I have started a new project setting works of the Romantic Poets to music. Here is my first attempt “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats. I visited his grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. It was a strange and spiritual experience! I recorded this at home using Cubase 9.5 and various instruments and plug-ins!
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Janis Joplin featured in a ‘Newsweek’ cover story, ‘Rebirth of the Blues,’ May 26, 1969.
In the rock ‘n roll firmament of the 1960s, Janis Joplin was a shooting star who burned white hot for five short years. She died of a heroin overdose at age 27. Joplin sang her own brand of the blues in an incendiary style. Yet in her short time — between 1966 and 1970 — she carved out a piece of music history that was distinctly her own. During these years, she traveled from the conservative community of Port Arthur, Texas to the expansive and unpredictable world that was the drug/hippie/music scene of 1960s San Francisco — and mostly in the glare of national stardom. Joplin was born in Port Arthur, an oil refinery town, in 1943. As a teenager in the late 1950s, she had read about Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks, began to dress in her own style, and started listening to blues music with a few high school friends. Black blues singers Bessie Smith and Leadbelly were among her heroes.
An outcast in Port Arthur by the early 1960s, Joplin had made her way to California a time or two, and eventually came to San Francisco’s music and hippie scene. At the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival she captured national attention with a stunning blues performance of “Ball and Chain.” From that point on, she became something of national phenomenon.
But not everyone loved Janis Joplin. Her stage antics and whiskey-swilling, devil-may-care style put many people off. Some were convinced she had a death wish and was killing herself slowly with each performance and each day’s excesses, so that when she sang “Piece of My Heart,” the meaning was for real. The article that follows here covers some of the main events in the last four years of her life, from her rapid rise to stardom to her untimely death.
Janis Joplin performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 where she would do a stunning version of ‘Ball and Chain’ that would mark her as an overnight blues sensation. Photo, Ted Streshinsky.
Janis Joplin did not initially see herself as a big-time performer or a major talent. But in 1966, when she first teamed up with a real rock band she had met through friends, Joplin had a kind of epiphany. Chet Helms, a fellow Texan and one of San Francisco’s music promoters, introduced her to a then little-known band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. Up to that point, Joplin was thinking she had a good enough voice for local gigs, but that was about it. “… All of a sudden someone threw me into this rock band,” she would later explain, recalling her Big Brother session. “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 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…”
Joplin joined Big Brother in June 1966. Her first public performance with them was at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco where they became the house band. In the following year, they cut their first album, Big Brother and The Holding Company, and gained a following with songs from that album, including, “Bye Bye Baby,” “Blind Man” and “Down On Me.” Then on June 17, 1967 she an Big Brother performed their show-stopping set on the second day of the Monterey International Pop Festival, setting them on a path to national stardom.
Janis Joplin shown with members of the band, Big Brother and the Holding Co., on album cover for live performance at Winterland in San Francisco.
After Monterey, and after signing with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman in November 1967, Joplin and Big Brother were playing all over the country. Grossman got them a whopping recording contract with CBS/Columbia Records. They were soon making about $10,000 a performance, with Joplin’s annual income rising to about $150,000 — then very big money. In February 1968, they began an East Coast tour in Philadelphia, and also played Anderson Hall in in New York where Joplin revealed her raw power over an audience. On the last day of their East Coast swing, April 7, 1968, Joplin and Big Brother performed at the “Wake For Martin Luther King Jr.” concert in New York along with Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop. The next month or so was spent recording the album Cheap Thrills, which would be released later that summer. In July 1968 she hit the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. In August, Cheap Thirlls was released and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts. It sold one million copies in the first month featuring songs such as “Piece Of My Heart,” among others. Joplin and Big Brother appeared on the West coast TV show, Hollywood Palace on October 26, 1968, performing two songs: “Summertime” and “I Need a Man to Love.”
Janis Joplin on the cover of the March 15th, 1969 edition of Rolling Stone, featuring a story that asks if she is “the Judy Garland of Rock?”
By early December 1968 Joplin decided to leave Big Brother, and by the end of the year she had formed a new band called the Kozmic Blues Band, a soul revue band with a complete horn section. Their first performance playing soul music was in late December in Memphis, TN. However, the band’s performances at the Fillmore East in February 1969 received mixed reviews. Elsewhere though, Janis and her band were getting more notice.In March 1969 there was a TV appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace and a Rolling Stone cover story that month posing the question: “Janis: The Judy Garland of Rock?” Also in March, Joplin and her band appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Then it was back to San Francisco to Winterland and The Fillmore West.
A European tour came in April-May 1969 — Frankfurt, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Paris. Her debut in London at Albert Hall that April produced rave reviews in the papers and trade press — Disc, Melody Maker, and The Telegraph. Back in the States, studio work for another album,Kozmic Blues, began in Hollywood in June. Joplin also appeared on The Dick Cavett Show for the first time July 18,1969. She would appear on Cavett’s show two more times in 1970. She and her band also played various music festivals that summer–Devonshire Downs in Northridge, CA, and the Atlanta Pop Festival in Georgia in July. At the Atlantic City, New Jersey Pop Festival in early August, she sang with Little Richard.
Janis Joplin performing at Woodstock, 1969.
Then in mid-August came Woodstock where she performed on the second day of the festival, singing a ten-song set that included such tunes as: “To Love Somebody,” “Summertime,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” Piece of My Heart,” and “Ball & Chain.” Joplin by then had parted ways with Big Brother & the Holding Company. Still, she had a full compliment of musicians backing her at Woodstock, where she performed in the wee hours, Saturday-to-Sunday, at about 2:00 a.m. Some reported that without her normal band, Joplin’s performance lacked its usual punch, but others found it a solid performance.Henry Diltz was an official photographer at Woodstock and had an “all-access pass” that got him to the stage, and more importantly, “a little catwalk built just under the lip of the stage” where he took photographs of Joplin performing. “I was literally feet in front of her while she was singing — the absolutely best seat in the entire house of 400,000 people.” Diltz said of Joplin’s performance: “Everything I saw her sing, it was nothing held back.”
A younger Janis Joplin performing at an unidentified rock-festival venue sometime in the 1960s.
Following Woodstock, and through the remainder of 1969, there were other outings for Joplin and her band. In September they played the New Orleans Pop Festival at Baton Rouge International Speedway in Louisiana and at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A. In October there were gigs in Austin and Houston, Texas. In November she appeared at Curtis Hall concert in Tampa, Florida where she was charged with two counts of using vulgar and obscene language on stage. Later that month she appeared at Auditorium Hall in Chicago, and also Madison Square Garden in New York where she sang with Tina Turner at a Rolling Stones concert. Her first solo effort, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, with the Kozmic Blues Band, was released about that time, and received mixed reviews. It included songs such as “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “To Love Somebody,” a cover of a Bee Gees’ tune.
