Gary James' Interview With Janis Joplin's Road Manager
John Byrne Cooke
John Byrne Cooke has worn many hats in his life. A Harvard graduate; he's been a musician, a photographer and road manager for one of Rock's most enduring legends, Janis Joplin.
He put his pen to paper a few years back and wrote the book: Janis Joplin: The Performance Diary. John Byrne Cooke spoke with us about the life he's lead and the time he spent with Janis Joplin.
Q - John, since you were a musician at one time, I'm going to guess that you were a Folk musician. Would I be right?
A - Yeah. By the time I started performing, I was a Bluegrass musician. I was a member of The Charles River Valley Boys, which was a Bluegrass band formed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Harvard, by a Harvard student and included a mandolin and fiddle player from M.I.T., so they were broad minded. But, that band was founded in 1959. I became aware of the whole Folk scene as a kid. I had some records. If you look back you can see that they meant something to me. They're really like little beacons pointing the way, but at the time they were just part of my record collection. A 10" LP by Woody Guthrie. A 10" LP by Leadbelly. Things by Burl Ives. When I got to high school, there were a handful of people playing guitar. They were doing it because they heard Woody Guthrie music or Pete Seeger and The Weavers. People who you could occasionally see a concert by. When I got to Harvard in the Fall of '58, there was nothing like a Folk boom, but not long after, Joan Baez started performing at the Club 47 in Cambridge. And she was their first regularly scheduled Folk act. There was a time when coffee houses had chess, poetry and Jazz. That's what a coffee house meant in say the mid 50s. Over a fairly short period of time, coffee houses became the center of the Folk music movement. At any rate, there were a lot of people in Cambridge influenced by the fact that Joan stood there and played these beautiful songs. For me, that was the beginning of going to Club 47 in Cambridge, which arguably became the single most important coffee house in the United States for the Folk music years.
Q - Because everybody passed through there?
A - Well, yeah. They made monthly calendars that were works of art. I have a pretty good assortment of those calendars and if you look at any month from '64 to '67, your jaw will just drop at the number of people you've heard of who are playing there within a single month. (laughs) It was impressive. The Folk boom was a time when the new generation began to pick up guitars, banjos, fiddles, whatever and play. At the same time there were a lot of traditional musicians re-discovered. That's a term we like. They knew where they were all along. People went down to the South and dug up the old time white musicians and the early Blues musicians based on recordings they had made in the very early days of the recording business in the late '20s, early '30s, which were subsequently re-issued on Folkways Records or included in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.
Q - Were you a guitarist? A singer? Or both?
A - I was a guitarist and lead singer. Not the original guitar player and lead singer of the Charles River Valley Boys. In the Fall of 1961, their guitar player had gone to Europe and decided to stay for a while. I got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.
Q - What were you studying at Harvard?
A - Oh, I had no idea. (laughs) I took a year off between my sophomore and junior years because I didn't really know what my major was gonna be. Once you enter (your) Junior year, you're pretty well committed. It becomes difficult to switch majors after that. I spent a lot of time in Europe the year before I became a Charles River Valley Boy. There were two or three members over there. It had been formed in '59. They had played some concerts. They had played at the Club 47. There was no expectation that the group was going to continue. I decided to major in Romance languages because I had had some previous Spanish studies. While I was over there, I learned some French and Italian. So, that's what I majored in, Roman languages and literature.
Q - I can see how if you're a road manager traveling the world, a background in romance language would be helpful.
A - In those days and now when we're talking about road manager, we're talking about '68, '69, '70. Even then, international tours were not anything like as frequent as they are now. The only time during the three years I was with Janis when we went overseas, we went to Europe in the Spring of '69 with the band that became known as The Kosmic Blues Band. We went to Europe and were there several weeks. We played six cities. The only one that wasn't a capitol was Frankfurt. We played Stockholm, Copenhagen, Paris, London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. That was the only time we went out of the United States other than Canada. Big Brother had gone up to Vancouver a couple of times in their early career. When I was with them, we may have played Vancouver once.
Q - After being a musician in college, was your next step a photographer or a road manager?
