"The Outer Limits of Probability" A Janis Joplin Retrospective

By Campbell, Gavin James | Southern Cultures, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

"The Outer Limits of Probability" A Janis Joplin Retrospective


Campbell, Gavin James, Southern Cultures


"If you can get them once, man, get them standing up when they should be sitting down, sweaty when they should be decorous, smile when they should be applauding politely ... and I think you sort of switch on their brain, man, so that makes them say: `Wait a minute, maybe I can do anything.' Whoooooo! It's life. That's what rock and roll is for. Turn that switch on, and man, it can all be."

--Janis Joplin, 1970

"Man, I'd rather have ten years of superhypermost than live to be seventy by sitting in some goddamn chair watching TV," Janis Joplin said in 1969. A little more than a year later on October 4, 1970, her superhypermost life came to a heroin- and alcohol-induced end in a Los Angeles hotel room. She was 43 years shy of her seventieth birthday.

The drugged escape from her own internal demons put a tragically fitting end to a woman torn apart by conflicting urges to embrace and to reject the values of her Port Arthur, Texas, childhood. Although Janis Joplin adopted Southern Comfort as her drink of choice, neither whiskey nor the South brought her much comfort. Janis was southern white womanhood gone haywire: a San Francisco hippie with east Texas roots, emotionally whipsawed between her desire to be a free-lovin' mama and a refined lady. With a sense of bafflement she told one interviewer, "Well, you know, I'm a middle-class white chick from a family that would love to send me to college and I didn't want to. I had a job, I didn't dig it. I had a car, I didn't dig it. I had it real easy." She never quite understood why she didn't follow a more familiar path. Only a few months before her death she devoured a biography of the Alabama belle Zelda Sayre, whose 1920 marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald broke the shackles of her southern upbringing. Janis admired Zelda's full-tilt, hell-bent lifestyle, and she shared Zelda's inability to withstand the emotional incongruities she lived. "She was as fucking crazy as I am," Janis marveled. As with Zelda, the competing impulses of rebellion and conformity that roiled through Janis's psyche exploded for a few short years into vitality and creativity before descending into obliteration. "It's not easy," she told her publicist Myra Friedman, "living up to Janis Joplin, you know." It wasn't easy creating Janis Joplin either.

Located on the banks of Sabine Lake near the Louisiana border, Janis's hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, was the brainchild of the Kansas City railroad tycoon Arthur E. Stilwell. He envisioned the town as part of his plan to link Kansas City with the Gulf of Mexico, and he chose its site under the guidance of Brownie fairies. These Brownies advised him in a dream not only where to locate the town but also to name it after himself. In 1895 he began surveying the land. He envisioned Port Arthur as a busy seaport that catered both to international shipping and to wealthy vacationers, and consequently he designed the town around wide avenues and beautiful homes. Plans and reality didn't match in the early years. Recalling the town in its youth one resident related that "at best Port Arthur was a gloomy place, the abode of hogs, mosquitoes, and cattle, and at night droves of rats took possession of the dark wash-board streets." The 1901 discovery of oil at the Spindletop gusher in nearby Beaumont forever doomed Stilwell's genteel resort, transforming it instead into an oil refining hub. By 1914 Port Arthur was the nation's second largest oil refining center, and the industry dominated the city. A local contest in 1937 to come up with a catchy city slogan resulted in: "We Oil the World."

The 1940 census, taken just three years before Janis Joplin's birth, counted slightly more than 50,000 residents. A mixture of Cajuns, Creoles, Mexicans, whites, and what the 1940 W.P.A. city guide called "smiling coastal Negroes" made the city unique for its ethnic diversity. In most other ways, however, Port Arthur was like countless other cities and towns sprinkled throughout the South.

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