When Janis Joplin failed to show up at Sunset Sound Studios by 6 p.m., 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 p.m. 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 p.m., 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 p.m. 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.
Robert Gordon, the attorney, said Monday that Janis had visited him the previous Thursday (October 1) “on business matters.”
“She seemed very happy. She told me she was thinking of getting married. She’d been going with a guy named Seth Morgan for a couple of months. I don’t believe he is in music. I think he is from Maine.
“She was also very happy about her album. She’d been in town about a month recording it, and she was enthusiastic about the band and about her own singing. She said she ‘felt like a woman.’ The band had a tour scheduled for November.”
When asked about the “business” Janis had come to see him about, Gordon said: “I might as well tell you. She signed her will.” He emphasized however that he didn’t think the signing “meant” anything.
“She was happy,” Gordon said.
Paul Rothschild, who works for Elektra but who was producing the Columbia sessions (Janis released the albums on Columbia) “independently,” at first reported that she was “thrilled and ecstatic.” He said he’d known Janis for a long time, and that she seemed “happier and more turned on than anyone can remember.” He said the album was “80 percent” done. A source at Columbia, however, reported that the recording “had not been going well, that it was “coming slowly,” and that after a month of eight to 10-hour days in the studio, 11 tracks had been cut and only four were considered “good enough.”
When confronted with this, Rothschild became furious. He pointed out that he’d had to “fight all the Columbia people” all through the sessions, “the staff and the executives.” He said the album was the first by an “outside” producer that Columbia allowed, and that “the record may not have been going smoothly for Columbia, but it was for Janis Joplin.”
The Columbia source listed the titles of the 11 tracks as: “Me and Bobby McGhee”; “A Woman Left Lonely”; “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”; “Trust In Me”; “More, More”; “Cry”; “Get It While You Can”; “Half Moon”; “Got My Baby” and “Happy Birthday, John Lennon.”
John Carpenter, music editor of the Los Angeles Free Press and a former partner of Chet Helms (Chet is credited with having brought Janis back to San Francisco after she’d returned to Texas in 1966), at the Family Dog, said he saw Janis last on September 28th at the Troubador on Sunset Strip:
“She talked about her old man, said she ‘had a lover now,’ and she seemed cheerful but there was something … She had a red dress on and I asked her what she was doing there. She said ‘I got this new dress and I just wanted to look good.’ She was alone. We had a few drinks and there were a lot of people around us. It was just audition night, you know, new young bands, nobody big. Toward the end of the night she kind of announced that she was leaving. Nobody said anything or offered to take her. Finally I called her a cab and she went home alone.”
The last person to see Janis alive was Hagy, the Landmark’s manager. He told police he spoke to her briefly at 1 a.m. Sunday morning, and that she “appeared cheerful.” Janis had finished a recording session at about 11 p.m. Saturday night and went with several members of her band to Barnie’s Beanery. John Cooke said Janis had had “a few drinks” and then drove her organ player back to the motel, said goodnight, and went to bed.
Mr. and Mrs. Seth Joplin of Port Arthur, Texas, Janis’ parents, arrived in Los Angeles on Monday but said they had “no comment for the press.” Albert Grossman, her manager, flew in from New York and also refused comment. However a spokesman at his office said he “felt about her as a daughter.”
Myra Friedman, a Grossman press representative and close friend of Janis, said the image she sometimes cultivated and sometimes had forced on her, the “Get It While You Can Girl,” was not accurate:
“I think Janis knew that wasn’t really where she was at. Maybe a part of her believed that, but I think the most honest part didn’t. She wasn’t a conservative girl – that’s ridiculous – but she had a lot of needs that were just like everyone else’s. She was accepting of a lot of different kinds of people.
“Recently I met her at the Chelsea Hotel – she always stayed there when she was in New York – and she had been reading a book, I saw it. It was Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe. She told me she read a lot, but ‘don’t tell anybody.’ “
Sam Gordon, who ran Janis’ publishing firm, recalled going to Aux Puces, a pub at 55th Street near Park Avenue, recently with her for a drink:
“We were rapping about what we wanted from life,” he said. “I said I wished I was on the road again instead of in the comfortable suburban life I’ve been living for a while now.
