Janis Joplin – every girl wanted to be her and every guy wanted to be with her. Her free spirit encouraged all to let go of failures, to reach for new beginnings, to cry and laugh with the human condition. She was 27 years old when she died 43 years ago on Oct. 4, 1970.
I bought a boot-leg t-shirt of Janis at the Texas International Pop Festival where she appeared on Labor Day weekend, 1969. I was 18, she was 26.
The silk-screened image – hijacked from the back of her Cheap Thrills album – on the back of my white shirt danced with every step I took.
The songs in her raw, plaintive voice provided the soundtrack for my teen angst – and that of millions of others. Her joie de vivre was the essence of 1960s youth.
A few weeks later, on October 18, 1969, a little-known band opened for Janis Joplin in the Hemisfair Arena. A year before their First Album, ZZ Top sang a ribald ditty that upset the sensibilities of the concert promoters.
“I need a girl who will treat me right. I need a girl who can *@#! all night,” they sang. They were unplugged by the second chorus. This upset the fans whose catcalls of criticism seethed with rage and violence. If someone were to start throwing chairs, a full-fledged riot was certain to ensue.
Fortunately, ZZ Top was too unknown – or maybe the crowd came to see Janis and didn’t care how short the warm-up band’s set was.
Janis took the stage that October night, and before her first song, she addressed the audience. “Friends, we’ve got a *@#!ing problem,” she said. “They tell me I can’t *@#!ing talk like I wanna *@#!ing talk.” She challenged the promoters to just try to shut her down. The show continued.
Janis was from Port Arthur and never fit in with mainstream society. There were a lot of people in the late 60s who didn’t fit in with mainstream society. They all fit together. Several are still around.
Patrick Evans recalled that Janis reached for a bottle of whiskey that was sitting on an amplifier. “She spun the cap off with one hand and took several gulps before setting the bottle down,” he said.
There was another story about Janis kicking a guy in the face. Johnny Colvin recalled she kicked the $%!+ out of a guy in the audience for groping. “It would have been a 75 yard field goal kick,” he said. Another person remembers the guy was trying to grab her bottle.
Ticket prices ranged from $3.50 for seats in the rafters (this was before they raised the roof in the Hemisfair Arena) to $6.00 towards the front on the floor. This meant that a kid with a minimum wage job could work for three hours and receive about three hours of entertainment – a bargain. Today’s minimum wage worker will have to toil six or seven hours to see a top-name entertainer.
Towards the end of the Joplin concert, the ushers abandoned their posts. This allowed hundreds to leave their cheap seats and rush the stage. Sure, we blocked the view of those who paid six bucks for the front row – but now it was our turn. And we relished the moment.
A black dude was dancing in front of the stage, and Janis invited him to dance with her. A security guard stopped him from climbing on stage, but Janis signaled it was OK.
Margaret Moser was at the Janis concert and remembers it well. “A local guy named James Ball jumped up on the stage and danced with her for a few minutes.”
I was dancing too, but James was shaking it. His belt came undone and it was flopping around like a… well, it was very phallic. And Janis loved it.
Janis Joplin cried when she sang the blues – and we cried with her. She laughed when she spoke to her friends and fans – it was a giggle that implied conspiracy – and we laughed with her.
She died less than a year after her San Antonio appearance, and something died within the heart of each of her fans. But something lives in our hearts as well. We remember that October night. We remember Janis’ strengths and insecurities. And we are all a bit freer because of her.
Don Mathis served as president of the Texoma Poetry Society in 2011 (a Sherman member of the Poetry Society of Texas). And in 2010, ‘Dionysus Don’ was crowned champion of the McKinney Poetry Slam. Don is very involved in the poetry community in Bexar County. He is a founding member of the San Antonio Poetry Fair and participates regularly with Sun Poets and La Taza writers’ group. His poetry has been published in anthologies, periodicals and has appeared on local TV and national radio.