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Goodbye, Janis Joplin

Superstars just fade, but culture heroines die hard

October 29, 1970
janis joplin 1970 cover
Janis Joplin on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Jim Marshall

HOLLYWOOD — When Janis Joplin failed to show up at Sunset Sound Studios by 6 PM, Paul Rothschild, her producer, gave in to the strange "flashing" he had been feeling all day and sent John Cooke, a road manager for the Full Tilt Boogie Band, over to the Landmark Motor Hotel to see why she wasn't answering her phone. "I'd never worried about her before," Rothschild said, "although she'd been late lots of times. It was usually that she stopped to buy a pair of pants or some chick thing like that." October 4th was a Sunday however, and there were few places to go, even in Hollywood. Even for Janis.

The Landmark is a big stucco building on Franklin Avenue. It is convenient to the sound studios on Sunset Blvd. and near the offices of the record companies and music publishers. It is painted a garish "sunburst orange" and "bear brown" (according to the man at the desk), and it is the favorite motel for visiting performers. The lobby has large plastic plants and some vaguely psychedelic designs on its walls, but the motel's attraction is its tolerance. The guy behind the desk remembered, laughing, the time a guest called to complain about the noise from a series of rooms where members of the Jefferson Airplane were having a party. "The guy who complained was thrown out," he said. It was Janis' kind of place.

When John Cooke got there it was almost 7 PM. He noticed Janis' car in the lot, and that the drapes in her first floor room were drawn. She didn't answer her door when he knocked, or even when he banged and yelled. He spoke to the manager, Jack Hagy, who agreed that they should go into the room. Janis was lying wedged between the bed and a nightstand, wearing a short nightgown. Her lips were bloody when they turned her over, and her nose was broken. She had $4.50 clutched in one hand.

Cooke called a doctor, then phoned Janis' attorney, Robert Gordon. Gordon claims he went over the room carefully but found no narcotics or drug paraphernalia. The police were called. When they arrived at around 9 PM, they too, found no drugs or "works." But they told reporters Janis had "fresh needle marks on her arm, 10 to 14 of them, on her left arm."

By the time the 11 PM newscaster had finished his brief report, phone calls were already spreading wild rumors – Janis had been killed by some jealous guy, by a dealer, even by the CIA; Janis had done herself in because of some guy, because she thought she was fading, because she'd always been self-destructive. Each new theory had its "informed" proponents, and each was equally groundless.

The confusion was not helped by Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi's preliminary report, issued the following morning. It said she "died of an overdose of drugs," but did not specify what drugs – alcohol, sleeping pills or something harder.

Gordon, understandably, tried to counteract many of the bizarre rumors and soften the edge of some of the wilder headlines by saying that he felt the drug inferences were unfounded and that Janis had died in much the way Jimi Hendrix had – from an overdose of sleeping pills, followed, in her case, by a fall from the bed.

By Tuesday, however, Noguchi reported that Janis, who was 27, had in fact injected heroin into her left arm several hours before she died, and that it was an overdose that killed her. He said an inquest will be held, and that "behavioral scientists" would try to determine if the OD was "intentional."

When questioned about the facial injuries, police said they'd "ruled out the possibility of violence. She could have broken her nose when she collapsed," one detective said. The odd amount of money in her hand remains a mystery, however, and will feed the imaginations of the people who must account in some tangible way for her death. At present, the explanations range from "it was change for a bag" – a bag of heroin goes for about $15 in Los Angeles these days – to grotesques about "change for a call for help" (but the phone in her room, as in most motel and hotel rooms, did not require change.)

Reports on Janis' mood in the last weeks of her life do not help much either. They are perhaps appropriately contradictory. Superstars just fade, but culture heroines die hard.

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