“She said: ‘Oh, I’ll take that.’ I asked if that was what she really wanted and she said: ‘Yeah, that’s what I really want.’ “
But Gordon remembers the first song he ever sent to her. It was a Jesse Winchester tune called “Quiet About It.” It was religious, in a way. Janis said she couldn’t use it: “I can’t talk to my God quietly.’ “
In April, 1968, shortly after Janis hit New York for the first time, she told writer Nat Hentoff: “I never seemed to be able to control my feelings, to keep them down … my mother would try to get me to be like everybody else … And I never would. But before getting into this band, it tore my life apart. When you feel that much, you have superhorrible downs. I was always victim to myself. Now though, I’ve made feeling work for me … Maybe I won’t last as long as other singers, but I think you can destroy your now by worrying about tomorrow. If I hold back, I’m no good now, and I’d rather be good sometimes than holding back all the time … like a lot of my generation, and younger, we look back at our parents and see how they gave up and compromised and wound up with very little … Man, if it hadn’t been for the music, I probably would have done myself in.”
Kip Cohen, manager of the Fillmore East, remembers her backstage at the annual Thanksgiving Day dinners Bill Graham always throws for friends and stars:
“She would come but we could never get her to sit down with us at the table. She used to hide on the stairway with a friend and sit there and sip champagne.
“I remember once she came backstage to see Santana and I said the audience would love it if she just went on unannounced to introduce the group. And the idea of the ‘real’ Janis walking on stage and doing something other than performing, singing, scared her to death. She couldn’t do it.
“She had a tremendous amount of assurance when she got it all together onstage, but offstage, privately, she seemed to be very frightened, very timid and very naive about a lot of things.
“Once you become a public figure you relinquish your privacy and the toll is there. The audience certainly demands an enormous amount from a performer, much more than they deserve, and Janis would give everything and after you give everything, what do you do when the audience wants more?
“That shows them to be the overfed, spoiled suburban brats that most of them are, and I’m more angry today over Janis’ death because of that.”
Cohen said the guilt for Janis was collective, however. He said he didn’t expect the kids to react “very strongly.” “We showed a slide of Jimi Hendrix here after he died and they all cheered. It was supportive, but I expect them both to be forgotten ultimately. Nor do I see them [kids] looking for substitutes, nor anyone else coming along to play their roles.”
Bill Graham, speaking from San Francisco, denied the “connections” that were inevitably being made between Hendrix’ and Joplin’s deaths:
“None. None. As far as timing is concerned, that it’s in the stars or something. Absolutely none. Hendrix was an accident – and Janis, nobody knows yet. I’m sure that somebody has thrown the I Ching or somebody is turning over the pages of some book and reading the charts and looking through the stars and saying, ‘I knew it, I knew it.’
“I only knock that in that so many people will be looking for reasoning and logic – it doesn’t mean that man was meant to go, that thing was meant to happen, it was not written somewhere … We don’t really know. If, if, hypotheically speaking – if both of them are the result of, let us say argumentatively, heroin, the ironic twist would be that they may have a positive effect in that a lot of young people would get off heroin. But because they weren’t, what effect will these two deaths have? I should like to think that some of the people who have become successful will begin to evaluate their use of the success and what they have done with it and whether they control it or does it control them … Janis, like anybody else in rock, I don’t think ever knew how to handle success … I think it created problems for Janis – but it never spoiled her. It has always been questionable – does this kind of success include happiness? People have said to me many times, look at you yelling and screaming all the time, with all your money, are you happy? That’s for me to determine … Am I trying to do what I think I can serve life best at? Did Janis? Do you?”
Graham also dismissed theories that the deaths of Janis, Jimi and Al Wilson, the breakup of the Beatles, the change in Dylan or the inactivity of the Stones meant the “death” of Sixties rock and roll. He said he saw no parallel with the plane crash deaths of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens in the late Fifties and the simultaneous disappearance of Elvis into the Army, Chuck Berry into jail and figures like Fats Domino and Little Richard into retirement.
“Janis is not all of rock and roll or music or entertainment or pop and neither was Jimi Hendrix. And it only remains to be seen who is coming along to join who is left, to see what we will have. Nobody can say. Nobody can really say what the creative elements will bring to bear. If Bob Dylan didn’t come along in the same era as the Band and the Beatles, would this have happened? So you can’t really say are the Sixties dead, what is going to come along to replace it – the people who are stars today are going to remain the stars until new stars bump them, put them aside. There are certain acts that shouldn’t even be in showbusiness that are headliners today because nobody is taking their place… “
At the Airplane House in San Francisco it was business-as-usual; they knew about Janis, but they weren’t talking much about it. It was almost as if putting energy behind it might make it worse. Joey Covington sat in the “office,” talking on the telephone about buying a car. The Airplane had played a late gig at Winterland the night before, and were just waking up.
