days on a train through the Canadian wilderness
with some of the greatest bands you'd ever want
to hear—the Festival Express may have been
the best rock 'n' roll party of all time. The iron
horse! Wilderness! Indians! Rock 'n' roll! Yee-haw!
The '70s were barely six months old (and already
shaking their platform booties and getting glitter
all over the crib). Time for one last rave-up to
kiss the grand old '60s goodbye. The idea for the
Festival Express might have gone something like
this: "Let's invite a bunch of wild and woolly
bands, the usual suspects, and, of course, some
dynamite chicks, and we'll have ourselves a week-long,
bound-for-glory party to say bye-bye, baby to our
sooner had we made our wish than there it was—our
rock 'n' roll mystery train, 16 coaches long waiting
for us at the Toronto railway station. It's June
25, 1970, and I'm standing on the platform in a
bit of a daze—it's so early in the morning
that most of us haven't gone to bed yet.
their Western regalia, the motley crew now boarding
look like a bunch of urban cowboys. Jerry Garcia
in his high-plains-drifter serape, the New Riders
of the Purple Sage decked out in Stetson hats and
snakeskin boots, James and the Good Brothers in
Wrangler suits. There's a bunch of young black cats
in sharp suits, members of Buddy Guy's blues band
looking like riverboat gamblers, a gnarled old fiddler
(Philippe Guignon), a smattering of folkies—Eric
Andersen, Tom Rush, Ian and Sylvia. And let's not
forget Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Rick
Danko of The Band, assorted managers, promoters,
friends, a husband-and-wife film crew and even an
Andy Warhol superstar, Geri, straight from her steamy
role in Trash. And—ta-da!—Janis
Joplin, Queen of the Revels, in a sequined sheath
dress, a boa of fluorescent feathers, granny glasses
and sling-back pumps, toting her bottle of Southern
am supposedly on the train to do an interview for
Rolling Stone. In the early days of
the magazine, these interviews were absolutely epic
productions; they went on for page after page—they
were small books, so I was always on the alert for
an opportunity to talk with Janis. When I walked
into the dining car that morning, I saw Janis and
Bonnie Bramlett chatting animatedly, and I thought,
"God, I'd love to hear what they're talking
about." But I was too chicken to go over to
them right away. I knew Janis quite well by then,
but she was still a daunting figure, not someone
you'd want to offend lightly. Janis could really
destroy your morning if you came at her the wrong
way (something I was pretty good at).
I sit down and order some breakfast. A minute later
I look up, my spoon in a lake, to see Janis standing
across from me in the aisle with that familiar hand-on-hip
stance and a predatory look in her eye. "Hey,
man, what kind of a fuckin' writer are you?"
she asks in her rusty voice. "Bonnie and I
are having this incredible rap, and you're missing
the whole damn thing, man."
uh, see, uh, Janis, I wanted to come
over but, um, I thought it was a private conversation,
man, and I—"
give me any of that apologetic shit, man. Where's
your tape recorder? You've gotta get this down,
it's just gotta be one of the most far-out conversations
that ever took place. This chick is really beautiful,
man. She's as fuckin' macho as me. Can you believe
that? Private, my ass, man. This is your gig, honey.
You're meant to be working, getting your shit together,
man. You're not on this train just to have a good
time. I mean, dig it, man, this ain't just a fuckin'
party, man. This is history, babe. Zap comics, Kozmic
Blues history—but history nonetheless. Am
I right, Bonnie?"
right!" says Bonnie.
interesting side to Janis' character. Everybody
thinks she was just this wanton, reckless, wild
woman, but, in fact, she had a ferocious work ethic.
Janis' attitude about work and obligations struck
me at first as out of character, but it was a very
real part of her personality. After a while, I began
to relish the incongruity of her careening wild
self, suddenly turning into this almost righteous
Victorian matron denouncing sloth, carelessness,
stupidity and infirmity of purpose with evangelistic
zeal. In Janis' view, everybody had their work cut
out for them in this world, and, as indulgent as
she was, Janis felt it was blasphemy to cop out,
fall down on a job, not get it together or let something
fall apart out of incompetence. "Jesus Christ,
we let the Garden of Eden get away once already.
