Wild and Woolly
Roaring through the wilds of Canada with Janis Joplin and Bonnie Bramlett
By David Dalton

From Gadfly March/April 2001


Five 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 misspent youth."

No 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.

In 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 Comfort.

I 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).

So 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."

"Well, uh, see, uh, Janis, I wanted to come over but, um, I thought it was a private conversation, man, and I—"

"Don't 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?"

"Damn right!" says Bonnie.

An 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, boys?"

Aside 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.

We 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 her elbow.

Even 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 "tough-broad" defenses.

They 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."

We all pause for a moment as the image settles. The waiter arrives.

Janis (to waiter): Screwdriver.

Bonnie: Scotch and Coke.

Janis: 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?

Bonnie: 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.

Janis: 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.

Bonnie: Watch that ass. When it's going to the right, you hit a rim shot. That's exactly what I tell my drummer.

Janis: Sometimes I wonder if they're worth it, man. If they're worth all that fuckin' grief that they drag out of you.

Bonnie: 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.

Janis: 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 quit.

Bonnie: It's like a sledgehammer in your chest, man.

Janis: 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....

Bonnie: 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.

Janis: 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.

Bonnie: 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 must do?

Janis: 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?

Bonnie: 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!"

Janis: 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 bizarre experience.

Bonnie: It's really weird. I never wanted to be anything else. That was my whole life.

Janis: 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 the trouble.