“Did you hear that Janis died?” asked Jackie, the Airplane’s office manager.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s really a shame,” said Joey. “The music world lost a great singer. It’s really sort of strange to be riding in your car and think about it – about the Hendrix thing, and Janis. Really sort of strange.
“You know what I flashed on today? I flashed on the Jimi Hendrix thing in Rolling Stone about another pop star dying. I was thinking it’d be pretty far out if you didn’t cop on a dead thing, a death trip in your paper.
“I mean, I read articles today that were really fucking dumb, in the papers: ‘Oh, the way she used to let her breasts swing, and she didn’t wear a bra … ‘ That shit’s so dumb, man. I hope your paper doesn’t do that.”
Grace, barefoot, padded across the room to the water cooler, filled a vase with water, and disappeared again into her room. I knocked on the door, opened it, and asked her if there was anything she wanted to say about Janis.
“Well,” she said, “not really. I think it’s kind of … well, not corny exactly, but … why print all that stuff about someone who’s dead? She’s gone, it’s done. I mean. I’m sorry she’s dead, but … you know? If I come up with any jewels, I’ll send them to you, OK?”
In Austin, Texas, Ken Threadgill, a famous folkie who ran a bar called Theardgill’s where Janis first began singing in 1961, said he remembered her as “wonderful old gal, just good common country people. I thought a hell of a lot of Janis. She always said I helped her get started but I was just here and I liked her and her singing. It’s hard to believe she was here in Austin just 85 days ago” (for a birthday party and testimonial for Threadgill).
In New York, Clive Davis, president of Columbia Records said he felt Janis “uniquely personified contemporary rock music in spirit, in talent and in personality. Janis and contemporary music shot out of Monterey together in 1967 and I was fortunate to be there. I will always be personally grateful to her as she more than anyone else at Monterey made me intensely aware and excited about the new and future direction of music.”
On the day after Janis died, the offices of Columbia in New York looked pretty much the way they do on any ordinary day, except that a fresh batch of her last album, I Got Dem Ol Kozmic Blues Again, Mama had arrived from the Grossman Office. Columbia had run out of records.
At the Grossman office everyone looked gloomy. “Janis would run in laughing and disrupted things everytime she was in New York,” one employee recalled. Someone else would mention the beginning of an anecdote, or start a story, and then it would fade off. This is probably the toughest, most successful organizations in one of the cruelest businesses in the country.
At Sam Goody’s (a huge, East Coast record chain in New York), clerks were bringing up Janis and Jimi albums from the basement. They didn’t look particularly sad, or happy.
And at the Landmark Motor Hotel, one of Janis’ musicians looked at the bright facade and squinted. “It’s a hell of a place to die.”
On Wednesday, October 7th, Janis Joplin’s body was cremated, according to her wishes. A very private service was held for the immediate members of her family – her parents, brother and sister, aunts, uncles and cousins. The location was not disclosed.
According to Robert Gordon, her attorney, the family at first wanted to take her body back to Port Arthur for burial, but later agreed to their daughter’s request. “They’re not unhappy about that,” said John Cooke, Janis’ road manager since her days with Big Brother.
Cooke also said Janis’ closest friends, including her roommate Lindall Erb, gathered at the Landmark Motor Inn and did not attend the service. “Lindall’s OK now,” Cooke said. “We’re all here together.”
Gordon said Janis’ ashes will be scattered at sea off Marin County at some indeterminate date.
Janis Joplin was born on January 19, 1943, the oldest of three children, in Port Arthur, Texas, a medium-small city of 60,000, located approximately 15 miles from the Louisiana border. Her father Seth was once employed by the Texas Canning Company, but now works for Texaco. Her mother, Dorothy, is Registrar at Port Arthur College, a business school. She has a younger sister, Laura, an undergraduate at Lamar Tech in Austin, and a brother, Michael.
Many people in Port Arthur work in the oil refinery business in some capacity, and the city is middle-income and middle-class. It is often smokey and hot. From all reports, Janis hated it.
“In Texas I was a beatnik, a weirdo, and since I wasn’t making it the way I am now, my parents thought I was a goner,” Janis said in 1968. “Now my mother writes and asks what kind of clothes a 1968 blues singer wears. That’s kind of groovy, since we’ve been on opposite sides since I was 14. Texas is OK if you want to settle down and do your own thing quietly, but it’s not for outrageous people, and I was always outrageous. I got treated very badly in Texas. They don’t treat beatniks too good in Texas.”
Her first interests were painting and poetry. She did some of each, but at 17, got very involved with Leadbelly country blues and then Bessie Smith. She sent away for albums of both performers, and played them over many times, trying to sing along. Then she ran away.