We aren't going to let it happen again, are we,
from Janis' archival rant about "this is history,
man, what we're doing is really important and we
should be paying attention and recording this,"
I also think there weren't that many people Janis
could talk to on that level—the way she and
Bonnie could. She considered this a historical conversation,
and she was absolutely right. From the point of
view of my civilization, it was important.
Three months from now, Janis was dead.
move from the dining room into the bar car. Janis
floats through the passageways, as if a breath of
wind had picked up somewhere between her wrist and
the gaudy jewelry and hooker shoes cannot camouflage
her imperial dignity. Bonnie slouches in her chair
as casually as Huck on his raft. Pretty tomboy looks
in Levi's and a peasant shirt, making wry faces
at the pratfalls in her past. Two ballsy chicks
railing against the unfairness of things, women
as losers, ball and chain. But more than their brittle
street rap, what they have in common is the depth
of their vulnerability—barely masked by their
were both very machita chicks, but
their customary bravura now vanishes. Bonnie starts
off by telling about a strange incident as a child
growing up in Alabama that changed her life: "I
was this lost little girl growing up in '50s Alabama,
it was Nowheresville, and then one day my mother
took me to see this black gospel singer. It was
at a tiny local club—smoky, smelly and dark—with
this strange man. I was just mesmerized by him.
I asked my mom, 'Can I go up and touch him?' And
when I put my small little hand on his arm, he turned
and looked at me. And I swear to God, from that
day on I've felt possessed, y'know, like I had to
go out there and do it."
all pause for a moment as the image settles. The
(to waiter): Screwdriver.
Scotch and Coke.
Listen, I didn't take this gig ... the money ain't
that great. I didn't take this gig for any reason
other than this party, man. I said it sounds like
a party, man, and I wanna be there. Hey, did I hear
you lost that great organ player?
Bobby Whitlock. Man, he's in England with Eric Clapton.
There's a million and one musicians in this world
that's never been heard of that can just kick ass.
Yeah, playing topless clubs and things. I've worked
with three bands, four, including when I was a kid,
but three pro bands. We got on stage and did it
anyway under the lights, but those boys really help
you. The singer is only as good as the band, and
this is the first band that really helped me. I
got a drummer, man, that drives me up the wall,
I wanna tell you. I was doing this shit in a tune
last week. You know how you have verse, bridge,
verse, and then you have a vamp? The vamp is free,
it's Janis. Janis gets to sing or talk or walk around
the stage and act foxy, whatever she wants to do,
right? It's free, and all the band is supposed to
do is keep up the groove. So I was singing, "Well,
I told that man, I said baby, I said baby, I said
baby ..." I went up in thirds. And when I hit
that high "baby," I did a kick with my
ass to the right, the drummer went bam! with a rim
shot. And I turned around and said, "My God,
where did you learn that part, man? I just made
it up a minute ago." I walked off stage and
said, "Where did you learn to play behind singers
like that?" And he said, "I used to back
strippers." That's how you learn to play, man.
Watch that ass. When it's going to the right, you
hit a rim shot. That's exactly what I tell my drummer.
Sometimes I wonder if they're worth it, man. If
they're worth all that fuckin' grief that they drag
out of you.
The only thing I wonder about is, not if they're
worth it, but if they understand it. Because I hate
to expose myself that completely and have it go
this far over their heads. Because that's what you're
doing; you're taking off completely the whole plastic
down from the front of you. You might as well just
get naked. Because you're completely exposing your
inside feelings. It's reality, it's not a show when
you really get into it as much as that. I really
get uptight. Not at what they yell, it's just that
they shouldn't yell anything at all. What I want
to hear from that audience is understanding. I don't
want to hear someone yell, "Where's Clapton?"
