Janis: Born to the Blues

janis-joplin-nudeJanis Lyn Joplin would have turned 67 years old today.

Her classmate in Port Arthur, Texas recalled that as a little girl the future Queen of the Blues, "had been cute, then all of a sudden she got ugly. Her total self-respect took a broadside."

Janis's parents -- Seth, a Texaco engineer, and Dorothy, a college registrar -- knew this all too well. Their eldest daughter had seemed happy in her early years, then in high school, "She just changed totally, overnight," recalled Dorothy.

Wounded by her classmates' mockery, Janis became a fighter, a foul-mouth, and a hell-raiser. And, according to her Sunday school teacher mother, "a harlot."

"I was a misfit," the hometown wild child later admitted, "I read, I painted, and I didn't hate niggers."

Deferring to Dorothy, she joined the Future Nurses of America in her senior year. But, instead of becoming a nurse after graduation, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for alcoholism.

Just before her 18th birthday, she had her first singing engagement at the Halfway House in Beaumont. Two years later, after gigs as a bowling alley waitress and key-punch operator, she hitched to San Francisco with her first Bobby McKee, Chet Helms, a young Missouri preacher with dreams of becoming a rock promoter.

In the City of Love, Janis sang for free in coffeehouses and supported her habit by shoplifting, panhandling, and pulling the odd trick. Meanwhile, she developed an appetite for shooting meth and Mexican smack.

In the summer of '65, Helms put a wasted 87-pound Janis on a Greyhound back to Port Arthur.

In a last ditch effort to become what her mother wanted her to be -- a wife, a stenographer, and alive -- she enrolled at Lamar College.

In her spare time she began embroidering a Lone Star quilt and sewing a wedding dress. On the coast, she had become engaged to a beguiling grifter, doper, and space cadet by the name of Peter de Blanc. Before returning to Texas, she'd checked her fiancé into a sanatorium. Peter, fearing an imminent attack by spacemen, had fitted his VW with machine guns.

After de Blanc's extraterrestrials were exorcised, he beamed out of the hospital without a word to his bride-to-be. At last Janis located him in New York with a wife and two kids.

The singer resumed her career in Austin. Her old school buddy, Jim Langdon, now a staffer for the Austin Statesman, wrote a feature on her, calling her "The greatest white blues female singer in America." When Janis's mother read this she phoned Langdon, fit-to-be-tied. "Stop encouraging her!" she cried.

In 1966, Dorothy's daughter returned to San Francisco and joined Big Brother and the Holding Company in the Summer of Love. "They're like my family," she later said. "I've balled 'em all." Wrote her psychologist kid sister, Laura, she "was creating a new core family for herself."

Days before her 24th birthday, she and Big Brother performed at their biggest gig yet -- Golden Gate Park's historic Be-In, co-headlined by the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. "No guy ever made me feel as good as an audience," she said. She compared performing to "an orgasm," to "falling in love twenty times," and to "having a baby."

The following year, she had a Mexican abortion for her birthday. Bitterly regretting it, she later grieved, "It was wrong!"

She oscillated between dizzying highs and devastating lows. "You may not end up happy, but I'm fucked if I'm not going to try," she said. "That's like committing suicide the day you're born, if you don't try."

In the year before her death, the Queen of the Blues suffered six heroin overdoses, two nearly fatal. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Ed Rothschild, put her on methadone and diagnosed her as, "Intellectually bordering on brilliant. She really could think circles around most people, but her emotions were childlike and uncontrollable."

At the time of her last birthday, her 27th, her new backup band, Kozmic Blues, broke up. On the rebound, she flew to Rio for Carnival with her girlfriend, Linda Gravenites. "The idea was that Janis could stay so busy having fun that she wouldn't have any time to think about heroin," explained Linda. But, no sooner had Janis returned to California than she fell off the wagon again.

That summer, Port Arthur's prodigal daughter got a crazy idea in her head and announced it on the Dick Cavett Show. "They laughed me out of class, out of town and out of state, so I'm going back!. I'm going to show up with bells and feathers and I'm gonna say, 'Remember me, man? What are you doing? Still pumping gas?'"

Weeks later, reporters flocked to Port Arthur for the star's arrival. "What have you been up to since 1960?" they wanted to know.

"Tryin to get laid. Stay stoned!" exclaimed the hometown girl.

On the evening of her high school reunion she struck poses for photographers, drained the wet bar, and wisecracked about her cameo appearance for "the Last Supper." Sitting down for this, she told her classmates, "Everybody lay whoever you're sitting next to!"

Her scandalous behavior precipitated a violent fight with her tightly wound and usually reticent mother, who at last blurted out something which she had thought before but hadn't dared to utter to her own child: "I wish you'd never been born!"

Leaving Port Arthur, with only two months left to live, Janis told reporters, "Well, you can't go home again, right?" - David Comfort

Janis Joplin

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Mr. Comfort is the author of three popular Simon & Schuster titles, and the recipient of numerous literary awards. His latest title from Citadel/Kensington, The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead, The Fatal Journeys of Rock's Seven Immortals, is an in-depth study of the traumatic childhoods, tormented relationships, addictions, and tragic ends of Elvis, Lennon, Janis, Morrison, Hendrix, Cobain, and Garcia.

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