(Copyright 2002 Al Aronowitz


(Photo by Amalie R. Rothschild)

They told Janis not to blow it but she lived her life the way a Hell's Angel rides his motorcycle.  The Hell's Angels?  She loved them, too.  

"You don't have to be black to know how to sing the blues," she once told me.  "You just have to suffer.  A white person can feel suffering just as much as a black person."

In the end, she was one of the highest-paid women ever to rent out her soul to an audience, but if suffering is what she had to pay for her fame, she never really came away with a profit.  Janis wasn't the prettiest girl in the world but she could look in the mirror and like what she saw.  Better than anything, she liked being in bed with a man.  Better than anything except being onstage. 

"That 40 or 50 minutes I'm out there, that's when it happens for me," she used to say.  "It's like fucking. It's like having a hundred orgasms with somebody you love."

They told her that she drank too much and so she changed brands.

"The people who make Southern Comfort, they ought to send me free whiskey because I'm such a good advertisement for them," she used to say. I remember once she switched to Kaluha and milk because "It makes me feel like I'm drinking some kind of health drink."

Still, she used to worry about what her mother thought of her.  In the end, she tried to get away from the hard-drinking image that went along with being the best woman blues singer of her time.  In the dressing room at the Summer Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium that August, I saw

Janis was found dead
only three days
after Jimi Hendrix's funeral

her take a photographer's camera away and crush his film beneath her heel because he had snapped her picture with a bottle in her hand.

"I call that fucked!" she said.

I was backstage at San Francisco's Winterland Arena when the word filtered in that Janis had been found dead in her motel room in Hollywood. It was only three days after Jimi Hendrix's funeral, and the news was too incredible to provoke anythinq but numbness. Some girls began to cry.

"What can you do?" said Jerry Garcia, the guitarist-leader of the Grateful Dead.  "You just have to keep on." The Jefferson Airplane was in the middle of its set, part of a concert with the Dead and Quicksilver to inaugurate a series of programs at Winterland to challenge the dominance of Bill Graham and the Fillmore West over the music scene in the Bay Area.

It started out as a festive night, broadcast live over one television channel and two FM radio stations, but Janis' death took the heart out of the party.  The 7,000 who packed the hall didn't learn what had happened until after the show was over.

"We didn't want to make any announcement," said producer Paul Baratta, "because the feeling was that this was a party and Janis was so much a part of the scene that she would have understood that it would have been too much of a downer."

When the Jefferson Airplane came offstage, Grace Slick couldn't believe the news.  "Is it true?" she said.  "Is it true?"

Of all the names made famous by the San Francisco music eruption of 1966, Janis' name was probably the greatest.  Like Billie Holiday, she had all the earthy qualities of a whorehouse singer and yet the subtleties of her voice revealed an artistry that made her an original in a field cluttered with imitations.  She sang from a throat blasted by cigarettes, whiskey and dope, and yet out of the gravelly rasp you could hear, if you listened closely, that her voice had the unnatural quality of being able to hit two different notes at the same time.

It was on the stage of the Winterland, as well as on that of Bill Graham's original Fillmore auditorium, that Janis first became a star singing with a group called Big Brother and the Holding Companv. She had come to San Francisco from Port Arthur, Texas, the city in which she was born on January 19, 1943, but which she felt had rejected her because she liked poetry and the blues, had long hair and because, as she said, "I didn't hate niggers."

"I hate that town," she used to say.  But it was a hate tempered by contempt.  There was an August 15 when she went back to Port Arthur for the 10th reunion of her graduating class from

Janis became
a national star even before
she had a hit record

Thomas Jefferson High School "just to jam it up their asses," she told me.  "I'm going to go down there with my fur hats and my feathers and see all those kids who are still working in gas stations and driving dry cleaning trucks while I'm making $50,000 a night."

Janis became a national star even before she had a hit record, a legend even before she became a national star.  At the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, her performance with Big Brother was so sensational that she became San Francisco's most sought-?after performer.  Afterwards, Albert B. Grossman, one of the most prominent managers in contemporary music, took over her career and signed her to a contract with Columbia Records.  Actually, the contract was with Big Brother and the Holding Company but when the group's first album was released, Janis proved too formidable a star not to emerge as a solo performer.

"She had a great love of life," Grossman said afterwards.  "It's to; bad she didn't get to use that love in her own life.  I'll miss her.  I loved her."

Janis went through several different bands after separating from Big Brother to go on her own.  With each band, she had to suffer criticism, even from within her own organization, but what the criticism always boiled down to was the fact that she was too heavy to carry the sidemen she chose.  She called her most recent group the Full Tilt Boogie Band and she was in the middle of recording an album with them at the Columbia studios in Hollywood when her tour manager, John Cook, found her body in her room at the Landmark Motel about 7 p.m. on the night of October 4, 1970. She was all of 27 years old.

"She had finished a session on Saturday night and then had gone to Barney's Beanery with a couple of the guys," Cook said.  "Afterwards, she drove her organ player back to the motel, said goodnight and then went to her room.  She was supposed to be back in another session Sunday night and when she didn't show, I went to her room.  I had made up my mind that nothing was wrong.  When I got there, I saw her car was still parked. I knew she was supposed to pick up her boy friend at the airport, but I still kept telling myself that nothing was wrong. So I thought I'd take her key and walk right in and find that she was just off someplace. When I got inside I found all my preconceptions were wrong. She had been getting ready for bed when she died."

An autopsy was held to determine the cause of death.  Police said they found fresh needle marks on Janis' arm, but Cook said Janis? old needle marks still hadn't healed.  Of course Janis had been into dope, but it was said she had quit the previous February.

"She was really happy," Cook said.  "She was happy about her new boy friend, she was happy about her album.  The only thing bringing her down was Jimi." Janis was on the same wavelength as Jimi Hendrix.

The last time I saw Janis was at the Shea Stadium peace festival.  I will always remember her running out to the stage, an unannounced, surprise addition to the program.  At the time, I wrote that she reminded me of a star football player running in to save the game.

Janis was one of the few artists around who really knew how to handle an audience.  The last thing she told me was that she didn't like the name Janis any more.

"I'm sick and tired of it," she said.  "Call me Pearl."

She certainly was a pearl.  ##  



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