At the end of November 1969 Joplin played the West Palm Beach Rock Festival. In December there was an appearance in Nashville and another at Madison Square Garden — called a “rousing display of blues and rock” by the New York Times — where she was joined on stage by Johnny Winter and Paul Butterfield. It was about this time that she was “romantically linked” with Joe Namath in the New York papers, which appears to have been exaggerated beyond a meeting and a date or two. Other appearances in 1969 included ABC-TV’s Tom Jones Show, the Quaker City Rock Festival/Philadelphia, the Civic Center/Baltimore, ABC-TV’s show Music Scene, and the Toronto Pop Festival. Back home in California, meanwhile, Joplin moved into to a secluded home in a Redwood forest in the Larkspur area of Marin County, California, north of San Francisco, a beautiful spot between Mount Tamalpais and the San Francisco Bay. But toward the end of 1969, Joplin decided to take some time off.
Janis Joplin & David Niehaus on Copacabana Beach in Brazil, 1970, where Janis was surrounded by, and talking with, reporters.
R&R in Brazil
In January of 1970, Janis and her Kozmic Blues band parted ways, and in February, she traveled to Brazil with her friend and costume designer Linda Gravenites. Gravenites had been with Joplin since 1966 and had lived a clean and sober life and was traveling with Joplin in part to help her kick her drug and alcohol habits.
In Brazil, Joplin met and became involved with David Niehaus, a clean and sober American schoolteacher who was traveling around the world at the time. The two were later photographed as happy revelers at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, described as a “carefree” couple having a great time. Niehaus was one of the first men in Janis’s life at the time who saw her as a woman and not a rock star, and Janis was quite taken with him. By April she reported from Rio that she was “going off into the jungle with a big bear of a man.” But when Joplin returned to the U.S. she began using heroin again and her relationship with Niehaus ended as a result. Still, some friends would say that Niehuas was the lost love of her life.
Poster for a Janis Joplin concert on June 12, 1970 in Louisville, KY with her new Full-Tilt Boogie Band.
Back in San Francisco, meanwhile, Joplin had formed her new band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band — a band composed mostly of young Canadian musicians; a band that Joplin had taken a more active role in forming than she did with her prior group. She would later describe this band as more fully her own. Joplin began touring with the Full Tilt Boogie Band in May 1970 and was quite happy with their performances and the feedback from fans and critics. Still, earlier that year, she had done a few performances with her former bandmates.On April 4th in San Francisco, she performed a reunion gig with Big Brother & The Holding Co. at the Fillmore West. Again, on April 12th, she appeared with Big Brother at Winterland where she and group were found in excellent form. By the time she began touring with Full Tilt Boogie in May 1970, Joplin had told friends she was drug-free. In fact, the young Canadians in her new band were also drug free and had no association with her old San Francisco crowd. Still, some noticed that her drinking had increased.
In late June 1970, she appeared on TV’s The Dick Cavett Show, where she announced she would attend her ten-year high school class reunion later that summer in Port Arthur, Texas. High school had not been a happy time for Joplin, noting at one point that her classmates, “laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state.” More on the high school visit later.
1970 poster advertising Canada’s Trans Continental Festival Express.
Festival Express logo sticker.
The Festival Express
In late June and early July 1970, Joplin and her new band joined the all-star Festival Express tour through Canada. On this tour, Joplin and her band performed on the same bill with other acts including: the Grateful Dead, Delaney and Bonnie, Rick Danko and The Band, Eric Andersen, Ian and Sylvia, and others.
The Festival Express was unique among rock festivals. Rather than flying to each city — Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver were each scheduled — the musicians would travel by chartered Canadian National Railways train. The idea was to foster an atmosphere of musical creativity and closeness between the performers. The trips between cities were a mix of jam sessions and partying, with no shortage of drugs and alcohol. One of these sessions became quite notable — with Rick Danko of The Band, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin all having a rollicking good time.
During the actual Festival Express series of concerts — which saw the Vancouver concert cancelled due to the mayor’s “anti-hippie” edicts — Janis Joplin gave some memorable performances. Footage of Joplin singing “Tell Mama” in Calgary would later become an MTV video in the 1980s. This performance would also be included on later Joplin albums and DVDs.
The Festival Express Tour ended in early July 1970, but some 30 years later, in 2003, a “rockumentary” was produced featuring the original Festival Express tour, its music, and travels. That film would reap more than $1.2 million at the U.S. box office, and the DVD would become a hot seller as well. Shortly after the Festival Express, Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii where they performed in early July 1970 at the International Center Arena. But then it was back to California.
Poster for July 1970 Janis Joplin concert.
On July 11th, Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band arrived in San Diego for a concert there at the Sports Arena. They were joined in San Diego by longtime Doors producer, Paul Rothchild, who was being considered to work with Joplin on her next album. Janis’s sister, Laura, would later write of Rothchild in her book, Love, Janis:
“In San Diego, Janis gave him a stopwatch, saying ‘Look, I’ve got thirty-five good minutes in me. You stand behind the amps and I’ll look you over, you flash me how much time I have left.’ Paul thought it was a good sign that she was pacing herself like a runner.”
Joplin was fighting her alcohol and drug demons at the time.
Psychedelic-style poster for the July 11, 1970 concert in San Diego with Janis Joplin photo.
Rothchild later said of watching Joplin’s performance as she was singing:“. . . I was enraptured because I was listening to one of the most brilliant vocalists I ever heard, in classical, pop, or jazz music. What a voice. . . all of the woman was revealed. The vessel of Janis vanished. For somebody like me, who was always talking about the inner beauty and all that stuff, it got me big. So I was totally hooked from that moment on, on every single possible level.”
Several weeks later, Rothchild would help Janis work on her final album, Pearl.
On the plane ride back to San Francisco after the San Diego concert, Janis was upbeat, as the presence of old friends at the concert had energized her. She bought drinks for everyone on the plane.
But some of those with her, like Big Brother guitarist James Gurley, thought she was a bit “too exuberant, trying to be the life of the party.”
Joplin was still on an emotional roller coaster; high and then low. She was struggling to maintain her equilibrium.
