Looking for Janis Joplin in Port Arthur, Texas

By  Cynthia Shearer |  February 25, 2014

It's not deep in the heart of Texas—it's more like the service entrance. Driving around downtown Port Arthur, Texas, you pass the Golden Light Social Club, then something called Club Say What where an ominous-looking van—the kind used by villains in 1970s TV movies—is parked in front. Nearby, paint peels from pastel shotgun shacks, while banana trees stand beside them. A gaunt, tranced woman walks the pavement, wearing bedroom shoes at high noon, as if she is navigating by her own jones to find her next fix. No cars move on the street. You want to find the water, the people, the life you would expect in the town that birthed the voice of Janis Joplin.

The Port Arthur Port Authority (like that old joke about the Department of Redundancy Department) on Procter Street is closed for lunch. A sign reads "PORT OF PORT ARTHUR EXPANSION," but the site is padlocked and deserted. Procter Street is a wide deserted boulevard straight out of an old Western ghost town, except the time period is 1960-ish.

A "ZENITH RADIO" storefront window has some kind of World War II exhibit—mannequins sporting military uniforms. A loudspeaker affixed to a corner building across from an old fortress-like bank plays Tejano radio music to the empty street. All that is missing is the tumbleweed.

There are two stores open: a Goodwill Store and Kizzy Konnection, an African- American import place. Kizzy Konnection, "your connection to African Imports," is as much a museum as anything. The main import here is nostalgia for the African continent—each bolt of fabric primed with zebras and giraffes curates a memory of loss.

"How long have you been here?" you ask the proprietress.

''I'm not African," she misreads the question. "I grew up here."

"So do you know where Janis Joplin lived?"

"No," she says. "But it was down that way somewhere. It's not there anymore. You need to go to the museum down the street. And go around the corner to the barbershop," she says. "They have pictures of all the old places on the wall you can look at. The whole town, all of it. The barber can tell you stories.”

The Museum of the Gulf Coast is a large, white-stone building that faces Procter Street. As small, eclectic historical museums go, it has one of the best reputations in the country. A sign on the front entrance tells you to go around back.

The first thing you see is the largest indoor mural in Texas, depicting the old Hotel Sabine. The mural was rescued from an attic in San Antonio (pronounced “San AnTONyuh” here) and “restored” before hanging here in its quasi-primitive starkness. A wide soft Texas sky in the background, flat green land in the foreground, little animals in the grasses.

One of that cheery, well-meaning race known as “docents” comes over, wearing a “windsuit”—vivid parachute cloth sewn into a kind of retirement uniform. “The animals were painted to cover the profanity,” she says. “There used to be profanity on it.”

“Vandalism?” you ask.

“No,” she says. “It used to hang in a bar. The artist painted it to pay off a big bar debt.”

You ask her what kind of profanity.

She shrugs. “Just whatever men’d want hanging in a bar, I guess. I’ll tell them to start the movie for you.”

The movie is shown in a small theater with lush, expensive chairs. It begins with the kind of music you used to hear in old Social Studies class films. Freeze-dried history.

Land masses appear, disappear. The area was all underwater once. Then: volcanoes, ice sheets, grasslands, Indians, the Spaniards, Sam Houston, then the timber and cattle barons lead into: BOOMTOWN. Then bust.

No Janis.

Outside the little theater the aged docent is once again upon you like white on rice. The museum holds the combined attics of the patriarchal they—thrown in with enough black, Mexican, and Chinese history to keep the place eligible for federal funding. “See that cannon?” she says “It fought in the Spanish-American War. In Cuba. And on Armistice Day, they loaded it with ham sandwiches and shot it off, and it blew out all the windows on Procter Street.”

You ask why ham sandwiches.

She says she doesn’t know. Never thought about it before.

You must proceed very slowly in this place so you will know where Janis fit in the local cosmology. The people of Port Arthur want you to understand their shared story, so you read slowly the scripted panels that accompany the artifacts.