A - Well, you know, I never regarded myself as a professional photographer. I was just taking pictures all the while. I started shooting 35 mm in high school which was the Putney School in Vermont. I mention the name 'cause I like to get in a boost for it whenever I can. It was a school that was very strong in the arts then and continues to be now. It was not an arts school. It was a preparatory school. At the time I was there, Putney sent more graduating seniors to Harvard and Radcliff combined than any other college. They were academically very strong. But, while at Putney I learned how to develop my own film. I got my first 35 mm camera when I was in Cambridge. I had an uncle who lived just 15 minutes away in Arlington, which borders Cambridge. He had a darkroom in his basement and so I had a place to develop and print my film. I really just did it for my own interest. I made almost no efforts at all to show or sell any of my pictures. Now I look back and think what a dope I was. I never said to somebody "Hey, look at this picture! You can use it as a record cover." I wasn't thinking commercially in the photography realm. I was thinking about playing music and enjoying the '60s, which even at the time we thought, hey, this is really something! Just because of the music, the variety and places you could hear music and the people we knew who were making at least a marginal living by playing the music that they loved. What got me into the next phase, which was road managing, was really the evolution of the counter culture popular music at the time. By '65, you began to get Folk / Rock groups and fairly quickly, largely under the British Invasion, Rock 'n' Roll became a really big thing. For people playing Folk music, including a fairly lively and pretty good Bluegrass band, it became harder to make a marginal living. I thought it was time to do something else. I didn't think I was gonna be a career road manager. I thought that road managing would be a terrific job to do as an interim job because I would go a lot of places and meet a lot of people and see a lot of things. I figured an experience like that would help me decide what I wanted to do next in terms of my own work. It came up completely unexpectedly to me. I didn't expect anything like that. But I knew Albert Grossman 'cause he was Bob Dylan's manager. A good friend of mine, Bob Neuwirth had been on the road with Dylan as his road manager for a about a year in '65. I was looking around. Actually the first thing that I did that took me away from my music for a while; this was how amazingly things seemed to happen in the '60s; my friend Bob Neuwirth had known of the filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, because Pennebaker shot Dylan's 1965 Spring Tour of England. That film became the movie Don't Look Back! Well, in the Summer of '67, Pennebaker had been approached by some people in L.A. who were putting together a musical event called The Monterey International Pop Festival to be held in Monterey, California in June of '67. They signed Penny up to shoot the film of that. So, all of a sudden I got a chance to go out to Monterey as part of the film crew. The amazing sort of magical happenstance that came out of that was the Charles River Valley Boys got our one and only California tour. I really don't remember how it happened, which means it genuinely was the '60s. We just started talking about the possibility. We talked to our agent, our manager Manny Greenhill. He managed to put together enough gigs in California that made it worthwhile for the other members of the band to fly out to California shortly after the Monterey Pop Festival was over. Then, we spent a month in California playing a coffee house in Berkeley and the Berkeley Folk Festival...The Big Sur Folk Festival. We played a week at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles and we had the time of our lives. It was smack in the Summer of Love. Even so, I was looking beyond a marginal living in Bluegrass. That Fall, the opportunity to road manage somebody came up. Albert Grossman asked me to have dinner with him in New York and I didn't know what dinner was going to be about. Bob Neuwirth sort of gave me a heads up clue. Albert had signed Big Brother And The Holding Company, which is a band that had blown everybody completely away at Monterey, featuring the stunning vocal talents of this girl from Texas called Janis Joplin. Albert at this point also had the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on the road. By the Fall of '67, Mike Bloomfield was involved in founding the band Electric Flag. Albert said "Hey, I got some bands that need a road manager." I loved Paul Butterfield. I thought he was a great, great musician...not just a harmonica player, but a terrific blues vocalist. I also knew that Butterfield tended to play two week club dates in places like Chicago and Detroit. I did not think that I would be happy sitting in a motel going back and forth for two weeks to the same club. I loved California. When Albert said Big Brother And The Holding Company needed a road manager, I pretended to think about it for thirty seconds before I said "well, I think it would be great to try Big Brother."
Q - Where did you meet Janis?