In early August 1970, Joplin again appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, and a few days later, on August 6, 1970, performed as a surprise guest at the Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium in Queens. Joplin was not on the original roster of performers for the concert, but since she was in New York and her former band, Big Brother, was on the bill, she agreed to do the concert. By some accounts, at least 50,000 fans attended Joplin’s performance, re- portedly aided by a bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey. This concert — also called the Summer Festival for Peace — followed a Winter Festival for Peace that had been staged earlier that year at Madison Square Garden. These concerts were among the first ever in the U.S. to be used for political fund raising and anti-war purposes. Such concerts were not generally seen prior to 1970, but became more common thereafter. The acts at the Peace Festivals generally donated their time and performances. Among the performers at Shea Stadium that August were Peter Yarrow, Pacific Gas & Electric, Tom Paxton, Dionne Warwick, Poco, Ten Wheel Drive, Al Kooper, Richie Havens, Sha-Na-Na, The Young Rascals, Paul Simon, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf, The James Gang, Miles Davis, Johnny Winter, Herbie Hancock and others. The show ran from 10:00 a.m. to midnight. And by some accounts, at least 50,000 fans attended. Joplin’s performance — reportedly aided by a bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey — included at least four of her songs: “Ball & Chain,” “Summertime,” “Turtle Blues” and “Piece of My Heart.”
Headstone for Bessie Smith’s grave site that Janis Joplin helped pay for. Inscription:‘The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’
One of Joplin’s idols growing up had been Bessie Smith, the famous blues and jazz singer of the 1920 and 1930s. Smith’s music had been an early influence on Joplin. But when Joplin learned that Smith’s grave site had no marker, she moved to help provide a major portion of the funds to obtain one. A few days following her concert at Shea Stadium, on August 8, 1970, Joplin provided at least part of the financing to provide a headstone for Smith’s unmarked grave at Philadelphia’s Mount Lawn Cemetery. An inscription on the installed headstone reads: ‘The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’ Joplin’s next scheduled appearance in 1970 was in Boston, at Harvard College, but her band’s equipment was stolen. The group managed to make their performance at Harvard Stadium on August 12 th before 40,000 fans using borrowed equipment. Still, they seemed to have delivered a decent concert, as a front-page story in Harvard Crimson newspaper gave the concert a positive review. It would be Joplin’s last public appearance with the Full Tilt Boogie Band and her last public performance. Her next stop was her former home town, Port Arthur, Texas for the tenth year reunion of her high school class.
Janis’ Texas Hurt1956-1964
Joplin as she appeared in her 1960 high school photo.
Growing up in the conservative oil refining town of Port Arthur, Texas in the 1950s was not easy for young Janis Joplin. Although she was loved by her family while growing up there, her high school and local college experiences in Texas appeared to have scarred her deeply. As a teenager she had read the Beatniks, began to dress in her own style, and started singing folk and blues music locally. But in high school, she had gained weight and developed bad skin, and was called “pig” by some of the other kids. After graduating high school in 1960, she attended Lamar State College that summer, at nearby Beaumont Texas, and continued there in the fall. Ridiculed there as well, and not comfortable in class, she dropped out. In 1961, after passing a secretarial exam, Joplin’s parents sent her to Los Angeles to live with her aunts, but she soon found a place of her own in Venice Beach where drugs became part of her life. The visit home to Port Arthur for the reunion did not achieve what Joplin had hoped, and once again she left town feeling rejected and unloved. By the end of the year, she returned home to Port Arthur. In 1962, she enrolled in fine arts at the University of Texas in Austin and was also singing locally, blues mostly, but also with a blue grass band. Her experiences on the University of Texas campus, however, weren’t much better than in Port Arthur or Beaumont, as she was nominated for the “Ugliest Man on Campus” award at one point, a deep cut. After hearing about the post-Beat scene in San Francisco, Joplin made her way to North Beach in San Francisco and then Haight-Ashbury, then becoming more heavily involved with alcohol and drugs. After a near-death experience, and reportedly dropping to a weight of about 88 pounds at one point, she returned to Port Arthur in 1965. Back home, she tried college again at Lamar, this time enrolling as a sociology major. She kicked her drug habit, changed her look to a more conservative style, but still, her experiences at Lamar were no better. In Austin, meanwhile, she continued singing blues at a few clubs in late 1965 and early 1966. By mid-1966 she returned to California for good, pursuing her music career in San Francisco by joining Big Brother and the Holding Company. By late 1967, following her debut at the Monterey Festival, she was on her way to national stardom.
Janis Joplin on the cover of “Rolling Stone,” August 6, 1970.
In mid-August 1970, when Joplin returned to Port Arthur for her 10th year high school reunion, she was coming back, in part, to make a statement about her success, and specifically for those who had treated her badly as a teenager. But during the visit, Joplin was drinking hard and she did not attempt to “tone down” her dress or her style. She had also previously made negative remarks about Port Arthur in the national press — or as one New York Times writer put it — “never missed a chance to dismiss her blue-collar hometown as a bastion of small-town intolerance.” On August 14th, Joplin attended her high school reunion at Thomas Jefferson High School. She was accompanied by fellow musician and friend Bob Neuwirth, road manager John Cooke, and her younger sister, Laura. Dressed in the popular San Francisco hippie fashion of the day with feathers and beads and her trademark purple-tinted glasses, Joplin answered questions at a press conference, during which some of her more painful high school days came up again. All in all, it wasn’t a pleasant visit for Joplin. Generally, this visit home to Port Arthur for the reunion did not achieve what she had hoped, and once again she left town feeling rejected and unloved. She soon returned to California to work on her music.
During late August, Joplin arrived in Los Angeles to begin work on a new album. Sessions were planned for the Sunset Sound Studio with producer Paul Rothchild. Joplin checked into the nearby Landmark Motel. She had been seeing a steady new boyfriend, a younger and wealthy easterner named Seth Morgan, and they were rumored to be engaged. But Joplin at the time threw herself into her recording sessions and the work on her new album.When he entered her motel room, Cooke found Joplin dead on the floor. She also had a bit of fun at the session, at one point recording a birthday greeting for John Lennon that would be sent to him later — using the Roy Rogers / Dale Evens tune, “Happy Trails.”
On Saturday, October 3, 1970, Joplin visited the Sunset Studios to listen to the instrumental track for the song “Buried Alive in the Blues” prior to recording her vocal track with it, scheduled for the next day. But on Sunday afternoon, she failed to show up at the studio. Producer Rothchild and road manager John Cooke became concerned. Cooke drove to the Landmark Motel where he found Joplin’s psychedelically painted Porsche still in the parking lot. When he entered her motel room, Cooke found Joplin dead on the floor. The official cause of death was later determined as an overdose of heroin, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol. Janis Joplin was 27 years old. Her ashes were later scattered into the Pacific Ocean along Stinson Beach north of San Francisco.
Cover of Janis Joplin’s “Me & Bobby McGee” single from her posthumous ‘Pearl’ album, 1971.
