Forty-eight years ago today a mass of people, all kinds of groovy people, gathered together to celebrate peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t know about you, but I would buy a time machine just to experience something like that. Problem is, there ain’t no time machine I know of, and if there was, Napoleon Dynamite already showed us the hazard of such folly.
Napoleon fries his balls off in an effort to escape high school
The next best thing is being a writer.
Or a reader. If you want to experience a tiny part of the festival, and if you love Janis Joplin, and everything awesome, then I hope you read this story. It’s about a DJ named Johnny Cool who travels around, gets a gig to interview the queen, Queen Janis that is, and falls in love. I hope you enjoy the read. Thanks for stopping by.
On Yasgur’s Farm
August 15th, 1969, Yasgur’s Farm
“Hey, man, like where do you want me to put this mic stand?”
A slender college-aged kid with an outside-of-the-lines goatee, no shirt, and sugarcoated eyes, pointed to an empty spot next to a set of Marshall amps.
“Are you sure? I’ve put it three places already and someone always comes up to tell me I gotta move it. I’m not even part of the crew; I’m here to interview Janis. I want to be cool, man, but I’m done messing with this microphone.”
“It’s fine there, man. Just put it there.”
Johnny let go of the stand and raised his hands high. Done. Washed of. “Hey, kid, where is Janis anyway? Is she sick or something?”
“She’s gettin’ ready.”
“When does she go on?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Any time. Real soon.”
“Soon, like in a few minutes, or soon like in an hour? People are asking.”
“I don’t know. Soon.”
“I’ve been waiting three hours.”
“Yeah? Well, I’ve been here days and haven’t seen shit except for wires and chords and amp shit and a whole bunch of naked people but I know she’s here anyway.”
“Maybe before midnight?”
“Yeah, maybe that.”
“Where is she?” Johnny asked.
The kid pointed over his shoulder. That meant somewhere out back where it was calm. Out front was chaos. You could tell the difference in drugs too. Out where the fans hung it smelled like watered down weed. Out back was expensive weed, real skunk with its tail raised. Johnny bet if he sniffed hard enough, some caviar priced ‘gold dust’ would be in the air as well. He heard Janis liked all of it.
Star102 in San Diego had set this thing up, given him a pass and everything. Janis, fucking, Joplin he’d replied when they told him his assignment. So far he’d covered a few garage bands and the cat from a setup called The Grateful Dead. From Jesus radio in Iowa, to slinging hits in sunbathed San Diego, how did someone like him get lucky enough to score an interview with what folks liked to call ‘the white man’s Bessie Smith?’
It must be luck, pure and simple. He was lucky.
Okay, maybe he’d begged to do the interview. Maybe he’d lied and said he’d quit if they didn’t set it up because New York was calling, calling. He’d even mentioned Rolling Stone.
Do you know anything about Karma? His ex-wife had always talked about karma.
Karma sounds like a boring chick.
No, karma is a thing. And lying is bad karma. Constant lying to get what you want.
I don’t lie.
She divorced him in ten months.
Karma was swift.
Did karma ever stop? Did it have a lien release?
Johnny followed the kid’s finger.
After a few dozen tents he heard a woman’s soft cackling and the lower, static sound of a guitar being tuned. Greasy, hippy freaks hung out near the entrance, some clutching the album she’d made with Big Brother and the Holding Company, a band she’d recently parted from. Johnny walked past the queue and straight to where a man he could only attribute to being a direct descendant of Attila the Hun sat atop a chrome stallion.
“Hey look, man, I’m here to interview Miss Joplin. I’ve been waiting hours because no one knows what the fuck is going on. Her manager said I could do the interview before she does the gig. So here I am.”
You’ve got a chip on your shoulder, Johnny.
“You got a pass?”
“Sure, it’s on my shirt.”
“Move your hair.”
Johnny reached up to move his blond hair to the side. “See? I’m legit.”
Attila eyed the pass and raised his caterpillar brows. “Go on in. You got five minutes.”