A - I saw her at Monterey 'cause I was a sound man on the Pennebaker film crew. We had kind of a catwalk built on each side of the Monterey stage, not across the front, but on both sides there was a catwalk that was about four feet below the level of the stage, which meant that you could stand there and be within feet of the musicians. You could have a camera on your shoulder, but you were not standing on the same level of the stage. You were below. The reason they didn't build the catwalk around front was it would've been blocking the view of the front rows. But never the less, we were closer to the musicians than anybody at Monterey. I was on those catwalks during a lot of the performance time. That's where I was when Janis and Big Brother And The Holding Company came out. Now, I didn't meet her backstage. I didn't talk to her. I was just like everybody else. I was just drop-jawed from astonishment at this woman's vocal power. (laughs)
Q - So, you realized you were seeing something that was pretty special.
A - Everybody realized it. That performance and the Jimi Hendrix performance are to me the standouts. Jimi had been in England for years. Before that he had played guitar as a sideman for The Isley Brothers. He's an American guy and for years he had been in England. The Monterey Pop Festival was his first gig in America. That afternoon Penny and I filmed Jimi's sound check. We were standing around. I don't know whether Pennebaker shot it or not. I have some still photos of Jimi's sound check which suggest that I wasn't too occupied taking sound 'cause I had my still camera hung around my neck for some of this time. Nobody knew who he was. Nobody heard of Jimi Hendrix and the next day he was a star. And the same is true of Janis. I don't think the Pop Festival had that big of an effect on anybody else as those two.
Q - How easy or hard of a job was it to be Janis Joplin's road manager?
A - Oh, it could be both of those things.
Q - Was it more of one than the other?
A - No. For one thing, in the first year I wasn't managing Janis. I was managing Big Brother and Big Brother was one of the original San Francisco bands. We generally say there were five and I can never remember exactly who they were. Obviously three of them were Big Brother And The Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. There was a philosophy that came out of Folk music. The reason the whole thing was called the Counter Culture is because there is something running underneath the dominant culture. The music, until Folk got big, wasn't something you were hearing on the radio, but it was something lots of people were listening to. The attitude of Folk music, and this carried over into the early Rock 'n' Roll bands of San Francisco, was an anti-commercial attitude. It was a distain for the star trip. The San Francisco bands had experimented with this communal band thing where they'd all lived together in a house. They were co-equal partners. Nobody was gonna be the star. They thought that was a bad trip. They looked down on anybody who started getting egotistical about it. So, I was with Janis for a year in a band where their were five co-equal partners. When something had to be decided, they talked about it and voted. Janis wasn't even the one that signed the contracts because Peter Albin, the bass player was the straight man. But, it was an act. He was as crazy as anybody else. But, he could appear to be the straight man. (laughs) So, it was probably easier for me to deal with Janis after that than it would've been for somebody new to come in when she left Big Brother and was unquestionably the star.
Q - Were you with Janis at Woodstock in '69?
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - What was that like?
A - Woodstock was chaotic. We were hoping it was gonna be the Monterey Pop Festival all over again. After that (Monterey) the music became so popular that you couldn't put on a two or three day festival that was entirely composed of headline acts. That's what was radical about Monterey. Before that, the Rock 'n' Roll shows had the "B" acts and the "C" acts who did warm-up. Then came out the big act on that show and everybody went nuts. Well, there weren't any "B" acts at Monterey. Two years later, there was Woodstock and it was a different world and nobody knew Woodstock was the thing that really served notice. New York State Troopers, in order to prevent more people from getting off the thruway at that point and going to Woodstock because all the local roads were closed; the estimates range from 250,000 to 500,000, but nobody expected that many people. For us, Woodstock was logistically difficult. We got up there whenever we were supposed to get there. We found out what the situation was, which because the roads were completely jammed, they being the festival promoters, were organizing every helicopter they could get their hands on. The story was that they had chartered every helicopter within a 100 to 200 mile radius. From a particular hill top they were flying performers into the site. They were just about managing to get people into the site when it was time for them to play at their scheduled time. We really didn't have the option of going in earlier to hang around because there was no way to get there unless we wanted to risk getting in by road, which we knew would probably involve a lot of walking. So we waited in the motel or the hotel until it was time for us to report to the landing pad, the landing zone on the hilltop. We went up there and got ferried in. We got in just about dusk. I flew in with Janis on a little teeny bubble helicopter that is really made for two people, but we squeezed in there. The rest of the band came in a larger helicopter that looked like the kind that was unloading troops in Vietnam, like a Huey. Janis didn't play until 10 PM, 11 PM, something like that. So, we were there a few hours before she played. We got out of there and there was enough daylight to see the crowd, to see what was going on. After Janis and the band played, I said "Hey, this is what the transportation arrangements are and it's up to you guys to get yourself back to the hotel by sometime the next day." I left the site in the morning just as Jim Hendrix was beginning to play his famous set that began with "The Star Spangled Banner".
