Art and Janis
By Bob Tis
Excerpted from Tales of St. John and the Caribbean
I come for the stories. And, of course, for the companionship. Cartoon large blue eyes roll in acceptance, as Art fingers a slice of a mango I just picked from his jungle yard and sliced up with my Swiss Army knife. We are out in the bush. A steep dirt road winds downhill to a locked gate. Unlocked, the gate reveals a footpath through a jungle crowded with trash-picked treasures. The path leads to a living museum for the last remaining hippie.
Art’s museum is a home built partly in cooperation with Mother Nature, Robinson-Crusoe style, employing two large turpentine trees. It is constructed from thick beams salvaged from the wreckage of 30 years of hurricanes and boatloads of memories. The walls are strewn with block and tackle from long-sunk schooners and smuggling ships. Bad art and hurricane lamps are everywhere; giant candles, Mardi Gras beads, a collection of colorful shirts and the assorted claptrap of 30 years on St. John decorate this un-electrified museum.
The mango sliced, I set my sights on a bucket of congealed floor wax, which I cut loose and feed to a homemade tiki torch. In the gloaming, the first Cuban tree frogs start to croak and Art eggs them on.
“Rrrbiit, rrribbbit.” St. John’s first hippie is clearly amused with the idea of talking to the frogs and his eyes grow even wider, reflecting their seasoned madness in the candlelight. The frogs, mistakenly imported from Castro’s Cuba by some researchers in the 1970s, take up Art’s gauntlet. We are met with a thunderous cacophony of croaks in the Caribbean night.
I go for the transistor radio to tune out the frogs. I pop another warmish Heineken and get Art a non-alcoholic Budweiser. No electricity means no fridge and ice melts too quickly for it to be economical. There could be thousands of dollars buried on the property from various Caribbean adventures but Art makes do on beans and rice and maybe an O’Douls if I bring some up to his museum.
I like to get out of Cruz Bay, where the noisy beach bars have a way of filling up with sunburned tourists in the winter. Tonight I’ll camp out at the museum. Art and I will watch the still, moonless sky for satellites and rehash the business of the day.
The battery-powered rock ‘n’ roll radio brings us a nugget from the sixties and I coax Art into one of his favorite stories of how he met Janis Joplin in St. Thomas well over thirty years ago. It is a story I love. I am continually astounded by the attention to detail in my friend’s storytelling. In Art’s stories, the details never change, and I have learned first-hand that nothing varies from the original event.
“I missed the last bus,” Art explains, talking about a night over thirty years ago like it was last week. “I was drinking in the waterfront bars and my boat was on the other side of the island in Red Hook.
“In those days, there were no cars going in that direction in the middle of the night and bars stayed open all night. It was about three in the morning, so I had a few hours to kill before I could hitch a ride home.”
Art’s hands begin to move and his eyes widen as he launches into this memoir. I easily picture him thirty years ago sitting on a barstool in an empty Charlotte Amalie watering hole, sipping on a draft beer and waiting for the sun.
“She walked in and went right for the jukebox. It was only the bartender and I and maybe some other rummy in the whole place. She didn’t play her song, she played something else.
“She sat down next to me and ordered a shot of Southern Comfort. I was speechless. This was 1968 and Janis Joplin was a very big deal. I was trying hard to be cool and not to spook her.
“‘You look familiar,’ I told her.
“‘Oh yeah, well just who do you think I look like?’ Janis asked.
“‘Frank Zappa’ I told her.
“Janis loved it. She slapped me on the back and bought me a whiskey. Before I knew it she was gone, pushing her way out through the swinging doors just as fast as she came in. All of a sudden her music was playing on the jukebox.
“Word spread like wildfire that Janis was on St. Thomas. Two days later this guy I knew was telling me all about it. I didn’t let on that I had already seen her. He said Janis wanted to go for a sailboat ride, but she didn’t want to go with just anyone. She wanted to go with someone who was cool. I told the guy I would take Janis out the next day.