Joplin’s newly recorded material from her Los Angeles studio sessions, meanwhile, had not gone to market. Four months after her death, in February 1971, the new material was released under the album name, Pearl, a nickname sometimes used for Joplin. The album included the songs “Mercedes Benz,” “Get It While You Can,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” Pearl topped the album charts for nine weeks, and “Me and Bobby McGee” became a No. 1 single in 1971 and one of her biggest hits. But the one song on that album without Joplin’s lyrics — the performance she never showed up for the weekend of her death — was left as an instrumental, “Buried Alive in The Blues.” Part of the verse in that song goes as follows: “All caught up in a landslide / Bad luck pressing in from all sides / Just got knocked off my easy ride / Buried alive in the blues.” And as Joplin herself once said: “People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singer’s miserable. They like their blues singers to die afterwards.”
Cover photo of a young Janis Joplin from boxed set of 3 CDs.
Joplin as Icon
Joplin’s death was a blow to her fans and the music world, especially since only weeks earlier, Jimi Hendrix had also died. Joplin was remembered as a musical force and an icon for her own times as well as the ages. Many thought Joplin was just hitting her stride with Pearl, and might have gone on to much greater things had she overcome her demons. Tom Moon, writing in his book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, calls Pearl, “the precious last testament of a belter.” By her last year, Moon says, Joplin had grown into “a devastatingly original voice, the rare white interpreter of African American music who resisted the ready cliche. She treated old Delta songs and ’50s R&B ballads as theatrical platforms, ripe for large-scale rethinking. Her blues woe was never typical blues woe. …[S]he could turn out a plea that made listeners feel like they were part of a fateful make-or-break moment happening right then.”
Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote that Joplin was: “overpowering and deeply vulnerable, brassy and shy, stylized and direct, indomitable and masochistic. She took the tough rasp of old blues shouters and made it her own by bringing out pain and tension to match the bravado. With magnificent timing Joplin made it seem as if she was pouring out unvarnished emotion.”
The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, writing her 1995 induction description, adds: “Janis Joplin has passed into the realm of legend: an outwardly brash yet inwardly vulnerable and troubled personality who possessed one of the most passionate voices in rock history.”
Janis Joplin, undated photo.
Megan Terry, among other authors writing in the book, Notable American Women, observes: “Joplin brought to her music a distinctive sound and look, passion and an honest interpretive ability. Her hold over an audience was as great as that of Elvis Presley and her success was an extraordinary and unprecedented feat in the male- dominated rock and music world.”
In fact, along with Grace Slick of The Jefferson Airplane, Joplin is credited with opening doors for women who would follow her in the rock ‘n roll business. And finally, music journalist Ellen Wills noted that “Joplin belonged to that select group of pop figures who mattered as much for themselves as for their music. Among American rock performers, she was second only to Bob Dylan in importance as a creator-recorder-embodiment of her generation’s mythology.” Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. Musicologists and historians continue to revisit her work. In November 2009, Case Western Reserve University and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum celebrated the music of Janis Joplin during the 14th annual American Music Masters series, calling her one of rock ‘n roll’s most passionate and influential artists.
Janis Joplin photograph, undated.
Back in Port Arthur, Texas, meanwhile, and nearly two decades after her death, some of the love and recognition Janis Joplin had sought from her hometown began coming her way in after-the-fact fashion. In 1988, Joplin’s life and achievements were showcased and recognized at a January Convention Center gathering — an event, wrote Peter Applebome of the New York Times, “that perhaps had as much to do with economics as with affection.” Some 5,000 people came out for the ceremony, a major turn out for Port Arthur. There was a dedication of a Janis Joplin Memorial, which included a multi-image bronze sculpture of Joplin. The sculpture, along with momentos of Joplin’s career, as well as that of other local musicians including the Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.) and Johnny Winter, would eventually become part of the Museum of the Gulf Coast, housing a permanent Joplin exhibit on the second floor.In January 2008, Port Arthur celebrated Joplin’s 65th birthday by putting a historical marker in front of her childhood home. The town now proclaims its link to Joplin with billboards, brochures, an annual concert, and local tours of various Joplin landmarks. “She was a very popular figure in the ’60s, and she had a lot to do with the style of music that evolved at that time,” said Yvonne Sutherlin of Jefferson County Historical Commission in January 2008. “We just want people to know that she’s from here.”
Associated Press, November 7th, 1970.
Beyond Port Arthur, the life and career of Janis Joplin has been explored on stage and screen in a number of productions and documentaries. In 1974-75, Janis, a Canadian film about her career using archival footage was produced. In 1979, the Hollywood film, The Rose, starring Bette Midler, was loosely based on Joplin’s life. In 1992,the biography, Love, Janis was published, written by Joplin’s sister, Laura. A musical stage show with the same title, Love, Janis, ran off-Broadway during 2001-2003 for more than 700 performances. In Washington, D.C., the Arena Stage featured a 2013 production – A Night with Janis Joplin – which includes the Janis character telling stories of inspiration from other artists such as Odetta and Aretha Franklin. A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame came for Joplin in 2013, and a U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp was issued in her honor in 2014. And in 2015, the documentary film, Janis: Little Girl Blue, directed by Amy J. Berg, was shown at the Toronto film festival, since airing to positive reviews in early 2016 on the American Masters PBS-TV series. See also at this website: “Selling Janis Joplin, 1995,” about a Mercedes-Benz TV ad using a Joplin song, and “White Rabbit,” a profile of a Jefferson Airplane song, its politics, and the group’s lead singer, Grace Slick. Other stories on notable women can be found at the topics page, “Noteworthy Ladies.” Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle
The New York sessions for Bob Dylan’s 1975 album, “Blood on the Tracks,” have always been ground zero for Dylan’s reputation as a cipher and a curmudgeon in the recording studio, intent on speeding through the proceedings and capturing lightning in a bottle, quality control be damned. As the story has been told—mostly by musicians who no doubt felt that they didn’t get a fair shake during the biggest moment of their careers—Dylan started sessions for “Blood on the Tracks” on September 16, 1974, on Rosh Hashanah, with a band of New York session “cats” who couldn’t hear what Dylan was doing on songs that he hadn’t bothered to teach them. He waved them off, one by one, as the day wore on, essentially firing them before they had a chance to prove themselves. The problem is, it simply isn’t true.
As the author of the liner notes for “More Blood, More Tracks,” the latest entry in Dylan’s “Bootleg Series,” I was one of the first people to hear the raw session tapes in chronological order. I listened while perusing Dylan’s fabled “red notebook,” in which he’d written the lyrics to the ten songs on “Blood on the Tracks” in his tiny, precise scrawl. What I quickly realized turned the legend upside down: Dylan entered the studio early on the sixteenth, long before any of the session musicians had arrived, intent on cutting an acoustic album—a sort of “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” for the mid-seventies. Contrary to most accounts, Dylan was supremely prepared, and immediately went about delivering aching versions of some of the best—and most intimate—songs that he had ever written. In the era of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and so many others unjustly or unfortunately dubbed “the New Dylan,” and after a clutch of albums that fans had found less than satisfying, Dylan was throwing down the gauntlet, showing himself once again to be the master singer-songwriter and performer.