She stayed in Austin, Houston, Venice Beach and San Francisco, singing and working at various jobs. Sometimes she collected unemployment checks. She is first recorded as being in San Francisco in 1962, but Ken Threadgill, an old-time Texas folk musician, remembers seeing her in Austin in 1961. He claims she’d just been released from a hospital in San Francisco, where she’d been under treatment for drugs. That would place her in California sometime before her 19th birthday.
“I first saw her in late ’61,” Threadgill remembers. “She was just a kid. She came up to Austin to go to school at the University of Texas, and she worked part-time as a keypunch operator to help pay expenses. She was around off and on from ’61 to ’63.”
Threadgill had converted a service station into a bar that featured old-time country music done by young and old performers. Another girl singer, Julie Joyce, who used to work at Threadgill’s, saw Janis and a “bluegrass” band, she was working parties and occasional coffee houses with, sitting in the street in Austin. Janis had an autoharp. The other musicians were Powell St. John, a harp player and Larry Wiggins, a banjo picker and guitarist. Julie invited the trio to try out at Threadgill’s. In one of her first performances, Janis won two bottles of Lone Star beer. The trio also won a $10 prize in a talent show.
“Actually though, she didn’t go over so well around there. She was singing in a high, shrill bluegrass kind of sound. Eventually somebody came around who put her on a coffeehouse circuit and that was that,” Threadgill said.
Back in Port Arthur at a party one night, she tried an Odetta imitation and the new sound she was capable of startled even her. She continued to restrain her vocals though, doing Bessie Smith-type songs in bars and folk clubs, right up until the first time she worked out with Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Janis told people she’d been in and out of four colleges over the next years, but she definitely was in San Francisco in 1966. Chet Helms, who was then running a musicians’ and rehearsal house in the Haight Ashbury and managing Big Brother, heard and liked her.
Sam Andrew, Peter Albin, James Gurley and later Dave Getz had been hanging around Chet Helms’ pad in Haight-Ashbury in 1965.
“First time I ever met Peter, he had this weird idea for starting a rock group which would speak to all the children of the nation in their own language,” Sam said. “I thought, what’s this nut trying to do, what trip is he on?” The band began practicing and took the name Big Brother and the Holding Company. They were Helms’ house band at the Avalon.
“Before Janis we were doing a lot of space stuff, kind of what Cecil Taylor and Pharaoh Sanders were doing … just hard and very free,” Sam remembers. At first it was more experimentation. Peter was doing most of the singing, and when Janis came he taught the songs to Janis.
“We wanted another singer; I think maybe one or two people in the group were thinking of Signe and the Airplane and how that worked out. But most of us were thinking of just any vocalist who came along who was good. And Chet was managing us, and he said “I know this great chick.’ Janis had come out to San Francisco before and freaked out – she didn’t think she was going anywhere – and she went back to Texas. So Chet went back and told her about the scene, and she and Travis Rivers came out. So we moved to Lagunitas and got into country living, and it was a growing-together thing for all of us. The rest of us were still new to each other and Janis was a catalyst, brought people out, made it really easy to talk.”
Janis, in 1968: “[Chet] told me Big Brother was looking for a chick singer, so I thought I’d give it a try. I don’t know what happened. I just exploded. I’d never sung like that before. I stood still, and I sang simple. But you can’t sing like that in front of a rock band, all that rhythm and volume going. You have to sing loud and move wild with all that in back of you. It happened the first time, but then I got turned on to Otis Redding, and I just got into it more than ever. Now, I don’t know how to perform any other way. I’ve tried cooling myself and not screaming, and I’ve walked off feeling like nothing.”
Janis and Big Brother – Sam and Jim on guitars, Peter on bass and Dave on drums – worked the Avalon regularly and other small gigs around the Bay area. They were building a reputation with the city’s ballroom goers. Janis had moved back to town, and was living in a second floor apartment near Buena Vista Park, in the same block as Peter Albin. Country Joe McDonald of the Fish was going with her for a time. Then Big Brother got an offer to record. The label was Mainstream, a small Chicago outfit, and Sam Andrew still thinks of the incident as a “disaster”:
“This cat [Bob Shad] was pushing us – this really far-out mother from New York. They had an audition at the old Spreckels mansion; they wanted to sign us then, and Chet said no. A couple of months later we got rid of Chet, for one reason or another it didn’t make it. Then we went to Chicago and signed, because it sounded so attractive … we were naive kids. We were in Chicago and it was heavy; the club was burning us and here was this cat saying come on down to the recording studio tomorrow, sign up and let’s go to the lawyer and make sure it’s cool – and it was his lawyer – I think we all wanted to, more or less.
