A Day or Two with Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin. A couple of visits I'll never forget.

In and around 1967-70 there was a star of great magnitude on the music scene. She was a phenomenon and her life style as well as stage persona makes Amy Winehouse look like an amateur. She is now a legend. ( In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine put her on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and then on its 2008 list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time), and would have been even if she hadn't died by heroin overdose at the young age of 27. Her name....Janis Joplin.

I have always loved this quote from Richard Goldstein, in Vogue magazine, who wrote at the time that Joplin was "the most staggering leading woman in rock... she slinks like tar, scowls like war... clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave... Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener." Oh yeah.

I met her. I hung out with her, for a very little while. She wasn't a friend per-se, she was the subject of a story I was doing for the Detroit Free Press. But the little time I spent with her is full of memory, most of which lives up to her image of a wild and crazy woman. My intention is not to add to the legend, but to just tell you the little bit of time spent with her was a blast.
We first met in Ann Arbor , Michigan. She was there to perform with her new band which she thought, at the time, was amazing. The Kozmic Blues Band was influenced by the Stax-Volt R&B sound which was typified by the use of horns and had a more bluesy, funky, soul sound than most of the rock bands of the day. She thought it was better than Big Brother and the Holding Company, her old band that had asked her to join them in San Francisco in the mid-60's and with whom she went on to have a number one album and sell millions of records. The word that was Big Brother wasn’t that great a band and couldn’t really keep up with her immense talents. Maybe so, but either could the new band. Too slick, as I remember. But she was amazing on stage under any circumstances and their album did go gold (one million copies sold). Later on she joined up with the Full Tillt Bogie Band, made up of Canadian musicians from the Stratford area including Rick Bell who went on to be a member of The Band. They altered the spelling of the band to the Full Tilt Boogie Band and recorded her biggest recording "Pearl" including the hit song "Me and Bobby McGee".

Off stage we did spend some time together. I was in her Holiday Inn hotel room for a while. The room had quickly been made into as much of a living room/salon as Janis could make a Holiday Inn room. Quaint scarves over the lamps, her own pillows on the bed..other 1920’s looking touches here and there. The room became comfortable and was enough for her to keep things in balance for the one or two nights she was to spend there. Her new band and new album had received pretty bad reviews from Rolling Stone magazine and she was upset. “Those guys at that magazine are friends of mine, man, “I remember her saying. As if a reporter or reviewer is supposed to give a good review based on friendship. But that’s how she felt.
Later, in the dressing room at the University where she was to play, a moment occurred that I still love to talk about. It’s a great Janis story and shows her humor, her passion and her understanding of the times
In the late 60’s there was a band of groupies based in Los Angeles called the Plaster Casters. Ever hear of them? Here was their art….they would make plaster castings of rock star’s erect penises. And they didn’t mess around. They had hard images of some very big rock stars..now legends. There was a magazine, more a fanzine at the time and a story on the Plaster Casters was in there along with photos of their “art”. The fanzine was really like a cheap local paper you’d find at a super market, and the black and white photos weren’t all that vivid, but good enough. I was browsing through the story and suddenly, over my right shoulder pops Ms. Joplin herself, a bottle of B&B in hand (which she had smashed open earlier with a knife because there wasn't a cork screw around). I couldn’t see her because she was behind me, but I assume she was smiling. There was a smile in her voice, at least. “Yep, that’s Jimi” she declared and walked away. I cherish the moment.

Speaking of cherishing the moment, here’s one with ramifications that has served me well for decades.
After Ann Arbor , Janis took off to New York to rehearse and then tape the Ed Sullivan Show. It was kind of fun to watch now that I knew her a little and also knew I’d see her again in about a week. She was coming back into the Detroit area to do a show in the city itself at what was then the biggest venue in town, Cobo Hall. In my short time in Detroit I saw many incredible performers in that venue including Hendrix, Moody Blues, Sly & the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater, The Doors and many more.

So Janis was back in town with her new band and ready to rock. The scene backstage at a Janis show was a kind of controlled mayhem. It was the days of drugs, drink, rock at it’s prime and the crews and musicians were working hard but having fun. Janis, of course, led the way in this entourage. Due to my on going story for the Detroit Free Press and the research needed, I gained access to her dressing room prior to the show. To be honest, it might have been after the show. But I was in there at some point.

Janis was known for drinking, and in fact her name at times was synonymous with Southern Comfort, but I'm told at this point she was doing heroin pretty heavily. But this night she was focusing on tequila, a drink this Canadian boy had not yet encountered. It has become a favorite, but that night I asked for some and in my naiveté thought you put it in a glass and sipped on it. Wrong, and Janis said so. “Here honey, here’s how it’s done,” she said in that warm, gravely voice. She wasn’t like mom, more like Aunt Janis or possibly the voice of a sublime and satisfied lover. She then proceeded to give me the process of Tequila drinking, which of course consists of some lime applied to the hand, (between the thumb and finger), some salt on top of that, a lick of the salt, down the Tequila in one gulp and a bit of the lime. This is the process I enjoy to this day. Thanks Janis.

As Wikipedia says, "Joplin was a pioneer in the male-dominated rock music scene of the late 1960's, influencing generations of musicians to come. Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac commented that after seeing Joplin perform, 'I knew that a little bit of my destiny had changed. I would search to find that connection that I had seen between Janis and her audience. In a blink of an eye she changed my life.' "

The 1979 film The Rose was loosely based on Joplin's life which was, I believe, Bette Midler's big screen debut. In the late 1990's, the play Love Janis was created with input from Janis' younger sister Laura. Opening in the summer of 2001 and scheduled for only a few weeks of performances, the show won acclaim and packed houses and was held over several times. Gospel According to Janis, a biographical film was originally scheduled to begin shooting in early 2007, now has a projected release date in 2010.

Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

I feel privileged I had a little time with her.