There were the trilobites. Though this animal did not exist long on the earth, it was widespread.

There were the Indians, including a lovely girl named Kisselpoo, whose tribe was known to engage in ritual cannibalism.

Then there were the Spaniards with their parchment rumors of cities of gold, and their quaint name for a nearby island: Malhado. Bad luck.

A lovely old map depicts oil claims. The names are proof that the patriarchy of yore had their own sense of poetry: Lone Acre Oil Co., The Gladys,Saratoga Oil and PipelineQueen of WacoParagon, The DrummersAlamo Oil CompanyThe Ground Floor. Under the same roof with the trilobites these extinct companies also seem like short-lived beasts.

There is a photo of a beached whale, turn of the century. Triple-masted schooners anchored in Port Arthur in the 1920s, stately in their moorings next to Model-Ts on the docks. A Nero-esque bust of General Sam Houston.

You pore over the specimens of water hyacinths, sailfin mollies, mourning doves, barn owls, blue-winged teal, cormorants. These creatures have everything to do with Janis Joplin, if you hear what you are reading the way Pentecostals hear in tongues. Indigo bunting: common . . . this vividly colored bird sings through a series of varied high-pitched phrases . . . common . . . loud burst of whistled notes, downslurred toward the end.

A docent is right on your heels with a group of mostly black schoolchildren, assuring them that the oil companies are not responsible for dirtying the bay; why, even the explorer Cabeza da Vaca, upon arrival from the Old World, found balls of tar floating in it.

Upstairs, there is the Big Bopper, another widespread, short-lived phenomenon, along with a  macabre display of the hairbrush, Bufferin, dice, and Zippo lighter salvaged from his Dopp kit at the site of the plane crash that ended his life—and Buddy Holly’s and Richie Valens’s—in 1959. There is his elegant black-inked manuscript music to “Little Red Ridin’ Hood,” later to be recorded by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs.

Tex Ritter’s aqua cowboy coat.

Grammar school pictures of Johnny and Edgar Winter—startling white egrets even then.

George Jones album covers.

And then there she is, Janis. Inexplicable as a sailfin molly. The first thing you see is the photo from the Pearl album cover, in her frou-frou clothes. Her high school annual is open to the page that confesses she had a B average, and was in the Art Club, the Future Teachers of America, and the Slide Rule Club. Her slide rule holds the pages open. 

Her slide rule.

There is a pair of pen and ink sketches she did, pumpkin-headed scarecrows, like what you would’ve gotten if Dürer had had a sense of humor. There are certificates of her achievement in English, journalism, and art from Woodrow Wilson Junior High.

Her Bible.

A note to her mother, written when she was a kid:

Dear mrs. S.W. Joplin.

In gratefulness for being such a wonderful mother for 14 years, I would like for you to have dinner with me at Luby’s on Saturday the 16th.
Janis Lyn Joplin

A newspaper clipping from the Port Arthur News: Kris Kristofferson came to town for her birthday, over twenty years after she died. He said, “She reminded me of a little girl wearing dress-up clothes. If she had lived, I think she would have had a lot of happiness. She would have found out what a strong influence she was on so many people, and it would have maintained her.”

In the center of the Port Arthur music exhibit there is a console of video screens; you can choose from a menu of musicians birthed or claimed by Port Arthur—Clifton Chenier, Harry James, Tex Ritter, Gatemouth Brown, and more. Press a button and you get a couple of minutes of old film footage of Janis, maybe live at the Fillmore, just a piece of her voice: Cry, cry, baby.

There is a “close replica” of her psychedelic Porsche, and it spooks the hell out of everybody except the children, looking like some kind of antiquated deathmobile with its mushroom motif, and a central eye on the hood that sees nothing, admits nothing.

You think of Hendrix and Morrison and Cobain. Maybe fame is civilization’s euphemism for ritual cannibalism.

