I have started to work on an autobiography and will occasionally post some installments. Here is one about Janis Joplin.
I was in Santiago, Chile, producing the music to a left-wing movie directed by Saul Landau, Nina Serrano and Raúl Ruiz. I got the news: Janis Joplin was dead! She was found in a motel room in Los Angeles choked on her own vomit while high on heroin. She was not yet 30 years old. She was recording with her new band and on top of the world: becoming rich, famous and a "super star." Like the upcoming elections in Chile it seemed as though it was the beginning of a brand new day ... but it wasnít.
A few days later in the remote copper mining town of Copiapó I burned a candle at a small religious shrine in memory of my old girl friend. Then I walked over to the town square where the film crew had sent the stage for a political rally. But problems had delayed the shoot. So I was asked if I could entertain the crowd ... and stall for time. I strapped on my brand new deluxe Martin guitar.
A few nights before I had asked if I could visit a población, one of the squatters settlements in Santiago set up by the revolutionary Miristas for the homeless of the city. I was told that they were waiting for me. I brought my guitar and went. That evening in the central building I was taken into an almost empty room except for a mattress on a bed frame. In the bed was a young man and a young woman.
The man was a wanted fugitive revolutionary. He asked through an interpreter if I would sing a song. I took out my guitar. He asked how much it cost. I said 1500 dollars. He said," I could buy a machine gun for that." I sang the song "Mr. Big Pig," which had a driving beat to a chorus of:
You donít have to be a man, to be the man
and verse lyrics like:
Mr Big Pig likes to be safe, he always brings tear gas
When I finished he said, "That is your machine gun."
So here I was in the little Chilean town of Copiapó with my "machine gun" standing on a small wooden stage erected for a fictional political rally with a group of several hundred copper miners and their families staring at me with bemused interest. They did not speak English. I sang my song "Janis."
Into my life on waves of electrical sound
Years before in the San Francisco public park known as the "panhandle" I had announced to Janis Joplin that I thought we should break up. I said it was too difficult with our band schedules and my hitch hiking back and forth across the Bay from Berkeley to San Francisco. She asked me to write her a song "before you get too far away from me." I agreed and a few weeks later in a hotel room in Canada I wrote:
Even though I know that you and I
So in memory of her that day I sang that song to those people in the little square. As I was singing a young man and woman who had driven all the way from Berkeley, California in a Volkswagen van pulled into the town. They got out and in an LSD fog walked over to one of the film crew and asked "whatís going on?" They were told and looked up and saw me singing the song for Janis. They had seen me many times in Berkeley singing the song. The were amazed at the timing of it all. They got back in their van and drove off. I finished the song and the movie filming went on. Afterwards at the top of a mountain later that night I thought about the last time I had seen Janis Ö alive.
In a drunken and stoned rage she had cursed me and my wife Robin and daughter Seven Ann. We had just returned from Europe where I had toured solo and recorded the album Hold On Itís Coming. I was to be part of a huge Shea Stadium anti-Vietnam War concert . The concert was organized by Peter Yarrow of the folk group Peter Paul and Mary. I never saw Peter that day and I was not included in the show because it was too full of other stars wanting to protest the war. I remember John Fogerty jamming with Santana, or so I was told, as I never got to see the stage.
We had cut short our stay to rush home and be a part of the event. A limo had brought us from the NYC airport. We checked in at Shea Stadium, got passes and were making our way to the area where the stage was when we saw Janis coming from the stage area. Why she was there was a puzzle to me as we had fought many times when we were going together about "protesting" anything. She thought politics were stupid and she did not need to ask anybody any "fucking thing" about anything. I could tell she was in a bad mood.
The only difference this time was she was incomprehensible. I could not understand what she was talking about. But she was mad as hell. She was mad that I was with Robin. She was mad that I was not with her. She was hella pissed off ... and she was in bad shape. She stomped off to go ravage someone else. It was a relief. She was making the scene in New York City now. Free from the advice of her friends in Big Brother and the Holding Company. And loaded with money and fair weather friends like San Francisco Digger, Emmitt Grogan who I had heard was back on heroin and had convinced Janis to start using again.
I did not think much of Emmitt Grogan. He was so loved by the counter culture. He was often referred to as a revolutionary and a very creative person. He was part of the group called the Diggers who started in San Francisco. They modeled themselves so I understood after the European Provos and Diggers of hundreds of years before. The old school ones were anti-materialistic and in for sharing property and stuff like that. The San Francisco Diggers had a "free store" where they gave away food and clothes and stuff they got as donations or stole
I remember back in the days of the Haight Ashbury being in a Victorian flat off of the panhandle. I was in the kitchen with a bunch of women. The Diggers were in the front room talking about their daily successes and plans for the future and getting high and stuff. The women were putting them down. They were complaining about having to cook another dinner and never having any help from the men who were too busy fighting the revolution to help in the kitchen. I thought "yes, this is typical". So I was not a worshiper of Emmitt Grogan or the Diggers. But perhaps I just had a bad attitude. But the NYC heroin thing with Janis and Emmitt just fed into my attitude. Emmitt was found on a bench in the NYC subway dead of an overdose.
