Tonight in Port Arthur


Port Arthur Texas? They had giant oil rigs. And it was her hometown. That’s all I knew about the place back then

I was a kid, sneaking through the lush, dark snapping bushes that surrounded an outdoor concert venue north of Chicago because she’d be singing that night. And I’d heard things about the way she sang. Tonight backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. And they were hometown guys. So we knew there’d be some reason to be there. We didn’t know that it would be her.

Then she began to sing. And the world shook. Not having the words at 16, I shook too. This wasn’t just the blues or rock and roll. This, I learned across the decades, was a set of songs that told the story of pain. And because she could sing about that pain, she could somehow capture and hold it and make you believe you’d be strong again.

Nobody sang pain like she did.

Touching what’s most terrifying, bleeding red raw and alone.

Janis found what hurt most. Like tonight. In Port Arthur. As the water rose to the top of the cots set up in the evacuation center. As Houston wept. As the country got quiet.

As the first responders, the neighbors, the military, the cops, firemen and all those who do helicopter rescues from roof tops at night in the rain; as they all left us dazzled.

As our common connection to this national tragedy rose to the surface. As the water kept coming, as the years of recovery ahead flashed in the empty moments of waiting that make up so much of survival, as the water rose in Port Arthur—that home town woman faced off against our common pain.

And when I listed to her tonight, I hoped they were listening in her hometown, in Port Arthur.

I hoped they heard her music standing up to all that pain

7 Responses to “Tonight in Port Arthur”

  1. boomerbob Says:

    While she’s listed as a rock and roll singer, her music does the blues for me too, although it didn’t follow the usual “rules” of blues. Either way, I can’t think of very many people who could bear their sole through music the way Janis did. It was almost as though she was opening up her chest for all to feel and see her soul.

    Being such an incredible artist must inflict a great deal of pain in itself, for all the really good ones all seem to end their lives, either by mistake or on purpose, with an OD and that’s always the pain they leave us with, for we’ll never hear the new coming from within again.

    • chicagoguy14 Says:

      Yeah I think she stood up to that pain for as long as she could. But she sure left us a lot. Especially considering she left us so quickly!

  2. boomerbob Says:

    I grew up in a religious background, one I’ve long ago abandoned.

    But, when I hear or see such gifted people, perform, either musically, via acting, or as in your case, writing, I always wonder; “where do these people get such incredible talent?”

    Then – “Why do they have talent and I don’t?”

    For a few seconds, I look back at my religious background and wonder; “is there a god out there somewhere, making people who have such talent?”

    And then, I always end up falling back onto the philosophical critical thinking process and answer my own question – “if there is a god, and that god is responsible for handing out talent; what in hell did he have against me?”

    Or, was I, as usual, walking around with my head in the clouds admiring the scenery when I was supposed to be in some line? 🙂

    Either way, talent is an amazing gift, wherever it comes from, especially when people can make such beauty come from their voice box.

  3. Tom Cordle Says:

    Janis is viewed as one of many who suffered and died too soon for her art. I disagree; her suffering had little to do with her art, and much more do to with feelings of inferiority fostered during her days in Port Arthur. I suspect that tenth reunion was pivotal, in that despite fame and fortune, she was still an outcast in her hometown – perhaps even more so because of her fame and fortune. A prophet is least honored in his or her own country and all that.

    This and many other cultures romanticize the notion of the starving, suffering artist, but I refuse to subscribe to that notion. Seems to me, there is more at play than suffering for your art – there is also indolence, irresponsibility and an unhealthy measure of self-pity. That’s even more the case when fame and fortune fail to ease the pain and instead provide and easy excuse the excesses of drugs and/or alcohol.

    And lest anyone think I’m being too hard on Janis, I speak about this from my own experience in my misspent musical youth.

  4. chicagoguy14 Says:

    I don’t think you are being too hard on her. I think you’re questioning the romanticizing of the “starving artist.” There is a scene in “Festival Express” (And if you haven’t seen it, get it today) where she is singing back stage on the train–not performing. Just having fun. And all that pain she knew how to communicate is gone. Suffering for your art is an abstraction. Her feeling outcast–a long with a million other things about her we’ll never know–that’s real.

  5. Tom Cordle Says:

    I have seen that doc, and it was everything I imagined would have been going on on that literal and figurative ride. I’m reminded of another doc I saw years ago about a zydeco musician; it was called The Good Time Gonna Be the Death of Me. Seems that’s all too often the case with those who fall madly in love with the muse.

    As for suffering, I have a good friend who took part in a Native American Sundance Ceremony – – it’s a sort of crucifixion made more or less famous in the movie A Man Called Horse. My friend has some rather prominent scars on his chest to prove his participation. I asked him once why he did it, and he said it was to suffer for the people. I replied that it had been my experience in life that one didn’t have to go looking for suffering – it would find you all on its own.

  6. chicagoguy14 Says:

    “find you on its own”. . . .amen to that!

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