Janis Joplin: The Woman and the Legend

On January 19, 1943, Seth and Dorothy Joplin became parents for the first time. Janis Lyn Joplin was born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, a small oil town near the Texas/ Louisiana border.

Janis was a calm, shy child; she pressured herself to high achievement in school, easily making straight - A's. In her spare time Janis could be found helping out at church and the library (Bibliography 2). It became obvious at an early age that Janis's talent was in painting. Mrs. Joplin enrolled Janis in private art lessons in the third and fourth grades. Another activity that filled Janis's free time was reading. She thoroughly enjoyed it, and the books she read were more intellectual than the average Port Arthur kid could read. As she got older, Janis tried desperately to hide the fact that she read so much. The reason for this is not clear, but the time she spent buried in books soon became obvious to her friends.

Janis participated in the church choir and the junior high glee club. No one paid much attention to Janis's singing and no one knew of what talent was to come (Friedman 9-10). Janis Joplin, in spite of a difficult childhood and a life filled with loneliness and many difficulties, achieved a great musical career.

The Joplins were a more open-minded family than most of the 1950's. Their kids were encouraged to discuss their ideas and form their own opinions. Mrs. Joplin stated, ". . . we wanted [the children] to voice their opinions and ideas about everything." In ninth grade Janis formed an opinion that would alienate her from the "normal" crowd. When a question at school arose about integration, Janis said she thought it was fine. People just did not think that way in Port Arthur. Janis was the only one to speak her mind and not conform. This led to suffering in the hands of cruel, name calling kids. She was followed by classmates who yelled ‘nigger lover' (Friedman 14). Her father warned her," Janis, if you flaunt your values and live outside society's rules, you'll pay a price." Janis later made a comment that seemed to reply to her father's previous one. She stated," I want to be true to myself, to be the person that was on the inside of me and not play games " (Barry).

The name calling never did stop for young Janis. Her beauty was not on the outside. She was overweight and had a bad case of acne. The children would throw things at her and call her ‘pig'. An old friend of Janis said," Janis would laugh, you know, playing along to get along. But she'd go home and cry." Janis began to dress unconventionally, did not wear makeup, and did not care what people thought. This caused greater scrutiny to fall on Janis (Friedman 18-19).

Most students at Thomas Jefferson High School would have nothing to do with Janis. She was too different and crude for the proper, little town. The music style she listened to was not considered "normal" at the time. Janis found comfort in folk music and blues. She would spend hours listening to Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, and Odetta. Janis finally found acceptance with a group of five guys. This group could be found reading books, listening to jazz, and climbing bridges. They had beach parties and were quite fond of drinking beer. Janis was not, at first, accepted into the group. "Then," Dave Moriatz (one of the guys) said,"Everybody began to realize she was fun to have around because she raised so much hell." Janis quickly became accepted as one of the guys (Friedman 17).

In May of 1960, Janis Joplin graduated from high school and went to Lamar College with the strong approval of her mother. Janis expected college to be a relief. She wanted to meet people who had different ideas and could relate to and respect her ideas. Janis did not find happiness at college, so during the summer of 1961, Mr. and Mrs. Joplin paid for Janis to travel to Los Angeles , California. There Janis lived with an aunt until she found a job. Janis then moved to Venice -- the beatnik area. This move was not approved of by her aunt (Bibliography 1). Janis liked California. She met people who thought like her. That both surprised and comforted Janis. Janis came home on her own free will and stayed in Port Arthur until the summer of 1962. When she came home she was new, "cool," and hip. Janis had experienced the beatnik movement, and she loved it (Friedman 24, 26-27).

The discovery of Janis's ability to sing came at a party. She was just singing along with everyone else, when she discovered she had a voice. Singing was a way to let out feelings (Barry). She began singing in public and was not discouraged by the lack of applause, early on. Janis's first recording was simply a commercial for a local bank (Friedman 28).

Janis returned to Lamar College and got a waitressing job at a bowling alley. Something began to change within her. She lost weight, began wearing makeup, and pinned her untamed hair close to her neck. She began to worry about seeming unfeminine --this led to her having guys light her cigarettes and open doors for her. It was near this time that Janis switched from six packs to bottles, and moved back to the Louisiana bar scene. Janis was more energetic and wilder than before (Friedman 30).

During the summer of 1962, Janis began attending University of Texas in Austin. Her musical ability was not ignored there. She began singing with a group of guys called the Waller Creek Boys. Janis had an exceptional voice and could change her style of singing to imitate other singers' voices. Her own voice could travel three octaves and change from a rough, raspy sound to a soft, feathery tone (Bibliography 2).

Janis left the university after being voted Ugliest Man on Campus. Mrs. Joplin contacted the school, but it was too late; Janis had already left to begin her trip to San Francisco. She began singing at different places, and word of her talent spread. She had no steady relationships and held a couple of jobs, but said the main reason she went to San Francisco was to experiment. Janis was using dope more than ever. She progressed to speed and heroin, but the exact time she started is not clear (Friedman 47-48).