“We asked him for $1,000, and he said no. We said $500? He said no. Well, can we have plane fare home? He said not one penny, and to this day we haven’t got one penny from that album. (Big Brother and the Holding Company, Mainstream 36099). We got back and it was a good time in San Francisco, small gigs … “
And in August, 1967, the Monterey international Pop Festival. The group didn’t even have their record released. Mainstream was sitting on it. Janis and Jimi Hendrix got rave reviews and incredible audience reaction, and suddenly, the album was on the streets. It was terrible but, bad as it was, it helped spread the band’s name. More important, Clive Davis, president of Columbia Records Division, had been in the audience and liked what he saw and heard. And Albert Grossman, who was in the process of assembling the biggest stable of rock acts in America, was interested.
Monterey was the big break for Big Brother. They had been scheduled to play only on the afternoon show, but the reaction to Janis was so strong that the band was put on the evening show again. The audience was ecstatic once again. It was the beginning of the big time.
Big Brother signed with Albert Grossman in January, 1968. Peter Albin said: “We felt it was important to have someone who was involved in management on a national level working for us. There are a lot more offers and deals being done in L.A. and New York than in San Francisco. We wanted to get out of San Francisco and start touring.”
Bill Graham, remembering the old Janis with her original band, said: “I was, as everyone else was, very impressed with this wild, raucous sound coming from Janis … the most endearing old story I can remember about Janis is three years ago when I told her I had Otis Redding booked and she went crazy. And Otis was there for three nights at the old Fillmore and all the local groups wanted to play with him and we had a different group each night. But the thing about Janis was that each night she asked me ahead of time, she said ‘Bill, please, please can I come there early before anybody else so I can make sure I see him,’ because she idolized Otis. And every night she would come to the ballroom at six o’clock and sit herself down on the main floor, right in the middle, right in front of the stage. She was there before we even opened the building. When we opened there she was with all the other kids and she was leaning against the stage and looking up just like all the other little fans and she was just amazed at his ability, and then she went backstage and was like a baseball fan asking Willie Mays for his autograph … I remember that more than any other event in all the times we were privileged to … I remember that more than anything.
“I don’t think Janis tried to be black. I think Janis sang as a young person coming out of Texas and having kicked around San Francisco, and her voice was her voice and that was her interpretation of the songs. She sang blues. And in here own way … you know, when someone is a stylist or the originator of a style and … a particular style of blues, I don’t think you can compare here. And I keep coming back to Hendrix. Hendrix was an innovator on the guitar, Janis was an innovator in a certain style … very few tried to play like Hendrix – you couldn’t. Well, Janis was that. The mark of great talent, creative talent and original talent is also in its difficulty to copy that talent. And I think that’s what Janis has.
“I recall a time here at the Fillmore in San Francisco, oh, was it a year ago the last time she was here? And she had a death of a cold, and she had some alcoholic beverage with her and some tea on the stage, she grabbed ahold of me and said, ‘Bill, I’m so worried. I hope they like me, I’m in my own home town, you think it’ll be all right?’ The truth is that Janis is one of those people, she couldn’t do any wrong here. But even knowing that she was worried and that’s what made her what she was. I don’t want to knock somebody else, but I figure it’s public knowledge that there are a lot of people in this industry who say ‘I don’t give a shit, I’ll go out there and do my thing or do the best I can – we’ll do 10 numbers or whatever, make some revolutionary statements and tell everybody to get up and dance,’ but Janis, you know, they talk about troupers being ready to get up on the stage anytime …
“The last time she played New York I called Lindall, who is her roommate here in Larkspur, and I said what is Janis into these days? And she said, “Well, she likes maroon now – she’s buying maroon colors, clothing, whatever – and she’s really into guacamole and she’s into gin’ – this is about a year ago and she’s off Comfort. And I called New York. It didn’t take much. We painted one of the dressing rooms maroon, put up some nice posters, got a bunch of guacamole and just as an extra touch rented a portable bar and took one of the ushers, who is like one of her real fans, and put him in a tuxedo with a top hat with his long hair and his beard and he schlepped over in a taxi, and she came to rehearsal in the afternoon, and we had just the big tulip in a vase in the dressing room and when she walked in she met Mike, the valet, with the tulip, with the guacamole, with the gin, with the room painted maroon, and it destroyed her – she cried.”
