When Janis Joplin was found dead in her Hollywood hotel room in 1970, the announced cause of death was—and remains–a heroin overdose. But one image haunted her close friend Peggy Caserta, who arrived at Joplin’s room after police were already on the scene: Joplin’s high-heeled sandal.
“I saw her foot sticking out at the end of the bed,” Caserta recalls. “She was lying with cigarettes in one hand and change in the other. For years it bothered me. How could she have overdosed and then walked out to the lobby and walked back [to her room, with cigarettes bought at a vending machine]? I’ve overdosed, and you crumble on the floor like how they found Philip Seymour Hoffman. I let it go for years, but I always thought, ‘Something is wrong here.’”
As laid out in her new memoir, I Ran into Some Trouble (Wyatt-MacKenzie), co-written with Maggie Falcon, Caserta believes the “tiny hourglass heel” on Joplin’s shoe was caught in the room’s shag carpet, causing her to trip, break her nose on a nightstand and die of asphyxiation when blood backed up in her throat. Caserta insists that outcome is more likely than an OD from a particularly fatal crop of heroin that Joplin had taken and which Caserta herself used that night at another location. “The idea that it was so much stronger–there’s no gold standard,” she says. “It was absurd.”
A chronicle of Caserta’s life before, with and after Joplin, I Ran into Some Trouble is a riveting cautionary tale of the wild ride and dark side of the counterculture. In 1965, Caserta opened Mnasidika, a hippie clothing store in Haight Ashbury, where early customers included Joplin and the still-formative Grateful Dead. (“People would say things like ‘Are the Dead playing this weekend? They’re going to ruin my acid trip!’” she laughs.) From her vantage point, Caserta saw hard drugs move into the area, then fell victim to heroin addiction after Joplin’s death. “I was so blown out I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I just thought you’re obviously here today and gone tomorrow. I thought, ‘That’s it—I’m going to cast my fate to the wind.’”
I Ran into Some Trouble is also meant to serve as a corrective to Going Down with Janis, the often lurid chronicle of her life with Joplin (the two slept and got high together) published in 1973. Caserta insists she had no say in the book and that her co-writer penned it without her input. “I didn’t write that smut about Janis,” she says. “I would never talk like that about our close association. But I lost control because I was strung out and making awful decisions.” Caserta wound up dealing drugs, being talked into helping busted Americans break out of a Mexican jail and going to jail herself before cleaning up in 1980—and then enduring the wrath of Hurricane Katrina after she moved back to her native South to care for her aging mother. “I thought, ‘Really—a storm?’” she says. “After all I’ve been through? But I’m alive and pretty happy. I made it.”
Caserta, who is serving as a consultant on a planned Joplin biopic starring Michelle Williams, understands Joplin’s ongoing allure, whether or not Joplin was gay (Caserta says she wasn’t but rather bisexual). “She was fun and outspoken and uninhibited,” she says. “I always thought she was pretty, but she was considered not pretty, and a lot of women thought, ‘I have a chance too.’”
But Caserta has no doubts about her theory on her friend’s demise. “Does it matter at this late date?” she says. “In some ways maybe it doesn’t. But what matters is the truth, and the truth is that she didn’t overdose. I will go to my grave believing that. God knows I’ve been there several times.”