Got It While She Could

January 14, 2015   •   By David Breithaupt

JOHN BYRNE COOKE is no easy man to define. His résumé includes photography, acting, filmmaking, music, and writing. Armed with a Harvard degree, Cooke headed west to pursue his interests in the mid-1960s. He soon became a member of documentary maker D. A. Pennebaker’s film crew and witnessed the breakout performance of a young female vocalist named Janis Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. He noted the jaw-dropping effect Janis had upon her audience, including an amazed Mama Cass. Six months later Cooke was in San Francisco accepting a job as road manager for Janis’s crew, a role he filled until the end of her short life.

Now Cooke has written a vivid memoir of his time with Janis. We know how the story ends, which still reverberates with hurt all these years later, but Cooke gives cause for celebration for letting us glimpse this personal view of a vibrant life that continues to inspire many.

Along the way we are granted up-close encounters with some of that decade’s most iconic figures, including Jimi Hendrix, Paul Butterfield, and Jefferson Airplane. On the Road with Janis Joplin provides an insider’s view of the performers behind the myths against the backdrop of a turbulent decade the likes of which we have not seen since.

I spoke with Cooke online about his new book as we brought Janis back to life for the time being.


DAVID BREITHAUPT: You wrote in your book that the Monterey Pop Festival was maybe the completion of what happened on the East Coast two years earlier when Dylan went electric at the Newport Festival. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

JOHN BYRNE COOKE: Monterey was much more of a beginning than ending. A culmination, maybe, of what Dylan started, but definitely not a completion. The transition from the folk boom to folk rock and rock ’n’ roll wasn’t entirely due to Dylan, but he gave it a boost. He had recorded electrified songs before Newport ’65 — “Subterranean Homesick Blues” well before, and “Like a Rolling Stone” hit the airwaves in early June that year, two months before Newport. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Chambers Brothers also helped to get a lot of folk musicians thinking that electrifying the music wasn’t always a bad thing. Monterey was the showcase for a whole lot of new music that had been produced by this evolutionary process over the past couple of years. The Mamas and the Papas and Simon and Garfunkel were stars already, the San Francisco bands all but unknown, except for Jefferson Airplane, who had a hit with “White Rabbit.” Together with Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar and Hugh Masekela and all the other acts, it showcased the amazing variety in the pop music at the time.

As I grew up and watched clips of Janis on talk shows, she struck me as someone who was harboring a profound sorrow inside herself. Is this an accurate observation? Your portrait of her paints a mostly upbeat persona, at least until her addictions set in.

I would say that insecurity was a big part of Janis’s character, not sorrow. She had a lot of energy, much of it positive, which she put into her music. She also used a certain amount of bluster to cover her insecurities — about her looks, about whether she was making the right choices in her career, even about her singing. In the three years I was with her, she went through her toughest times in 1969, the first year after she left Big Brother and the Holding Company to see if she could make it as a solo singer with a backup band. That first band, Kozmic Blues, was ultimately a failure. She felt she had failed, and it was a hard year for her. But the band she put together in 1970 was a success that more than made up for Kozmic Blues. She learned a lot of lessons from the difficult times she went through in ’69 and by the time we went out on the road in May 1970, she was a more mature person, more sure of herself. She showed she could learn from her mistakes and overcome her difficulties.

Did less than flattering reviews have an impact on Janis’s insecurities — I’m thinking of Paul Nelson’s early review in Rolling Stone?

Janis held a grudge for bad reviews. When David Dalton arrived to travel with us in the summer of 1970, Janis said she hoped he wasn’t going to trash her the way Rolling Stone had done twice before. She was thinking in particular of Nelson’s less-than-generous review of her first appearance with Kozmic Blues at Fillmore East, in New York, in February 1969, in which Nelson cut the band, still then very much a work in progress, little slack, and said of Janis’s singing of one song, “it would seem to belong more to the realm of carnival exhibition than musical performance.”

Yet Janis was such a strong woman with a vision despite her own uncertainties; did she think of herself as a feminist?

No. The description “feminist” wasn’t yet in much use in the late sixties. “Women’s libber” was more current, and Janis wasn’t interested in the political movement for women’s rights or in labels like that. Gloria Steinem’s and Germaine Greer’s first writings were only just coming into print in 1969 and 1970, respectively. Janis was against anyone being prevented from doing anything because of race or sex, but she didn’t take a political approach to issues like that. She believed that she could do anything she wanted to do, she went out and did it, and that’s the approach she recommended to others. We can safely say that Janis has inspired many young women of her generation, and later ones too, to get out there and give it everything they’ve got.

You’ve been showing a film that you made on your book tour. Can you describe what it is about?

I shot 8 mm film while I was with Janis that I cut into five movies. One about each of the bands — Big Brother, Kozmic Blues, and Full Tilt Boogie — and two shorts, each just four to five minutes. One shows the psychedelic paint job on her Porsche, the other covers her return to Port Arthur, Texas, her hometown, for her 10-year high school reunion in August 1970.