It’s going to get you in trouble one day.
“Janis says she only got that much time to talk about herself, her parents, and how she got to sing the way she does.”
“It get it, man, but five minutes?”
“I might give you four.”
Johnny headed in.
She sat amid an altar of flowers and candles, no chairs, just the dirt floor and a patchwork of Turkish rugs. She was wild hair and beads and squinty little cat eyes and a bulbous nose that was ugly and cute, and she was little. Bessie Smith comes out of that? Johnny approached quietly.
The purple and pink feathers in her hair made her look like a lit roman candle, and there wasn’t an inch of her arm without some sort of adornment. How many beads and feathers could one person wear? She reminded him of The Empress, from his ex’s tarot cards.
I am The Empress, and you’re supposed to be The Emperor.
Well, what am I really?
It’s real funny, Johnny, but I always get The Fool card with you.
Karma or Fate?
“Miss Joplin? I’m Johnny McCool from Star102 in San Diego.”
“Sure you are, honey. Sit down.”
“Hell, I don’t care. Anywhere. Just sit.”
She handed him some Southern Comfort. “You been watchin’ all this?”
Johnny lowered, jeans straining against his knees and ass. “Parts of it.”
“Then you’re watchin’ history. Those pigs and suits can’t figure it out. It’s a trip, man, a real trip.”
“It sure is, Miss Joplin.”
“This is real beautiful, all of us together. No killin’, no money, just love. Can you dig that?” Her voice had the limp of a willow tree branch. In it, Johnny heard a kind of raspy despair. Her highway face tried, but couldn’t hold in, every secret.
“Uh, yeah, sure I can. I dig it, alright.” Johnny returned the bottle after only one swallow. There wasn’t much left and it was expensive.
She set it down between her legs. There were rings on every finger. Every thing about her made noise, shifted, jangled. A short explosion of laughter was the most jangly thing of all. It cut through the raincloud in her eyes. “That is groovy.”
“Your hair, man. Your hair. Your face. You have a nice face. It’s different. So what’d you come in here for?” Her eyes were pink sugar-glazed doughnuts.
“Like I said, I’m from Star102, San Diego—to interview you. But if it’s a bad a time?”
“Interview. I don’t like talking about myself, but you’re here so go ahead.”
Johnny pulled a pen and a spiral notepad from his shirt pocket. “You don’t like talking about yourself, Miss Joplin? How come?”
“I just don’t. Is that your first question?”
“Yes, I guess it is.” Miss Joplin is shy. She didn’t appear shy on stage. But good music brought people together, erased walls. “Are you reclusive by nature, or by choice?”
A wallop of liquor went down her throat. “All sorts of reasons, honey. All sorts. Good and bad. I was born to sing, not talk. It hurts most times. It hurts and I don’t like it.”
She really was like a child. A little beautiful witch-doctor girl with a freight-train voice.
He saw track marks under her loose sleeves. Many. So many it was sad. If he pretended, they could be light moles.
“If you don’t want to do the interview, I can stop now.” And tell what to his manager back at the station? Johnny’s lips puckered—time to kiss this job goodbye. He didn’t like the coffee anyway. Always stale. Always lukewarm.
Miss Joplin reached behind to grab a box of smokes from a bag of purple leather. “Aren’t you going to ask me who I’m sleeping with or why the band split up?”
“I planned on getting to that.”
“Well get there faster.”
“Okay, so who are you sleeping with, and why did the band break up?”
“Honey, I sleep with whoever I want—ain’t no particular man, because life is too short and some people are too tight to commit, that’s why. They want to own you. About the band, too.”
Miss Joplin is independent. “Are all of the other members here tonight, in support of your solo career?” He liked strong women. The stronger the better. But some women were so strong they wrestled you, and themselves, into a ditch.
“Some. I ain’t seen ‘em. What’s your name again?”
“Johnny? Everybody’s a Johnny, a John. You don’t look like a Johnny. You look like a Joe.”
“You can call me Joe if you want to.”
