TEMPLE WEATHER

REMEMBERING JANIS

Janis Joplin died 52 years ago this week from an overdose of drugs and booze. She was 27. Childhood friend Karleen Hebert, a resident at a Temple retirement community, remembers growing up with Janis.

Temple resident says best friend was a slow bloomer

DAVID STONE | OUR TOWN TEMPLE

Monday was a rough day for Karleen Hebert. It’s been 52 years since her childhood besty died from an overdose of heroin and alcohol, but time has done little to dull the hurt.

Janis Joplin died at the very young age of 27, and she was on top of the rock ’n’ roll world when she passed.

“I had taken the day off work, and a mutual friend called and asked if I had heard the news about Janis,” the Temple resident said this morning. “It was a very sad day for me — it still is.”

Karleen and Janis met as seventh-graders in Port Arthur, Texas, and they immediately connected.

“We were both quiet, so we just kind of stuck together. We ended up being very tight — she was my best friend.”

Although Karleen has many memories of their friendship, there are a few that stand out.

“When Janis was 12 years old, she couldn’t sing at all,” Karleen said. “She was quite bad. We would be singing a popular song, and I’d start laughing and tell her to quit. It became a joke: We would sing, and I would start laughing. It never occurred to me that she would become a rock star.”

Growing up in Port Arthur, Janis and Karleen listened to pop music, country, jazz and especially the blues. 

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Although Janis was a late bloomer when it came to singing, she developed a love and appreciation for the arts at a young age. 

“She loved to paint,” Karleen said with a smile. “Me? Not so much. I couldn’t draw a stick figure.”

“While Janis and I were in high school, I introduced her to Ruth Hall, telling Janis that if she ever had any problems, Ruth would be a good person to talk to,” Karleen recalled. “Ruth had been a helpful friend to me and other kids our age.”

“Janis and I were frequent visitors to Ruth’s home. During one of our visits we were talking about Janis’s interest in art and Ruth asked her to create a painting for her. To my knowledge, it was the first painting Janis was paid to do.”

“We referred to the painting as The Purple Painting and it hung on the wall at Ruth’s home until Ruth died in 1970, which is the same year that Janis passed.”

The painting actually had a formal name, Two Ladies Playing Bridge, and it hung in the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles for several years. The work also was on exhibition in 2011 at the Bethel Woods Center on the grounds of the original Woodstock as part of an exhibit called The Art and Artifacts of the Icons Who Defined a Generation.

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In addition to her love for art, a young Janis also had a fondness for poetry, and she would fill entire spiral notebooks with lyrics.

One day, Janis left one of her notebooks in Karleen’s room. After being reminded a few times, the future songwriter said: “Just throw it away, I’ll write more.”

Never thinking that the notebook may have a future value, Karleen tossed the book into a nearby trash can.

“The lyrics were great, but I never thought Janis would do anything with them,” Karleen said. “I threw them away — original songs by Janis Joplin.”

Janis’ voice wasn’t the only thing that bloomed late. According to Karleen, she didn’t get “pretty” until after high school.

“Like teenagers everywhere, we would hop in a car on a weekend night and make the drag,” Karleen said. “In Port Arthur, it was called The Circle.”

“There were usually three or four girls in the car, and Janis would sit in back,” she said. “We were looking to meet boys, and if we found a carload of cute guys, we would make Janis scrunch down in the seat so they couldn’t see her. Of course, it was a cruel thing to do, but at the time we thought it would improve our chances.”

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While Karleen and Janis remained friends during their senior year at Thomas Jefferson high School, Janis also began running with a different crowd and developing bad habits.

“She started doing drugs and drinking,” Karleen said. “I remember one day she was called into the office — they suspected she had been drinking. She was told to sit down and to set her purse on a table. She sat the purse down very slowly and carefully so she wouldn’t spill the bottle of wine inside.”

After graduation, the best friends lost track of each other for a few years. Karleen got married to a man in the Air Force, and they moved to Spain for almost three years. Janis attended Lamar Tech — now Lamar University — and then transferred to the University of Texas. While in Austin, she began getting involved with music and becoming immersed into the hippy counterculture.

“We both eventually ended up back in Port Arthur, and we reconnected,” Karleen said. “I had a family by then — two kids. One night, Janis came over and I was trying to talk her into settling down and having babies. She countered by trying to talk me into getting a tattoo. Neither of us won — I didn’t get a tattoo until I was in my 60s.”

While she was back in Port Arthur, Janis began singing at a local coffee house and a few other venues.

“I never went to see her sing,” Karleen said, her eyes swelling with tears. “I never heard her sing on stage, but I would become her biggest fan.”

Janis left Texas in 1966 for San Francisco and a life of rock ’n’ roll. She became the lead singer for Big Brother & The Holding Company and her fame grew, but so did her destructive lifestyle.

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“My mom and dad loved Janis — growing up she was part of the family and would go with us everywhere, even on vacation,” Karleen said.

“I remember after she had moved to California, she appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. A bunch of people came over to watch the show, including some of my brother’s friends. These boys started making rude comments about Janis, and my Dad got up and told them to leave.

“Dad considered Janis to be his second daughter, and he wouldn’t tolerate anyone saying anything inappropriate about her.”

Although Karleen never saw Janis again after the future rocker left Port Arthur a final time, they did have an occasional phone conversation.

“She wanted me to move to California so we could hang out,” Karleen said. “I almost moved out there just to be close to her, and I often wonder what would have happened if I did.”

“She was into drinking and drugs, and if I joined her in San Francisco, I would have been into the same things,” Karleen said. “We would have gone down together.”

2 Responses

  1. Hi David. Karleen called me earlier today & told me you interviewed her. And that you found her from the website I made a few years ago:

    janisjoplinpainting com

    Ruth Hall was my mother.
    Thank you for this nice article. I know it made Karleen feel very good to be recognized & valued in this regard.

    Do you have other publication connections that this article could find it way to?

    I’m feeling a rise in the energy of getting the word out about the painting recently.

    Thx again!

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