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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Laura Joplin Remembers Her Sister Janis

Posted By on Tue, Dec 8, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Janis Joplin's humor comes across in Amy Berg's rockumentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, opening Dec. 4. - GETTY IMAGES; MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES
  • Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives
  • Janis Joplin's humor comes across in Amy Berg's rockumentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, opening Dec. 4.

To the world, Janis Joplin was a live-fast, die-young rockstar with a voice that made Mama Cass say, "Wow." But to Laura Joplin, she was simply her "idolized big sister." SF Weekly spoke to Laura Joplin about director Amy Berg's illuminating rockumentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, opening Dec. 4, which shows the Down on Me, Piece of My Heart and Me and Bobby McGee singer's softer side, Janis's struggles with school and drug addiction and her own responsibility to preserve Janis's memory. 

How involved were you in the making of Janis: Little Girl Blue

I would share whatever articles or letters or anything written we had. Then if there was need for clarification or 'Tell me more about this,' I'd try to find more information. 

When Amy Berg pitched you the project, how did you know that you wanted to participate?

With Amy it was a unique experience, not like others we had in the past. The first time we met Amy, she came with several minutes of video that she put together, and how she chose the pieces she chose and how she put them together was so emotionally powerful for me that I knew immediately that Amy got Janis. She gave me something that just made me commit to her immediately. It was wonderful, and I feel totally correct about that decision because of the movie.

How did you feel hearing singer Cat Power reading your sister's letters in the movie?

Those things take development, but by the time the movie was made, I think it was spot on. It gives me little chills, now and then, because I feel that she understood the emotion of the words she was reading.

What was your relationship with your big sister like when you were growing up?

Janis was six years older than me, so when I was three or four, she was my idolized big sister, who took me by the hand and led me around the neighborhood, so I could play with the neighborhood kids. She read me bedtime stories and played games with me. That was a very special bonding relationship.

But when she was 14 and entered high school, I was eight, so I could feel the emotional shift that happened from 14 to 17, when she graduated. Her last year of high school was very difficult, especially the last half, so the repercussions of that change in her were rocking the family. There were arguments in the household. Everyone was upset because she was upset. I felt it, but I didn't really get to understand it at the time.

Did your parents understand what she was going through?

I think that they understood what she was going through. I think they wanted to make it easier and hoped she'd make choices that broke the cycle of clashing with society, but she didn't seem quite ready to quit that.

Was Janis's singing ability inherited from anyone?

Our mother had been a singer when she was young, a Broadway-type stage singer and was a lead in musicals in her hometown of Amarillo, Texas. When Janis was young, mother had a piano in the house and mother played, sang and taught Janis piano, so that was part of Janis's early life. She had a thyroid operation when Janis was probably five or six, so evidently some of the nerves that controlled her voice were nicked or cut, and she lost her ability to sing. So I never got to experience that. 

click to enlarge Joplin, giving every little piece of her heart onstage. - GETTY IMAGES; LAMBERT
  • Getty Images; Lambert
  • Joplin, giving every little piece of her heart onstage.

One of my favorite anecdotes from the movie was about your San Francisco family vacation with your parents and brother, where you caught her on stage for the first time. What do you remember about that night?

I remember it, because this was an early show. It wasn't packed with people. But it was so different than our experience back in Port Arthur. Certainly we had heard the early records, but this was early on in the whole '60s movement, before it had grabbed hold of the music industry as a whole. What I remember was sitting on the floor, straight in front of the stage with people sitting around me and watching and just being amazed at the whole experience. 

Was your family aware that she was in relationships with women at the time?

I don't think her sexual life was discussed one way or the other. It wasn't an issue. The issue was, was she happy and was she safe?

Do you have a favorite Janis Joplin song or album?

No. I think the songs each express different qualities of her, and I just enjoy that. I think the song "Mercedes Benz," because it expresses her humor. I can remember what a funny person she was to be around, and that quality doesn't come out as readily in the public memory of her, so I enjoy that song.

click to enlarge Joplin may have prayed for a Mercedes Benz, but she ended up with a psychedelic Porsche. - GETTY IMAGES;  RB/REDFERNS
  • Getty Images; RB/Redferns
  • Joplin may have prayed for a Mercedes Benz, but she ended up with a psychedelic Porsche.

How did your sister inspire you and your brother?

Certainly Janis opened a door for all of us that was bigger than we would have seen if she had stayed around the town and worked somewhere. What she said was, 'You could be a part of the world,' and I think my brother and I are that way. We're very curious and don't see limits the way other people do. I think she was also a cautionary tale of be careful.

But for me, Janis had always been a personal and internal guide or friend, just like she was when I was five. Even in adolescence, she was my teacher when she was struggling and going to San Francisco and coming back. Even when she was famous, what an incredible teaching that was that you can follow your dreams and become successful. Regrettably, her death was a lesson in grief and mourning and reconciliation, so she has been the constant part of my life.

Take me back to the day you learned of her tragic death.

Well, I was asleep and away at grad school in Dallas and living with a woman I knew in Port Arthur. The phone was right by my bed, and my father called. It was about 10:30, and he called and just said, 'Janis is dead.' I'm going, 'What? No, no,' and he's saying, 'Yes, we'll tell you more when we know it.' It was shock; you can't connect it. The brain is thinking something else has to happen. My roommate came in and I told her, and she brought me two aspirins. It was such a funny thing. That's the daze you get in that she would think that that'd be relevant and that I'd think that.

How did your family take the news?

Our family did not handle it well. My parents didn't want my brother and I to deal with the fame aspects of being around her death, so they left us. My brother, who is four years younger, was at home by himself, I was away in grad school and our parents went out to LA and did everything, so we didn't talk too much, which made it more difficult. Even when we went home for Christmas after that, we didn't talk about it much. We didn't handle that process well, so I had to deal with it much later. With what we know now about grieving and talking about it, I think they would have done it differently, but everyone was so deep and dark, that we all grieved alone.  

Do you think your sister intended on waking up that final night?

Oh, I think so, definitely. I think her death was totally an accident. She was so excited about the new music, so there was no indication that she was at that stage. Because she died from heroin addiction, it colors her life. People look from heroin overdose backwards and then look at how her life led to that point. But I think that's inaccurate as a predictor. It's more appropriate to look at her life as this crescendo that was cut short by an accident. And if you do that, you have a very different story. That's one of the reasons I like Amy's movie so much, because in Amy's movie Janis is a whole person, full of dreams and hot on the path to achieve them and then she happens to die. To me that's the most accurate presentation.

click to enlarge Janis Joplin photographed in Denmark in 1970, the same year she died of a heroin overdose. - GETTY IMAGES; JAN  PERSSON/CONTRIBUTOR
  • Getty Images; Jan Persson/Contributor
  • Janis Joplin photographed in Denmark in 1970, the same year she died of a heroin overdose.

Do you feel a responsibility in carrying on her legacy?

Dealing with her death was a big event, so when I finally got to the point of realizing I needed to let go of my grief and was able to let go of it, it changed my sense of spiritual self, and as such I think that I see a responsibility just in talking with people. My work for Janis is to just provide opportunities that I think are authentic and can be entertainment value and meaningful to people. So that's how I connect the whole thing. Then I have my own life, knitting, gardening and playing with cats. 

What do you hope audiences take away from this movie?

I don't think I have one. My goal is that people enjoy her and that that enjoyment be something that relates to them. I love hearing how they enjoy her, and, to me, that's the power.  

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