Janis Joplin, Texas, and the Big Beat

How East Texas Shaped Rock's First Female Superstar

"I'll tell you 'bout Texas Radio and the Big Beat...
I'll tell you 'bout the hopeless night
Wandering the Western dream
Tell you 'bout the maiden with raw iron soul"
-- Jim Morrison, "The Wasp"

The Cosmic Giggle must have been in full-tilt hysterics on January 19, 1943 when the oil refinery seaport of Port Arthur, Texas, won the heavenly crapshoot as the birthplace of rock & roll's first female superstar, Janis Joplin. In retrospect, Port Arthur's most famous daughter both defied and defined the Texas town that raised, rejected, reviled, then ultimately rejoiced in her brief, mad existence. In a way that she never would have admitted then (but might now), Port Arthur made Janis Joplin what she was -- a more tolerant, nurturing atmosphere might have diluted the fire that burned within her.

And that fire is what everyone knows about Joplin: her incendiary stage performances, her masochistic tango with the bottle, her tumultuous love life, and her fatal dalliance with drugs. Joplin's musical legacy is also a part of Austin's history -- how the disheveled folkie/UT student playing at west campus hootenannies and Kenneth Threadgill's bar on North Lamar took off for San Francisco with some other Texans in the Sixties and changed the history of rock & roll.

On the surface, she seemed the perfect icon for stardom in the late Sixties: She fit no standard of beauty yet exuded a raw sensuality that mirrored a movement which rejected societal standards by creating its own. When Joplin arrived in San Francisco, in 1966, the year before the Summer of Love, its music scene was already in a nascent, post-Beat hippie whirl. Young people flocked to the Bay area as if to Mecca by the thousands, searching for identity, reason, justification, maybe just something as simple as acceptance. This is the irony of all the great Sixties icons -- Joplin included: that their desire for acceptance was at the heart of their rebellion, and that their ultimate embrace by the masses came about because of this rebellion. The sad part about rebellion, however, is that it usually follows rejection, and that was something Janis Joplin knew deep down in her soul.

The Janis Joplin of legend set the standard for the blues mama image of white female singers. Blues mamas have to be hard-livin', hard-lovin' and, of course, hard drinking. But life in the Gulf Coast town was not exactly hard; like much of the town's population, Janis' father, Seth, worked at the Texaco refinery and the Joplins resided comfortably.

By all accounts, Janis had a happy childhood, but her entrée into womanhood was less than graceful. As a teenager, she tended to gain weight, her soft child-blond hair turned brown and unruly, and she developed acne that would scar as well as shape her looks and personality. She became an unwilling member of an elite club of misfits, a woman who avoided mirrors because of pitted reflections, knowing that the scars underneath caused by the ones on the surface are the most painfully inflicted. Rejected and made fun of by most of her peers, she sought and found solace in the works of other outcasts -- writers, musicians, artists. When your society rejects you, you do the obvious: You reject it.

Joplin felt like an ugly duckling because she didn't fit anyone's notion of beauty. Port Arthur was a one-high-school town, and to be rejected by the school was to be rejected by the town. A culture that puts a premium on marketable feminine beauty has no use for the Janis Joplins of the world, and why should it? Her kind of beauty can only be captured in its natural state -- candidly or in performance. Look at the posed shots of Joplin and you'd swear her eyes plead with you to like her, really like her. Now, look at the performance photos, where she's recklessly lost in song, or examine the candid shots of her, where Joplin's face is soft and vulnerable in repose. In front of the photographer's camera in a studio she was naked to the world, but in front of an audience, she came alive, transforming into a vibrant and seductive entertainer who channeled every honker and shouter she ever heard on the Texas radio in the thick, black night.

For kids in East Texas' "Golden Triangle" -- Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange -- the promised land of booze and blues lay just across the Louisiana border. While the big-city sound of Bobby Bland and gritty rhythm of Lightnin' Hopkins filtered in from Houston, 90 miles away, Slim Harpo, Clifton Chenier, and swamp pop royalty like Tommy McLain, Rod Bernard, and Dale & Grace reigned in the roadhouses and dance halls of Cajun and swamp country that ran off Highway 90 between Lafayette and the Lone Star border. From the moment it crossed the Sabine River, that highway was lined with clubs and juke joints with names like the Big Oaks, Buster's, the Stateline -- joints that attracted the locals as well as nearby Texans.

Clandestine forays over the border -- called going "on the line" -- were a rite of passage, in those days, and one that Joplin was exposed to early on because she ran with the boys in high school. On weekends, they would load up and drive across the state line where the brass-heavy bands were tearing up the clubs. Gulf Coast bands like the Boogie Kings and Jerry LaCroix & the Counts specialized in the hits of the day and infused their sets with raucous dirty dancing and hip-grinding ballads. These bands might be dismissed as cover bands today but back then they functioned not only as living jukeboxes, but also as keepers of the flame. At this strip of clubs across the border, American rock & roll resonated endlessly in the night, its bluesy beats and frantic rhythms greased by the free-flowing booze; Texas drinking age was 21, Louisiana's 18.