By April, 1968, Janis and the band (people had begun to think of it in that way by then) were in New York to record Cheap Thrills for Columbia. The band had played the Anderson Theater on 2nd Avenue the previous February, across from that was known then as the Village Theatre – but with the coming of the San Francisco Sound to New York, would change to the Fillmore East. Kip Cohen, who worked for Bill Graham then, as now, said: “There was no question that she was a great star then, as much as she was now. Big Brother was a funky and not-so-good band but everyone loved them because it was Janis and pure San Francisco and the height of the whole thing.” (Actually, the Summer of Love had been the past season, Hippie had been declared dead, and the Haight had begun to decay. Musically, however, it may have been the high point.)
Big Brother had some trouble in the studio. Janis reported that New York had made everyone aggressive. “San Francisco’s different,” she told writer Nat Hentoff in the New York Times. “I don’t mean it’s perfect, but the rock bands there didn’t start because they wanted to make it. They dug getting stoned and playing for people dancing … What we have to do is learn to control success.”
Cheap Thrills, complete with all the Joplin heavies – “Ball and Chain,” “Piece of My Heart,” etc., came out in September of 1968 and sold a million dollars in copies. Janis was the biggest thing in American rock and roll. Cashbox called her “a mixture of Leadbelly, a steam engine Calamity Jane, Bessie Smith, an oil derrick and rot-gut bourbon funneled into the 20th century somewhere between El Paso and San Francisco.” Hentoff said she “was the first white blues singer (female) since Teddy Grace who sang the blues out of black influences but had developed her own sound and phrasing.” Bill Graham, asked to talk about her talent as a blues/rock singer recently: “I think Janis was a great performer, one of the few great entertainers in rock … as far as being a white blues singer, she moved … what else can a man say – you can’t say she was better than – she moved me.” Janis herself said: “There’s no patent on soul. You know how that whole myth of black soul came up? Because white people don’t allow themselves to feel things. Housewives in Nebraska have pain and joy; they’ve got soul if they give in to it. It’s hard. And it isn’t all a ball when you do.”
By November, the rumors of the Holding Company breaking up couldn’t be ignored. Janis played her last gig with the band December 1st at the Family Dog for Chet Helms. She’d already begun rehearsing her new band, known variously as The Janis Revue and Main Squeeze, and there were the usual ugly stories making the rounds. Two days after Janis died, Peter Albin recalled what it was like: “It was in New York that she made the decision to split. There were several gigs where all of us would feel down. She’d have done her part with an amount of self assurance, but there was a whole time when the waves started separating. The kind of performance she would put out would be a different trip than the band’s. I’d say it was a star trip, where she related to the audience like she was the only one on the stage, and not relating to us at all.”
(Albin had been union representative and spokesman for Big Brother, and both he and Janis worked on the production of Cheap Thrills – to the chagrin of producer John Simon.)
Sam Andrew, who went on with Janis to her second band, said she fought the split for a long time: “People were telling her that [she was better than the band] very early, but it didn’t make any difference … then it get pretty intense for six months. Albert was coming on heavy to her. One night at Winterland – I don’t know, a couple of guys were sick or something, but afterward she said, ‘Man, I go out there and try, and those guys aren’t trying.’ It was this one night; it was when I noticed the change. And that was the year of soul, too – the year that everyone was into horns and shit – it wasn’t hard feelings. It was pretty natural. We all saw it coming for quite awhile.”
From the very beginning, the Squeeze had difficulty. The line-up was Sam Andrew, guitar; Bill King, organ; Marcus Doubleday, trumpet; Tony Clemens, tenor (followed by Snooky Flowers), Brad Campbell, bass; and Ron Markowitz, drums. Grossman sent Mike Bloomfield – field to San Francisco on December 18th, 1968, to try to get the band together, Janis was scheduled to debut in Memphis, Tennessee, three days later at the Memphis Mid-South Coliseum. The occasion was the annual Memphis Sound party, presided over by Stax Records president Jim Stewart. The scheduled acts included the Bar-Kays, Otis Redding’s old band, Albert King, the Mad Lads, Judy Clay, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd and Janis. These were all hard-core Memphis soul acts (excluding King), given to flash and show biz. Janis’ band seemed out of place, tuning their instruments and setting up interminably. Half of the crowd had no idea who she was, and the others, white teen-agers, had never heard her do anything but “Ball and Chain” and “Piece of My Heart.”
Janis opened with “Raise Your Hand” and followed with the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.”
There was almost no applause. No encore. Backstage, everyone from her band was in shock. She was told repeatedly that she had sung well, and that the rest had been beyond her control, but she didn’t want comfort.
