A few weeks ago Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company posted a video of Big Brother at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, 1967, on Facebook. It is a clip taken from the movie “Monterey Pop,” and it is of Janis Joplin singing, “Ball and Chain.” I watched it again with some fascination, because, children, I was there. Toward the end of the song when she sang, “Buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-BAYBEE!” it felt like our heads exploded.
By the way, I have never heard a recording of Janis Joplin, or seen a movie, including this clip of her performance at Monterey, that captured the electricity of her live performances. This clip may come the closest.
How often do you witness a moment in time that changes everything for a person? When Janis Joplin sang, “Ball and Chain” at Monterey, she was seen and taken seriously for the first time by all the music industry people who were there, and suddenly they were interested in her. It was the beginning of her career in the music world beyond San Francisco. At the time I was thrilled that the world was finding out about her, because I believed she was the most exciting singer in the world. It didn’t occur to me that becoming famous could ruin, and prematurely end, her life.
Another performer who was already subject to the tender mercies of the recording industry but exploded into popular consciousness at Monterey was Jimi Hendrix, coming back from a stay in England to conquer America. He had been working as a guitarist for most of his young life, including a gig in Little Richard’s band, where he must have studied the master, because Hendrix knew how to manipulate an audience. Unlike many of the musicians who played at the festival, he was the whole package – innovative guitarist and consummate entertainer. He had a sly sense of humor that allowed him to play with the audience.
Yes, I was there to see him, but I missed the legendary burning of his guitar because at that point the audience stood on their chairs so they could see what was happening, and I didn’t jump up on a chair fast enough. All I saw was the backs of all these people standing on chairs in front of me. When the guy on the chair next to me finally got back down I asked what happened, and he shrugged and said, “Oh, he burned his guitar. Same old thing.”
Joplin and Hendrix went on from that weekend and those performances to rock the world. They burned through the cultural atmosphere like the shooting stars they were for a little over three years. They were born about six weeks apart, and died about two weeks apart. Hendrix died on September 18, 1970, and Janis died on October 4, 1970. They were 27 years old. People are still talking about them and buying their music.
I was a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that spring, and hitchhiked up through Big Sur to get to the festival, catching a ride in a hearse that was driven by another Cal Poly student. I was lucky enough to get a spot to stay in the volunteers’ building on the fairgrounds, and when Janis and her friends showed up there to celebrate after the concert on Sunday night, I went up to her and jabbered about how great she was and how much I loved her singing while she looked at me as if wondering how dangerous I really was. I picked up on that and left her alone after that.
I did not meet Jimi Hendrix.
On Monday morning I caught a ride with some hippies heading north and they dropped me off in my home town, where I got into another fight with my parents and headed back to San Francisco to spend a second summer living between Berkeley and the Haight-Ashbury.
In retrospect I’d judge that there is a lot to be said for not being famous. Famous people tend to die young. Having seen and met some famous people in my youth, however, gives me some fun reminiscences of an evening. Did I ever tell you about the time…oh. I did? Well, never mind.