Like David Churchill, Susan Green can draw upon memoir as a means to perfectly call up an era. In this case, she drew a compelling portrait of the late Janis Joplin.
|Janis Joplin with Sam Andrew and Richard Kermode|
In 1969, we were all crazy about Janis. My friends and I traveled great distances to catch her gigs. In late April, she was scheduled to perform one afternoon at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so we trekked over to the Cambridge campus hours early to ensure good seats. While sitting on the lawn outside before the gymnasium doors opened, we were pleasantly high on mescaline. I was noticing the clouds had begun to spell my name when a bearded young man approached us. It was Richard Kermode, who played keyboards in Joplin’s Kozmic Blues Band. He flirted with me. We walked along the Charles River, which was reflecting my thoughts in its currents. I offered him a capsule containing the drug. “Janis doesn’t like us to do psychedelics during a performance,” Richard explained, pocketing the hallucinogen for another day.
When we returned to the MIT gym, it was almost show time. Richard ushered me backstage. “Where were you, man?” Janis demanded of him, while giving me a sidelong look of appraisal. “Don’t get lost again like that.”
Richard and his fellow band members exited the dressing room to warm up the crowd. I was left behind with Janis and another girl. I told myself she was a groupie but, improbably, my status must be less tawdry. Above all, I felt nervous to be in the company of my idol. “Either of you chicks got a Tampax?” Janis asked.
I shook my head, but the groupie-girl said,”Oh, yeah. Just hang loose,” and darted from the room.
“OK, I’ll just hang loose,” Janis croaked, pretending to collapse against a radiator. We laughed together and I felt a little less intimidated.
Then it was time for the band to go. Richard wanted to stay overnight in Cambridge and meet the others at the next stop on the tour. The road manager said no. So we traded addresses and phone numbers, kissed goodbye and shrugged at what might have been.
A week later, my friends got word that Janis would be playing at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, a three-hour drive from Boston. We headed there in a caravan of five cars. In anticipation of seeing Richard again, I dressed in something fancier than my usual torn jeans and T-shirt. In Durham, we waited by the stage door. When the band arrived, he jumped out of the car and kissed me, before acknowledging my apparel: “Foxy lady!”
Richard recalled that, after leaving Cambridge, “I told Janis how I wanted to stay. She said, ‘Man, you should’ve jumped ship. You should’ve just done it.’” He looked at me intently and added, “I’ve been thinking about you all week.”
My head almost exploded with joy. After the Durham show, Richard asked if I could get down to New York City: “We’re going to be doing some recording there. You could stay with me at the Chelsea Hotel.” Nothing could keep me from accepting that invitation. Two nights later, after I’d called him from the road, he was waiting for me in the lobby when I reached the hotel at 10 p.m. That was the beginning of five exhilarating days together. He gave me a leather hat that Janis had given him, and a Mr. Natural button she wanted but he felt I should have it instead.
As we wandered around the city, Richard had a Phillips portable tape deck, on which we listened repeatedly to Aretha Franklin’s “Hello, Sunshine,” which quickly became our song: “The wonders of spring, Just don’t mean a thing, Without you, babe...” He started to call me Susie Sunshine, a divine designation in my mind. When I reluctantly returned to Boston, Richard phoned to make sure I’d gotten home safely.
And that was the last I heard from him. The band toured Europe, then went back to California. Disappointed, I continued on with my life. But in July, Janis returned to the East Coast to perform at the Forest Hills stadium on the 19th. I took a chance, went to New York and phoned Richard at the Chelsea. He invited me to join him, with no explanation about the lack of communication during the past few months. I didn’t dare ask.
Under pressure from Joplin’s manager, Albert Grossman, the concert was to be the last appearance by guitarist Sam Andrew, who had been with her from the early days of Big Brother and the Holding Company. She was replacing him with a Canadian named John Till – presumably a better musician – but asked Sam to remain for the Forest Hills show. After several numbers, though, he walked off the stage, muttering about how humiliating it had been. Later that evening, Janis called Richard’s room at the Chelsea – I was briefly alone there – to ask if anyone had seen Sam. She sounded tearful.
The next day, the band headed north to Woodstock to look for a house to rent. It’s where Albert lived, along with other rock royalty. I went back to Boston. And that seemed to be the second end to my improbable romance. Until August. I’d just enjoyed a two-week vacation in Europe and, in my mailbox back home, found a Disneyland postcard from Richard addressed to Susie Sunshine: “I had a nice day today and it somehow reminded me of you.” My hopes were rekindled, though I had no way to act on them. So, I moved on. Sort of. I began hanging out with a guy named Orlando, a member of the Black Panther Party then being harassed by the FBI and local police forces around the country.
On December 11, just two weeks before breaking up, the Kozmic Blues Band was booked at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre. I went backstage to say hello to Richard, getting a somewhat cooler reception than in our earlier meetings. But, lo and behold, there was Orlando. Janis had agreed to allow the Panthers to raise funds in the lobby to benefit their free breakfast programs for schoolchildren. She even made a pitch to the audience.
As we watched her performance from the wings, Orlando whispered his idea of sweet nothings in my ear: He offered me a gun as a fierce valentine for warding off the government’s planned genocide of all opponents. Such was love in the late 1960s. Not so much a ball and chain, as Janis sang, but more like a loaded weapon.
- originally published on October 16, 2010 in Critics at Large.