Few stars in the 1960’s burned as bright, or for as short a time, as Janis Joplin.
In a matter of a few years, Joplin went from being a member of a popular band in her adopted hometown of San Francisco, to gracing the covers of magazines as the female face of a new kind of rock ’n’ roll. That star would all too famously implode with her tragic death from a heroin overdose at a mere 27 years of age.
One of the people who joined Joplin’s team just as she was taking off, and who would be the first to find her dead in her hotel room, was road manager John Byrne Cooke. Now, Cooke is out with a memoir detailing his time with the rocker.
On the Road with Janis Joplin traces Joplin’s rise to fame that started with the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, her difficulties finding the perfect band, her success battling addiction, and her final demise.
There is something clinical about the memoir. In several parts, Cooke’s book reads more like a diagnosis of what ails Joplin the musician rather than Joplin the person. While Cooke and Joplin became close—he is the only one other than her manager Albert Grossman to survive the various iterations of her bands—Cooke keeps his emotional distance from the singer as he looks back. Perhaps there is something too painful about throwing oneself too deep into what went wrong.
A significant chunk of the book focuses on the mechanics of being on the road with a world-famous musician—the shady venue operators out to make a quick buck, the different crowd reactions in different cities, and the difficulties in actually getting the band to the concert. While Cooke is preoccupied with these issues, he doesn’t grapple head-on with Joplin’s drug abuse until two-thirds of the way into the book. Instead, Cooke focuses mainly on her heavy drinking, because it had a significant effect on her performances. Joplin would not only drink heavily before going onstage, she would famously continue swigging away during her shows. Depending on how her body reacted, the libations could either propel her to dazzling performances, or lead to rambling, incoherent rants delivered in between sets.
The distance Cooke exhibits in his writing reflects the distance he created in real life. He makes it clear that he feared becoming involved with Joplin romantically. Early on in their professional relationship, Cooke says he worked to deflect Joplin’s advances. “I know just as surely that I’ll never maintain the authority I need to have as Janis’s road manager if I let myself become the latest notch in her spangled belt,” he writes.
In fact, Cooke shows that it wasn’t just Joplin’s music that made her ahead of her time as a woman. It was also her open sexual appetite, which Cooke brings up in section after section of the book.
Cooke describes Joplin as being “always on the prowl and vocal about it.” Apparently her pickup line of choice was “Hiya, honey.” While touring Europe for the first time, Joplin decided to test out its success on the international scene. Standing in a doorway in Amsterdam, she tried to get a man’s attention by using her line as he walked by. (He apparently wasn’t impressed and just continued walking). When she hit on her much-older manager, Grossman, Cooke describes her approach as lacking subtlety, essentially consisting of “Hey, maybe we should go to bed to celebrate.” After a night with football legend Joe Namath, she told her driver that Namath was “flabby.”
Her type was either pretty boy or mountain man, “and not much in between.” Cooke claims “her eye for a pretty boy is ever vigilant,” as she would stop conversations, cars, or walking if a “sloe-eyed” pretty boy was on her radar. She apparently could even pick out her man of choice in a post-concert mob. After the crowd began its crush following a performance in Dallas in 1970, Joplin managed “to pluck a semi-long-haired pretty boy from the mob. She is ready to get out of the crush and take the pretty boy with her.” The cataloguing of Joplin’s sexual triumphs in the book is a reminder that she played a major role in breaking female stereotypes in rock.
Of course, men weren’t the only people to catch her eye. Cooke writes, “In our conversations among the band she has revealed in a matter-of-fact way that she has had affairs with women.”
In addition to her love life, the second fascinating part of the book is watching Joplin change as she becomes more famous. When Joplin was a member of Big Brother & The Holding Company, the group’s decisions were made democratically; while Joplin was clearly the star, her bandmates exerted enormous influence. However, that began to change as the success of the band rippled out beyond California.
“If enough people tell you how great you are and in the same breath suggest that your fellow band members don’t measure up, it’s understandable that you may begin to wonder if maybe they’re right,” Cooke writes.
Joplin famously left Big Brother & The Holding Company, and, in her next two iterations, with the Kozmic Blues Band and then Full Tilt Boogie Band, Joplin was not only clearly the star and in charge, but she also started acting the part. By 1969, she was in what Cooke calls her “star trip” mode, “expecting—sometimes demanding—special treatment, dismissing rudely someone she doesn’t want to be bothered by, even gentle souls who want only to express their admiration for her.” However, Cooke can never really bring himself to see Joplin as ruined by the limelight. Throughout the memoir, her shortcomings, whether in dealing with fame or with drug use, are traced to the lack of acceptance she found growing up in buttoned-up Port Arthur, Texas.
Cooke’s memoir, structured in many ways as one giant road trip, is sharp when it comes to dissecting Joplin’s progress as a musician. One of Cooke’s more fascinating insights is that while Joplin and her music became critically and commercially beloved, internally, she was almost always dissatisfied with the music being produced and the lack of cohesion among her various groups.
Of course, what makes any book about a rock ’n’ roll icon fun are the stories of wild antics, and Cooke’s tome dishes on a variety of Joplin’s wilder times. There is a fight between Joplin and Jim Morrisson, a London party Eric Clapton flees after Joplin’s bandmate Sam Andrew overdoses, and a brawl between Joplin and Jerry Lee Lewis when she asked the musician if he thinks her sister is pretty, to which he replied, “Not really.” It’s hard not to smile when Cooke recounts Janis toying with a Canadian border guard searching through her bag, as she gleefully informs him that the bag of powdery substance in it is not cocaine, but douche powder.
The journey ends with Cooke discovering Joplin in her hotel room after she has overdosed on heroin. His sadness over her descent into shooting up after managing to stay clean for a period is palpable. In some ways her death was even more heartbreaking because she had once shaken her addiction—previously undreamed of hopes for her long life and success had seemed possible. But they were cut short, and the powerful, charismatic, and iconic woman brought back to life in Cooke’s pages disappears once more.