Piece of her heart
by Janis Jopli, jhnewsandguide.com
March 9th 2011
Janis Joplin did spot-on impersonations. She liked reading biographies of women and died before she could finish a book on Zelda Fitzgerald. When performing in Paris, she toured Chartres Cathedral. At her parents’ home in Port Arthur, Texas, she cooked eggs Benedict for the friends she had recruited as wingmen at her 10th high school reunion.
This is the Janis Joplin who John Byrne Cooke knew as her road manager from late 1967 until her tragic death Oct. 7, 1970. Whenever anyone asks about Joplin, he highlights her humor and her intelligence.
“I always tell people what I think they don’t know about her, which is that she was funny and she was very smart,” he said. “They don’t think of Janis as doing W.C. Fields impersonations, which I also did, so we would have dueling W.C. Fieldses.”
Cooke is the only person to have been on the road with the iconic singer and all three of her bands: first, the family dynamic of Big Brother and the Holding Company, then the Kozmic Blues Band that never jelled and, finally, the best fit, the Full Tilt Boogie Band.
“The story I can tell that no one else can is being on the road for all three bands,” Cooke said.
On Sunday evening at the Center for the Arts, Cooke will host “The Unseen Janis Joplin,” a screening of five movies he made from 8mm footage he took while on tour, including the never-before-seen “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama.” The other four have been seen only once before, at the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Joplin. The films range in length from 4 to 24 minutes.
At the center, Cooke will introduce each film with contextual cues and then answer questions after screening all five. The event runs from 7 to 9 p.m. and costs $15 for a general admission seat. Proceeds benefit the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, which Cooke has been involved with as a faculty member since its start.
Cooke’s films are a rare window on a life much observed: from cab rides to rehearsals, from her dressing room to panoramas from planes. A celebration rather than an examination, they capture Joplin in all her gritty glory.
“Nobody worked for Janis very long if they didn’t love her,” Cooke said.
In 1967, when Cooke signed on with Big Brother, the role of road manager had just been invented by Albert Grossman, the seminal folk music manager, for Bob Dylan. Dylan’s road manager, Bob Neuwirth, was an old buddy of Cooke’s from Cambridge, Mass., and gave him crucial advice about the job: “Don’t be a fan. You can’t just hang around being their lap dog.” There will be times when you have to tell them what to do. When Big Brother signed on with Grossman, Grossman called Neuwirth, who recommended Cooke.
As Joplin’s road manager, Cooke turned on his camera only after tending to all his responsibilities: booking travel, organizing equipment, monitoring gate receipts (in those days, the ticket office was a loose affair). One Massachusetts hotel marquee greeted the band with “Welcome the John Cooke Group.”
Cooke’s footage spotlights Joplin’s charismatic personality, so thoroughly expressed in all aspects of her life, from her mural-painted Porsche to her favorite fur coat and hat (a gift from Southern Comfort), from her playfulness with the camera to rapture onstage. It also frames behind-the-scenes band antics — such as Richard Bell giving a high-heeled Joplin a piggyback ride across a patch of snow, only to tumble down, laughing, the instant Cooke turned to film them — and the whirling energy of the time.
“Reunion” juxtaposes the jolly Joplin, her wild mane accented by a boa headdress, with her dowdy bouffant classmates. It begins with her culinary prowess and then captures the befuddled wake that followed her around town.
“Road Block” epitomizes the colorful cacophony that was Joplin. The short film opens with her singing “Mercedes Benz” as the camera pans across the riotous paint job by Dave Richards, the equipment guy for Big Brother and the Holding Company. The Porsche, originally clad in 17 coats of hand-rubbed pearl-gray lacquer, now featured a rowdy array of imagery: a paisley sun, moon and Earth; toadstools and sunflowers; moths and butterflies; a bleeding American flag; Sputnik. Now restored, the car is parked in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“That’s it,” Joplin cackles as the credits roll.
Before joining Joplin, Cooke worked with D.A. Pennebaker on the film crew for the Monterey Pop Festival. On the road, he filmed with a Fuji camera, using black-and-white film, then color, always silent. He edited for pictures — splicing the original film himself — and then added the complementary music — all Joplin’s, of course: “Road Block” for the Porsche short; “Work Me, Lord” during the European cultural montage. In some frames, Cooke knew which songs she was singing and mirrored those moments. “The Unseen Janis Joplin” uses more than two-thirds of the film he shot.
Cooke approached the road manager job as transitional, something to do for six months while he figured out his own art. At Harvard University, he had established himself as a folk figure with the Charles River Valley Boys, a staple of the Cambridge coffeehouse scene.
“My role in life is to do my work, but right now, I don’t know what my work is,” he said of his mindset at the time. “This job is going to get me to travel all over and meet all kinds of people and have time to think about what I want to do.”
After the first month, Grossman called him: “I don’t think it’s working,” he said, citing incompatible lifestyles.
Cooke confronted the situation head-on, calling a meeting with the band members. He sat them down and explained his job: Beyond shepherding them around, his primary responsibility — overseeing ticket sales — happened while they were onstage.
“If you want a hangout partner, we can hire a hippie,” he said. “But you need somebody to do my job.”
Give it a little longer, he said.
Six months later, while driving a station wagon in Southern California, David Getz declared, “John, we love you.” In response, Cooke asked for a $50 raise, bumping up his salary to $200 a week.
At that point, he recalled, “I said, ‘It’s open-ended. As long as I am having fun, I am going to do this.’”
When Joplin left Big Brother, Cooke followed. During the Kozmic Blues tour, he quit. Early on, Joplin would do drugs as a reward after concerts. With Kozmic Blues, she faltered onstage, doped up during shows. Touring was no longer fun for him. So he went back home to New York City and worked on a movie pitch with Neuwirth, which Joplin and Michael J. Pollard had agreed to be in.
Two months later, Grossman called. And Joplin. Finally, Neuwirth phoned from Joplin’s famous tattoo party in San Francisco: She has cleaned up, he reported. You gotta hear her music.
Cooke came back on a provisional basis. Another “square” road manager had already been hired. A month later, on a flight, Joplin asked if she could conference with Cooke. Will you stay? she asked. Sure, he said. Name your price.
Never before had Joplin been engaged in financial negotiations. Once she got straight, she embraced the role of leading the band and its affairs. Cooke took it as a sign that she had finally figured it out.
During this time, Cooke spent a day partying with Joplin and crew, festivities that saw Shel Silverstein stopping by and playing guitar. When the day wound down at a Sausalito restaurant and a man walked by peddling handmade leather hats, Joplin bought Cooke one and signed the brim “For John. With Love, Pearl.” In 1990, a fire in Cooke’s storage unit claimed the hat.
For decades, Cooke has been writing a book about Joplin. He penned half in the 1990s and returned to it only recently. He is on a roll now.
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