By the time the musicians who’d been hired to back Dylan arrived that afternoon, he had already cut eleven songs. Dylan would record another fifteen that day—including five takes of “Idiot Wind,” alone again, save for the bassist Tony Brown—for a total of thirty-six, an epic amount by any standard. But it’s clear as you listen that instead of things getting better as the sessions progressed, with the musicians finding their groove with Dylan, the atmosphere in the room degenerated. Most interesting, while Dylan gamely puts the band through their paces on the seemingly easy blues of “Call Letter Blues” and “Meet Me in the Morning” (after attempts at “Simple Twist of Fate” failed miserably), he never lets them near what he surely senses must be his latest masterpiece: “Tangled Up in Blue.” And so, on the afternoon of September 17th, Dylan steps up to the microphone and delivers a hushed, intense, and powerfully intimate version of that song, accompanied only by Brown on bass.
There’s a plaintiveness in that very first version of “Tangled Up in Blue” that’s unusual. It’s the earliest version we have of the now-familiar tale—of the star-crossed couple and their travels and travails, that jumps from the first to third person and back again—and while Dylan doesn’t necessarily sound tentative, the way he often did on “The Cutting Edge: 1965-1966,” the “Bootleg Series” entry that chronicled his “thin wild mercury music” years, he does seem more vulnerable than he ever had before, or ever would be again. “There’s a lot of honesty there,” Jeff Burger, the author of “Dylan on Dylan,” said. “It’s raw and heartfelt, with less posing than he’d done on some of his earlier songs. Of course, many great songs had come before, like ‘Desolation Row’ and so many others, but he was showing off his way with words and painting a picture of another world, not necessarily telling a whole lot about himself. But here he really gets down to the personal, even if it isn’t completely direct.”
While he was writing the songs for “Blood on the Tracks,” Dylan had taken up painting classes with the New York artist Norman Raeben. By all accounts, Raeben was a taskmaster, but he imparted in his students a sense both that life itself was the art, with their creations being merely the by-product of that experience, and, significantly for Dylan, that past, present, and future could all coexist in their work. “He put my mind and my hand and my eye together, in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1978, of Raeben’s influence on his songwriting approach.
While Dylan is known to endlessly and brutally edit his lyrics until the very last minute in the studio, and the epic “Idiot Wind” transformed in the course of the “Blood on the Tracks” sessions, “Tangled Up in Blue” is the one song in Dylan’s vast catalogue that he has never seemed to be finished with. There are eight takes from the New York sessions, and the slightest lyrical change, shift in tempo, or variation in delivery causes the song to reveal itself in unexpected ways. When Dylan launches into take two of the song, it’s bouncy, with punchy vocals and organ flourishes, making it, already, a different tale altogether. Further takes seem to split the difference between dark and light. By the time Dylan and Brown attempt the song for the last time in New York, in a remarkable version recorded at the eleventh hour of those sessions, Dylan has seemingly wrung all he can out of “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Still, Dylan would revisit the song just three months later—this time in Minneapolis—in the version that we would all come to love and obsess over. His voice was already transformed, more akin to the carnival-barker delivery that he’d employ on 1975’s “Desire” and the Rolling Thunder Review tour. The version Dylan performed less than a year later on that tour was yet again vastly reworked, and he would continue tinkering with it over the years. A decade later, in 1984, on the album “Real Live,” Dylan felt he’d finally found the song he’d been looking for. “On ‘Real Live’ it is more like it should have been,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1985. “I was never really happy with it. I guess I was just trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts, but then you also see the whole of it. With that particular song, that’s what I was trying to do . . . with the concept of time, and the way the characters change from the first person to the third person, and you’re never quite sure if the third person is talking or the first person is talking. But as you look at the whole thing it really doesn’t matter. On ‘Real Live,’ the imagery is better and more the way I would have liked it than on the original recording.”
Dylan has performed “Tangled Up in Blue” 1,546 times during his Never Ending Tour, which began in 1988 and is still going. Like any good Dylan obsessive, I’ve seen many of those performances. It’s a guilty pleasure of Dylanologists to trainspot the tweaks—both large and small—that Dylan makes to the lyrics from year to year, or sometimes from night to night. Still, when I was presented with Dylan’s latest revision, written in his own hand—which is part of the “Mondo Scripto” exhibition of his art currently on display at the Halcyon Gallery in London— it was like seeing an old, dear friend, whom you know intimately, but who’s no doubt changed and grown over the years, adapting with the times.
Fans who have seen Dylan in concert recently will recognize some of the changes, of how “he let the law take its course” has taken the place of using “a little too much force,” or how instead of “fishing outside Delacroix,” “everybody’d gone somewhere.” Of course, the past is still close behind, “following me like a shadow that couldn’t get out of my mind / sticking like glue / Tangled up in blue,” but she isn’t working in a topless bar anymore but at the Moonlight Lounge, “where men put money in her hand.” “There’s always been a certain truth about money that I never did understand,” this new version of Dylan’s classic tells us. “You put things to bed and you’ll call it a day / Sometimes you go along for the ride / You pick your brains and you bury the hatchet / Then you walk on the wild side / Towns are ruined and cities burns and images disappear / Weep with all of your heart if you would / I too cried a tear / Nothing you can do / If you’re tangled up in blue.” It recasts the song in the spirit of our times, in the same way the original was so much a product of the Vietnam and Watergate era.
While researching the sessions for “Blood on the Tracks,” I spoke to the writer Larry (Ratso) Sloman, who got to know Dylan around the time and has remained friends with him ever since. He told me a fascinating story of an artist who is perhaps oblivious to how seriously we all take him, but also at peace with his creative process. “I was around during the sessions for ‘Infidels,’ and I fell in love with the song ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ ” Sloman said, referring to a song that’s considered one of Dylan’s best but didn’t find a home on a release until the first volume of his “Bootleg Series,” in 1991. “When the album was finished, Bob called me up and asked me if I wanted to come over to hear it. He played it for me, but no ‘Blind Willie McTell.’ I asked him, ‘What gives, Bob? Where’s ‘Blind Willie McTell?’ And, without missing a beat, he goes, ‘It’s no big deal, Ratso. It’s just an album. I’ve made twenty-two. And I’ll make more.’ ”
Unlike, say, Paul Simon, a presenter who toils over his records, perfecting every nuance until everything is just so, Dylan is restless, visceral, mercurial, always seemingly on the way to his next creation. “More Blood, More Tracks,” and especially its centerpiece, the constantly evolving, shifting, changing “Tangled Up in Blue,” is pure Dylan, a portrait of an artist who never seems to tire of the chase.
