Gary James' Interview With Janis Joplin's Sister
Had Janis Joplin lived, she would've turned 60 in January 2003. But, she died of a combination
heroin and alcohol overdose in her L.A. motel on October 4, 1970. She was only 27 years old. Best known for hits like "Me And Bobby McGee", "Try", "Piece Of My Heart", and "Mercedes Benz", Janis Joplin today sells more than 300,000 copies a year of her albums and CD's.
In the first major biography of Janis Joplin in two decades, comes a new book title "Love, Janis" (Villard Books) written by Laura Joplin, Janis' kid sister. It's a fascinating look at one of rock's all-time legends, featuring 25 never before seen letters from Janis to her family. They reveal her impressions of the early San Francisco rock scene and her thoughts on her rising stardom and subsequent fame.
Q - It must've been very sad for you to sit down and write a book like this?
A - Well you know, dealing with Janis' death and accepting her death was a big step for me. But, once I dealt with it and I got past it, once I let go of that grief, I didn't grieve about things anymore and I was free to enjoy the person. So writing this book was a very joyous experience. Certainly I had moments of pain and anguish when I'd encounter something. But, for the most part, it was a wonderfully rewarding experience and I feel much closer to her and like I know her much better now than I did before I started.
Q - Laura, what prompted you to write the book?
A - The real precipitating factor was my participation in the Port Arthur (Texas) Memorial Celebration in 1988. When we were getting ready to go down there, we were gathering things they wanted to put on exhibit on Janis. That's when we ran across Janis' letters. I was thoroughly just bowled over by it, the letters. They brought back Janis to me, our relationship, the quality of her conversation, the intimacy of the communication. They just brought it all back, right into the moment, in the present. It was totally there. There wasn't any distillation, or interpretation, or fuzziness from memory. It was real fresh. So, it was that emotional experience. I went down to Port Arthur and attended an event where 5,000 people crammed into a room that was designed to hold 3,000. The air was just electric. People came wanting some sense of resolution, wanting to touch something about their past, about Janis. It was a very euphoric experience. It really made me feel that people wanted to know something very real, sincere and genuine about Janis. We in the family just didn't feel that people had a full picture of Janis. By our not doing something earlier, we kind of felt that we were being responsive to Janis and not participating in what might've been considered exploitation. We came to realize later that by not participating in something, you were allowing Janis to be defined by default, by others. So we kind of felt that perhaps this was the time to go ahead and do something.
Q - How long did it take you to prepare this book?
A - The first words I put on paper were in 1988. Then I spent several years of doing research and writing up research notes and interviewing people and reading the actual writing of the book probably took about a year and a half. But, it was a full five year project, because no matter what you know, there's always more to know. I intended from the beginning to look at Janis as a woman caught within the context of her time. She can't really be understood in isolation. That makes it difficult to understand her. It's only the motivation and energy of the whole era that allows her to make sense.
Q - When Janis was at the peak of her fame, was it hard to be her sister, living in Port Arthur? What did people say to you?
A - Oh, there were different type of comments. I don't know that it came out a whole lot verbally. People were excited and asking what's she doing now? When's the record coming out? Are you gonna go to the concert in Houston? So there was that kind of enthusiasm. I don't remember people saying anything negative. I think the effect of Janis' fame wasn't as strong while she was living as it was actually after she died...on me, anyway. That was perhaps because I was more sensitive after she died. It was more of a painful thing, so I remember it coming up then.
Q - Were your parents proud of Janis' success? Did they invite friends over to the house to watch her on TV?
A - They invited people over to watch her on the Ed Sullivan Show. Clearly, my parents were very proud of Janis. But, also my parents were a member of their generation and they didn't understand the hippie movement anymore than the rest of the people in their generation. They had an honest relationship with Janis. It was no surprise to her. They had agreed several years earlier when Janis was insistent about doing things that they didn't think were right, that they agreed to disagree. They felt that maintaining their relationship and their closeness was more important than agreeing on some of the behavior. In this way, they could at least talk and perhaps influence. They worried about what Janis was getting into and all parents worry about what their kids are doing.
Q - So, at no time did your parents disown Janis?
A - No, it was never that kind of relationship in the family. There have been stories in the press, off and on, describing Janis running away from home or being kicked out of the house, but there's no truth to them at all.
Q - Did Janis ever introduce you to the big rock stars of the day? Jim Morrison? Jimi Hendrix?
A - We didn't really travel around with Janis. I know we've met some famous people here and there, but when you meet them, they just look more like people. We went out to San Francisco and the Avalon Ballroom. But, that was in '67, before any of them were superstars. They were really just still rising stars.
Q - Did Janis ever talk to you about her boyfriends after she became famous?
A - Well, we talked in general. We didn't have any long conversations. Are you thinking of something in particular?
Q - Were Joe Namath and Dick Cavett boyfriends of Janis?
A - I have heard some rumors linking Janis with Joe Namath. I think she definitely met him and probably went out with him, but I don't think they had a serious relationship. Certainly she enjoyed Dick Cavett's shows and was on several of them, but I'm not sure about anything beyond that. They're both very literate people, so I'm sure that they would've enjoyed each other. But, I don't think there was any romance that I know of.
Q - At what age do you think she decided to become a professional singer?
A - Well, I'm not sure that Janis sat down and made a career choice. Music was a way of life. The fact that she actually made some money at it, here and there, was just that much better. I think she had aspirations to be wonderful, but I'm sure that any singer publicly performing has those kinds of aspirations. Janis was a gifted singer and lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when her music was able to catch the spotlight and allow her to achieve artistic stardom.
