An Interview with John Byrne Cooke
At Powell's Books in Portland in early November, I had the good fortune to hear John Byrne Cooke read from his book On the Road with Janis Joplin, and later we discussed his years with Janis, when he was her road manager from 1967 until the time of her death in 1970. In the 1960s, Cooke was a musician and vocalist with the Charles River Valley Boys, a Cambridge, Mass.-based bluegrass and old-time band. He is also an accomplished photographer, filmmaker, and writer. Cooke spoke with me this past December from his home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where he has lived since 1982.
I loved how a book like yours, being a nonfiction account of the many famous people you met and worked with, and there were many, avoided the kind of shameless namedropping and litany of dates and names and places that a memoir like this could fall prey to. Your book, however, is a sincere and personal account of the time you spent with Janis as her road manager. But one thing I didn't like about your book is the way it ends: Janis dies.
You know, early on, when I was getting ready for the book tour, I thought of a way to approach that, which is to say, look, we know the story has a sad ending. However, it's not a sad story. And so the reasons why it's not a sad story can be the subject of a conversation I wanted to write, a story where I hope whatever any given reader may know or think they know about Janis, and whatever books they might have read about her, I hope they will learn something new from this book, and perhaps gain a new level of understanding about her when they get to the end of my story.
Late in the book I found one of the quotes from Janis telling. She said, "Something happened that year  and I became a grownup. I always swore I would never become a grownup no matter how old I got, but I think it happened. No sense worrying about it. Just rock on through." Was that something Janis worried about, becoming a "grownup"?
No, it was the sixties, man, you know, don't trust anybody over thirty. We weren't going to grow up. I have a friend who said long after the sixties, perhaps in the nineties, a close friend, Fritz Richmond, the world's greatest washtub bass player, who said, "I may grow old but that doesn't mean I have to grow up." You know, that means among other things, keep a childlike attitude, remaining open to wonder.
The story as I experienced it, was that in the course of three years, Janis played with three bands, and those three years with three bands formed a dramatic "arc" if you will, a three act dramatic structure. Many people seem to expect -- based on other things they've read -- that the third act must be the most difficult and the hardest and the saddest and it's absolutely not. The second act, 1969, the Kozmic Blues Band, ultimately was a failure. That band had moments absolutely, for sure the European Tour of 1969, Janis's only European tour. We played five capitals plus Frankfurt. We played Copenhagen, Stockholm, Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt. Those concerts without exception were exceptional. The band really came together, as I say in the book. But ultimately the band was a failure because it never became the backup band that she wanted. She at that time had no experience being a band leader, and couldn't really articulate what she wanted from the band, and because of that, she took the failure personally; she felt that she was failing, and that led to the worst abuse of drugs and alcohol during the time I was with her. I didn't see her for six months after the end of Kozmic Blues. I didn't see her until late May of 1970 and I went back out on the road with her and she was a changed woman. I mean, comfortable in herself in ways she never had been before and happier about her personal and professional life.
The only other time before that I had seen her that happy was when I first started working with Big Brother as their road manager. Because at that point they had had a triumph at the Monterey Pop Festival, they had had a triumph at the Monterey Jazz Festival that far fewer people knew about, and they had been signed by Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, and they were going to go out and conquer the world. The feeling was pretty high and pretty positive at that point.
In the summer of 1970 Janis had been through the difficult times of 1969, and they were tough for her, but she had applied her considerable intelligence and learned the lessons, learned most of the lessons there were to be learned from those hard times. She had become a band leader before she ever went out on the road with Full Tilt Boogie. She was the leader of that band and not in an authoritarian way. She knew what she wanted, she knew how to tell them, and those guys just worshipped her. It was a tight unit before we went back out on the road. That's a time I could point to and say, yeah, she was a grownup. She was benefitting from what she had learned and it was evident to me.
Would you consider her a "self-made" woman far ahead of her times?
As a singer she was unique and so that's not a matter of being ahead of her time. Part of the problem about her growing up was that she was born in January 1943, and so she became a teenager in the 1950s in a respectable family where both of her parents were educated people and they were intelligent people, but it was a small town, a Gulf Coast oil town, Port Arthur, Texas, and the general culture of the Fifties was very much in operation, and this included what was proper for a young girl as she moved toward adolescence and womanhood-to-be and how she should act. Janis rebelled against that.
She wanted to be a woman more in charge of her life. When she talked about "our" parents, the parents of those of us who grew up at that time, she said, they lied to us about everything, man. They lied to us about drugs, they lied to us about black people, they lied to us about sex, they told us all of this stuff, you know, the sex and the drugs and all. She felt that a lot of the values of the culture at large of the mid-fifties that were laid on her about how to behave were wrong. She said, we've been lied to. And so her reaction was, you've got to experience everything yourself and find out for yourself what's true, because what they told us wasn't true.