After Memphis, members Marcus Belgrave and Bill King left, and were replaced by Terry Hensley and Richard Kenmode. The band did a “sound test” in Rindge, New Hampshire (the most obscure gig the Grossman office could arrange), and then ran a “preview” in Boston before playing the Fillmore East on February 11th and 12th, 1969. It was the biggest event in Eastern rock at that point in the year, and the media was waiting, along with legions of fans.
The first song got only fair response, but things improved when Janis did the Chantells’ old hit “Maybe” and “Summertime” from the Cheap Thrills album. Janis’ hair was flying like a dervish and her long fingers were showing white, clenching a hand mike. “To Love Somebody” was overdone, and so was a new song, “Jazz for the Jack-Offs.” The distance between singer and band had never been more apparent. She closed fairly strongly, however, with a then-new Nick Gravenites song, “Work Me Lord.”
Later, during an interview, Janis kept interrupting the questions with her own interjections: “Hey, I’ve never sung so great! Don’t you think I’m singing better? Well, Jesus, fucking Christ, I’m really better, believe me.”
Reporter Paul Nelson observed: “One gets the alarming feeling that Joplin’s whole world is precariously balanced on what happens to her musically – that the necessary degree of honest cynicism needed to survive an all-media assault may be buried too far under the immensely likeable but tremendously underconfident naivete.”
By the middle of March, 1969, things had not improved much, and word was that Grossman was asking astronomical amounts for a Joplin appearance. In his column of March 24th, in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ralph J. Gleason wrote: “It was almost impossible to believe it but the fact was that in her first appearance here with her own group, after all the national publicity and all the tremendous sales of her album with Big Brother and the Holding Company, her opening night audience at Winterland did not bring her back for an encore.
“Her new band is a drag. They can play OK but they are a pale version of the Memphis-Detroit bands from the rhythm & blues shows and Janis, though in good voice, seems bent on becoming Aretha Franklin. The best things they did were the things which were most like her songs with Big Brother …
“The best things that could be done would be for for to scrap this band and go right back to being a member of Big Brother … (if they’ll have her).”
In the April 19 issue of Rolling Stone, Random Notes reported: “The whole Janis Joplin hype has grown to outrageous proportions, whereby impossible goals have been established for her. No singer could deliver an absolute organ with every phrase – not Billie Holiday, not Edith Piaf, not Aretha – and yet somehow Janis is supposed to.”
In May, 1969, the British, pop newspaper Melody Maker carried an interview with Joplin. The following is an excerpt:
“Janis was to have been on the cover of Newsweek … but General Eisenhower’s death had elbowed her out. [She was shown the discarded Newsweek cover photo and] in quick succession came a display of pleasure at the way the photo came out and anger at the fact it wouldn’t be seen. She grasped it in her hands, stared at it for an instant, stamped her tiny food bullet-like into the … floor and swung a clenched fist skywards. A stream of devastating curses accompanied the action. ‘God-dammit, you mother – #&!3! You *%#”!’ And swinging round to appeal to the gathering: “Fourteen heart attacks and he had to die in my week. In MY week.”
In August, Janis turned in a great performance at the Atlantic City Pop Festival in New Jersey, and in September her attorney considered bringing suit against a television actress for an ad hype. In November her Kozmic Blues album was released to generally favorable reviews. The vocal excesses seemed to have been under control, and the material “Maybe,” “Try,” “Little Girl Blue,” “Kozmic Blues” and “As Good As You’ve Been to This World” was considered “better.”
The Revue played its last gig in Madison Square Garden on December 29th, and the next day, Janis announced she’d “gotten together” with Joe Namath, and dedicated her concert to him. Following the concert Clive Davis threw an elegant party for her at his Central Park West apartment and Bob Dylan, one of her old idols, showed up.
On March 4, 1970, she was fined $200 (in absentia) in a court in Tampa, Florida after having been found guilty of using profane language during a concert the previous year. Janis had reportedly screamed at police who were trying to keep teen-agers from dancing.
On March 20 she announced from a hotel in Rio de Janeiro that “I’m going into the jungle with a big bear of a beatnik named David Niehaus. I finally remembered I don’t have to be on stage 12 months a year. I’ve decided to go and dig some other jungles for a couple of weeks.” Janis met Niehaus in Rio, where she’d gone as part of a three-month vacation. When she returned, she got two tattoos, one on her wrist, and one over her heart. “A little something for the boys,” she said.