Q - Did you feel by October, 1970 that Janis had peaked? In other words, as an artist, there was nothing left for her to give.
A - No. That's demonstrably untrue. The thing that I didn't foresee and nobody foresaw when Janis left Big Brother was the sequence of what happened with the two bands that were Janis' back-up bands. It's very instructive and directly addresses that question. The first band that she had after Big Brother that became known as The Kosmic Blues Band was assembled for her by advisors Mike Bloomfield, Nick Gravenites and Albert Grossman. They made those decisions. What Janis didn't expect, to me, it's so obvious looking back, but at the time she didn't know how to move into the role of the leader of the band because she had been in this band with four guys who were her co-equal partners in all things. There was no leader. There deliberately was no leader in Big Brother. They didn't believe in leaders. It was a philosophical point of view. They took a position. That's the kind of band Big Brother was. The Kozmic Blues Band never really gelled around Janis. One of the reasons is the musicians that were in the band. In the beginning there was quite a lot of turnover. In the course of the band, we went through three or four trumpet players and three or four drummers. They seemed to be the ones that changed the most. But, the only time that band ever became a band that Janis felt good about and within the band felt good about themselves was when we were on our European tour. In the States there was a lot of hostility to that band because Janis had left Big Brother. There was a lot of hostility to Janis for that move. The greater challenge for her was to see what she could do when she was the only person in the spotlight. Could she carry that? Could she do that? Could she succeed at that? The point came when she accepted that challenge for whatever reasons. In between the time that the Kozmic Blues Band ended and when Janis started forming what became The Full Tilt Boogie Band, somewhere in there, she learned something really important, which was she was going to be judged by the performance of the band and how she was with that band. She had better take a hand in choosing and running the band. By the time I went back with her in May, 1970, there was a big change in Janis. She was comfortable in that role. She had been hand-in-hand with Albert Grossman every step of the way in deciding who was going to be in that band and selecting material. So now we arrive at your question. Had Janis peaked by October 1970? Here's why I say emphatically no, because something else happened that year that was tremendously important to what Janis' future could have been and that was she met, was introduced to Paul Rothchild.
Q - He was the record producer for The Doors.
A - You wanna know what the very first album Paul Rothchild ever produced? It was called The Charles River Boys. I was on the first album Paul Rothchild ever produced. I knew him from then. Then he produced The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Then he did produce The Doors. I had thought that Albert's choice for who produced Janis' first couple of albums were...well, they hadn't turned out well. In both cases when I met those guys, John Simon for Big Brother And The Holding Company and Gabriel Mekler for The Kozmic Blues Band, I kind of had that feeling from the beginning. Who is this guy? How is he possibly gonna get this music? And for very different reasons. John Simon was...well, I won't go into it. Janis in a nutshell hadn't had the right record producer yet. In the Summer of 1970, I think Albert decided let's see if Paul Rothchild can make it work. But, I got a call from Paul and he said "I'm gonna come to a particular gig and because you know me and you know Janis, I think you would be just the guy to introduce me to Janis and kind of help smooth the way. Paul came to the gig and a gig is not the best way to meet anybody. Paul was the right record producer, but they didn't have a chance to talk much that night. I think the gig was somewhere down south of L.A. Shortly after that, we returned to the Bay Area. Paul came up and stayed with me in my apartment in San Francisco. By this time Janis had her house in Larkspur. We went to the house and they hung out. The result of that was that Paul became the guy that produced the album that became "Pearl". Here's why I will maintain with so much assurance that Janis had not peaked: working with Paul was a revelation for Janis. He couldn't carry a tune. But by the time he had worked with an extraordinary amount of musicians. From the beginning he had an amazing ability to communicate with musicians. The other thing that worked between Janis and Paul was that they were both highly intelligent and highly verbal and articulate. So, they really liked talking to each other from the beginning. As soon as Paul found out how smart Janis was and how articulate she could be and what her sense of humor was like, he thought oh, this is gonna be really fun. I came back