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Backstage With Janis Joplin: Doubts, Drugs And Compassion

Janis Joplin (Getty Images)

Janis Joplin felt a sense of outsider isolation throughout her life. She once said, "On stage, I make love to 25,000 different people. Then I go home alone."

But she wasn't alone — she had John Byrne Cooke.

Cooke was Janis Joplin's first and only road manager, from 1967 until her death from a heroin overdose in 1970. He was the one who found her body. In a new memoir, On the Road With Janis Joplin, he details the electrifying performances — and the drugs — that marked Joplin's tours.

When he started the job, Cooke says, he didn't know anything about managing a rock band. In 1967, he was fresh out of Harvard when legendary rock manager Albert Grossman asked him to fly out to San Francisco to help manage this up-and-coming singer and her psychedelic blues rock band Big Brother & the Holding Company.

Joplin switched bands over the years, but kept Cook as her road manager — so he witnessed the changes that came with each new backing group.

"Janis' progression from one band to the next was really the dramatic arc of the three years that I was with her," he tells NPR's Eric Westervelt. "Three years, three bands — and it actually resolves into three dramatic acts."


Interview Highlights

On becoming Joplin's road manager, with no managing experience

There was no pool of qualified candidates at that point, and when [legendary rock manager] Albert Grossman started managing [Bob] Dylan and when he came up to Cambridge, Mass., where I was playing bluegrass and old-time music and he had a road manager with him in the spring of '64, we thought "Far out!" You know, here's this guy who drives the Ford station wagon, he makes sure there's some bottles of Beaujolais wine in there. Dylan doesn't have to do anything but get on stage and play! And so Albert was looking for someone who could do the job but didn't know he could do the job.

On the three acts he witnessed in his time with Joplin

Many people may think that her last act was her most difficult, but ... it was that middle year with the Kozmic Blues Band. She left Big Brother, whom she loved, because she saw a greater challenge, which was: Could she hold center stage and the spotlight alone as a solo artist with a backup band? And in that year, she felt that she was failing, and when she and Albert Grossman decided to terminate the Kozmic Blues Band after the contracted gigs were played, she felt that she was a failure — that her attempt to go out as a solo artist had failed. And this led to her darkest period and the worst excesses in terms of alcohol and drugs.

On what he wants the public to know about Joplin

What people know is the dynamic personality on stage, and then in addition to that, the kind of brash woman of the streets, which was part of the public personality that she projected. But, you know, she was also sweet and vulnerable and compassionate, and she could be this little girl who was so full of doubt about whether she was doing a good enough job that she could come offstage with this tumultuous ovation happening out there and saying, "Did I do OK?"

But smart and funny, I think most of all, are the parts that I'd like people to know were an important part of her personality.

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Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

Janis Joplin once said on stage I make love to 25,000 different people, then I go home alone. That gives us a glimpse of the outsider isolation she felt throughout her life. But she wasn't alone. She had John Byrne Cooke. Cooke was Janis Joplin's first and only road manager from 1967 until her death due to a heroin overdose in 1970. Cooke was the one who found her body. His new memoir is "On The Road With Janis Joplin."

In '67, Cooke was fresh out of Harvard when legendary rock manager Albert Grossman asked him to fly out to San Francisco to help manage this up-and-coming singer with a whiskey-sweet voice and her psychedelic blues rock band Big Brother & The Holding Company.

JOHN BYRNE COOKE: I had been there a few months earlier with the D.A. Pennebaker film crew at the Monterey Pop Festival in June. And over the years, I had visited the Bay area quite a lot.

WESTERVELT: John, did you know anything about actually managing a rock band when you took this job?

COOKE: No, I didn't. And, you know, there was no pool of qualified candidates at that point. And when Albert Grossman started managing Dylan, and when he came up to Cambridge, Mass., where I was playing bluegrass and old-time music - and he had a road manager with him in the spring of '64. We thought far out, you know, here's this guy who drives the Ford station wagon. He makes sure there's some bottles of Beaujolais wine in there. Dylan doesn't have to do anything but get on stage and play. And so Albert was looking for somebody who could do the job but didn't know he could do the job.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALL AND CHAIN")

JANIS JOPLIN: And I say oh, whoa, whoa. Hon, tell me why does everything go - go wrong?

