In August 1970, just weeks before her untimely and tragic death, Janis Joplin’s last journey back to her native Port Arthur, Texas included a highly publicized appearance at her 10 year high school reunion that saw the 27-year-old singer in the very unique position of having defied the odds, leaving small town life as an unwanted outcast and returning as a wealthy counterculture icon. She told a local reporter that she was attending “just to jam it up their asses” and to “see all those kids who are still working in gas stations and driving dry-cleaning trucks while I’m making fifty thousand dollars a night”.
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Some of those same kids once called Janis a pig and a weirdo and threw pennies at her, teasing her about everything from her weight to her acne to her outspokenness about civil rights. Many of them never left Port Arthur, so 10 years hadn’t brought many changes. But here was Janis, a rock star, a counterculture icon and a wealthy woman, returning with sweet revenge on her mind. And a secret hope that she might finally be accepted. She arrived in hippie style – a loose white blouse, purple and pink feathers in her hair, oversized tinted glasses, and a bounty of bracelets jangling on each wrist. But as often happens when we go home, we revert to our insecure, teenage selves. At the reunion, Janis quickly felt the chill of her classmates, who stood apart, snickering and making catty remarks about her.
The Goodhue Hotel, in downtown Port Arthur just off Proctor St., is venerable. On a certain Saturday afternoon in August, hot in the unique way it gets hot in towns on the upper Texas Gulf coast, a couple of oscillating fans in the Goodhue lobby were playing ping pong with what passes for atmosphere in Port Arthur: Equal parts of humidity and whatever the refineries were exhaling that day.
The Schedule of Events board in front of the elevator listed a dinner-dance in the Scenic Room for 7:30. It was the 10th reunion of the class 1960, Thomas Jefferson High School, and it was to be preceded at 6:30 by a cocktail reception in the Petroleum Room on the second floor.
One of the girls from the class of 1960 was the one who compiled all the addresses and sent out all the letters and had her name on things as one of the persons who was ramrodding the reunion. She had said on the phone to newspaper people who had called about Janis and the reunion: “This is NOT a reception for Janis Joplin.”
No indeed, the lady said, this was not a reception for Janis Joplin, there were 566 other member of TJ ’60 and this reunion was for everybody to have fun at, not just for Janis Joplin. But face to face, there in the petroleum room three or so days later, things had gotten a little less tense.
“I asked Janis to come over to my house Thursday night to get this problem straightened out. I had all these reporters calling me, and I just didn’t know what to do. When I got married, I put my picture in the paper and that’s all I’ve ever had to do with them. At first Janis was very on her guard. But then she loosened up and we didn’t have any problems at all.”
So, as compromise between the public’s curiosity and this-is-not-a-reception-for-Janis-Joplin, there was a press conference in the Petroleum Room just before the cocktail party began. They had put a table with a white cloth up on a little raised platform at one end of the Petroleum Room. When Janis walked in, she said, “O wow, man, the Last Supper” and made a sharp right and headed for the bar.
She wanted vodka but there wasn’t any. It was a Texas bar: Scotch, bourbon, gin. “Man, I can’t drink any of that,” said Janis. “I can’t drink scotch and bourbon. It’s bad for the voice” and she did one of those incredible little Janis riffs that sounds like glass tearing. Upon assurances that a bottle of vodka could be had later, she accepted gin and orange juice in a plastic cup as compromise.
Somebody asked Janis what she’s been up the last 10 years and she said something naughty. People giggled. “That’s off the record,” said Janis. “It’s the truth. Listen, I just came for the party, man.”
Reporters asked many questions about her childhood. Excerpts of the story, as it ran on the Sunday Zest magazine on Aug. 23, 1970:
How was Port Arthur changed in the last 10 years?
“I’ve been here two days, man, and it’s really loosened up a lot, man, since I left. It’s looking good. People are getting together, getting down. I see a lotta freaks, that means a lotta rocking, a lotta drugs. It’s looser. Of course that’s relatively speaking, man. I live in San Francisco, and you can’t get any looser than that.”
Did you entertain when you were in high school?
“Only when I walked down the hall, man I was a recluse in high school. I was a painter. Painting keeps it in, man, but since I’ve started singing, I’ve changed. Singing lets it out.”
Were you an eccentric in high school?
“I thought of myself as an eccentric.”
And Port Arthur wasn’t ready for an eccentric?
Did you go to football games?
“Uh … no … yes, I guess so. To tell ya the truth, man, I don’t even remember the high school.”
Well, did you go to senior prom?
“Nobody asked me.”
“Aw come on!” Said TJ ’60.
Did you feel different from your classmates?
“I felt apart from them.”
Still feel the same way?
“Uh … no comment. Look, man, I been away for 10 years and most of these people have stayed here, and what that boils down to is different strokes for different folks, right? I been doing one thing, they’ve been doing another. There is still some common ground here somewhere. We can talk about…birds…”
Then the lady with the corsage said it was 6:30 and time to let the rest of TJ ’60 in.
“Sure,” said Janis, “Let ’em in, give ’em a drink. Listen, man,” she asked no one in particular, “was I too randy? Did I offend anybody?” She really seemed to mean it. Her retinue, the three dudes and a girl, smirked.
No, no, no, said TJ ’60
“Monteel? Did I do anything wrong?”
“No sweetie,” said Monteel, who was part of TJ ’60. “You were fine.”
So Janis Joplin, who didn’t have on one of those little stick-on labels that say “HELLO MY NAME IS,” went down to meet the rest of the TJ ’60.
It would be something, poignant, to say that the poor famous little rich girl was ignored by her classmates. She wasn’t ignored. People came up and were pleasant to her and she was pleasant back. She may be gone from Port Arthur. But she’s still a part of the Global Village. Young Middle America wanted to know how tall Tom Jones was (“about to here,” she said putting her hand at the level of his forehead), what Ed Sullivan was like (“like a rock with make-up”) and how tall Dick Cavett is (“he’s tee-ninesy but he’s nice”).
She was stared at. She signed autographs. She posed for Instamatics. But Janis had a hug only from John Coyle and his wife.
The Goodhue’s air conditioning was unable to keep up with the heat of nostalgia and it was beginning to get sweaty. The wallflowers (still, after 10 years), sat against the wall with their Instamatics and watched Janis talking to one clot of people, then another.
Why did she come?
If she wanted revenge, she was taking it out on no one that you could see. She was conspicuous, certainly, but she wasn’t flaunting anything. But people knew she was there.
“Which one is she?” asked a woman in a pants suit.
“She’s got purple and pink feather in her hair,” said the woman she asked.
The pants suit walk over, with this big Miss Personality, Miss Ten-Most-Beautiful-TJ ’60 charm masks on her face and say, “Janis: Sue Ellen.” (not Sue Ellen, really, but she looked as though she should be named Sue Ellen)
Janis looked at her “HELLO, MY NAME IS” sticker.
“Yeh, Sue Ellen.”
“I … uh, see you on TV a lot.”
Janis Joplin smiled. “Yeah I do what I can …”
No, it might not be revenge but whatever it was, it was sweet.