to the motel in L.A. one day and it was late in the afternoon. Janis was sitting, lying on a lounge by the pool. She was in the shade and was dressed. It was after swim time. She looked very thoughtful and I sat down next to her and said "what's up?" She was kind of lost in thought and shook her head and said "Boy, that guy Rothchild." There was this little warning voice in my head that said "oh, no. What if she's decided he isn't the right guy?" I said "What about him?" She told me how much it was blowing her away working with him. One of the things he was talking to her about was how to use her voice in ways that she hadn't really thought were appropriate for performing. And the difference between performing and recording was something else he was talking to her about at length. She, by working with Paul Rothchild was coming to understand the difference between performing and recording and how to use her voice in ways that might make it possible for her to give everything she had to a performance, but not feel that it was inevitable that she was going to blow her voice out within a short number of years. She talked about this. A lot of people said "My God Janis, how long can you keep that up?" She said "Man, when I blow my voice out, I'm gonna buy a bar in Marin County." Their work together was opening up her understanding of ways to use her voice that were going to stand her in really good stead in the years to come. She was flowering. She expressed to me and to other people at the time what she saw as the future. She was changing her view of the future. If Janis wanted to keep on singing and was learning how to use her voice in a way that would help her keep on singing, then there's no way you can say she had peaked.
Q - OK, so what happened to Janis? After a recording session she went back to the motel, shot up heroin and died.
A - That's a whole other part of life. Nothing that happened there in any way invalidates what I'm saying about the music. Any junkie is a duality. There's a real person in there and then there's this addiction. It's like there another entity present. It's like the dark side of the force is manifest. But, Janis was not the dark side of the force. She had an addiction. She had a problem. She had cleaned herself up and been clean for six months. I know that for a fact. We had gone into Canada in June of 1970 to take this incredible train, The Festival Express from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary and give a series of concerts. We went across an international border and we ran into a French-Canadian custom agent who by God, if any of these hippies had anything he was gonna find it! They took Janis' purse apart, her toilet kit...everything. And she was laughing. She was laughing because she didn't have anything. It was the first time she had gone across an international border that she could remember when she really didn't want them to search her and that was because she had cleaned up her act. And then we were in L.A. and we were recording. Look, don't ask me to explain it to you. Get some junkie to explain it to you. There's things about recording that are boring even if you're real excited about your record producer. Even if you're really excited about the music and the band. She loved The Full Tilt Boogie Band. That band worked in a way Kozmic Blues Band had never worked. When Janis got bored she started dabbling again. The heroin that Janis had that night was, I forget exactly, something like fifty times as strong as you expect street heroin to be. There were other deaths that week attributed to that same batch of heroin. My take on that is really simple; there's no earthly reason for any dealer at any level to put out heroin that's that strong deliberately because he's losing money. If you cut it, you can sell fifty times as much. So, somewhere somebody screwed up.
Q - Where were you when you heard the news that Janis died?
A - Where was I? I was the guy who found the body. That's where I was. I was largely in charge of how the world heard the news. My main concern was that people who were close to her should hear from us before they heard from the media. Just among the group, the band at the motel and the people I had to call, word started spreading like wildfire. We did call her parents, who were asleep in Texas. I had to call her manager, her attorney. For a while I was doing nothing but making phone calls.
Q - What do you remember about Janis?
A - What I remember most about Janis was that she was very smart and she was very funny. I think for a lot of people, those are not necessarily the first two qualities they're going to expect when they talk to somebody who knew her. She was very bright. In my experience with her, what proved that was how much she learned in the course of the three years I was with her, and the difference between Janis when I was first road managing Big Brother and the Summer of 1970 when I was traveling with Janis and The Full Tilt Boogie Band...Janis had learned a lot. And she was funny all the time.