Q - How did Janis meet Chet Helms, the gentleman who gave her her first big break?
A - Janis went to school in Austin for awhile and played music there and hung out with a group of people that played music and wrote the Texas Ranger Humor magazine. Chet Helms was a Texan and a former UT (University of Texas) student who was passing through town and hanging out with people. He was living in San Francisco at the time and mentioned to all the musicians there, in particular Janis, that if they came to San Francisco, they'd be big hits, because San Francisco was really hunting for the kind of roots music that Austin had. Janis listened to him and went out there. They actually hitch-hiked together to get out there. She lived in and around San Francisco, went to New York some, kind of exploring the Beatnik community there for a couple of years. Later on she came back and lived at home for a year. When she was taking a break in the summer, she went to Austin to play a couple of gigs and relax on summer break. She talked to Chet on the phone and he mentioned that Big Brother And The Holding Company, a band that he managed, was hunting for a singer and would she be interested and that he'd give her a bus ticket out there to see. It wasn't as though Chet pulled her out of the blue. Two of the guys in Big Brother knew Janis because they had been in North Beach playing the same folk music clubs that Janis had been in. So, they'd run into each other before. So, they were pretty much aware of what was gonna be coming.
Q - Were Janis' schoolmates cruel to her as has been reported elsewhere?
A - She had some difficulties with some people in school, but not the entire school. I don't think she was picked on to the point that other people really recognized her problem. She felt like an outsider. She couldn't identify with the same goals and desires that a lot of her classmates had. So, she felt an alienation, but she wasn't alone. I think that every adolescent feels a certain amount of frustration and discomfort in high school. Some of the comments of Janis' putting the hometown down, or high school, have to be understood within the context of the 60's. It was a time when there was a huge division line being drawn. You were either hip, or you were straight. And once you crossed the line and became hip, it was important to put down the straight world. I read a book recently, that a woman wrote about creativity and rock stars from the to 60's and that sense of being an outsider, that sense of alienation and not fitting in, was one of the fundamental characteristics of everyone in that era.
Q - What did Janis think of Woodstock?
A - She came home right after Woodstock. I remember it because of what it's become. She was just incredibly enthusiastic, just bubbling over, jumping up and down, talking about how incredible it was. It was kind of sad that none of us could relate to it, you know, the kind of tremendous moment it has come to symbolize. We just thought it was a rock concert, another group of kids listening to music. We didn't understand the difference. Slowly, it began to dawn on us when we began seeing the pictures. She tried to share her enthusiasm, what was going on, but our life experience was such, that we couldn't understand it.
Q - Your father told you that he wasn't sure if Janis' death was a drug overdose, or if she passed out, fell, and suffocated in the shag carpet. Do you believe there was any foul play connected with her death?
A - No. I don't believe there was. It was a tragic accident.
Q - How about the stories we hear that Janis was too political and was murdered by an intelligence organization. Why do these stories persist?
A - People just aren't dealing with the details of her death. Anytime there's an uncertainty about anything, they fill it in with their own emotions. I very thoroughly researched her death. I have a copy of her death (certificate). I had a pathologist go over it. Look up Coroner Thomas Noguchi's book and read what he wrote about her. I talked with John Cook who was with her in Los Angeles and actually was the person who found her. I talked with Paul Rothchild (producer) who was down there and some of the other people that were in the band recording. Janis had not been using heroin for six months. She was clean. She had just been chipping a little bit at night, maybe four or five times. Some people made claims there was only one fresh needle track. Well, there were actually four or five. That's written on the autopsy. People that were around her knew she was using. There's no doubt that she was using drugs again. Also, when Janis died, she was legally drunk. It's very typical that when death is attributed to a heroin overdose it is actually what they call a poly drug effect of alcohol interacting with heroin. Very few people die from just a straight heroin overdose. The heroin Janis used, according to the coroner, was four to ten times stronger than normal street drugs. So, she had super strong heroin, and was also legally drunk. The combination of those factors led to her death.
Q - Did Janis die broke?
A - No. One of the things her attorney remarked on, almost with tears in his eyes, 'cause it's not what you think of as Janis, but when he was going through her papers and getting her estate in order, Janis had every checkbook with every check reconciled with every statement. Everything was perfectly in order. She was cautious with her money and saved money. She knew what it was to not have money and so she dealt fairly prudently with it. And like she says in her letters, she was earning more than she could ever spend.
Q - You're writing a play about Janis' life.
A - Well, I'm not writing a play. I'm working with some people to get a play produced on Broadway. Currently we have a contract with Ed Graczyk, who wrote "Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean." He's writing the play on Janis.
Q - You're also working on a CD collection.
A - Yes, it's going to be a retrospective, kind of like an artists profile, where we have material from her early singing in Austin, into her folk music days in San Francisco and then up to the stuff she recorded with Columbia. That's due out April 1, 1993. We'll have a nice booklet with some interviews and photographs in it.
Q - What goes through your mind when you're driving your car down the road, with the radio on, and a song of Janis' will come on?
A - Well, it's a funny process when I listen to stuff and certainly with her business, I've listened to her music a lot. The first thing that comes to my mind is, oh yeah, I like that song. Then the second level kind of comes in and I go, golly, she had a great voice. The third level just somehow takes over and I just have to sing along with her. It's just a real compelling kind of feeling. It's funny.