If we can’t catch your live act, is there some way we can view your movie footage?

I’m in the process of licensing the music for my Janis movies, including for DVD sales at some time in the not-too-distant future. I hope.

I didn’t realize how literary Janis was until I read your book, though I am not surprised. She had a dog named Thurber — was she a fan of James Thurber? Did she have any favorite authors?

I can’t say for sure if Thurber’s name came from the writer. I think her reading was guided more by subject matter than by favorite authors. Biographies were a preference with her. I remember Janis reading a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald on the road in the summer of 1970.

Janis came so close to overcoming her addictions — at least she was trying to and aware of her problem. I can’t help wondering how she would have evolved over the years had she lived. Any ideas?

Working with Paul Rothchild on the Pearl album (which would have had a different name if she had lived), Janis was seeing that her singing career might last longer than she had believed until then. Keeping in mind that her biggest single hit, “Me and Bobby McGee,” is a country song, it’s interesting to think about Janis — a Texas girl, after all — recording more country songs. With “Summertime” and “Little Girl Blue” she had already explored jazz vocals. Our mutual friend, the actor Howard Hesseman, hoped that Janis would record more jazz classics.

Altamont is an obvious headstone for the 1960s. It is easy to see why things went wrong, but do you think a sort of collective exhaustion contributed to ugly vibes?

I think the calamity that was Altamont was due to events on the ground at that festival, not any wider malaise, but Altamont was organized in the face of what were already obvious logistical challenges. As I say in my book, the difference in scale between the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where the audience in the arena was a little over 7,000, and Woodstock, several months before Altamont, showed the challenges of putting on more of that kind of music festival, which attracted, by that time, unmanageable numbers of fans.

Do you think there was a point when rock ’n’ roll became accepted and thus "commercial"? I am talking about that crossroad where rock was a truly rebellious movement and took a right turn into commercial commodity. If so what impact did that have on the rock movement?

Accepted by whom? By the mainstream culture at large? By the straight adults who supported the Vietnam War? The music was accepted by the mainstream kids, the teenagers who bought the records, way before their parents and the wider culture accepted it. When the music is selling, it becomes commercial and accepted at the same time. In my book I point out that certain critics of the older generation, like Ralph J. Gleason in San Francisco, and Robert Shelton in New York, found value in some of the folk and rock artists and brought them to the attention of their readers before the rest of the adult generation were ready to accept them. But my point of view wasn’t that of the mainstream culture. I was happy to be within the counterculture. It was ours, and we viewed it as superior to the mainstream culture, in part because it was less commercial, less about making money (for a time). By the end of the ’60s, the music of the counterculture was becoming so economically important to the record companies, then already becoming absorbed in larger corporate entities, that it was on its way to passing into wider acceptance. For a brilliant account of how the counterculture’s music was co-opted by Corporate America, see Fred Goodman’s book The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce.

You have a degree in romance languages from Harvard. How different a world was that from where Janis and her band mates came from?

Janis came from a middle-class home that valued education and the arts, as did I. In the broadest sense we weren’t that different. I wasn’t approaching the road-managing job as a Harvard graduate. I was approaching it as a musician who had been playing in the folk revival for several years and was taking this job as a transitional job while I considered what I would do next. I knew as much or more about American roots music than Janis did. I valued her music, and Big Brother and the Holding Company’s unique sound, so we had important points of connection from the beginning. And I only kept a professional distance for a while, as I relate in the book.

Were you surprised by the lukewarm reception Janis received from African-American concertgoers in the South (Tennessee, I think it was) shortly after MLK was assassinated? Did it seem a failure of rock ’n’ roll to unite us all?

In December 1968, the audience in Memphis at the Stax Volt Christmas show wasn’t African American, it was black. (As William Maxwell, the longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker wrote, “In speaking of things that happened long ago, to be insensitive to the language of the period is to be, in effect, an unreliable witness.”) I wasn’t surprised by the reception. This wasn’t Janis’s audience. It was easier for her to achieve a connection with the audience at the 1967 Monterey Jazz Festival because that was California and the black people who made up a majority of that audience were aware of the Bay Area music scene. Memphis, home of the Stax and Volt labels, home of rhythm and blues, was a foreign country, and with a brand-new, inadequately rehearsed band, Janis didn’t achieve a breakthrough.

I was thinking of the irony of some bands being apolitical during the 1960s. Some of my Marxist friends argue that being a rock ’n’ roll band in itself is a political stance. What is your take on that?

