Growing Up with Sister Janis: 1998 Q&A with Laura Joplin

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Laura Joplin, Janis Joplin's sister, speaks onstage during American Masters' 'Janis: Little Girl Blue' as part of the PBS portion of the 2016 Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour  (Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

While Janis Joplin was in San Francisco becoming one of the greatest singers of the '60s, she was always writing to her family -- especially her sister Laura, who was six years younger and completely idolized Janis.

Laura kept all those letters, which became not only the basis of her 2005 book Dear Janis, but the backbone of the documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, as voiced onscreen by indie rock maven Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power.

This interview with Laura Joplin, from 1998, was conducted by Ben Manilla Productions.

Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Growing up with Janis, were you two close from an early age?

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Janis was six years older than I was, and she was really into having a younger sister -- and later, when Micheal was born, having a younger brother. Our neighborhood was full of kids running around, playing chase and hide-and-seek and stuff. Janis was a wonderful big sister; she brought us in, made us feel included even when we were really young, showed us how to participate and took care of us. She was a very nurturing, caring, fun older sister, really involved with us.

The three of you -- you, Micheal, and Janis -- were palling around pretty much around town?

Well, you have to understand that Janis was 10 years older than Micheal. That's a huge age difference when you're young. She was six years older than I, so when I was entering junior high school she was entering college. There's only a certain amount of palling around you can do with that kind of an age difference but we certainly played around in the neighborhood when it comes to playing ball or things like that when we were kids and before she got too sophisticated as a teenager to play those kinds of things.

With you being six years younger than her, was she someone you looked up to?

Oh, I idolized Janis when I was young. I thought that she was perfect. I copied her in everything. She taught me how to draw, she taught me how to play guitar, she chose books. In that sense she really brought me up in a certain part of life, you know, how to be a kid and groovy and into things. She was always there until she left home after high school when she was going to college.

When Janis moved away, what did that do to you?

I think Janis' leaving home and going off to college was something that really was both devastating and infuriating. I mean, who was she to think she could go off to college and check the world out while I was still stuck at home? But, you know, we grew and did different things. Here I was getting into the marching band and here she was going off to play blues music in Los Angeles, so there was a significant difference of life experience at that point in time. It's just about the changes of life.

It was really nice when Janis came home in 1965 and was much more settled. She was much less the adolescent rebel that she had been, and was into studying and attending college and majoring in social work and living in the "middle road," as she called it, because she had been strung out, had problems with speed and was coming home to kind of get her life together. She knew that she'd pushed it too far and wanted to see if she could find satisfaction in the kinds of activities that she saw most people living. Music at that point was something that she kind of played quietly here and there -- sang a little bit, not much. It was something that she equated with drugs and that scared her.

Before she left for California she was singing a bit in Texas, right?

When Janis was in high school she ran around with a bunch of people who listened to anything and everything. One of the guys played jazz trombone so they'd go to his gigs and hang out. They listened to folk music, everything, a lot of the black music. We lived in a very segregated, racially segregated town, and the whole world of African Americans was a question. What is it? Was it different? All those kinds of things. Yet integration was being hotly debated, it was the era of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the 1954 school segregation case. [Janis and her friends] were clearly the intellectual liberals of the town and were interested in everything, trying to understand the African-American experience, so they would read beatnik literature and they'd listen to jazz music and they'd listen to folk blues. Janis really got interested in Leadbelly, she loved Billie Holiday, she loved Bessie Smith, Odetta was someone that she really adored. She was a painter at the time, and she was into Modigliani, which has wonderful African-inspired figures.

There was clearly a great deal of interest in trying to do integration internally, socially, emotionally -- what is life about? In her own music she began singing blues music, partly out of chance. She discovered one night with some friends that she had the ability to sing Odetta and sound like Odetta. Finding that power within her was just a tremendous excitement. It's awesome. You have to also remember that when someone plays a piano the music is created in the instrument, but as a singer the instrument is your body and so the vibration that a singer gets when they're using that kind of power and the depth of tones, is just such an awesome personal experience. She was overwhelmed and taken with it. She sang locally, frittered around doing stuff, not really sure what she was doing. She accompanied herself on autoharp, sometimes on guitar, sometimes with other people here and there. Sang at a few clubs, and then when she went out to LA right after her first year of college, she sang some in coffeehouses. That was the ear of the hootenanny in the coffeehouse.