In a lighter-hearted vein, we can point at the way she behaved in terms of men and women. Once she was out there on the road as a singer, she really behaved more like a guy in how she surveyed the room for potential mates for the evening, or for life, she said, "My, look at all those pretty boys!" and she'd say, "Hiya, Honey!" and she wouldn't necessarily wait for the guy to come over to her and say, "Hi." And so that really was ahead of her time, and she was willing to behave that way. It was part of the public persona that she projected, this woman who would be socially aggressive, sexually aggressive.
You write, "Her parents tried to instill in her a sense of propriety that Janis found too confining, but it was among her own contemporaries, the majority who were more accepting of the narrow, conformist views of the 1950s, that the trigger for Janis's defensiveness were put in place. Her inquisitive intelligence saw the hypocrisy in conforming to get along, and she just wouldn't hold her tongue."
Yeah, that was characteristic of her behavior. That was like a signature aspect of her behavior... I like this paragraph a lot because that captures a particular aspect of Janis that I think is true.
Going back to the European Tour, why do you think the band began to dissipate after the Kozmic Blues Band returned to the states? Things just fell apart again.
We'd really only been on the road in America for six or seven weeks before we went to Europe. Janis was very aware of, in the press, when the Kozmic Blues band first went out, comparisons with Big Brother and the controversy over Janis leaving Big Brother. I mean, in the Bay Area, which were the longest-term staunchest fans of Big Brother and the Holding Company, there were people who called Janis a "traitor" for leaving Big Brother. They didn't see the motive of, as I put it, Janis accepting the bigger challenge, to see whether she could hold center stage and hold the public's attention as a solo artist with a backup band. When we got to Europe that awareness was not part of the conversation at all. The audiences there didn't know anything about that. All they had been hearing for a couple of years since Monterey was "Janis Joplin, Janis Joplin." And some of them may have had the Cheap Thrills album, and they knew they wanted to hear Janis Joplin live, and so it was a very positive atmosphere. And the band came together.
We were strangers in a strange land, we were a little group of traveling Americans over there in Europe, some of the boys had never been over there before, and it was exciting and it made them a group in a way that wasn't so obvious at home. Nobody said, we've really got to knuckle down now that we're playing in Denmark, or wherever. It just happened, and so when you've played Amsterdam and Copenhagen and Stockholm and Paris, the Olympia Theatre, for god sake, and the Royal Albert Hall in London, and you get back to the United States and your first gig is in Springfield, Massachusetts, it is not as exciting. It was pretty much a natural process, that the difficulties in the band, the lack of a cohesive vision of exactly what the music should be, that had been apparent before, became apparent again.
The fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival is rapidly approaching. Do you think adults the age of my son and daughter who are in their twenties need to read your book?
First of all, Janis has an extraordinary following on social media and the major group, just over fifty percent, but it is the major group, are in the age group 18-34. And it's not because anybody posed an argument to them that they should know about this woman. It's because her music reaches across the years and grabs people.
But in terms of talking about the book, if anybody has any curiosity about the sixties in general, because the book does talk through my own experience about the transition from the folk revival into rock-and-roll by the end of the decade. If they have any interest specifically about Janis, there's an even stronger case, which is, this is the only book told from the point of view of the road, and that's where a musician's life is. It's Janis touring with Big Brother, touring with Kozmic Blues, going to Europe, touring with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, including the Festival Express train across Canada in the summer of 1970. It's an insider's view of the sixties.
Something that might appeal to younger readers would be just to say, look, this isn't some survey history by somebody who researched it in other books. This is an interesting. and I hope entertaining, tale told by somebody who was there. It's a unique view of the sixties and of Janis Joplin and if you have any interest at all, this book will hold your attention.
In your book you tell the stories of how Janis hit Jim Morrison over the head with a bottle after his affront, and how she slapped Jerry Lee Lewis in a Louisiana roadhouse after he insulted her. Janis sounds like she was one tough bird.
"Tough" is part of the public persona that Janis projected but she was also extremely vulnerable, insecure in certain ways. It's particularly noticeable talking to the guys from Big Brother, who told me that especially when she was first with the band, she was constantly seeking reinforcement. "Was it really O.K.?" Sam [Andrew, guitarist and vocalist for Big Brother and Kozmic Blues] is both funny and eloquent on the subject of how often you would have to say, "Yeah, Janis, you were really great" and reassure her.
