Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Lonely Road Home

Janis Joplin's Love-Hate Relationship with Port Arthur

January 19, 2008, was a cold, drizzly day in Port Arthur, Texas. A large crowd gathered that morning in a Baptist church fellowship hall on 32nd Street and sat reverently listening to recordings of a couple of Janis Joplin songs—“Mercedes Benz” and “Me and Bobby McGee”—and many began singing along as they warmed to the familiar tunes from their past.

It was a diverse crowd—children, old-timers, local politicians, curious neighbors, and visitors—some wearing leather motorcycle garb and the beads, tie-dyed clothing, and feather boas favored by Joplin, a local girl.

It was not a typical gathering in a church fellowship hall, but then that somehow seemed appropriate. The occasion was the dedication of an Official Texas Historical Marker on what would have been Joplin’s sixty-fifth birthday.

Few in attendance could picture her as a senior citizen. In their minds she would forever be in her twenties—the queen of rock and roll, flamboyantly performing on stages around the world, her wild hair, colorful costumes, and feather boas flying as she belted out song after song in front of cheering audiences.

The event’s celebratory mood represented a marked contrast from the town’s attitude toward its most famous native daughter just a few decades earlier. Janis Joplin’s relationship with her hometown was complicated.

By most accounts, she enjoyed a normal, happy early childhood in a middle-class family in the blue-collar refinery town, but her experiences as an outcast—some would say of her own making—in her high school years set the stage for rebellion and outrageous behavior that colored both her own memories and her legacy.

As her fame in the 1960s hippie counterculture movement grew, she simultaneously wrote sentimental letters to her family and made disparaging remarks about her hometown to reporters covering her meteoric rise in the music business.

In an oft-repeated quote, she told television talk show host Dick Cavett, “They laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state, man.” She also spoke about her hometown, and in one of the many harsh statements that later complicated her legacy in Port Arthur, said, “I always wanted to be an artist. Port Arthur people thought I was a beatnik, and they didn’t like beatniks, though they’d never seen one and neither had I. I read, I painted, I thought. There was nobody like me in Port Arthur. It was lonely, those feelings welling up and nobody to talk to. I was just ‘silly crazy Janis.’ Man, those people hurt me. It makes me happy to know I’m making it and they’re back there, plumbers just like they were.”

Lyrics written by her friend, lover, and fellow musician Kris Kristofferson in 1971, a year after her death (although not written for her, and paraphrased here), convey a sense of the complex journey toward her evolving legacy in Port Arthur: “[She’s] a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, takin’ every wrong direction on [her] lonely way back home.”

For a number of years after the 1988 event, Port Arthur hosted an annual Janis Joplin Birthday Bash, which evolved into the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame and the Music Legends Exhibit Hall in the acclaimed Museum of the Gulf Coast. Over the years, the Janis Joplin exhibit, anchored by a replica of her psychedelic-painted Porsche convertible, has remained a major attraction. People still come from around the world to pay homage to the queen of rock and roll who finally gained respect in her hometown.

By the twenty-first century, billboards advertising the museum could be seen along major highways in Southeast Texas, touting the area’s history “from Jurassic to Joplin.” A museum brochure offers a map and driving tour of local places associated with her life in Port Arthur, including the house in Griffing Park—across the road from Trinity Baptist Church—where an Official Texas Historical Marker honors the meteoric life of a simple local girl who took every wrong direction on her lonely way back home.

Marker Location: 4330 32nd St., Port Arthur

For more on Janis Joplin’s tumultuous journey with her hometown of Port Arthur, order your copy of Dan Utley and Cynthia Beeman’s new book History along the Way (TAMU Press, 2013).