Confidant's Janis Joplin Memoir Is One of the Best Yet
Janis Joplin, spreading her wings in 1968.
Photo by John Byrne Cooke
On the Road with Janis Joplin By John Byrne Cooke Berkley, 432 pp., $26.95.
Popular conception of Janis Joplin is that of the bluesy, boozy, hey-lawdy-mama who was a fireball onstage in a swirl of hair, sequins, fringe, and Southern Comfort. And with a raw, raspy voice that could take tunes by songwriters ranging from George Gershwin and Jerry Ragovoy ("Time Is On My Side") to Kris Kristofferson to church hymns and make them her indelible own.
That conception is true. But, as this exceedingly well-written and descriptive memoir by Cooke -- her former road manger, friend and confidant -- makes clear, that was hardly the only side to the girl from Port Arthur, Texas.
Son of TV presenter and host Alistair Cooke (PBS' Masterpiece Theater), Cooke was working as a sound and cameraman for storied documentarian D.A. Pennebaker when he fell in with scenester/musician/Dylan foil Bob Neuwirth and legendary manager Albert Grossman.
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Grossman dangled a job as road manager to one of three acts whose careers he was overseeing at the time: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Electric Flag or Big Brother and the Holding Company. The latter were breaking in a new female singer, Janis Joplin.
Scared off by the well-known drug problems of the first two, Cooke chose to shepherd Big Brother. And while eventually he found it was no guarantee he wouldn't have to deal with smacked-out band members, he chose wisely.
Throughout the book, Cooke takes the reader on an amazing you-are-there journey through late-'60s rock: San Francisco's "Summer of Love," Monterey, Woodstock, the Festival Express, and even the Ed Sullivan Show.
In the tales, famous figures from rock, politics, art, literature, and social change drop in and out - you really never did know who would show up at a house party or backstage bacchanalia. And during it all, he got to see Joplin often as the center of the whirlwind.
Some of the better (or more infamous) tales of her life and career get fleshed out here, largely because Cooke was either there or nearby. Examples include the night she broke a whiskey bottle over a drunken Jim Morrison's head, or the slap fight with a riled Jerry Lee Lewis (though, in fairness, Janis did start it).
Also, her starmaking turn at the Monterey Pop Festival almost didn't happen after Grossman denied Pennebaker's request to film Big Brother's set. Sensing a possible opportunity for exposure that couldn't be missed, the band overruled their manager, and got filmed during a hastily-arranged second set the next day. That made Big Brother the only act on the bill to score two performing slots.
Cooke doesn't shy away from detailing Joplin's omnivorous, but mostly heterosexual appetite. And if you were a young man who came across Joplin at a bar, at a show, or even on the street and represented one of her two preferred types (pretty boys or mountain men), there was a chance you could spend the night with a rock star and have a story to tell for years.
That this was standard behavior for her male contemporaries should not make her temporary assignations any more shocking. But even in the "free love" era, it unfairly marked her as loose. (For the record, Cooke says he never slept with Joplin, though there were opportunities.)
Story continues on the next page.
Houston appears a couple of times in the narrative, once during a November 1968 show at the Houston Music Hall which saw Joplin's somewhat shocked parents and two siblings come for a visit backstage. Later, Cooke, Joplin, and a couple of companions flew into the city (stocking up on Western wear and liquor first) before driving 90 miles south to Port Arthur for the singer's 10th anniversary high school reunion in a rented sedan.
But just as she was (by her own admission) out of place and shunned by some during those days -- and later during a brief stint at the University of Texas -- there is a similar uneasiness in the air when she returns with a coterie and the cameras of local media. And her hippie-dress couture was out of step with her conservative classmates.
Her classmates were largely too intimidated or dismissive to reconnect with their most famous alumna. And somehow, the triumphant homecoming brought up all her insecurities again. She and her coterie would soon bolt the reception for their own adventure, culminating in the incident with Jerry Lee Lewis at a club in Beaumont.
Of course, Joplin also had an on-and-off relationship with heroin that would ultimately kill her in 1970 from an overdose in a hotel. It was Cooke who actually first found the body, and had the unenviable task of telling her family, friends, bandmates and Grossman before word got out.
That he also chose not to remove the singer's drug paraphernalia and stash from the scene in an effort to save face was probably another wise choice on his part.
The album she was working on at the time of her death would eventually come out as Pearl, a nickname chosen/bestowed upon her by her intimates when she decided she wanted one. The posthumous release also contained her best known hit, the Kristofferson-written "Me and Bobby McGee."
While a number of books on Joplin's life have already come out, Cooke's personal relationship, level-headed remembrances, writing skill, and genuine insight into his subject's life, relationships, and music makes On the Road with Janis Joplin one of the best.
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