The rowdy blues Joplin saw live in Louisiana were a marked contrast to the classical music she was raised on in Port Arthur and the omnipresent country music found in Texas. Jazzmeisters like Dave Brubeck and folksingers like Odetta were cultivated by her circle of friends, who likewise found the question-authority philosophy of the Beats palatable. Her knowledge and quest for understanding inspired her to not just appreciate but to learn the music, taking up guitar as well as singing. By the time she graduated Thomas Jefferson High School in 1960, she was imbued with an unusually well-rounded knowledge of music as well as a desire to explore its core.

What happened to Joplin after she graduated high school is well known: College courses at Lamar Tech; a lifestyle-expanding trip to Venice, California; more college courses back in Port Arthur where she played coffeehouses; a mid-summer 1962 trip to Austin resulting in her move here. From Austin, her life is even better documented. She played the folk circuit for a while locally but left Austin for San Francisco and, briefly, New York. Burnt out and drug-weary, she returned to Port Arthur briefly in the summer of 1965 and tried unsuccessfully to conform to the straight life. Her rebellious nature reared its head during a trip to Austin that fall; she stayed and never returned home to Port Arthur. Seven months later, she left for San Francisco. It was June 1966. Janis Joplin had finally gotten out.

On October 4, 1970, four years and four months after she bolted from Austin, Janis Joplin overdosed in her room at the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles, having scored a particularly pure batch of heroin. Her career had been virtually meteoric, but her ascent as the first goddess of rock was doused by her sad, lonely death, which followed that of Jimi Hendrix, who'd died two weeks earlier. Jim Morrison would die within a year, and whatever glow the Sixties had was finally dimmed for good.

What would Janis have been like today, at age 53? Undoubtably mellower; likely dried out and cleaned up, because if she wasn't alcoholic at the time, she surely would have been soon. The toll would not have shown well on her face, but blues mamas are supposed to look the part, anyway. By dying young, she is frozen at the pinnacle of her success -- brilliant and shimmering in the easy grace of audience acceptance and approval. She is, forever, raw iron soul.

I like to think that Janis would have made her peace with Port Arthur and East Texas, would have come to terms with what drove her away, and finally developed an affection for the place that inspired her indomitable spirit. I like to think that she would have come to understand, as we all do, that the agonies of youth and adolescence must be put behind, even when the scars are on the surface. Certainly, Port Arthur finally embraced Joplin, honoring her with a statue and a yearly musical tribute -- a little too late to ease the pain of being "laughed... out of class, out of town, and out of the state," as she told TV viewers of The Dick Cavett Show, while planning her infamous trip home for her 10th high school reunion in 1970.

These days, when you drive into Louisiana, the old roadhouses and dancehalls have been replaced by aluminum-shed gambling casinos. More importantly, the drinking age has been raised to 21, forever ending the ritual of East Texas teens driving "on the line" for booze and blues in the night. But the music is still alive and well in that part of Texas. And for all the changes, surface and internal, the music is still that throbbing beat that doesn't waver. The same swamp pop ballads, the blues shuffles, the rock anthems that Joplin heard during her day are still among the most requested of the bands who play in what's left of the roadhouses and out-of-the-way clubs around Highway 90 and Interstate 10.

In a way, Joplin's legacy links all this so that it all comes nearly full-circle. The swamp blues of the bands playing the Big Oaks and Lou Ann's were exactly the sound she sought out for her Kozmic Blues Band. The folk and country influence of her early career were later evidenced in choosing material like "Me and Bobby McGee." And certainly she understood the dynamic of rock & roll, having assembled Big Brother & the Holding Company and later the Full-Tilt Boogie band.

And maybe it has come full-circle for Janis Joplin. On an unforgivingly hot July day last summer, I was in a run-down little bar in the swamps about thirty minutes from Port Arthur, where the locals of Carlyss, Louisiana, were gathered on a Thursday afternoon. It was a scene that probably hadn't changed in 35 years, the kind of place Janis Joplin might have stumbled onto driving through the hopeless night with her buddies, looking for fun, looking for trouble, looking for a way out. The band wouldn't go on 'til later but their equipment was set up, ready to crank out those swamp-pop ballads and Slim Harpo covers that every Louisiana band must know. The folks inside shot pool and talked in thick accents at the bar. And out of the shiny new CD jukebox in a dark, dusty corner rose Janis Joplin's voice, at once pleading and resigned, anguished and determined, impassioned and heart-breaking:
"...Who cares, baby, 'cause we may not be here tomorrow.../So if anyone should come along and kill you with love and affection... /I said, get it while you can. Oh honey, get it while you can..."

See, Janis? You did make it. Your raw iron soul became an inexorable part of rock & roll in the land that made you what you were.

The annual tribute to Janis Joplin takes place in Port Arthur on Saturday, January 13 at the Civic Center with Jerry LaCroix, Jivin' Gene, Rod Bernard, and others. Call 800/235-7822 for more information. This story is dedicated to my father.

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