Minneapolis Watched the Rise and Fall of an Opioid Rock Star
Posted by Tony Randgaard on Sunday, July 30, 2017 at 12:00 AM By Tony Randgaard / July 30, 2017 Comment
Janis Joplin grew up in Port Arthur Texas, a small town with a fading downtown right out of the Last Picture Show and a skyline of smoking oil refinery and petrochemical plants. Janis was bullied throughout high school. One clique named her the “best looking man” at Thomas Jefferson High -- according to Texas Monthly, others threw pennies at her or called her a whore. Joplin endured the harassment but never forgot it, while seeking solace in art classes. After graduation, she drifted and hitchhiked between short stints at local colleges and road trips to San Francisco to experience its emerging psychedelic rock scene. Janis had cultivated a love of music from an early age. She honed her talents joining impromptu folk-singing gatherings or performing guest spots with local bands. On her first two treks to the Bay Area, she could not make ends meet singing on street corners and in cafes. And ominously, she was enthusiastic about the nascent Hippie culture including the use of barbiturates and heroin to seek an alter consciousness. Janis affectionately called it "getting loose" and it became an important facet of her personality. Her third trip to San Francisco in 1966 proved fortuitous when friends helped her land an audition with a new rock group, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her gritty and passionate vocals stunned the group. It was hard to believe that such soulful, intense melodies could burst out of this small town girl clad in men’s shirts and mini-skirts. Together, Joplin and Big Brother built a strong local following in the San Francisco area — that propelled them to an appearance in the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. Dick Cavett would describe her meteoric landing:
“At the first and now historic 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, a volatile, violet nitroglycerin called Janis Joplin blew the rock world wide open, singing with a tortured passion that has become her trademark. She unleashed Big Mama Thornton’s classic "Ball and Chain." And since then, this 26 year-old white girl from Port Arthur Texas has gone on to be the first female superstar of rock music.”Clive Davis, the Hall of Fame record producer (later grooming Aerosmith, Whitney Houston and Barry Manilow), was in the audience during that sizzling festival performance. He wasted no time, signing Janis and Big Brother to a contract with Columbia Records that jump-started their ascent to stardom. By spring 1968, the band was spending hundreds of hours in studio, aiming to perfect their next album coined Cheap Thrills.
Guthrie Theatre Concert in MinneapolisJanis and the band arrived into Minneapolis on their Cheap Thrills concert tour on August 18, 1968. Those attending that Sunday night concert at the Guthrie Theatre were catching Janis ahead of the wave. Within two months, the Cheap Thrills album would soar to number one on the Billboard charts and hold that position for eight weeks, selling almost a million albums. It was the number one selling record of 1968. That didn’t deter the Minneapolis Morning Tribune’s music writer Allan Holbert from complaining about how loud and over-powering the Big Brother sound was.
“There was so much sound from the electronic guitars and their very aggressive drummer that you couldn’t hear the music.” Holbert continued, “The thing that separates Big Brother and the Holding Company from a million other loud rock bands is Miss Joplin, who is an exceptionally talented performer. She has a stage presence bursting out all over the place. Really confident, she bumps and grinds like a kind of a young Mae West. She has a fantastic voice that will do about anything for her, although she does seem to mistreat it.”Joplin was one of the headliners of the epic Woodstock festival in August of 1969. After being flown in by helicopter, her show was delayed by ten hours as other scheduled bands went on ahead of her. According to her friend Peggy Caserta’s book Going Down With Janis, Joplin shot heroin and guzzled alcohol during the wait, finally getting on stage at 2:00 a.m. on August 17th. As a result, Joplin was "three sheets to the wind", her voice hoarse and uneven during the performance. By the time Janis Joplin rolled into Minneapolis a second time in November 1969, her alcohol and drug- fueled party was a five alarm fire. Two weeks before in Pittsburgh, according to the show promoter Pat DiCesare, she delayed the show start first when it appeared that her crew had exhausted all the bottles of her signature Southern Comfort bourbon. The promoter scrambled to the parking lot to locate the rest of the case he had bought for her. And then a second delay, while Janis finished having sex with a man in her dressing room -- with the door open. With 30 minutes left in the concert, police intervened to quell the mosh pit and urged Joplin to tone down the vulgarity on stage. A week later at Curtis Hall in Tampa, when police again tried to get the audience to sit down, Joplin started an altercation, yelling profanities at the officers. That was enough to get her arrested for disorderly conduct (see photo). She performed at the Minneapolis Armory on November 21, 1969 with a lot less notoriety. Several concert goers told MPR in 2011 that it was one of the best concerts they had ever attended, although the Minneapolis Tribune didn’t send a writer to cover it.
The Real Janis on Dick CavettJoplin was a regular guest and performer on the Dick Cavett Show, which was a competitor to the Tonight Show (Johnny Carson). The segments were particularly insightful because of the brilliance of Cavett’s interviewing and skill in making guests feel secure and comfortable. Here is her performance of "Try (just a little bit harder)" several months before her second Minneapolis show. It gives you a palpable sense of her electric stage presence. In June of 1970, Janis joins Cavett again and is very excited to share that she is going back to her high school reunion.
She gushes to Cavett: “Hey would you like to go man?” Cavett dodges the question by saying he doesn’t have a lot of friends in her high school class and Joplin quips: “I don’t either!” Later Joplin told a reporter about her classmates: “They laughed me out of class, out of town, out of state!”She was making $50,000 a show on tour and admitted that she was going to the reunion: “to jam it up their asses.” It was clear that she was seeking redemption or simply acceptance from the small town that tortured her teenage years.