“Oh really?” She lit the cigarette; smoke floated up. “But that ain’t your name, so I can’t call you Joe. You think just because I’m a star I can call you whatever I want?”
“No. I didn’t know what to say. I’m nervous.”
“I make you nervous.”
“Shit, honey.” She smoked. “But it’s your name. The name your mama give you. See, now, you don’t even look like a Joe anymore. I wouldn’t know what to call you even if I was that pretentious.”
There was a pause and Johnny knew he’d lost the interview. “Uh . . .” He could never go back to that station.
Janis stuck out a tongue. “Ah Christ, you are some kind of an amateur. You haven’t even complimented me and said how wonderful I am and all that.”
“You’re wonderful, Miss Joplin, and that isn’t a lie.”
She handed him the whiskey again.
“Johnny.” Now her expression, supine.
He drank and was happy for it. The liquor going down his neck inside wasn’t as hot as the embarrassment going up his neck outside.
“Hurry up and ask me another question.”
“Okay—where do you think you’ll go after this? Another festival?”
“After Woodstock . . . I don’t know, maybe Caly-forn-nigh-eh. Maybe Why-ooh-ming. Ain’t thought about it yet. My manager would know.”
“What do you think the impact of this festival will be on the younger generation—the people listening to your music?”
“Good. It’ll be good. It’ll help folks see we got a voice. That we got something to say. We buy music, we buy the news, we contribute, that we don’t want this fucking war. We’re just different, that’s all. I think that’s what it’ll say.”
“Do you think they’ll listen more if they see different parts of society can get along?”
“Sure. If they see that negroes and honkeys and chicks and cats and pigs and straights can all sit together and listen to music, then they’ll have to believe that we can do it in the real world too. But some folks are stubborn. They only see what they want, and no one’s ever going to change their mind. We can sit here and hope they’ll change, but likely they won’t. The ones changing are already halfway there, the others maybe never.”
“Do you really believe that. Miss Joplin?”
“Yes, I guess I do.”
“Well, that’s sort of fatalist. What’s the point of an event like this festival if nothing is achieved from it?”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s worth trying if you think it is. But I can’t change people. I can’t change the war. I can’t change anything. I can only sing and live and die.”
At 26, Miss Joplin has already figured out the complexities of life.
“Look, Johnny, I’m just not feeling this tonight. Sorry, but I-I can’t answer any more questions. This whole show has me rattled. There’s something in my bones that don’t feel right, and there’s not enough time to figure out what it is. Anyway, I gotta build up that feeling, and it ain’t built up yet. I gotta conjure something, some emotion, to sing. Hell, maybe all those good people out there stole my vibe. I can’t figure it out.” She flipped her hair back. A feather fell out. “I don’t wanna do this no more. I told my manager I wanted a break and he signed me up to do Woodstock—someone’s farm in the middle of bull-shittin’-nowhere and I just can’t sing tonight, Johnny. I just ain’t feeling right.”
“But you have to, Miss Joplin.”
“Why do I have to?”
“I don’t know. They’ll be upset.”
“Who’ll be upset?”
“Your fans. They really love you.”
“You think they do? They’re stoned, just like I’m stoned. Maybe the world will end tomorrow, Johnny, and I can get myself some rest. Sometimes I dream of that. It sure would be nice to get quiet and have no one telling me what to do. I dream of it, the world ending, but it never happens.” Her eyes closed forever. “Hey, now, you could come with me—if the world ended.” Something inside her shifted. She opened her eyes and gave him a smile. Big as Yasgur’s Farm. “Wouldn’t you like that, Johnny?”
He tried to imagine her and him and no one else. No voices screaming outside the tent. All peace and quiet. Real peace, not conjured peace. Not Coco-Cola peace that lasted thirty seconds with a nice jingle attached to it. No naked stoned hippies with muddy dogs and kids and vomit on the ground. No Vietnam of music.
“Sure, I’d like that.”
“Why did you come here?”
