What was it like to be Janis Joplin’s road manager, back in the day? Now you can find out for yourself. ON THE ROAD WITH JANIS JOPLIN is an illuminating, heartbreaking, educating, palpitating, emancipating tome, a new book you just have to read if you care at all about the preternaturally gifted bluesy chick from Port Arthur, Texas and the times that first embraced her and then, let’s face it, erased her.
Other talented authors have also written compellingly about seminal vectors in rock & roll history, but unlike the Greil Marcuses and Peter Guralnicks of the rock world, John Byrne Cooke isn’t so much a reporter as he is a storyteller, a novelist. So you get that journalistic eye and ear for detail, but it flickers through a sense of relaxed pace, rhythmic inevitability, narrative motion that feels more like an ambling river canoe float than the unrelenting, determined freight train of bald historical recitative. (In a typically charming choice of words, the author and a friend “bushwhack“ toward the Pacific coast in their rental car.) Mr. Cooke draws you alongside him, and that warm relationship continually renders this book less about me and more about us. But unlike us, Mr. Cooke was actually, physically present for some world-shaking events.
Now it’s time for full disclosure. Mr. Cooke is a former author of mine — I edited his historical novel THE COMMITTEE OF VIGILANCE, which dramatizes an infamous tumult in his beloved San Francisco — and he remains a personal friend. Among his other works, I particularly commend to you his masterful THE SNOWBLIND MOON, a first novel so fine that it persuaded the grizzled pros of the Western Writers of America to bestow not only their “Medicine Pipe Bearer” award for best debut, but also the prestigious Spur Award for best novel period, a remarkable double honor. So — trust me on this — dude be good. But, as with every other author I’ve had either the privilege (mostly) or the burden (don’t ask) to serve as editor, I would never lie, either to him or for him. What I say below is my unvarnished opinion; I’ll pick a nit or two, but as veteran readers may have already noticed, if I didn’t genuinely like a book, I wouldn’t bring it up in the first place. Vita’s too brevis, y’all.
Further disclosure. Years ago, I got down on my metaphorical knees and begged Mr. Cooke to write his musical memoir. He demurred. I don’t know what finally brought it forth so much later, but I’m not complaining. Even if I didn’t get to publish, I did finally get to read, and it’s a great comfort to know this unique perspective was eventually set down for the rest of us. Do not pass it by. It took me an unusually long time to finish this book, because stray comments kept compelling me to set the thing down and listen again to some primal music I thought I already knew inside and out. That same tug had produced similar revelations with the Beatles before, but this time my emotional stake went as far as the bloody road manager. Get close to the come-hither spell of this book and yours will too.
Mr. Cooke first describes the long and winding road that leads to her door. Like most real-life adventures, his journey hangs on the dual hinges of ability and luck. He’s a New England blueblood who, smitten by the Harvard-area folk scene — you had to be there, man — winds up in a bluegrass band, twanging out the real American songbook. The author’s Charles River Valley Boys (despite the group’s shitkickery-sounding name, the Charles runs by Boston, as any Standells-digging frat boy can tell you) have not only recorded for big-shot label Elektra, but were also debut-produced by the soon-to-be-legendary Paul A. Rothchild, who will figure in later. One thing leads to another, which might as well be the motto of this book, and the author’s music connections deposit him into the office of filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, who is planning to shoot the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival. “Penny” specializes in what they call cinema verite, meaning the product looks like it was simply caught on the fly. Not true, as we learn through the eyes of the guy who runs Nagra sound for Penny at Monterey — and there catches his first glimpse of the amazing Janis Joplin. The Boston folk scene and Penny had already led the author through Bob Dylan (via Penny’s DON’T LOOK BACK) to the Bearsville digs of his manager, Albert Grossman. Then, over dinner one night, Grossman offers Mr. Cooke the job of road manager for his newest client, Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Shep Gordon, longtime manager of such acts as Alice Cooper, cogently reveals a manager’s main mission in Mike Myers’s entertaining new documentary SUPERMENSCH: ”one, get the money; two, always remember to get the money; and three, never forget to always remember to get the money.” A road manager, now, has much more on his mind (certainly not to belittle Shep’s Big Three, you understand), and Mr. Cooke does a wonderful job of describing how one corrals, sweet-talks and disciplines a bunch of less-than-punctual musicians as they go careering from one gig to the next. He is the authority, the responsible adult on tour, and he works for the band but establishes lines of demarcation immediately: I’m not your valet, you carry your own guitars. Only then can he begin to relate to Big Brother personally.