“At the time I had a nice wooden double-ender, about 30 feet long, with beautiful lines. The boat didn’t have an engine but I didn’t really need one. It was a nice sailing boat.
“There was a guy named Todd living on the boat with me. He was a real freak with hair down to his waist. He was a real ladies’ man, too. I remember telling him we were going to take Janis out sailing and I know he didn’t believe me.
“The day came and it was a little overcast and kind of blustery. It wasn’t the best day, but it was a good day for sailing. The morning went by and Janis never showed up. I kept telling Todd to watch the dock with the binoculars so he could row in and get Janis. He still thought I was kidding.
“She showed up around 3 p.m., with a whole entourage of record company hangers-on. I was yelling to Todd that she was at the dock. When he finally saw her through the glasses, his jaw dropped. It took Todd three trips to get Janis and all her groupies out to the boat. When Janis got on board, she recognized me immediately.
“‘I should have known it would be you,’ she told me.
“They brought all sorts of food, chips, dips, olives, booze, all sorts of stuff you couldn’t get in the Virgin Islands at the time. We put up the sails and it was obvious that most of them had never been on a boat before.
“Janis was scared at first, but after I explained to her the physics of the boat, the fact that the keel was so heavy it wouldn’t allow us to capsize, she felt better. She just didn’t want to tip over.
“Everybody else though, except Todd and myself, were terrified. We were slogging through some good chop, really sailing. Janis started to get into it and I let her hold the wheel. She took off her shirt and showed everybody her giant nipples.
“The guys in the record company crew were still griping. Some of them were throwing up. I think they had eaten some Quaaludes.
“After sailing for about twenty minutes, I came about and explained that everybody who wanted to go ashore had one chance, one chance only. I was sailing for the beach and when I said, ‘Jump,’ they could get off or spend the rest of the afternoon on the boat.
When I got to the beach, most everybody jumped off. A few guys wanted to stay but Todd and I just started tossing them into the ocean. After we pried the grip of the last guy off the starboard stay, we chucked him in the water and turned out to sea. Me, Todd and Janis.
“We slipped into a real nice reach and really started having fun. Janis loved sailing. Todd got naked and told Janis that he had always wanted to have sex with her, and how about now?
‘“No thanks,’ Janis said. ‘But if you want to have me after one of my shows, you can. After I’ve made love to the whole audience for two hours, then you can have me.’
Art’s wild eyes radiate when he gets to that part, his smile betraying just how vividly he remembers the day’s events.
Art goes on to explain how he got to be friends with Janis over the next few weeks. He retells the story of listening to the first recording of her new album on the hotel room bed at Bluebeard’s Castle Hotel. He retells the story of having dinner with Janis and a friend at Escargot, which was, at the time, the best restaurant in the Caribbean.
Art finishes this rock star story by retelling Janis’s very tempting invitation, which resulted from his missed bus ride.
‘“Janis said, you’re from New York, come to Woodstock with me this summer, you can be my guest, I’ll fly you up there.’
“I told her I had read in the paper that Woodstock wasn’t going to happen, that they couldn’t find a place for the concert.
“Janis said, ‘Baby, I’m going to Woodstock this summer and so are a lot other people, you can bet that it’s going to happen.’
“I didn’t want to go back to New York. I had just bought the boat, so I stayed in the Virgin Islands,” Art says ruefully.
So like time itself, Woodstock just sort of passed Art by in the Caribbean. In his museum, the cover from the very album that they listened to over three decades earlier is still tacked to a wall. In the photograph, you can see through Janis’s oversized spectacles and look into her equally wide eyes. When you stare at the picture closely you can’t help but think that Janis could have been Art’s sister.
The album cover is faded and wilting, but her wide eyes are still clear behind the Hollywood glasses.
© 2000 Bob Tis
Bob Tis is also the author of Down Island