I knew Janis was shooting drugs again because of my encounter with her in the motel in Woodstock at the Festival I had been with her in her room when she wanted me to watch her shoot up heroin and got pissed off when I left the room and would not stay.
I went to NY on Thursday the day before the Festival because I really wanted to see all the bands perform and be a part of the whole event. I was quite excited about it. I donít remember how but I got checked into the Holiday Inn that lots of people were staying at. It was not a problem, I guess because I got there a day early. I was told that when the band, Country Joe and The Fish arrived a few days later they had to fight to get rooms.
I checked in and was hanging out in the lobby. There were no stars there that I remember just a bunch of regular folks. Then Janis showed up. She had a room. I guess Peggy Casserta and her were sharing a room but I donít know. I did not see Peggy. I canít remember if Peggy and I traveled from the airport in NYC to the festival. I donít know why I canít remember but I think I would remember if we had. I was not really getting stoned and drinking lots then so that is not the reason.
Janis and I talked then she asked me to come to her room. We got there and right away she decided I needed to have sex. She gave me a blow job much to my surprise. Then sitting on her bed she reached over and got out her stuff to shoot up drugs. It was all quite casual and natural for her. It wasnít for me. I could not stand needles and watching someone shoot up was sure not my idea of fun. I told her if she was going to do that I was leaving.
"Shit man I helped you do your thing why wonít you stay with me while I do my thing?!" I told her her idea of what I wanted was her idea not mine and I was not going to watch her kill herself. I left her room and did not see her the rest of the festival.
It was starting to get late and I decided to try and go out to the festival site. Out back of the hotel was a place that a helicopter was taking off and landing from. Bobby Newerth was out there hanging out. I think he had just come in on the last flight for the day. It was too dark to fly. I was an air traffic controller in the Navy before becoming a hippy and knew that you did not want to argue with the pilot about safety. Too bad Bill Graham did not know that or he would be with us here today.
I remember we stood around a pickup truck. There was a young girl there with a bandage on her finger. She said she had been in an accident the day before ... or maybe that day. She had her hand over the side of the pickup truck bed and it had brushed against something and taken off the tip of her finger. Yikes! She seemed quite resigned to it. I went to my room and went to sleep.
I rode out to the Woodstock Festival on a plane that also carried Janisís girlfriend at the time, Peggy Casserta. I knew Peggy from the Haight Ashbury days when I lived with Janis in her apartment on Lyon Street. I did not care that Janis was bisexual or that her and Peggy were lovers. That did not enter our conversations on the plane that day. I donít know if Peggy knew of my liaison with Janis in the hotel. It never came up. Peggy has told the press and said in her book that I stood Janis up one day and that is why we broke up ... not true. We just broke up.
I remember that day as if it was just a few weeks ago. Both our bands were playing for free in the panhandle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. After the show I told her I thought we should break up. I was tired of hitchhiking back and forth to my apartment in Berkeley. I had to go back and forth to practice with my band. Both our bands practiced a lot. Just about every day as a matter of fact. Then there was the gigs. We hardly ever played together on the same show. I did not have a car so it was hitchhike here and hitchhike there. I was tired of it. We were not fighting or anything like that. She said "If you leave now you can never come back." I thought that was a bit extreme. A bit stunned I said OK. I thought she should have left it open but that was not her style.
A few months later, after the Monterey Pop Festival, I took up with Robin Menken. I met Janis on Mt. Tamalpais at the Mt Tamalpais Rock Festival. The Country Joe and The Fish band had been flown from the San Francisco Airport to the heliport in Sausalito. There the Hellís Angels rode us on their motorcycles up the mountain. Janis said "You have started going with a woman I do not have much respect for." I did not understand what she meant. I was probably too immature for Janis. We were both slow learners. Too bad she did not get more time.
I think Janis was pissed off that day in NYC because of what she called the "Saturday Night Burn." It went like this: When she was young she wanted to go out with the big kids and adults on Saturday night and have fun and stay out late and drink and stuff. Later when she got old enough to do it she found out that nothing happened. That it did not live up to her expectations. She was bummed. Maybe she found life without the Big Brother band and her San Francisco scene to be empty and a bummer also. She was always just a little Texas home girl in her heart and being a star probably just made her mad.
It was just a few years before that I was in the audience when Chet Helms, the boss of The Family Dog concert production company at the San Francisco Avalon Ballroom dance hall, brought Janis on stage and introduced her. "Here is my friend from Texas, Janis. She is going to sing with the Big Brother and The Holding Company band." She then rocked the place with a few of her soon to be classic tunes. I always liked Big Brother, especially an instrumental called "Hall of the Mountain King." I thought she was a good addition to the band.
I liked Janis. She had good energy and focus. I thought she was cute. She had a little girl quality about her. She was not full of grown up curves. She did not have large breasts or hips and wore typical hippy second hand shop mix and match clothes. But it was her spirit of life that was so entertaining. People would go on to call her the best blues singer since Billie Holiday. I always thought that was crap. She was a good rock and roll singer but no Billie Holiday. Both women could not resist the lure of drugs and would fall victim to drugs in the end.
