “Janis, we liked you!” she insisted.

Janis did not respond. She had pledged to a reporter that she would attend the Thomas Jefferson High School reunion “just to jam it up their asses,” to “see all those kids who are still working in gas stations and driving dry cleaning trucks while I’m making $50,000 a night.” But now that she saw them and they saw her, what was there to say? What deep scars could suddenly disappear? What damage could possibly be undone? She spent the evening drinking, then returned to California, where she phoned a close friend, her publicist and eventual biographer, Myra Friedman. In a dejected voice she told Friedman, “Well, I guess you can’t go home again, right?”

Less than seven weeks later, on October 4, 1970, 27-year-old Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose. Her will stipulated that her body not be buried in Port Arthur—rather, that it be cremated and the ashes spread across the Pacific coastline of Marin County, California. With Janis’ last wish fulfilled, Port Arthur was forever denied a piece of its prodigal daughter’s heart.

THE MOVEMENT TO REUNITE JANIS Joplin with her native state has been made possible only by redefining Janis Joplin. As the years passed, visitors from all over the world would drive through Port Arthur, searching for tributes to the city’s most famous celebrity. Yet no sign, no building bore her name. Her childhood home had been torn down in 1980. Her family had moved to Arizona. And those who remembered Janis did not always have nice things to say. For what had she said about Port Arthur? A town filled with bowling alleys, rednecks, and plumbers, leading “such tacky lives.” Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and John Lennon may have appalled the establishment, but at least they didn’t get personal about it. To some in Port Arthur, Janis Joplin symbolized the very worst of her generation. She was a spiteful, ungrateful ragamuffin who made a spectacle of herself, slept with everyone in sight, and ultimately drugged herself to death—though not before influencing thousands of gullible children toward the same doom. Small wonder that when another Joplin biographer, Ellis Amburn, strolled through Port Arthur a few years back and asked passersby why there wasn’t a street named after Janis, “most people were outraged that I would even bring up the subject,” he says.

Amburn would later term Port Arthur “a town without pity.” But by the mid-eighties, fate had dealt the town a pitiless hand. Oil production had dried up. In 1984 Gulf laid off 1,600 workers in a single day. One year later, unemployment in Port Arthur stood at 25 percent. The city’s downtown area looked as if it had been beaten and left for dead. All of this is not to say that civic leaders were completely receptive when, in 1987, the owner of a local barge and tugboat business and a former classmate of Janis’ named John Palmer offered to pay for a bust of the singer if the city would agree to unveil it during a fitting memorial ceremony. Recession or no, Port Arthur still wasn’t inclined to honor drug users—especially drug users who publicly ridiculed Port Arthur.

But what was the use in fighting anymore? Janis was dead and Port Arthur had wounds to heal. It happened, then, that on January 19, 1988, a crowd of about five thousand people wedged themselves into the Port Arthur Civic Center and viewed the unveiling of the bust. They cried and sang along to “Me and Bobby McGee,” the Kris Kristofferson song that Janis once

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