“Why? To interview you.”
“Is that all?”
“Sure, that’s all.”
Janis came around and stood right in front of him. Her bell-bottomed jeans swayed at the ankles, were tight at the hip.
A flower had been painted on her left hipbone. A yellow flower. Like curry.
“Let’s pretend the world has ended and it’s just you and me and nobody else.” She slid a foot to his thigh. Rings on her toes. Outside, a thunderclap of voices had stealthily erupted, calling her name in pulse. She lowered into his lap, took his notepad, and pencil, and placed them on the ground. “I’d like to forget where I came from. Tell them I’m dirt. Tell them I’ve I left and will never come back.”
She had beautiful breasts. Johnny could see their outline perfectly through the thin fabric of the loose blouse she wore. He hesitated before touching her. “I can’t do that.”
A mutual feeling erupted between them. The pulsing. Her whiskey breath permeated his nostrils, and her jangly laughter, his ears. “I sing too loud, Johnny. I cuss too much. I do all sorts of other things.”
Johnny cupped her little face in his hands. “That’s what makes you beautiful.”
She kissed him so hard he felt her soul. He’d never been kissed like that.
A childhood rejection seems to have molded Miss Joplin into a Cleopatra, an over-the-top flashy beauty, yet at heart she longs for love and simplicity.
Johnny’d had sex plenty of times, but this was far past being good and way beyond the usual ‘come and go.’ Janis devoured him, took his soul, chewed on it for a while, rode and writhed, orgasmed, then injected his soul right back into his body with a big, happy, toothy smile on her rock and roll face. Whatever it was that had been eating at her, had been temporarily erased.
For him as well.
“Goddamnit, boy. I think I just fell in love with you.”
Johnny tried to speak, but his words were ghosts. He watched Janis arrange, prim and flex, before heading off. In a few minutes, history wrote itself.
There wasn’t a single word on his pad of paper.
March 3, 1970
When Janis begged him to join her on tour, Johnny said yes. What else did he have to do that was better than following a rock goddess back and forth across the U.S.? Janis was funny, warm, and she knew how to screw. She was a real woman, the kind who told the truth and didn’t put up with anyone else’s bullshit. And yet her heart was as open as the Great Divide; it left her victim to betrayal, but she still kept giving, giving. When she sang, she gave. When she talked, she gave. And when she screwed, she gave.
Sometimes Johnny felt like all the planets had come together and created another Big Bang, and her name was Janis.
The only one who couldn’t handle her, was her. The needle, once a part-time, past-time devotion, begged her away more and more.
Watching her shoot up was akin to watching his mother drink gin. It began to depress him; and yet it was a silent issue, like a snake with its head reared up and ready to bite. What? Ask her to stop? Tell her to stop?
But still, he felt he had to try.
Reclining with her one afternoon inside the Chelsea amid feathers and printed scarfs, he ran a warm hand along her back and approached the topic. Her skin was warm and tacky with sweat because they’d just made love.
“Hey, Pearl, we need to talk.”
“We do?” She turned on the bed and the ends of her brown-gold hair fell to the silk sheets. “Come on, Daddy, don’t be strange. You wanna ask me for some money? You wanna leave already? Is that it? Well, leave, Daddy. You’re free.”
Johnny dropped his hand. “No, no, baby, that ain’t it at all. It’s something else.” He put his hands to his bare chest. “I don’t want to leave.”
Dammit, why did she always have to go that route? The, you’re just another lover, route? He didn’t want to be free. He wanted to be with her.
She looked at him with her river blue eyes and spoke with an oft-used W.C. Fields incantation, “Just tell mama the truth, daddy, or go get me a drink.”
Johnny got up off the bed and reached for an empty glass and the Southern Comfort, but then he decided to put them down and opened a drawer on the bedside table instead. “It’s this, Janis. The needle. The smack. I love you and want you to stop using. I’ve got a bad feeling that I can’t seem to shake. This stuff’s gonna kill you. And if you don’t believe me, go ask everyone else. They’re all saying the same thing. Your manager, the band. We’re all afraid. And we all love you.”