Mr. Cooke is a natural yarn-spinner who respects, even marvels at, the great historical tradition: after a cross-country airplane flight he muses, “In five hours I’ve covered what it took the emigrants of the nineteenth century’s great westward migration months of peril to travel.” Now he’s with a new group of pioneers, bringing the bluesy side of the “San Francisco sound” to an America that’s only now learning about the Haight-Ashbury district, itself already starting to find tourists underfoot. From 1967 on, absent one short break, Mr. Cooke manages the tours of Big Brother, the Kozmic Blues Band, and Full Tilt Boogie: he is with Janis on the road until her death.
As a result, we are able to experience her brief but meteoric career at a legato pace that resembles the speed of real life. For example, we see the making of Big Brother’s first major-label record, CHEAP THRILLS, as the debilitating slog it was. Producer John Simon (whose other work I greatly respect) didn’t click with the band and turned out to be an impediment. The resulting album — still my favorite of Janis’s recordings — was basically saved in the studio by co-producer Elliott Mazer’s clever editing and mixing, which gave the aural impression of a live performance. Mr. Cooke’s musical background gives him valuable perspective and some luscious personal moments. The 1970 “Festival Express” train on its cross-country tour of Canada was a “rolling hootenanny” stuffed with musicians who never quit jamming, and after trading Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers songs with The Band’s Rick Danko one night, the author gets an informal back-slap from Bandmate Richard Manuel: “Hey, man, you can’t sing like that. You’re a road manager.” It’s delightful to sit with Janis in the bar of a Holiday Inn in Austin as a lounge singer “with an electric guitar and a rhythm machine” strikes up “Me and Bobby McGee.” She’s astonished: at this point, the best-known version is on a Roger Miller album, but by coincidence Janis is planning to sing the song tonight at a private birthday party. She leaves the lounge unimpressed.
Mr. Cooke can’t help but become personally attached, so the reader does as well. It hurts us to watch the dissolution of Janis’s first two bands. The reasons are varied, but the pain feels vindicated when she hits her stride with Full Tilt Boogie, the unit that records the exuberant PEARL (Janis’s private, personal nickname) with that same Paul Rothchild on the faders. The band and its singer are each at the very top of their games when an accidental overdose — Janis almost certainly misjudged the potency of the heroin that killed her — ends everything. Our loss is of a pop icon. The author’s is of a close friend.
I love the tone and feel of the story, but if I were still Mr. Cooke’s editor, I’d suggest he watch the abrupt changes from present tense (it sounds more immediate) to past tense (it sounds more reportorial) and back again; they observe some kind of inner logic that isn’t readily apparent to the reader, sometimes occurring within a single sentence. I would also have corrected the repeated misspelling of Hugh Masekela’s name: a simple mistake by the author but very embarrassing for the copyeditor, who presumably understood pop music of the period but also managed to muff Ritchie Valens, a name easier to spell correctly. Also, John, James Gurley wrenches five guitar notes before the “Handelian silence” (love that!) on “Ball and Chain,” not four, but that’s beyond the typical copyeditor’s powers: you’d have to luck into a CHEAP THRILLS nerd like me to correct that.
As I hoped and suspected all those years ago, this is a document we’re lucky to have. Nobody else could have told this story this intimately, because it requires unusual talent in both seeing and hearing. And besides taking us way backstage into the life of a glorious talent, John Byrne Cooke’s wonderful narrative also pays tribute in the best way possible: it encourages us to go back and reclaim the music, to honor what was — while we continue to luxuriate in what is.
2/17/15: Today we learned that Sam Andrew has passed away. Say hi to Janis, man.