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Janis Joplin: Revenge of the Nerd

Janis Joplin mural

By Randal C. Hill

Just weeks before her untimely death in 1970, singer Janis Joplin made one final journey back to her native Port Arthur, Texas, this time for her 10-year reunion at Jefferson Davis High School. The 27-year-old superstar had fled small-town life as a social outcast but was returning as a counterculture icon.

Weeks before the reunion, she had appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, where she claimed she had been “laughed out of class, out of town and out of the state.” Moving to San Francisco, her career had skyrocketed after she began fronting the all-male band Big Brother and the Holding Company, her mezzo-soprano voice blasting out such blues-based classics as “Ball and Chain” and “Piece of My Heart.”

In high school, Janis had been a whip-smart student—she belonged to the Future Teachers Club and graduated from Jefferson David a year early—but was never accepted by the peers who had always called the social shots. Often seen as a reclusive eccentric on campus, she once said,” I was a misfit. I read. I painted. I thought.

Joplin hung out with other teenagers on the school’s social periphery. One particular pal was a collector of record albums by such blues artists as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Big Mama Thornton. (In 1953, Thornton had cut the original “Hound Dog.”)

At seventeen, while showering at home one night, something happened that changed Janis’s life: “I discovered I had this incredibly loud voice!” Later, she said, “I started singing blues because that was always what I liked.”

The head of the 1970 reunion committee who had mailed the get-together announcement had insisted to newspaper journalists, “This is NOT a reception for Janis Joplin.” Janis, though, made a regal entrance that night, surrounded by bodyguards, reporters, and paparazzi.

Many of her former classmates were no doubt shocked to see that the girl they had once teased mercilessly hadn’t just overcome their tormenting, she had become everything they would never be. (Joplin had admitted that she was attending to see “all those kids who are still working in gas stations and driving dry-cleaning trucks while I’m making $50,000 a night.”)

Janis had arrived with purple and pink feathers crowning her head, oversized rose-tinted glasses framing her acne-scarred face, and bracelets jangling on both wrists. She was welcomed by some, but she also felt the chill of those who stood apart, much as they had before, and made comments about her. One of them asked her “what she had been up to” for the past decade?

At evening’s end, Joplin was given a car tire, a gag gift offered to the attendee who had traveled the furthest distance that day.

Two months later, Janis Joplin died from a heroin overdose, alone in a Los Angeles motel on a Saturday night. Four months later, she had the Number One single in America, the Kris Kristofferson-composed “Me and Bobby McGee.”

In Port Arthur, some felt proud to have known her. Others probably couldn’t have cared less. MSN

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