Lazarus and I rolled into San Francisco squeezed in the backseat of an Alfa Romeo convertible. It was the last leg of our week-long adventure hitchhiking across the country. The driver and his girlfriend offered us a place to crash, a townhouse in the Haight-Ashbury district that served as both a small commune and a psychedelic poster company. And – talk about luck! – they gave us tickets to Winterland’s Halloween Ball
The ball, called “Trip or Freak,” was that night, Halloween 1967. The performers were the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin. It’s Joplin’s performance that remains the most vivid memory of my hippy sojourn in SF.
What struck me at first was her outfit – especially the bikini-like top with two halves of a coconut shell covering her breasts, which seemed rather risqué to my college-girl eyes. And she was in constant motion. As she dove deeper into the first song, her sexually-charged energy increased. I stopped dancing and, mesmerized, just watched – and listened hard. The soulful way she belted out a song blew me away. I’d never seen or heard anything like that.
I completely agree with David Walsh, who wrote in his review of the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, “anyone who saw Janis Joplin in person, especially in a more intimate space, is not likely to forget it…. I have never from that time to this seen a performer as generous and as giving—and as vulnerable. One almost inevitably fell in love with her.”
Although offering a feminist analysis would not have occurred to me at the time, in retrospect I also agree with Lorraine Ali, who wrote in her Los Angeles Times film review, “The reaction of audiences, who were floored and almost blindsided by the sheer passion of Joplin, illustrates what a true anomaly she was in a rock world populated almost entirely of men. Joplin didn’t wave the flag of feminism, she embodied it.”
Walsh and Ali were writing about Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue (trailer). This film, the first full-length documentary about Joplin, was released Friday (12/4/15) in major metropolitan areas nationwide. None of the listed theater locations are near me; so I may have to wait until PBS’ American Masters airs it, which, according to the film’s official site, will be in early 2016.
After that amazing first night in SF, I continued to live and work at the psychedelic poster commune. My hitchhiking buddy, a chemistry graduate student named Steve who changed his name to Lazarus after his first LSD trip, soon journeyed on; I never saw him again. Eventually I grew disillusioned with the scene, flew home, and in January resumed my role as a college sophomore – forever changed: more self-assured and with a greater appreciation for the kindness of strangers. All round, it was an excellent adventure.
“Trip or Freak” poster designed by Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin. For details about the poster’s creation, see this discussion by PosterCentral’s Pete Howard.
Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the 1997 Monterey Pop Festival (found on Pinterest without attribution).
Janis: Little Girl Blue poster (Jigsaw Productions).
Recommended Youtube videos:
Amazing Joplin performance of “Ball and Chain’’ at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (Youtube)
Another amazing Joplin performance, “Piece of My Heart” live in Germany 1968, with audience participation
Joplin’s Greatest Hits, all audio exceptwith a photo and table of contents
Documentarian Ondi Timoner interviews director Amy Berg about her new film Janis: Little Girl Blue