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Until I saw a story in The Boston Globe a few days ago, I didn’t realize the 50th anniversary of an evening I’ll never forget had snuck up on me.
It was August 12, 1970, a painful night, to be sure — not in the root canal sense, but in the missed opportunity sense. It’s something I should have gotten over quickly, a fleeting disappointment. But I really haven’t.
I’m the first to concede that 50 years is a long time to not fully let go. But to understand why I’ve been nursing this festering wound for half a century, you have to know a bit about my teenage years.
Growing up in Marblehead, not far from the ocean, I probably spent more time with clunky headphones on (decades before the earbud), listening to music, than I did on the beach or at the harbor.
I came of age in the 1960s. When Aretha Franklin released "Respect," I was 13 and instantly hooked. Two years later, I was too young (according to my parents) to go to Woodstock, but oh, how I wanted to be there.
One of the performers at Max Yasgur’s farm — a white blues artist from Port Arthur, Texas — was already a star, thanks to her performance two years earlier at Monterrey Pop. Janis Joplin had a raw, rebellious howl that spoke to me in ways I still can’t fully explain.
I must have played her "Cheap Thrills" album on my reel-to-reel tape machine more times than I can count. And I was hardly alone. The album reached the top of the Billboard 200 album chart in 1968 and Joplin’s classic single from that album, "Piece of My Heart,” came in at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 that year.
It was a treat to see her on the Dick Cavett show on August 3, 1970. But it was odd as well, that this symbol of the counterculture was on a mainstream television network. Cavett, as I recall, had eclectic taste in guests. While Joplin wailed the blues with pink and green feather boas in her hair, other guests that night included Old Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson, new Hollywood actress Margot Kidder and former NFL player Dave Meggesy.
I loved Cavett’s introduction of Joplin: “I would like you to meet a lady who has been called a combination of Lead Belly, a steam engine, Calamity Jane and Bessie Smith.” Somehow, it captured her.
Seeing Joplin on TV was second best to seeing her in person. And it just happened that nine days after her appearance with Dick Cavett, she was scheduled to appear with her Full Tilt Boogie Band at Harvard Stadium as part of the Schaefer Music Festival, just 40 minutes away.
I begged my sister Debbie, already in college, to take her younger, 16-year-old brother to see his idol wail her version of the blues. To be sure, Joplin was not her cup of tea, but I’ve got to give her credit for agreeing to take me.
When we arrived at the stadium, it was my chance to get a taste of one of the headliners at the Woodstock event I missed the summer before. More than a Red Sox game where nearly everyone in the stadium roots for the team, a Janis Joplin concert drew hardcore fans and not people who couldn’t think of anything better to do that night.
Then the waiting began. We waited and waited and waited some more. Janis wasn’t a no-show. We would learn later that the band’s sound gear was stolen and they were waiting for replacement equipment.
After three hours, my sister, who had the car and car keys, had had enough. She announced we were leaving and no sooner had we gotten onto the parking lot, heading for our car, when we heard a crowd roar and then some music. My ears perked up. I looked at my sister, but she kept walking to the car.
I was crushed, but figured I'd catch Joplin at her next Boston-area concert. But there would be no next time. Harvard Stadium was her final public performance.
Less than two months later, she was dead of an overdose.
Janis Joplin was just 27 years old.
When I heard the news, it took a little piece of my heart.
Fifty years later, I’ll ask Alexa to occasionally play Janis Joplin for old times sake and perhaps it’s finally time to forgive my sister.
Richard Harris is a former news manager and producer at NPR, former senior producer at NIGHTLINE with Ted Koppel and is a Washington-based consultant with iCivics in Cambridge, a few miles from Harvard Stadium.
This segment aired on August 12, 2020.
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