Just a few months after the Avalon concert Country Joe and The Fish and Big Brother and The Holding Company played together in Berkeley. It was a production company called Golden Sheaf Bakery, named after a real bakery that had been in Berkeley in the old days. My mother, father and little brother came up from Los Angeles to see the show. My brother and I took LSD together and we all went to the show. There was one dressing room and the three bands (another band was also on the bill) shared the dressing room. Janis and I started talking and really seem to enjoy each otherís company. We were laughing and carrying on. It always seemed like that with us. We were both Capricorns and kinda leaders of the bands we were in and both we both enjoyed just being regular people while aspiring to be entertainers also.
The evening climaxed with jam between all three bands. But Janis did not participate. She never liked to jam. She liked to know exactly what was going on and although at times in her career she did get pretty loose on stage and jam ... in general she did not.
We played together again at the Avalon and this time we wound up dancing together. Which seems so weird to me now as we both never danced. I guess we were just caught up in flirting and being attracted to each other. That night I went home with her to her the flat she shared in the Haight. It was totally furnished with victorian fru fru. I canít remember the person who lived with Janis but I got the feeling it was her flat and Janis rented a room. There was always herbal tea on the stove and it was very warm and cozy.
We would stay up late and listen to Larry Miller on KMPX radio, the worldís first "free form" radio station. We would call up and ask him to play a song from our then just released EPs ... and he would and we were so happy about that. She was very likable and it seemed to me very clean from drugs. There was no drug scene going on that I could see and I donít remember us even drinking a beer.
Soon afterwards she got her own apartment on Lyon Street in the Haight. I lived there with her for several months until we broke up. Bob Sideman had just taken this photo of her nude with all those beads around her neck hanging down across her breasts. She loved making necklaces and her and Linda Gravenites used to make necklaces all the time. She also did leather work. She gave me some beautiful necklaces and a leather pouch that I wore on my waist. I also had shirts that were designed by my ex girl friend Lyndall Erb. She later became tight with Janis and designed clothes for her. That was the stuff I had on at Monterey Pop Festival: Lyndallís shirt with beaded work on it, a brown leather pouch at my waist with bead work and a bunch of necklaces Janis had made.
We took those posters of her nude and put them up in her apartment all over one wall. It was my idea. I also put candles in the overhead lamp hanging from the ceiling. It was a bit pushy of me to do that to the decor of her apartment. It was her place not mine.
She was so proud of that. Her mother was coming to town to visit and she just didnít know what to make for dinner. She wanted to make "chow mein." I donít remember what we ate. In the morning we would walk down Haight Street with her dog George. George was like a small collie type dog. Same markings as a collie but with some other mix. He was a very nice dog. She loved that dog. One day she called me crying, she cried a lot then, like a woman, very natural just upset crying. "George got hit by a car. I canít find him anywhere. What will I do. I am so upset." I told her that he would turn up. He did, and had to have if my memory is right a bit of his tail taken off. But he was OK and recovered quickly.
We would walk along. She would stop in and get a bottle of Thunderbird to drink on the way. We would meet Peggy and Peggyís girlfriend at the time whose name I canít remember. Freewheeling Frank the Hellís Angel who wrote poetry with Michael McClure and other folks. We would go to Hippy Hill in the park and just enjoy the community. She was so happy then.
Sometime back then we were in a sauna together in Santa Cruz high on LSD. Our bands were in the main house, which was in the woods, jamming and partying. We were doing what you can imagine boy friend and girl friend might do in that situation. All of a sudden her right hand froze and she could not move it. It started to freak me out. She said not to worry about it. That ever since she had done a lot of speed in Texas with somebody while living in a garage it happens sometimes. A few minutes later she got back movement in the hand. It was a part of her I did not share ... her life with speed and heroin.
I went one afternoon over to see an event at the Fillmore that Allen Ginsberg was at. Afterwards I asked him if I could talk to him sometime about life and such. He said sure his name was in the phone book. It wasnít so for some reason I decided to go to Berkley and talk with Mario Savio about life. I was confused about being a "hero," a rock "star." I never have figured that out. I went over and talked with Mario.
He was dead set against being a hero of any kind. I argued that we needed new heroes ones that were down with the people. I enjoyed him and his wife. Janis was dead set against it. We had a big fight then. I remember her turning into someone else. She was yelling "I donít need to ask any fucking body about nothing. I donít need any advice from anybody".
When she was living on Lyon Street I remember her playing a tape for me with that "ba ba ba ba baby" stuff in the vocal she used to do. She was so excited. She said "Joe I just made that up. Isnít it groovy." She said she was trying to do something like Otis Redding did. She loved Otis Redding after Monterey and wanted to be "just like him."
I miss Janis. She would really have enjoyed the years that have passed by. She would have been a real hero of the people in my mind. She always was a very good person she just hadnít gotten it together yet when she died. I miss the person. I donít miss the "superstar".
Copyright © 2004 by Joe McDonald. May not be reproduced in any form without express permission.
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