Outside, the sky is like a school of gray mackerel, eastbound, blowing. There is no sign for the Uptown Barbershop, it’s just there, like an afterthought in an alley. In the window you see a white-haired man getting his hair cut by a barber whose own appearance suggests that he, like the building, is as he was in the 1960s. They are the only human beings to be seen for several city blocks. The deserted high-rise Hotel Sabine towers over a vacant parking lot outside that window.

“The lady in the African store told me I should come see your walls if I want to know about Port Arthur,” you say.

The proprietor nods, and you make your way over to the back wall, where a mass of yellowing newspaper clippings are taped and tacked to the walls.

“KENNEDY ASSASSINATED,” big headline, black mourning font. 

A newsletter, The Oil Can, 1939, laminated like a truck-stop menu.

A local golf star, shot.

An obit for the legendary madam Marcella Chadwell lovingly rendered by a reporter from the Beaumont newspaper, full-page feature.

A centerfold bimbo—following some law of the pornographer’s: the sneer must increase in proportion to the ludicrous size of the breasts.

The barber and the customer are discussing who is the most powerful man in Port Arthur. 

“No, he’s been downsized to number two,” the customer insists. 

Another headline in funereal black: “GRIM VIGIL FOR 33 MISSING ON TEXACO SHIP CONTINUES.” And another, the Sulphur Queen, which went down in 1963, with photos of all the missing crewmen. There are thirty-three small portraits of some very good-looking men, arranged like a Moose Lodge, except they belong to the loyal order of the dead. 

“I used to cut some of their hair,” the barber offers, and comes over. “They never found them, I guess.”

You begin to understand. This is barbershop history. The oil men on the shore, the sea of money changing hands in the standing-room only photo of the now-deserted bank building. This also is the history of the patriarchal they, told at a slant. The barber has been telling stories on his walls for decades. All human events are connected and admissible evidence in this history, proffered without comment in the way men don’t cloud the air with small talk sometimes.

The barber points to the old poster. “DREAMLAND COLORED.”

“Do you know what that means?” he asks. “Colored. That was a colored theater. For colored folks. Can you believe we used to have six? Five white, one colored.”

“Where is everybody?” the question slips out before you have time to think. “What happened here?”

“That man,” the barber says, pointing to a yellowing photo. “His name was Tom James. He ran out the gambling and the prostitution.”

“And urban renewal,” his customer offers. “Tell ‘bout the urban renewal.” 

Nothing has been renewed out there in the Twilight Zone streets. 

They launch into a contrapuntal explanation, a mishmash of misinformation.

“Ya condemn the buildings the blacks had, see. Twenty-five-foot lots, mostly.”

“Ya tell them they can come back when it’s all clean.”

“They buy houses outside downtown.”

“Ya pass an ordinance: minimum fifty-foot lots. They not gon’ come back. They don’t want two mortgages.”

All this time you’re trying to take in the walls, the walls, the riot of clippings and photographs. A sepia photograph of the original Hotel Sabine, a lovely old white-frame. 

A grouping of yellowing index cards, dealt out like a solitaire hand. Department stores, gas stations, brothels.


Then a list of ladies’ names with Marcella Chadwell’s at the top. The other names are charmingly ordinary. A boomtime telephone directory for the patriarchy of yore. 

The white-haired customer says aloud one of the names of the women on the list. He is freshly shaven, smiling benevolently. “My wife went to high school with her. A more beautiful person to be associated with you would not find.” His voice is so soft that you know he is commemorating something unspeakable and important that he would like for you to understand. “She was a true lady. She always tried to keep the kids out of it.” 

You continue to peruse the walls.

A full-color spread of a bleached blonde with breasts like big tankers, next to the immortalized napalmed Vietnamese girl running naked down the road. 

Sirhan Sirhan.

A schooner.

A calendar: by-gone bimbo breasts like big fog lights. 

The whale that beached itself at the turn of the century, again.

A big beached blonde in a stream: Ann-Margret. 