I'm standin' up there, I got three children and
it's very hard for me to go off and leave them.
I wish I could take that tape from Germany, because
we never played so hot. And they were yelling, "boo,
hiss"; they yelled from the minute we hit that
stage with Eric. Because they figured Eric was going
to have his own shit. They didn't think he was going
to play with us. I have no pride. It hurt my feelings.
I cried. And I couldn't do any more than four numbers.
Because I'm not going to cram anything down anyone's
throat who don't dig it.
I had a couple of shows where I played the whole
show really into it, completely giving all I had,
man, and I was doing a free-form thing: talking,
bringing it all out, letting it all go, man. Just
talking about Janis and all the men that hurt her,
and all the men that maybe she let down. And everything
that you got to say, man, all of a sudden it starts
coming out of your mouth, and you didn't even intend
it to. And all of a sudden I heard them speak, I
heard them talking in the middle of my fucking shit,
man, and I stopped and I waited to see if they'd
It's like a sledgehammer in your chest, man.
They didn't quit. And I grabbed the microphone and
said, "I ain't cryin' my ass for you, man."
I put the microphone down and walked off the stage.
I blew my contract and all that shit. But fuck that,
man. I ain't gonna get out there and cry my soul
out for people that are talking about: "How's
your brother? Did you get laid on Thursday? That's
a cute dress!" I'm up there talking about my
pain. Fuck you, man....
You know that a lot of people say the trouble with
women is they don't think about what they say before
they say it.
That's the good thing about women,
man. Because they sing their fuckin' insides, man.
Women, to be in the music business, give up more
than you'd ever know. She's got kids she gave up....
Any woman gives up home life, an old man probably...
children and friends ... you give up every constant
in the world except music. That's the only thing
in the world you got, man. So for a woman to sing,
she really needs to or wants to. A man can do it
as a gig, because he knows he can get laid tonight.
A lot of musicians are married and worship the footsteps
their wives walk in. But they go on the road and
they ball, and they have a ball. But when they are
home, no one is going to break their marriage up,
there ain't nobody gonna hurt their children. But
what man would have you and let you do what you
That's the trouble! You either got to be as big
a star as the chick or you got to be a flunky. And
no woman, at least me, I don't want an ass-kisser.
I want a cat that's bigger and stronger and ballsier
than me. When I'm pulling my shit as a singer, it's
hard to find him because the only cats that hang
around dressing rooms are flunkies.... The men are
out in some log cabin growing grass and chopping
trees, and I never get to see them. But that gives
you more soul, right?
That's what they say, honey, that's what they say.
When Delaney and I met, it was that fast. I married
him seven days after I met him. I was never married
before, I was twenty-three. He was never married
and twenty-six, and no one even thought about getting
married. For ten years before I met Delaney, I lived
in hell. I worked in strip joints and truck stops,
and I went on between the second-best and the best
stripper. You got to have a break so the star could
come out. I'd be out there singing a song and they'd
be yelling, "Take it off, baby!"
I wasn't even a chick singer until I became a chick
singer. I was a dope dealer and a hang-out artist.
And a chick on the street trying to find a place
to sleep and a cat to lay. I didn't ever sing until
they turned me into a rock 'n' roll singer. I sang
for free beer once in a while, but I never even
wanted to grow up to be a singer. It was a very
It's really weird. I never wanted to be anything
else. That was my whole life.
All my life I just wanted to be a beatnik. Meet
all the heavies, get stoned, get laid, have a good
time. That's all I ever wanted. I knew I had a good
voice and I could get a couple of beers off of it.
Then someone threw me in this rock 'n' roll band.
They threw these musicians at me, man, and the sound
was coming from behind. The bass was charging me.
And I decided then and there that that was it. I
never wanted to do anything else. It was better
than it had been with any man, you know. Maybe that's