WESTERVELT: You mention you were part of D.A. Pennebaker's film crew that documented Monterey Pop. It's at that concert that Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin become almost overnight sensations. Your book makes clear that as her music and fame started to grow, she sort of outgrows her first band Big Brother. Then you were with her when she forms her new group Kozmic Blues Band, tours Europe, performs at Woodstock. You were her one and only road manager. I mean, she switched bands, she switched boyfriends, but she stuck with you.

COOKE: Janis' progression from one band to the next was really the dramatic arc of the three years that I was with her. And many people may think that her last act was her most difficult, but you just mentioned the Kozmic Blues Band era. She left Big Brother, whom she loved, because she saw a greater challenge, which was could she hold center stage and the spotlight alone as a solo artist with a backup band? And in that year, she felt that she was failing. And when she and Albert Grossman decided to terminate the Kozmic Blues Band after the contracted gigs were played, she felt that she was a failure, that her attempt to go out as a solo artist had failed. And this led to her darkest period and the worst excesses in terms of alcohol and drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO LOVE SOMEBODY")

JOPLIN: (Singing) You don't know, you don't know what it's like. No you don't. Honey, no you don't know. You don't know what it's like to love anybody. Oh honey, I want to talk about love and trying to hold somebody the way I loved you, babe.

WESTERVELT: You recount some poignant scenes near the end of the book, where Janis goes to her 10th high school reunion in her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. You know, she didn't have a happy high school experience. She was the outsider, the loner, and some people made fun of her. And now she's back. She wants to kind of take her revenge. But it's hardly a triumphant return. Tell us about that.

COOKE: People, rather than flocking to her, seemed to be sort of hypersensitive about not flocking to her. The only three guys that I remember that kind of clustered around her and came with us when we went out to go have a drink, my interpretation was they were exactly the guys who were not particularly nice to her in high school and who now were fawning over her a little bit because she was famous. But I think maybe she expected more attention. It's hard to say.

WESTERVELT: Then you guys end up at a rowdy Texas roadhouse drinking hard where Jerry Lee Lewis is playing a live show. And it's sort of - tequila and fisticuffs follow.

COOKE: Janis had seen Jerry Lee Lewis earlier in the summer. And she eyed this pretty young guy who was in Jerry Lee's band, and, I think, turned out to be his son actually. And then when we found out that Jerry Lee was playing at a Texas roadhouse at Beaumont, not far from Port Arthur, you know, that was really her target. She wanted to go see that kid again.

And we went backstage, and Jerry Lee was definitely not welcoming. I mean, she said hi Jerry Lee, this is my hometown. I wanted to, you know, make you welcome here. But he made a remark about Janis' sister. Anyway, she flew at him, and we pulled her off and kept them apart and we got her out of there. It was a very strange - it was a very country-rock 'n' roll evening.

WESTERVELT: Finally, it's October 1970, John, and you're in LA with the band, deep into recording what would be her final album "Pearl" with her new band Full Tilt Boogie. And one afternoon, you know, she doesn't show up for the recording session. And you're the one who heads out to try to find her and you start at the hotel. Can you read that for us?

COOKE: (Reading) As I passed through the lobby I stop at the desk and get a key to Janis' room from Jack Hagy, the manager. I can't say just why I get the key now. I think Janis is in her room, so why do I need it? Well, what if she's in the shower? Some such idea may pass through my head, but mostly I'm saving time. If I knock and she doesn't answer, I'll have to come back for the key. When I opened the door to room 105, there's no one there. That's the feeling I have, even as I see Janis lying on the floor beside the bed. Before I touched the unnatural flesh, I know that this is only the vessel. The spirit has departed.

WESTERVELT: John, a lot has been written about Janis Joplin. What don't we know about her and her personality that comes out in your book?

COOKE: What people know is that dynamic personality on stage, and then in addition to that, the kind of brash woman of the streets which was part of the public personality that she projected. But, you know, she was also sweet and vulnerable and compassionate. And she could be this little girl who was so full of doubt about whether she was doing a good enough job that she could come off stage with this tumultuous ovation happening out there and saying did I do OK? But smart and funny I think most of all are the parts that I would like people to know were an important part of her personality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOPLIN: I'll do a song man. And I'll tell you, it's talking about everybody's life man and what passes by you and what you miss and then what you grab, man. It's a song called "Get It While You Can" because it ain't going to be there when you wake up, man.

WESTERVELT: John Byrne Cooke. His new memoir is "On The Road With Janis Joplin." John, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you.

COOKE: Eric, my pleasure. Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET IT WHILE YOU CAN")

JOPLIN: (Singing) In this world, if you read the papers, darling, you know everybody's fighting with each other. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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