In the introduction to the bibliography of his work prepared by Joe Maynard and Barry Miles, William Burroughs spoke about how the “little mags” were a lifeline for him at a time when he had very few hopes for publishing his work. One of the most important of these independent publications was Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag: “1964… No. 4, Calle Larachi, Tangier. My Own Mag…smell of kerosene heaters, hostile neighbors, stones thudding against the door. Jeff Nuttall sent me a copy of My Own Mag and asked me to contribute. I recall that delivery of the first copies to which I had contributed was heralded by a wooden top crashing through the skylight.”
RealityStudio is proud to present a comprehensive archive of Jeff Nuttall’s influential zine. This archive features every page of every now rare issue, bibliographies, context and discussion by Jed Birmingham and Robert Bank. Special thanks are due in particular to Bank, curator of jeff-nuttall.co.uk, who provided the imagery and ample documentation of the archive. In an essay, Bank also explains how Nuttall’s cartoon “Perfume Jack” provides evidence for the publication history of My Own Mag.
To explore My Own Mag, you can read the essays and bibliographies listed below. You can also view every page of every issue of My Own Mag by following the links to each issue.
“From H.B. William Burroughs” (2:3) (C93) January or February 1964. The cover describes it as “An Odour Fill Periodical.” (Bunker Note: Sinclair 2. Acknowledged by Burroughs as his first appearance in inscription at Lyon Sale. Gosling believed this to be the first issue.)
“Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning” (4:4) (C94). Contains a 32 square grid manuscript. The cover describes the issue as “very late edition” and it is burned away in part on the bottom. (Bunker Note: Sinclair 4)
“The Moving Times” (5:3-4) (C100). Described as “Special Tangiers Edition,” the cover has a full-page drawing of William Burroughs wearing a fez. (Bunker Note: Sinclair 5. Bomb Culture and Bank’s reading of Perfume Jack supports this conclusion)
“Afternoon Ticker Tape” (6: 1-2) (C95). The Burrough (p. 1-2) edited by WSB and mimeographed by Nuttall, and it appears as the last two pages of My Own Mag. Run-off pages from the My Own Mag insertion were sent by Nuttall to WSB in Tangier who issued them there in Ex 3, Tangier 1964. A folder containing a variety of loose and stapled sections in no fixed order, one of which was The Burrough. Described on the cover as “Cut Up Issue,” most pages have been cut into eight squares which are stapled at edges to backing sheet. (Bunker Note: Sinclair 6)
“Bring Your Problems to Lady Sutton Fix” (7:2,4) (C97); “Over the Last Skyscrapers a Silent Kite” (7:7-9) (C98). The title of the magazine is on page three and shows through a hole burned on first page. (Bunker Note: Sinclair 7. Burroughs cut-up comes from an article dated May 1964. I suggested that this could be issue 8. As the date for the Festival and Bank’s essay proves, such a reliance on Burroughs to date the magazines is a mistake.)
“What in Horton Hotel Rue Vernet” (8:9-10) (C99). Described as “Special Festival Issue.” (Bunker Note: Sinclair 8; Burroughs’ cut-up includes a dateline from April 1964 prompting me to suggest this issue was Issue 7. As the date for the Festival and Bank’s essay proves, such a reliance on Burroughs to date the magazines is a mistake.)
“Extracts from Letter to Homosap” (9:11) (C101); “Personals Special to The Moving Times” (9:12) (C102). Has a special “Fall Out Shelter” cover and a brown-green stain running down the front. A small square has been cut from bottom of front page. “Special Post-Election” issue. (Bunker Note: Sinclair 9)
This is a video of my talk at BRLSI in July. It’s not great quality but you get the whole thing! I originally put it on YouTube but it got blocked because of my use of two Bob Dylan songs. This was a bit disappointing but I have decided to upload it here instead. I hope Bob won’t mind too much, he always seemed to understand the true value of copyright theft and plagiarism!
Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th of March 2017 I attended a conference at DMU, Leicester about film maker Peter Whitehead, and celebrating the donation of his archive to the University.
I found out about it late but am really glad I went. There were some excellent talks that brought new light to the meaning and relevance of the 1960s Counterculture, and other aspects of the Swinging 60s, and also a sublime showing of Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London on the big screen at Phoenix Square Cinema, Leicester. It was almost like watching a different film to the one I have only previously seen on YouTube.
This is a fascinating view of what was happening at the height of what is now seen as the first great flowering of the Counterculture. It is not uncritical though and the seeds of it’s decline can be seen in the interviews of contemporary stars like Julie Christie, Michael Caine and David Hockney. There is almost a sense of impending loss, and also a critique of it’s superficiality and materialism.
The film is really a response to Time Magazine’s famous article about Swinging London that shifted American’s ‘must visit’ tourist location from Paris to London. After a brilliant start with footage from the UFO Club accompanied by a great version of Interstellar Overdrive by Pink Floyd, Michael Caine bizarrely announces that “…it all started with the loss of the British Empire….”
There is no narrative as such but a series of Chapters that are linked by the time and place, and a general sense of bewilderment by the participants. Following some amazing footage of the Rolling Stones live in Ireland Mick Jagger comes across as a slightly lost , petulant school boy trying to make sense of it all “… they don’t like violence but they themselves are violent which doesn’t seem to make sense…”. Yes okay Mick, thanks for that, you sound just like my mother. Julie Christie, who looks absolutely stunning, bemoans the fact that she is totally superficial and has nothing to say “… everything’s happening to me and I’m not happening to anything…am I allowed to talk?…”. David Hockney is not impressed by ‘Swinging London’ at all and prefers New York and California. The bars stay open til 2 a.m. and the drinks are cheaper and he can meet ordinary people in the clubs, unlike London which is overpriced and exclusive. To be fair though, David Hockney has been moaning about something for most of his life, quite often about not being allowed to smoke cigarettes wherever he wants! He is very amusing though. When Julie Christie smokes a cigarette in the film she doesn’t look like she quite knows what to do with it. Vanessa Redgrave, on the other hand, exudes confidence and political commitment and sings a capella and lectures the audience, a bit like an over-confident trainee teacher.
Andrew Loog Oldham is the stereotype of a cynical, Svengali-like pop manager who talks about how he ‘invented’ the Rolling Stones image as the ‘bad boys’ of pop, which, in fact, they quite obviously are not. He revels in his lack of knowledge but obviously believes he can do anything he wants “… I might get into politics someday..or films” he says. In some ways, this is quite a refreshing and confident attitude. Nevertheless, he never did get into either politics or films which is probably just as well as I am sure he would have joined the ranks of the Thatcherites and done something really terrible like close down the NHS or sell the whole of England to Disneyworld. The film ends where it began with some amazing footage of dancers at the UFO Club and the music of Pink Floyd. A truly remarkable film! There is a real sense of dynamism and change. The way the music accompanies the live performances of the Stones is inspired especially with the song Lady Jane. Whitehead doesn’t bother about synchronicity and blends unrelated recordings with live footage. Have You Seen Your Mother Baby (Standing in the Shadows), a surprisingly dark and seemingly uncommercial recording (even though it was a top ten hit), it’s not unlike the Velvet Underground, plays while the band and audience go wild and Lady Jane introduces a strange and eerie sense of calm.