That's why, for me, the most significant quote in the book is one of the very first that I put at the end of the book in the section that's called "Memories," which is the summing up by all of these people who were close to Janis that I've cited in the book. I interviewed thirty-some people who knew Janis really well, and the picture that you get from talking to them is cohesive, and it supports the picture of her that I give in this book. The one on page 387, from Milan Melvin, I found out when I interviewed him that he had been Janis's lover in very early 1967, before Monterey, before I came along. It wasn't a long-term thing. But I didn't know that he'd seen her in the summer of 1970. And it addresses directly what I was just talking about, her insecurity, seeking that reassurance: "Was it really O.K.?" She said to Milan, "I'm really doin' it, man, for the first time in my life, I believe I can sing." He said, "She was really excited that she had finally found it. And that she had mastered something that had bothered her for her whole life, her whole singing life, anyway." And that was a great discovery because, obviously, the singing, which is her whole life, the one hour on stage, and she was often correctly quoted as saying, "Man, I put up with twenty-three hours a day just for that one hour on stage."
Her talent, that was central to her life; she had reached a point that summer where she said, "I believe that I can sing, I'm really doin' it. For the first time in my life, I believe that I can sing!" This is a really big step up in her confidence and her comfort in herself, for her to say, I really believe I can do it.
You say in your book that Janis realized that she had more than one singing voice.
Yeah... It's in the conversation between Janis and Paul Rothchild, who produced the Pearl album, when he said, "Sing for me like you sang in the church choir," and she sings this pure soprano and as he says, no broken glass, no rusty nails. Paul was making her aware of how to use different voices at her command, and to consider more critically when to use her voice at full power. And this was opening up to her a whole other way of looking at her singing. Look at all these options. And Paul was never making her feel, you've got to hold back. He was making her see the range of options as something exciting, and expanding her possibilities.
I identify with Janis's growing up in a rural town. My fantasy was to go off, make it big, and drive down Main Street in a big convertible, flip the bird, and say, "Fuck all of you!"
You totally understand why Janis went to her high school reunion...
And it sounds like she didn't get no satisfaction... people ignored her.
Not exactly. I do say in the book that before we all got there, but after Janis got there, the reunion committee asked to meet with her and they said, "What do you want?" And she was being polite in saying, "Oh, nothing." Well, of course she wanted something. On the other hand, she was brought up well enough, and she was certainly intelligent enough, that she didn't want to sit there in the living room of one of the members of the reunion committee and lay out for them what she wanted. A well-bred, polite girl doesn't do that, and yet within the context of the whole thing, you'd think they would have realized they needed to do something to acknowledge how far she had come and what she had achieved since she left Port Arthur. And it was not to make her the center of the reunion. But the other thing was, just the very nature of the reunion itself, there weren't that many events and there wasn't that much opportunity for her.
You're right. She didn't find the satisfaction. I mean how satisfying actually can it be to go home and flip the bird to the people you thought didn't understand you, didn't agree with you politically, didn't agree with you culturally. The values that were laid on you when you were in high school. It's very hard to find satisfaction, but I did have a feeling that somehow even though there wasn't satisfaction of, "Boy, I really showed those guys!" just having gone through it somehow enabled her to put some part of that behind her.
But still Janis was flying to Port Arthur frequently?
Occasionally. She really -- they asked her at the little press conference at the reunion, somebody said, will you be coming back more often to Port Arthur now? And she really hedges the question. She said, "Well, I don't know, because San Francisco is a pretty hip place to be." It showed that she was comfortable in San Francisco, again, which she hadn't been in the year with Kozmic Blues.
[San Francisco Chronicle critic] Ralph Gleason's comment, after her first appearance in San Francisco with Kozmic Blues, that she should go back to Big Brother, "if they'll have her," really hurt her. That's another thing to emphasize about why that year was so hard for her -- this city that had always welcomed eccentrics and had certainly welcomed her, and she felt it was her home town, and during '69 she didn't feel that way, but as her answer at the reunion press conference shows, she felt at home in San Francisco again in 1970, and that meant everything to her.
You also talk about the role of the tragic hero toward the end of your book. Do you consider Janis to have had a tragic ending?
The penalty tragic heroes pay is out of proportion to the offense. If they were only getting their just rewards, then we wouldn't feel tragedy. I found this in that book of Greek tragedies at my friend's house in Big Sur after Janis died, but of course when I was writing my book I went back into certain sources I have on hand here. The whole point for Janis was, that yes, she is flirting with danger, having experienced the exultation of being straight and taking pride in being straight for those five or six months and then flirting with her addiction again. She bears a measure of responsibility, but because we know that the dope she died from was way stronger than anyone expects street heroin to be, it exactly fits the circumstance. The penalty she paid was out of proportion for the risk that she took, and it is exactly that that makes the ending that much sadder.
What I hope we learn in the course of this story is that Janis was not some moth flirting around the flame and catching fire and bound to crash and burn. Because these qualities that we've discovered in her along the way -- the ability to go through hard times and learn the lessons and grow as a result -- are exactly the qualities we admire in someone. So what I hope is that she emerges from the book not just as a more fully rounded person who had an extraordinary talent as a singer, but that we have also found that there are qualities in her we can admire, that she is someone we can admire.