She ended up going to Austin, Texas where she sang at the hootenannies at the University of Texas student union. Kenneth Threadgill had a bar where there were a lot of local people that came out and sang, and she sang there. When she was back at home in '65, again, she sang some. A good friend of hers, Jim Langdon, who actually had been the trombone player of her high school group, was at that time a music critic for the Austin Statesman. He was well connected in the Texas music scene and got her a couple of gigs up in Austin and some in Beaumont. She played here and there but it wasn't her primary focus, it was something that satisfied an inner yearning of hers but she hadn't quite figured out how to put it into her life. She was figuring that perhaps it was a little dangerous.

She talked with Jim about the fact that drugs were a problem, in music and the lifestyle and stuff, and his comment was, "Well you know the two aren't wedded, you don't have to do drugs and do music." I think that when she finally decided to go back to San Francisco in '66 and check out the music scene and meet this new group she'd heard about and wanted a singer, Big Brother & the Holding Company, I think that was her decision. She had been free from drug use for a year, she felt really stable, her life was centered, and she felt she could handle the music world. So she headed out to California.

What were the feelings in the house about her leaving to become a musician?

Well, when Janis went out in 1966 to see if she wanted to stay, see if she wanted to be a singer, she was still thinking about coming back to college. This was just summer break, you know? She cleverly left from Austin while she was up there visiting and didn't tell our parents until she wrote them a letter. I'm sure that was because they had a lot of discussions about the difficulties that she had had in California before. She was worried about it, they were worried about it. It's hard to explain their feelings. They didn't agree with Janis' lifestyle, but that didn't mean that they didn't approve of their daughter. They essentially agreed to disagree. They worried for her safety, which, in hindsight, was accurate.

Sure. Well hindsight's always 20/20. So, she's off in San Francisco and you're receiving letters home. How are you feeling when those letters are arriving at the house?

Janis was such a wonderful writer of letters. She was really gifted at presenting things with humor and intellect and great descriptions so it made you curious, you want to see stuff. She did invite us out, so as a family we went out the following summer, the "Summer of Love," and checked it out. Toured Golden Gate Park and went to the Avalon and heard the band and walked around Haight Street with all kinds of people running up and saying, "Give me your autograph Janis." It was real thrilling for her and it was real exciting for us. My brother and I liked to joke that we were part of the Summer of Love, but we're probably the only two people who came out here with our parents. Everyone else left, so it was a little different.

You did get to see the band?

Yeah, we saw them perform. They did a guest set so that we could hear them play and it was pretty awesome. It certainly wasn't like anything that was part of my experience in the university parties that I went to, just not yet.

Can you describe the show and the feeling you got from seeing your sister up there?

What I remember about the show is a dark room with a bunch of people that, rather than dancing, were just kind of standing and swaying, sitting and listening, to this overwhelmingly loud, tremendously powerful music that was shaking the building. But the people were more in a trance than they were, say, jumping up and down and doing the jitterbug.

So much has been said about what she did for women, then and now. What did she stand for, for women back then? What did she enable ladies to do back then?

I think that Janis in the 1960s was more a challenge to females, the female identity, the roles that were held up to women that you're supposed to aspire to, and for her it was defiant. It was a sense of obligation to be true to yourself. She said that a lot, that it's important to be true to yourself because yourself is all you've got. But I think that what Janis has become, because she was prior to the feminist movement, is a symbol of someone breaking down doors. She said, "Look, you can do what you want to do, you don't have to do what people expect or think you should do." People see her as giving them opportunities to find their own place.

A lot of people were for it, but there must have been some people that weren't all that happy with the way she was.

You have to remember that the 1960s was considered a social revolution, and Janis was a member of that, a leading exponent of it, someone who represented the challenge to traditional society. She did that by flaunting the way she lived, being outspoken about her sexual activity, her drug use. Even though she challenged people's sense of morals at the time, she was exceedingly ethical in terms of her business relationships and how she dealt with people. It wasn't a time of doing what you want selfishly against other people -- it was the definition of a new ethic, a new way of living.