The rest of the conference passed quickly. It took place over two days but the papers delivered were so fascinating that I never lost interest the whole time I was there. This has got to be a first for me, my attention can easily wander! I usually have alternative activities at hand in case I get bored! Didn’t need them this time! There were a wide range of themes that dealt with the 60s with some, but not all, relating to the work of Peter Whitehead
Adrian Smith discussed the interesting sub genre The Love Business: European Prostitution Drama as British Popular Entertainment. This dealt with the film distributors who were showing European films, many of which had a serious sub-text, as soft porn films to a British audience. There are some echoes of this theme in a recent Channel 4 series Magnifica 70 that deals with film and censorship in Brazil in 1970. Worryingly, this is about a right wing dictatorship in Brazil but could just as easily be about censorship and social control in Britain in the 1960s. Definitely worth a look.
The Love Business: European Prostitution Drama as British Popular Entertainment
Richard Farmar looked at the bizarre film The Touchables and Melanie Williams gave an interesting account of the film maker David Hart. She talked about the “Right-wing Counterculture” which to some would be a contradiction in terms. The majority of countercultural participants were either “left wing” or perhaps “apolitical” but she made a very good argument about how many issues, like women’s lib or gay rights, could belong to either the left or right. She pointed out how politician and journalist Jonathon Aitken started as a countercultural figure in the 1960s but ended up as a cabinet minister in the Conservative Government of the 1980s (before he ended up in jail, that is!). I have investigated elements of right wing attitudes in my essay The Decline of the 1960s Counterculture and the Rise of Thatcherism in which I look at libertarianism and other aspects of the counterculture in the 1980s such as sexual freedom, drug taking and “alternative” businesses such as Virgin and Gap.
David Hart and Right-wing Counterculture
Caroline Langhorst gave an interesting talk on three lesser known films of the 1960s all of which are critical of the optimism and the joie de vivre of the period. These are Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London,Privilege (starring Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones) and Herostratus (featuring a young Helen Mirren).
1960s Dystopian Tendecies
Both Privilege and, especially, Herostratus are relatively unknown films. Privilege had a cinema release in the 1960s (I actually saw it) but I believe Herostratus was virtually lost, although there is a copy now on Blu-ray (which I have yet to see). There are some clips of it on YouTube which are quite intriguing. Personally, I feel that the films that really define and critique the era, especially in terms of pop music and the counterculture, are Easy Rider,Performance (featuring Mick Jagger) and, of course, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. What becomes generally apparent is the mainstream media’s inability to really understand what is going on during this period. Their attempt to commercialise the movement in films of the time often produced a cliched view of pop culture and society that, for some, defines what the 1960s are about but is actually a ridiculous fiction.
Niki de Sainte Phalle with her trademark targets. An influence on Mod fashion?
There were some interesting talks about feminism in the 1960s. Alissa Clark investigated Peter Whitehead and Niki de Saint-Phalle’s collaberation Daddy. In 1972, Saint Phalle shot footage for this surreal horror film about a deeply troubled father-daughter, love-hate relationship. She was an artist, sculptor and film maker who made quite an impact on the avant garde scene from the 1940s onwards.
Jane Arden “The Other Side of Underneath”
There was also a passionate and forceful account of radical filmmaker and theatremaker Jane Arden who I had actually not heard of before. In 1970, Arden formed the radical feminist theatre group Holocaust and then wrote the play A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets and Witches. The play would later be adapted for the screen as The Other Side of the Underneath (1972). Arden directed the film and appeared in it uncredited; screenings at film festivals, including the 1972 London Film Festival, caused a considerable stir. The film depicts a woman’s mental breakdown and rebirth in scenes at times violent and highly shocking; the writer and critic George Melly described it as “a most illuminating season in Hell”, while the BBC Radio journalist David Will declared the film to be “a major breakthrough for the British cinema”. Interesting stuff!
Stephen Glynn gave an entertaining look at Whitehead’s films of the Rolling Stones including the iconic promotional film for the song We Love You and Steve Chibnall showed us what the 1960s Counterculture was like in a provincial city, namely Leicester! Well, I should know because I was there, but he managed to come out with facts that I knew nothing about. For example, how the local paper The Leicester Mercury led a campaign to close down the late night clubs and coffee bars that proliferated at the time. Do You Know What Your Children Are Up To While You Sleep? screamed the headlines. My favourite band Legay complained that they had hardly anywhere left to play and were moving to London! I am shocked and stunned by these revelations!
Jimi Hendrix at the Leicester Art College Hawthorn Building. Local rock and roll band Warlock ended up doing the support spot.
Richard Dacre gave an entertaining account of the Counterculture and Peter Whitehead at the Royal Albert Hall. Apparently, after Wholly Communion, poetry performances were banned at the hall for more than 20 years! Hilarious. I am looking forward to the Whitehead inspired festival at the RAH later on this year!
The Holy Barbarians was a book published in 1959 detailing the lives of the Beats living on Venice Beach in Los Angeles by poet Lawrence Lipton. It was very influential and was like a How to Do book for us in the mid 1960s in Leicester. Following is a quote from the book about the difference and similarities of Beats and Juvenile Delinquents! Much was written and talked about Juvenile Delinquents in this period. It was seen as a big problem. I remember my Grandmother was very bothered that I might have become one! I assured her I hadn’t but, then again, I did have my moments!
Of course, the Beat writers were in awe of criminal hipsters like Herbert Huncke and Neal Cassady but they weren’t seen as just delinquents, they had a kind of holy destiny. They were viewed almost as divine figures on a spiritual quest and, certainly, Cassady probably saw himself that way as well.
Later on in the 60s Venice Beach was the place that keyboardist Ray Manzarek first met singer and poet Jim Morrison and they formed the Doors.
“Everyone has to go to jail some time in his life,” remarked a fifteen year-old girl I met at Angel’s pad one afternoon. She was playing hooky from high school for the day and had just come back from visiting her boy friend in the County Jail. He had been busted for pot and they were also trying to hang a car-stealing rap on him. “They” were the heat and this was the bond that this chick felt with beatland. The beards puzzled her, and the poetry was so much baby talk to her. She had enough of that at school. One book was the same as any other to her. Pot was baby stuff, too. She had been on horse since she was thirteen.