Janis returned to Port Arthur in the summer of 1965. She was terrified of drugs and came home to clean up and prepare for marriage. Janis began to wear prim dresses, while trying to act proper and clean. Her fiancé ended up running off. This incident devastated Janis. A close friend said of Janis," She wanted to be close to someone." Trying to fill the emptiness and loneliness that she felt, Janis had multiple sexual escapades. (Friedman 57, 61).

A friend in Texas, by the name of Travis Rivers, had formed a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. They were located in San Francisco, and Travis wanted Janis to join the band. Janis was worried about going back to California. She asked her friends if it was going to be all right. She was scared she was going to get back into drugs. She was assured that everything would go well. Janis went to sing with them and described it as "the most thrilling time in my life." She then began hanging out with the Grateful Dead and the legend of Haight - Ashbury. Drinking was a constant, as she tried to kick her drug habit. Word of Janis began to spread to the hippies on the street.

In June of 1967, at the Monterey Pop Festival, Janis stunned the crowd with singing "Love is Like a Ball and Chain." A year later they released an album entitled Cheap Thrills. It was at this time that Janis was described as "the most exciting and openly sexual female that rock has produced." Problems began to arise with all the focus on Janis. Talk was going around about the lack of musical ability in the band members. Janis decided to depart and find her own background musicians (Morits 210).

Some people would call Janis greedy. She was never satisfied. She was at the top, but wanted more. She always questioned people to see if they loved her. She would ask them and would not stop until she received an answer. She also would test strangers to see if they recognized her. She was living for the day. She once told Newsweek, "I don't want to do anything half-assed. I'm twenty-six and all I'm worried about is twenty-six, not ninety-five" (Friedman 152). Janis could not cover her feelings. She was truely lonely. In 1969 Janis had a new band. Her abuse of heroin was growing, and she just released a new album, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama, with her new band, in the Fall of 1969 (Morits 211).

Janis devised an alter-ego for herself, Pearl. Pearl was a crude, hard-drinking, cuss- everybody- out, type of person. That was the person the audiences wanted. Janis Joplin was a tired woman. She would call home and tell her mother: " Mother, I'm so tired. . . I'm just so tired." She was sick of being drunk and sick of having empty relationships. Janis went to doctors trying to find an end to her excessive drunkenness, but there was no relief to be found. Janis was very proud of the fact that she had quit using heroin. She was living a fast life. She drank, sang, and drank some more. She would get drugs from all over and try to find love in multiple partners. Despite her desperate attempts to drown her lonliness, Janis was still as lonely as ever. She threatened that if things did not get better she would go back on heroin. Her performances were not bad, but they were starting to slack. Janis wanted real love, and talked frequently of getting married. She also began discussing ideas on cutting back performances to record more. This would give her some much-needed time off (Friedman 220, 227).

Janis returned to Port Arthur for her high school reunion and a concert. She wanted to show her classmates that she had succeeded despite their taunting. The town people were expecting her to show up stoned and drunk. Janis wanted to surprise them. She came home and was clean. In spite of her homecoming, friends began to worry about Janis. She was not looking well (Friedman 286-288).

Janis fell in love with a man by the name of Seth Morgan. He was not with her because she was famous; he was not even a Janis Joplin fan. Janis would tell people that he was different, he was not one of her "pretty young boys." This relationship had meaning to Janis. Janis was scared, at first, that Seth was using her, but he had a wealthy background of his own and did not need her money (Friedman 291-293)

Janis began using heroin again. Slowly, people began to find out about her usage and question her on it. She said she was just trying it to see if she wanted to use again (Friedman 304).

Janis's relationship with Seth was growing. They had a prenuptial agreement written. The day before her death, Janis called City Hall to find out about getting a marriage license. City Hall was not open and she would have to call back after the weekend. Another call that went through her hotel the weekend of her death was one to her dealer. He brought her some extremely pure heroin. Janis had only been using for three weeks and her tolerance was not high (Friedman 317-318).

Janis went to the studio where she had been recording a new album: Pearl. Janis did not sing that Saturday night, but listened to the instrumental track the band had recorded. Janis was to record the vocals to "Buried Alive in the Blues" the next day. She went out in her Porsche with a friend. They stopped at Barney's Beanery and Janis drank vodka and orange juice, just two. It was 12:30 a.m. on October 4 when she arrived at the Landmark Hotel and Janis went back to her room, alone.

Janis shot the pure substance into her arm. The rush had to be jolting. When she was through, she dropped the balloon of heroin into the garbage. She put her works into a Chinese box, and placed it in a drawer. Janis then walked downstairs into the lobby. She talked with the clerk and received change for a five-dollar bill with which she purchased a pack of cigarettes. Janis then walked back to her room. She went inside, closed the door, took one or two steps, and fell onto the floor. It was 1:40 a.m. Sunday, October 4, 1970 ( Friedman 319-320).

Janis Joplin died from an accidental overdose of heroin; there was alcohol in her blood as well. Her liver showed effects of her long-term, heavy drinking. Janis had previously requested her ashes be scattered by air along the coast of Marin County, California. Janis Lyn Joplin was 27 at the time of her death (Friedman 321-322). "Don't compromise yourself, it's all you've got," Janis said. Janis Joplin never did (Barry).


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