Few people were further from being Marxists than Janis and the other members of Big Brother and the Holding Company, or the other San Francisco bands. The philosophy and the ethic of the founding bands of the San Francisco sound was in an entirely different orbit. They regarded mainstream politics — capitalist or Marxist — as a system that wasn’t going to provide answers to many of the problems of that era. The term “revolutionary” was tossed around pretty casually in the mid-to-late sixties, but in fact the music of the counterculture did effect a revolution in popular music, as I pointed out earlier, in that this music was on its way to becoming the economic engine of the major record labels even before the sixties were over.

What do you think people will be most surprised to learn about Janis when they read your book?

In the three years I was with Janis, she sang with three bands — Big Brother and the Holding Company (1967–’68), the Kozmic Blues Band (1969), and Full Tilt Boogie (1970). It surprises many people to learn that Janis’s toughest time was not in her last year, but in 1969, when she had made the hard decision to leave Big Brother and take on the greater challenge of going out on her own to see if she could make it as a solo artist, with a backup band behind her. That first effort failed. She had no experience as a bandleader and couldn’t articulate exactly what she wanted musically from the band, and Kozmic Blues never came together as the right band for her. During this year, she used alcohol and drugs to combat the feeling that she was failing, and they sometimes affected her performances. After the last concert with Kozmic Blues, in Madison Square Garden in New York, in December 1969, she was off the road for six months and I didn’t see her during that time. But when I came back to work for her in May 1970, she was a changed woman. She had learned a lot of lessons from the tough times of 1969. She had cleaned herself up and she had taken an active hand, with her manager, Albert Grossman, in forming her new band, Full Tilt Boogie. Touring that summer, she was happier and more confident, more comfortable in herself, than I had seen her in a long time. She was happy too with Paul Rothchild, who came aboard to produce her next record album. In the recording sessions in September, their work together was giving Janis a longer view of her singing career than she had thought possible until then. This is where Janis was in her life when she took a risk by flirting with her addiction, and she paid with her life. That’s why her death was a true tragedy.

How supportive were Janis’s parents about her life as a performer? You mentioned that they did show up for one of the shows and had front row seats.

I had virtually no contact with Janis’s parents and only knew of them through what Janis might say about letters or phone calls from home. I think they were fearful, especially in her first days with Big Brother, that she was entering a world utterly foreign to them. Over time, as Janis succeeded in her career, they may have worried less. Janis always cared what they thought. After her triumph with Kozmic Blues in her European tour in April 1969 — six concerts where Kozmic Blues and Janis really came together and put on great shows — winding up at the Royal Albert Hall in London, sold out, the British audience dancing in the aisles, Janis raved about how good she felt after the show and wound up with an aside that was funny, but also revealing: “I think I’ll call my mother.” And I think she did.

How did Janis quit heroin that last time, did she do it cold turkey? Did she have support groups? I don’t think methadone clinics were up and running then.

I didn’t see Janis from December 1969, after her last show with Kozmic Blues, until late May 1970 when I went back to work with her, so I have no firsthand knowledge of the medical aspects of it, except to say that support groups and methadone clinics were not part of the picture. She may have taken another drug to counteract her craving for heroin. Laura Joplin discusses that part of Janis’s story in her worthwhile book, Love, Janis. What I do know from interviews with people involved is that what motivated Janis to get serious about getting clean was having the two people closest to her leave her — her longtime roommate, Linda Gravenites, and her newest and most serious lover, David Niehaus, whom she met in Brazil when she and Linda went there early in 1970 for Carnival — when they returned to California because Janis was using heroin again after getting clean with David’s help in Brazil. By leaving, they were saying: we can’t watch you do this to yourself. So she got serious, got clean, and she took great pride in her accomplishment. This pride was apparent to me when we went back on the road with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, and I took a lot of hope from that. It told me she had the strength of will to put heroin aside, and experienced the high that achievement gave her.

When you think back on your time with Janis, what is your favorite, standout memory?

It’s hard to pick one, but an incident that comes to mind is in late June, 1970, when we — Janis and me and Full Tilt Boogie — were on our way to Toronto for the Festival Express concert there before boarding the train. At Canadian customs in Toronto, Janis was egging on the customs officer who was searching her luggage — they immediately pulled aside the long-haired musicians for special attention — which was dragging out the process, and she seemed very happy about it. I realized she was enjoying herself so much because she had nothing to hide. She was clean from drugs and wasn’t carrying any, in contrast to the year before, in Europe, with the Kozmic Blues, when she was carrying, and very quiet at every border crossing and customs inspection. Her behavior in Toronto showed how proud she was that she cleaned up her act.

I understand you live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Anything special going on there? What projects are you thinking about working on next?

Jackson is a great community with a lot of activity in the arts. We have a dance company, three theater companies, and lots of music. I play weekly at the Jackson Hole Hootenanny (to resurrect a term from the folk boom), which has been going for more than 20 years. Playing for free is good for you. I’ve played at the Hoot almost 700 times.


David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous Breakdown, Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, and others.