What drew her to the beatniks was the way they understood her attitude toward her family and elders in general and the fact that they didn’t think she was a bad girl. The fuss that parents and older people made about sex seemed silly to her. Virginity? She and her girl friends at high school had a word for it. “Big issue about a little tissue.”
As a juvenile delinquent Myra Flores belonged to the cool cats who could be seen coming out of Venice High after school hours and piling into a car – integration was no problem here – white, Negro, Mexican. They didn’t hang around street corners; they drove fast cars in car pools that were also clubs of a sort. The Mexican girls were popular with these boys. Sometimes the blond girls dyed their hair to look like Mexican chicks. Their cars were not souped-up hot rods, that was for squares. Their clothes were sharp. Every penny they could beg, borrow or steal went into clothes. They drank wine and smoked marijuana. They didn’t talk much. They were physical in their relations, fondled each other a lot and watched television by the hour. Looking older than their years was very important to them. It meant that they could pass for twenty-one without an I.D. card in the taverns.
Rarely can a girl like Myra Flores make the beat scene except as a place of refuge or a drop-in lay, but a J.D. like Willie Frank can make it for quite a while on nothing but an ability to say little, listen much and play it close to his vest, which passes for cool as long as he doesn’t make any false moves. Willie fell into Venice West from a town in New Jersey where things had gotten too hot for him. He had smoked pot since he was fourteen, graduated to horse not long afterward, and served a term in jail back east.
The beat and the juvenile delinquent are only kissin’ cousins. They have the same enemies, which is the slender thread that sometimes unites them in temporary alliance. Both are outlaws, speak a private language and put down the squares, but in beat circles the J.D. is regarded as a square, a hip square in some things, but still a square.
He is a square because his values are the conventional American values: success, the worship of things, the obsession with speed and devil-take-the-hindmost attitudes in everything They are “sharpies” always looking for angles. They believe everything they read in the ads. The “kick” they are looking for when they “borrow” a car for a night is the kick of making “a majestic entrance” in front of a chick’s house. The juvenile delinquent wants a Ford in his future, but he wants his future right now. He can’t buy it so he steals it. “My old man waited,” one of them remarked to me, “and what did it get him? He’s fifty and he’s still driving a ’49 Chevy.”
The names they give their gangs are indicative of their hunger for social status. In Venice West it’s The Doges. Some of them pronounce it “dogs” but they know it means something like The Man of Distinction. (Wasn’t “putting on the dog” once a slang synonym for distinctive?) If one gang names itself The Counts, the gang in the next block goes it one better with The Dukes. Such pretensions are abhorrent to the beatnik.
Their “social protest,” which is a common theme in liberal magazines trying to “understand” the J.D., is so much double talk in the beatnik’s opinion. They are not victims of the society, they are its fruit and flower. The J.D. in a stolen car, dressed up in his sharp clothes, seated beside his chick and smoking the cigarette that is the choice of men who demand the best, is the ironic triumph of the adman’s dream. They are not likely to yield to the lures of communism. In fact, many of the J.D.’s of past generations are now among the society’s most successful businessmen.
The vandalism of the juvenile delinquent is directed against symbols of authority, like the school. If he finds school too confining or oppressive, or too boring, the beatnik finds ways of “beating the system.” He cuts classes as often as he can but he keeps his scholastic average high enough to stay out of trouble. He doesn’t go back after school hours and wreck the classroom or waylay a teacher and slug him for giving him low marks. Any show of violence among the beat generation, when it does occur, is rare enough – and significant enough – to become legendary. Such a legend is the one you hear frequently about Carl Solomon. “It was at Brooklyn College,” says Allen Ginsberg. “Some square lecturer was giving a lecture on Dadaism, and Carl pelted him with potato salad.” Which is exactly what any Dadaist would have done. That Carl was expelled for it is only further proof that the lecturer was a square.
The violence of the delinquent is usually directed against older people. The beatnik would not commit such acts of violence. He would write a poem about it.
Only a newspaperman with his feet stuck in a slot at the rewrite desk could possibly mistake a J.D. for a beatnik. The newspaper stereo-typed vandal is a composite of “teenager,” “juvenile delinquent” and “beatnik,” a convenient composite since it simplifies headline writing and makes every youth crime story a rewrite of the familiar dope fiend, sex fiend, youth-on-the-rampage yarn. All the reporter has to do is change a few names and places. The J.D. doesn’t mind the publicity. It gives him status. The only thing Willie Frank objected to in the news stories about him and his gang when they were busted for drugs was that the papers misspelled his name and even mixed up names under the pictures. “DOPE RING SMASHED” was a little too grandiose a headline, Willie thought, for a twenty-dollar haul of pot, but it gave him a glow just the same.”
ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
This is a passage from Lawrence Lipton’s 1959 book The Holy Barbarians, published when Lipton was 61 years old. When he wrote the book Lipton lived in Venice West, a bohemian enclave of Los Angeles, tucked away in an area which by then was a ruin of its semi-glorious past: in the early 1900’s Venice had been a beach resort town with a faux-European veneer of sophistication, but had fallen into disrepair, so much that now it was not much more than a “slum by the sea.” This decay, in turn, had opened up living room for penniless poets, artists and other outcasts. Among these were the beats Lipton wrote about in The Holy Barbarians.
Lipton’s book hit the market in June of 1959 and was an instant success. A few months later Life magazine (September 21, 1959) featured a reportage – “Squaresville USA vs Beatsville” – about the same Venice West beat scene Lipton had portrayed. The Life article put “the far-out freedom” of the beats on intriguing display to an even wider range of readers. As a result, busloads of tourists soon flooded Venice in search of bohemian kicks and jazz and “like, poetry, man.” Those who had the wits, the angelheaded hipsters, picked up their bongos and moved on.
To be honest we usually find the more exploitative beat culture narratives far more entertaining than “the real thing” (whatever “the real thing” is), but in between rather conceited attempts at sociology-sounding theory, The Holy Barbarians does indeed offer some engaging ethnographic vignettes – raw records of the beats at the moment right before that high and beautiful wave they were riding finally broke and rolled back (as Hunter S. Thompson might very well have written … wait, he didn’t, did he?).
Here is one of those vignettes, picked from a chapter where Lipton writes about selected fringe elements of the beat scene: in order to clarify who he thinks the beats are, he describes who they’re not. We found this sequence extra interesting as it ever so briefly, but with eloquent insight, relates to the Car Customizing and Outlaw Aesthetics we’ve focused on earlier here at American Ethnography (for example here, here, here, and here).
A reprint of The Holy Barbarians was published in 2010 by Martino Fine Books.
LAWRENCE LIPTON (1898 – 1975) was an American journalist, writer, and beat poet.