In mid-April Janis appeared with Big Brother and the Holding Company’s reformed band (Nick Gravenites had been added to the old members; Sam Andrew was also back with them), at the Fillmore West. She did all of her old numbers, even “Easy Rider” from the Mainstream album and “Cuckoo” from Cheap Thrills. “We’re really dredgin’ up the past for ya, folks,” Janis chuckled.
The band was much better technically than they’d ever been, but, as in the old days, it was Janis that the crowd wanted. She reportedly allowed a blind person to touch her.
On June 12 she and her new band, Full-Tilt Boogie, debuted at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky. There were only 4,000 persons in attendance in the monster indoor stadium, but the show was a knock-out. As soon as a Janis began her jiving introduction to “Try” – “Honey if you’ve had your eye on a piece of talent and that chick down the road has been getting all the action, then you know what you gotta do … Try, just a little bit harder!” – the crowd began dancing and screaming. “I permit them to dance,” she told a burly guard who tried to repress some of the audience.
The Boogie band’s members include John Till, lead guitar and Brad Campbell, bass, both of whom were with her in the Revue. The new members are Richard Bell, piano, a former Ronnie Hawkins sideman, and Clark Pierson, a drummer Janis found in a North Beach topless bar.
Everyone who saw them agreed that Janis had finally assembled a band that could back her, who could provide the push she felt she needed.
Her last appearance with them was at Harvard Stadium on August 12th, before 40,000 people. Both Janis and the band then went into recording sessions in Los Angeles. Her album with the new group had been tentatively scheduled for a November or December release date.
Janis Joplin’s last public appearance anywhere was in September. She showed up in Port Arthur, Texas for the 10th annual reunion of her graduating class of 1960, Thomas Jefferson High School. She wore flowing blue and pink feathers in her hair, purple and white satin and velvet with gold embroidery, sandals and painted toenails, and rings and bracelets enough for a Babylonian whore.
Janis and entourage swept into the Goodhue Hotel’s drab Petroleum Room and commandeered the bar. When she asked for vodka (she’d switched to gin and vodka from Southern Comfort about a year ago), the bartender said he had nothing but bourbon and scotch. “God,” she said. “Somebody go out and get a bottle of vodka.”
Port Arthur has never seen the like of her.
Last December Janis had finally escaped her adopted city, where she’d lived in the Haight-Ashbury across from Buena Vista Park and Hippie Hill and, later, on Noe Street near the southern tip of downtown San Francisco. She found a hideaway home in Larkspur, across the Golden Gate Bridge, three or four towns into Marin County.
Larkspur is one of those pleasant little places. The freeway leads comfortably into a small shopping center; the homes are respectable, middle class. Then, somewhere, you make a left turn and several roads take you into the woods. Baltimore Avenue is one of those roads, its width narrowed by huge trees that block its way now and again. Janis’ house was at the end of Baltimore.
It’s hidden away more by its appearance than by its location. It’s right there in front of you, behind the rounded off end of the road. Short, A-framed, shingled, modern, comfortable in a forest of tall trees that keep everything but the wind away. You can’t even hear the sound of kids at Larkspur School, just up the road and a few blocks over.
The house is unidentified. A Yuban coffee can is nailed to a front post. “This is a temporary mail box,” it is labeled, and someone has added, “Temporary Hell.” Near the adjacent garage, two dogs are wandering around. A TV cameraman waves his light meter at the air, then pans his camera from the wooden stairs near the garage that lead into the woods. He pans across the house, to the fence Janis had had constructed to keep burglars away.
This wasn’t a very private or a very quiet house for Janis and the girl friends who stayed there. The place was burglarized several times, and Janis and her clothesmaker/friend, Lindall Erb, lost furnishings, jewelry, and other valuables. Several months ago, Janis had a party there that resulted in complaints from the neighbors. Cars clogged the road all the way up Baltimore Avenue, and the music blared out of that shingled megaphone as far as the cars went.
Now the TV cameraman is back in his car – one of three cars parked facing the house. A high school girl is seated 100 feet away, watching. “I came here from Mill Valley to pay my tribute,” she said. “I’m just an acquaintance. I came by once and gave her a bottle of tequila and it got her off … “
“I don’t think well make the 7 o’clock news,” the other, named Betsy, says with a laugh.
Inside the house, it’s quiet. One man, a member of Janis’ second band – the one after Big Brother – steps out to get something from his care. Lindall is in L.A., he says. She left the night before, when she heard the news. The people in the home are friends of Lindall’s. And no one wants to talk.
The two old ladies have stopped looking at the TV man, and they’re discussing reupholstering an old couch sitting in Betsy’s front yard.