Okay, she's away in San Francisco, you're there in Texas. Did you lose any closeness with her? Did you guys still remain... Was she still Janis to you? You know, your big sister, still idolizing her a bit?

Some of that's funny, in that here's Janis on the cover of magazines, on the Ed Sullivan Show. We're watching her on TV running around doing these incredible things and she's still our sister, we talk to her on the telephone, get letters, Christmas presents, all that kind of stuff, she comes through town. What's funny, I remember the last time she came in, walking up to the airplane and giving her a hug, you don't realize it but you somehow think that, you know, she's my older sister, she's this famous person, she must be taller and bigger than me, you know? She wasn't. She's just an average person so there is some of that adjustment, you know, who is she? But anytime we were together it was just straight back into being able to talk about anything and everything and just really relive and know the closeness that was part of the family.

You're in Texas while she's here, what happened to you personally? Were friends showing up everywhere?

You know, Janis died when I was 21, and it was just the beginning of the '60s in terms of its effect on Texas. Even though I was in college and we played Cheap Thrills on the turntable in my dorm room and that kind of stuff, we were just beginning to wear blue jeans and take our bras off and stuff like that. It wasn't as big an effect as you might have. I know that Janis did come with me once, I was going from the house to the dorm and when she walked in the dorm all the girls in the dorm were going, "Janis Joplin's here! Ah!" Running down the hall and she's going, "Uh, I think I'll wait for you in the car."

What did it mean to you when you found out that she died?

I was in graduate school in Dallas at the time, and my initial reaction was the sense of this incredible, personal experience of grief and having it be so public. It was very bizarre to walk around the campus and hear people talking about it, you know, something that for them was a tidbit. It was really awkward. On a bigger level, I think it was just overwhelming. There was no way to put it in perspective. I had no experience of it. Our parents went out to take care of the details around Janis' death. My brother was at home in Port Arthur, I was up in Dallas and as a family I think it probably pointed out the weaknesses in our family's structure. We just didn't process it. We didn't go through it together, we didn't have a burial or a wake or a large get-together and discuss it. I think for each of us it was really stuffed in a closet, locked away in our hearts, in the recesses because we didn't know how to deal with it and it took me years and years to open the door and let the grief out. When I did, it was a real liberation, and enabled me to appreciate Janis' music and love her as she was -- whereas before, whenever I thought about her, it was just grief and discomfort.

You talk about appreciating her music -- is there anything that she recorded that's a favorite?

I like a lot of Janis' music. I think that the song "Mercedes Benz" is probably my favorite, because it shows her sense of humor and to be around Janis was really to be having fun. She was an upbeat person with an incredible sense of humor, so even though there were moments of despair and depression and she did sing the blues, actually being around her was a lot of fun. She was a funny person. I listen to a lot of her tapes and I find it kind of funny that I'll be sitting down to listen as, "Is this a good thing to release?" Or "How's the background?" Or "How's her voice?" I start out that way, and after a couple of songs I totally forget I'm supposed to be analyzing it. Her music still really speaks to me, and it's fun to just kick up your heels and jump in and belt out with your best voice whatever the lyrics are.

What is it about her music that speaks to you? What is it about just her that spoke to everybody and will continue to speak for generations to come?

You know, I've wondered what it is about Janis that still communicates to people. What is it they're fascinated with about her? I read the fan letters, and I talk to people, and there's one thing that keeps coming up. People say, "You know, I didn't know Janis" or "I didn't get to see Janis" or something, then they say, "But she knew me" and that's what she had. It's the ability to express how other people are feeling. She was really emphatic that music was about honest emotion, and I think that she continues to be able to express the depth and honesty that people feel and maybe don't know how to express themselves.

What would be the ripple effects, 50 years from now, of Janis being put here? What's her legacy?

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When she was alive, Janis was asked the question about how she wanted to be remembered, and her comment was that she wanted to be remembered by the music. And that the music wasn't about black music or white music, it was about just good music; that she wanted to be all good things of all cultures. I think that the fact that her music communicates is testament to what she was saying. I think Janis is also remembered for her lifestyle and the way she brazenly stepped out on stage and broke rules. In that regard, I think she is someone who says, "Don't accept the limits other people try to be put on you. Go for it. But," and this is the favorite quote, "be true to yourself because yourself is all you got."