Laura Joplin’s book, Love, Janis, is a 400-page biography of her sister. First published in 1992 by Harper Collins (a later version with newly discovered correspondence was released in 2005), it has since become the foundation for the touring musical by writer-director Randal Myler (Hank Williams: Lost Highway) that swings through Beverly Hills’ Wilshire Theater this weekend, before heading on to Austin.
Now 58, Laura flew in from her Chico home for this interview. From her powers of observation, and her capacity to express details comprehensively yet succinctly, it’s clear right away that she’s a writer. When asked to describe the landscape around Chico, she didn’t miss a beat, speaking with the slight lilt of the southeast-Texas drawl of Port Arthur, where she grew up.
“Chico is about 90 miles north of Sacramento, with finger canyons of a million-years-old lava cap, dropping down to the most lush 18-foot topsoil land imaginable, rolling down toward the Sacramento River — the Central Valley, they call it.”
She then went on to detail the crops grown there, not just rice but Lundberg rice, almonds, and so forth.
Chico reminds Laura of Port Arthur, the 1920s architecture and the way the streets are laid out. “Chico is still America’s hometown,” she explains, and the plants that grow there are the same as in Port Arthur — pecan trees, hydrangeas, roses, wisteria and, of course, the rice crop.
“Where I grew up in Port Arthur, the bumper stickers on the trucks said, ‘eat rice.’”
Port Arthur, not far from the Louisiana border, is also where her older sister Janis and younger brother Michael grew up.
Their father, Seth, worked for Texaco; their mother, Dorothy, sang around the home, taking particular delight in Broadway musicals. There was a piano in the house, which Janis practiced on with the normal frustrations of a teenager, and there were many family trips to the public library. Among the key elements in Laura Joplin’s book is the voluminous correspondence between the Joplin clan.
One example of the literacy swirling around this family comes from Seth’s whimsical letter to Dorothy on one of Janis’ birthdays:
“I wish to tender my congratulations on the anniversary of your successful completion of your production quota for the nine months ending January 19, 1943. I realize that you passed through a period of inflation such as you had never known before — yet, in spite of this, you met your goal by your supreme effort during the early hours of January 19, a good three weeks ahead of schedule.”
The soft-spoken Laura was born six years and two miscarriages after Janis, and watched her older (and much different) sister’s rebellion against local mores. Janis was a rebel but would not stand out on her own, Laura observed. “All through her life, she would rebel from within a group, a subculture.” It was at the Universtiy of Texas in Austin that a bartender recognized and encouraged Janis’ prodigious talents; she dropped out of school and headed north.
Laura heard from a distance about Janis’ beatnik life in San Francisco in the early ’60s, and her meteoric rise to fame as a folksinger and then a rock star. Laura only saw her sister perform twice in large stadiums. There were letters between them, and they met occasionally. When Janis returned to Port Arthur in the summer of 1965, determined to shake off her addictions to all manner of drugs and alcohol, Laura was still in high school. She could see something was wrong with Janis but she didn’t understand the details. When Janis died in Los Angeles in 1970, at the age of 27, Laura was only 21. There was no drug scene in Port Arthur to speak of, she says, while their parents kept a firm watch over Laura, determined to protect their younger daughter from the travails of their firstborn.
So was Laura able to learn, indirectly, from the suffering of her sister?
“Some would call it wisdom,” she says, then adds, “I was a good girl. I think of it as the failure to express myself.”
Many books have been written about Janis Joplin, all trafficking in the pop mythology of a social rebel’s Icarus flight too close to the sun, the crash and the burn.
In 1988, Laura set out to find her sister through a book of her own, not with the intent of debunking the mythology, not to prove or disprove anything that had been written, but simply to answer one question: What happened?
An event in Port Arthur inspired Laura’s search: The city held a celebration in Janis’ honor.
Laura has mixed feelings about Port Arthur. “It was always known as a great place to leave,” she smirks. “They laughed her out of town.”
For the 1988 commemoration, “one particular fellow had commissioned a bust of Janis to be put up in the town. My brother and me, we figured that we’d shake hands with the mayor and say hello to a few people, and that would be that. Instead, it was picked up by a lot of people who understood the idea of resurrection.”
Laura recalls busloads of people arriving from Houston, Ohio, and even Canada — “maybe a thousand people who were in love with her. It was hands reaching out to us, people saying hello, it was an incredible experience that made me want to understand what happened to her.”
And so she gathered correspondence, spoke with everyone she could find who had known her sister. Four years later, the book was published to mixed reviews, but all agreed that it added significantly to the understanding of Janis.
The musical Love, Janis has been described as a rock concert with two performers playing Janis — one depicting her private life while the other represents her public persona. Though Laura was barely involved in its creation, she did select the writer. The first time she actually saw Myler’s creation was during a dress rehearsal. “And there she was, there was Janis.”
Love, Janis is at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, May 29-June 1. (323) 655-0111 or www.lovejanisthemusical.com.