Forty years ago tomorrow, Janis Joplin rocked Woodstock. If she'd lived, today she'd be 3 years younger than Tina Turner. At 66, she might be doing ads for AARP or some osteoporosis drug if she hadn't flamed out at age 27 from a heroin overdose, but probably not.
She was a rebel among rebels. She ran away from home in Port Arthur when she was 17 and went to California. Drugs and disappointment sucked her dry. She wasn't ready for the bright lights and the big city. Withered to 88 pounds, she came home to Port Arthur -- a place legend says she famously hated -- in the summer of 1965 to dry out, to regain her equilibrium and retrace her steps. The road had taken her farther from where she started, closer to where she was from.
But in at least 64 letters from Port Arthur in the last half of 1965, we catch a glimpse of a Janis Joplin remarkably different from the whiskey-soaked, blues-drenched insurgent of legend: She comes across as a dreamy, insecure schoolgirl in love, a homebody who dreams about her wedding day, reconnecting with her faith, being mesmerized by a man flying in space and distant train whistles, not being able to fix her hair right, and being torn between spending a recent windfall on yarn to make her boyfriend a sweater or buying a guitar.
The letters were written to her fiance Peter de Blanc. They'd met in California, but when she returned to Port Arthur, he went home to Manhattan. The letters were made public in 2000, shortly before de Blanc died of cancer in 2002. The 64 handwritten letters, some very short and others as long as 8 pages, were broken up into 28 lots and auctioned off, perhaps never to be seen publicly again.
They contain no bombshells, no startling new facts, no skeletons uncloseted ... just the private Janis, not the iconic Janis. You might never see what they contained, even in this blog, because the Joplin Estate has so far asserted its copyright ownership of them -- Janis did write them, after all, and as such they are like a lyric that is owned by her and her estate. I received copies of 24 of those letters in 2005 from a rock memorabilia dealer, but when I asked Joplin's sister Laura's blessing to reprint them in my newspaper at the time, her lawyers responded emphatically: No way.
Why? The estate feared it would reduce the letters' future value. In other words, they wanted to be able to get top dollar for the contents later.
So, I'm sorry. I cannot excerpt substantial parts of the letters because their contents are legitimately owned by the Joplin Estate, even if the letters themselves are owned by collectors. But I can summarize for you some of the 24 letters I saw, and in a few spots, I will quote her words that have appeared in other reports about the letters.
[Aug. 21, 1965] After Peter visits Port Arthur, she reports that her family likes him. Mom thinks he's very refined and "has potential." She tells Peter her hope chest is filling quickly and that she, Laura and their mother will soon begin stitching a new quilt.
[Aug. 24, 1965] Janis is panicked about money -- or lack of it. She wants some, but the bohemian Janis is suspicious of the Material Janis. Peter comes from a wealthy family and all she's ever known are "ordinary people." She wants a little struggle, but she wants something to hold onto. "I don't want to just live a useless bored life of ignoble ease," she writes.
[Aug. 28, 1965] Janis is delighted to report she got all B's at Lamar and the family got a new light green Volkswagen. She tells him wistfully of lying in bed at night and looking out her window, hearing train whistles in the distance. "It's really a nice sound," she says. "I've never been so happy before ... because of you."
[Aug. 31, 1965] Janis begs Peter to mail Spiderman and Marvel comic books that she can't get in Port Arthur, to fix her fantasy-escapism jones. She tells Peter, who came to be an accomplished recorder musician, that she was practicing on her recorder but wasn't very good. She closes by telling him her mother is starting to work on some linen napkins, "a wedding gift sort of thing."
[Sept. 8, 1965] Janis excitedly reports that a guitar-playing friend from Beaumont is going to take her to a Houston folk club where the two of them might be able to get a gig for $125 a week. Right after she mails the letter, she's going to Beaumont to sing in a small club with "an old spade blues piano player."
[Sept. 9, 1965] Janis has taught herself a few ballads on the guitar "but it scares me much more than the blues," she writes. She chalks it up to her vulnerability, but doesn't really want to go deeper into it before signing off.
[Sept. 27, 1965] Janis tells Peter she wears hose and pins her hair up and "boys flirt with me. Blush. I really like it." Her guitar playing is improving, she says. And she writes that she thinks her head is "really straight now" and she's happy.
[Oct. 1, 1965] Janis is worried about Peter, who has been hospitalized for a drug problem. She gently chides him, saying she shouldn't take tranquilizers because they depress him. She wants badly to be with him as "a wife or an old lady or whatever I am."
[Oct. 13, 1965] Janis giddily reports that she has bought the "first thing for our house"-- a set of cups. She tells Peter he may visit Port Arthur again, but warns that he shouldn't do it simply to escape loneliness because "you won't be lonely long & then you'll be stuck in Texas."
[Oct. 19, 1965] It's been a while since she got a letter from Peter, but Janis reports that she bought a new pair of shoes this day and sounds a little surprised herself that she spent the night before scouring the Sears & Roebuck catalog for her trousseau. She's made A's on all her tests so far. "Isn't that good?" she asks.
In January 1966, Janis Joplin and Peter de Blanc are no longer together. She leaves Port Arthur for Austin and then San Francisco, where she joins a local band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. It's still 18 months before her breakout performance at the Monterey Pop Festival and almost three years before Woodstock, but she's on her way at last. Somewhere along the way, the Quilting Schoolgirl disappears and the Consummate Rebel emerges. On Oct. 4, 1970, she was dead and her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
She was only 27 ... the same age as singer Adam Lambert.
Her star burned bright for only 4 years. And although she visited Port Arthur in that time, she never really came home again. The little girl who lit a candle in her room every night to write to her boyfriend, who dreamed of being a bride, who once sought asylum in a place she reputedly loathed, whose personal blues were belted out in some of the greatest rock anthems ever recorded, became ashes long before she could become dust.
She was a shooting star, not a sleepy, permanent planet.