Laughing, Janis rolled over the mattress, stretched a leg out and shut the drawer with her big toe. “Hey man, I’m quitting after the tour.”
“Really?” Relief filled Johnny like a warm drink. Thank God. There would be no arguing. But it wouldn’t be easy. Going cold turkey would change her. Might make her go on different avenues, thoughts. She may not want him, or anything she was used to, after it was over. That was the real-side affect. But at least she’d be alive and he wouldn’t have to worry anymore.
In exchange he’d stop with the cocaine, or it wouldn’t be fair. Sure would save him a lot of dough.
Johnny rejoined Janis on the bed and pressed his face into her hair. Patchouli.
“Yeah, daddy, I decided to quit after playin’ The Fillmore. All those newspapers sayin’ we sounded like shit. The whole thing’s been on my mind.”
“I hope you do. You’re softer when you’re not on it. You open up more. You’re not so afraid. I mean, what’s life if you’re always afraid, you know? Anyway, I love you, Janis. I really do.”
“I love you too, Daddy.” More W.C. Fields. “Now, hand me that drink.”
When Janis stopped using, she became all those things. It was like watching Mona Lisa step out of the confines of oil and turn into a real, live, breathing chick. Soon there was a new band, one that knew how to follow and not lag behind, and a new record. Everyone around her vibrated with an electric bubble of hope. Janis was happy, Janis was clean, Janis wouldn’t die.
The problem was, the more she stepped into her own, the less she believed it. And Johnny, who had the privilege of knowing her beyond the ghostly veil of her own paranoia, knew the truth.
A door had been opened and in stepped the Devil.
That fear in Johnny’s gut turned into a full-out panic by fall. She called him less, seemed to go into a bomb shelter of her own making. But at least she wasn’t using.
“Go to your class reunion, Pearl? Well, that’s just, that sounds crazy. You don’t need to prove anything to them. Weren’t they the ones who called you ugly? Listen, why don’t you come back to New York and stay with me for a few days? I’m bored, and I bought you something.”
“Really?” her voice lilted up, like that of an expectant child.
Johnny’s hand fell into the back pocket of his Levi’s. A small box with a big ring had been shoved inside. A little ring wouldn’t do. It had to be Mount Everest or go home.
Maybe if he asked her to marry him, she’d find peace. It was the last straw in a bale that’d been ripped to shreds.
“Yeah, but it’s a secret. You have to come see me to find out what it is.”
A long, weighed breath came through the receiver. “Actually, Johnny, I’ll have to meet you some other time. Save that gift—whatever it is. The reunion is somethin’ I just gotta do. You understand, man. I want them to see me the way I am now.”
“The way you are now?” Johnny wanted to smash the phone against his kitchen wall. He closed his eyes. “Ain’t it enough to show them that on TV? Hey, listen, if it means that much . . .”
“It really does.”
He placed the ring on the sink.
“Pearl, you have fun at that reunion, but don’t, you know, don’t let them get too close to you. Remember, it wasn’t you that needed to change, it was them. Just remember that.”
“Sure, man, I’ll remember.”
The phone chord hadn’t wrapped around his neck, but it sure felt like it.
He found out a few weeks later that the reunion had been a failure and that Janis was back to shooting smack. Their last phone call that day, had become their last ever.
Johnny returned the engagement ring, and waited. When her manager called the night of October 4 to break the news, that Janis had been found face down in her hotel room wearing only a nightie after an accidental overdose, it was as if he’d had a wide awake premonitory dream. He’d known, yet wasn’t ready at all.
The worst part was that she’d been alone.
The Bessie Smith, the Big Bang, the goddess, the Mona Lisa, alone.
That’s when he really began to run. To chase the ghost.
He fell in love with someone else, but not the same kind of love. Then he got married. And divorced. And repeat.
The same lesson, over and over. Different people, same results.
Always, always chasing that ghost.
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