Life magazine clipping of a 1939 Klan nighttime rally in Georgia, the old Nashes and Buicks like docked ships around a central bonfire, the white-robed men like sinister insects answering some call only they can hear. Their women are looking on with horrific approval at their protectors.

A small clipping of the hanged bodies of Mussolini and his mistress.

“Where’d you find that Klan postcard?” you ask, and a little tremor of irritation passes over the barber’s face.

“Over Vidor,” he gestures in the direction of the next town. “That was supposed to be a big Klan place. That parking lot out there? Used to be another big hotel. I used to comb those old rooms and find all kinds of stuff. Pictures, magazines.”

“They say we talk too much about the negatives,” the barber’s customer offers. 

“But if it happened, it happened,” the barber adds.

Then, as your eyes scan the walls, BOOM. There she is, Janis, with her family. A nicotine-yellowed newspaper photo from the time, when the measure of a woman was whether she was a good girl or a bad girl, clean or dirty. Sister and mother, each coiffed in a kind of carapace for the head, armor for the feminine hygiene wars. But Janis’s hair is sagebrush-wild, and her grin is a free gift from a spendthrift: You know you got it, if it makes you feel good.

No porno sneer like the jug queens sneer for their money.

Something about Janis’s clean, honest smile makes you want to grieve right there for what was lost from this earth when she died. But you have an instinct not to do it in front of these particular natives of Port Arthur.

“Did you know Janis Joplin?” you ask the barber.

“Used to sit right there,” he points to an empty red leatherette and chrome chair. “When I would cut her brother’s hair.”

Maybe she looked at some of these same clippings on the walls of Ivory Joe Hunter, Big Bopper, Tex Ritter—and an assortment of less fortunate local singers who passed into obscurity—who are remembered here for their 1950s appearances at the local night spots. And for a minute, it feels like you have found her, the little girl waiting in the barbershop, maybe looking up at those yellow index cards, squinting, reading “BROTHELS.”

“She was a weirdo,” the barber says. “A sick little weirdo. I was in that book they did about her.”

 “Tell about all the men,” the customer adds. “She just didn’t care. She did not respect herself. Tell about the artwork. She was a sick young lady. She OD’d. Go down to the museum. They have some stuff.”

In that barbershop you can remember yourself what it was like to be a white girl in a button-down white man’s town in the 1960s. You remember the summer you were fourteen, the first time you heard her voice, on the radio, singing “Summertime,” and you knew that being a woman was going to be more fun that anyone had ever told you before.

That photo on the cover of her album Pearl suddenly makes sense. She was parodying a Port Arthur madam. Marcella, perhaps. Maybe she was playing a joke on Port Arthur, and that joke enabled her to get away from whatever agoraphobia of the soul grants some men permission to revere a madam who charged money for it, and to condemn Janis for giving it away for free.

You drive around in the dark, past the thousand gold lights of the refineries as they spout blue dragon flame—like jeweled topiaries of big animals roughed out onto black velvet. The highway seems a whole river of human beings who have no choice at that moment but to trust the movement to somewhere else. You flip the radio dial, looking for Tish Hinojosa’s clear voice, but the Tejano station has by then begun to sound like stylized passion, styling mousse for the ears, a collective trance. There is an imitation Barry Manilow of Tejano, a Tom Jones, a Michael Jackson, a Salt ‘n’ Pepa. Port Arthur has a peculiar karma or ambience. You make a mental note to come back here, sometime where is more time to delve into its musical history that goes on long after Janis’s departure.

If you are far away from your loved ones, under that exquisite black velvet night that is otherwise going to waste, you need to believe that somebody will think to play a song of Janis’s all the way through. You want some deejay to release her sand-papery slide-rule purr once more into the general traffic of radio dust-motes. Because you need to believe some girl who doesn’t yet know fear will lie down for the first time with a boy who doesn’t yet know mistrust, and they will teach each other the best things about themselves—You know you got it, chile, if it makes you feel good.

And it won’t matter if the boy and the girl can hear Janis’s voice or not. It’s out there, and it’s irrevocable.