Remembering Janis, with Love
An Interview with Her Sister, Laura Joplin
by Jill McLane Smith
Janis Joplin remains a rock and roll icon thirty years after her death. Her albums have gone gold, platinum, and triple-platinum. Her "Greatest Hits" album still tops the charts in Billboard. Several new releases have followed her death, with a great new boxed set, "Box of Pearls," that came out in 1999. She was the subject of a 1973 feature documentary, "Janis," and numerous TV documentaries, the most notable being VH-1's "Legends" program. She is also currently the subject of two hotly contested biographical movie projects.
In 1988, Janis' sister Laura wrote a biography of her sister called "Love, Janis." The book has been made into a play which has enjoyed tremendous success, and will soon make it's New York appearance. We spoke with Laura by phone, concerning her sister, and memories of life in Port Arthur, Texas.
Where do you live at this time?
I live in Colorado.
Is your Mom living there?
No, she is deceased.
When did you leave Port Arthur?
I went away to grad school when I was 21 and never returned.
I had a friend in college that had a very famous movie star sister and she always had to deal with the fact that her sibling was famous. Has this been an issue for you?
I think fame in our culture has an odd place and that generally, in terms of personal relationships, there is always a process that you go through, where people do figure out that they are talking to you, and for most people, that doesn't take very long.
Would you say it was hard to have a famous sister?
I would say that it presents different challenges, but everybody's life has challenges.
We do live in an overdone celebrity culture.
There are images that translate something of meaning to people and they become a sub language almost. Then for someone like Janis who is deceased, she has been dead for almost thirty years, her image is different from who she was as a person, as is for most famous people. The icon of Janis is a second career, that she stands for something public. This is much different than if you want to go back and find her as a real person. She had more complexity. She was a much gentler person, and had her boring days. She spent a lot of time reading and had a great sense of humor. These things are not normally associated with her icon image.
I was reading your newletter at the officialJanis.com and it says that you have come to a better understanding of her place in history.
Essentially, I think that Janis represents different things for different people. One of the consistent things I have heard from people is that she represents a form of female power. She opened doors for later women to explore. She allowed people, or gave them permission to explore different parts of themselves, whether that was going after a different career that they wanted, or standing up for themselves in a relationship, or expressing their sexual preference in public in a way that they would not have normally. She kicked down doors and said "go for it".
When you listen to her music today, does it affect you differently than in the past when you were growing up?
Well, of course, I am in my fifties. But I still enjoy rock and roll .
When I was reading "Love, Janis," in some of her letters, especially the earlier letters, she sounded like she felt guilty for pursuing her career and lifestyle, is that how you intended for it to be perceived?
I think a lot of that was just a language between Janis and her parents, saying look, this is risky. She had come home in bad shape a year before and they both knew that, and they knew it was risky for her to be out there. The folks worried about her, and so she was trying to say, "oh, I think it is going to be okay." I am sure she had her own personal fears. I know our parents did.
When was "Love, Janis" written?
I started it in 1988 and it took several years to write.
How did the book transition into the play?
Well, I happened to read a play called "Lost Highway, Life and Times of Hank WIlliams" and it was written by Randall Miler. He was in Denver and we met and I gave him a copy of the manuscript and he went from there. It was really his vision. He wrote it from "Love, Janis" using the book as a reference.
Did you see "Always, Patsy Cline?"
I knew there was a couple of Pasty Cline plays out there. "Love, Janis" is a one-woman play portrayed by two actresses. One is the public Janis who does the singing, and talking with interviewers. The other is a private Janis who writes letters and interviews with people from a much deeper place. Then sometimes they interact. All of the play is taken from Janis's letters or some of her interviews. All the words are hers and not what someone is trying to put in her mouth, this allows her to come across as very believable about her interpretation of the times as well as her life. This is more genuine than anything else you will see about her.
Is this play going to Broadway?
Yes , it's played in Chicago and going to be in New York this fall.
I bought my husband the "Box of Pearls" set for Christmas. What are your feelings on that? Whoever designed that did a terrific job.
We work with Sony putting together all of those packages and approve everything before it goes out. I am particularly proud of that because is presents the spirit of the times. We had taken the artwork from her Porsche and it is a good review of her music as well.
Do you sing as well, Laura?
Oh sure, but I do not perform that much.
Are you going to be making t-shirts and other memorabilia available on the website or do fans have to get them at the Port Arthur Gulf Coast Museum?
The Janis merchandise is generally available everywhere and we hope to make it part of the website but have yet to work out the mechanics of all that.
My favorite part of the officialjanis.com website is the picture of Janis' hand with the rings. Did you do the website design?
My brother Michael had someone design that from Arizona. They did a great job.
Did you ever attend the Birthday Bash in Port Arthur?
No actually we only went to a Memorial Celebration once and I am not sure about the birthday function.
Sam Monroe was an integral part is showing us around town and taking us to the Museum of the Gulf Coast for a tour. He said only kind things about you and your family. We particularly enjoyed Janis' art can you tell us about Janis' the artist?
Janis was a painter for a long time early on, and studied for a long time in Junior High school in the physical arts and later discovered music and the thrill of performing for an audience and the strength of her voice. But before that time she had been involved in the arts for many years before getting into the music.
Tell us about the portrait Janis did of you at an early age.
Well, she painted an oil portrait when I was about 11. My idea had been that she paint me as a beautiful Southern Belle, but she painted me as I was! I was a bit frustrated. She did not like the t-shirt I had on so she painted it out. That frustrated me not to have a body in the picture. But I was eleven.
That sounds like something a big sister would do. What are your thoughts on the McFarlane Toys Janis Joplin doll that's coming soon?
We are excited about this and working with them on it but as of yet do not have a release date.
She was really proud that she was a Capricorn, what sign are you?
I am a Pisces.
She has a Pisces rising or Ascendent sign. Have you written any other books?
Do you have plans to write anymore?
Nothing on the horizon.
What is your favorite song that Janis sang?
"Mercedes Benz" to me reflects Janis the person. She was really a high energy, fun person. That's what comes across in the song.
Was she buried in Port Arthur?
She was cremated and her ashes were scattered off the coast of California. There was not formal service but my parents had a small memorial service for her for the family.
Did you and your family have any idea that Janis' popularity would grow to such an extent after her death?
Well, of course not. Everything dropped off and interest dropped for a number of years. Somehow over the past fifteen years that people have somehow gotten reinterested in the 60's and Janis has emerged as one of the strongest female archetypes of that period.
Be sure to visit The Official Janis Joplin Website