Meeting Janis Joplin backstage at a concert in 1968 was an eye-opening moment for the author, who was part of the Boomers’ generation shift from square to experiemental.
A story of cheap thrills left tragically, maddeningly unthrilled as the Boomer Generation went from square to daring
I am from the generation of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. At this point any one of those three can lead to a hip replacement. Last night Julie said, “Richard, let’s run upstairs as fast as we can and then make passionate love!” I went, “Whoa, baby! One or the other.” The sexual revolution has come to this.
It was not easy for me to become a hippie. I knew that I did not want to pass my days perched blurry-eyed on the edge of a sofa cushion pondering such wisdom as “money doesn’t grow on trees.” I truly wanted to be a beatnik, to meet the heavies, to have untamed adventure and wild sex. But I was born Richard Robert Stockton in Bakersfield, my mama called me Dicky Bob. We were country—when my family would go to the dump we would come back with more stuff than we took. My family was so conservative, I remember my mother wearing her I Like Ike button after the 1956 election. When I asked my mother how babies were made she read from Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book Common Sense Guide to Child and Baby Care, “Babies are made when the daddy plants a seed inside the mommy.” This gave me the most bizarre image because my father was a farmer.
Our family appeared to be more perfect than Ozzie and Harriet, but what we had perfected was the art of hiding the truth. My mother would proudly tell me, “Everyone thinks we are the perfect family, no one knows our troubles.” To authentically express a feeling was not part of our world.
It was a consciously innocent time. Through the ’50s, sexuality became more and more part of the national discussion, but it was still hidden—an innuendo, a covered promise. There is not an American man my age who was not a Mickey Mouse Club fan, transfixed by the developments inside of Annette Funicello’s sweater.
The sexual revolution may have had its beginnings in the 1920s, but women were hardly liberated. Even as Rosie the Riveter went back to being a non-working sex object on a pedestal, women wanted more. Men expected that women would return to stay quietly in the shadows and, even in 1961 Marvel Comics, introduced the first female super-heroine, “Invisible Girl.” Her super powers were that she could not be seen and not be heard.
The baby boom started in 1946 and ended in 1964, the year American women started using the Pill. The Pill set women free. Boomers did want to change everything, but for our sexual journey we had no model, no road map. This was all new. We were inventing ourselves as we traveled along, and newly liberated women were the drivers.
Suddenly, it’s early spring, 1968, the year after the Summer of Love, and I’m embarrassed about how little I know about the subject. I am a college student at UC Berkeley. My hair hangs to my shoulders, I’m six feet one inch tall, I weigh 140 pounds. I’m 18 years old, but I could pass for 14.
I’m terrified of Berkeley, where self-expression is so open. I look hippie enough, but that is to hide my sheltered innocence. I have no idea what it means to be myself. I am completely drawn to the revolution, but the sex part is beyond me. I am literally exploding with testosterone, but I’ve had 18 years of conditioning to bottle that up. What I don’t get is that the sexual revolution is part and parcel of the greater revolution.
My college roommate Greg plays trumpet in a soul band called the Loading Zone. He takes me to one of his shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, where I’m supposed to meet him backstage after the concert. I sit cross-legged on the floor, dazzled by women making out with women, men with men, and dancers spinning through the air. I hope I look cool enough not to be thrown out as an interloper.
The Loading Zone plays with Linda Tillery, shaking the building with “Cold Sweat,” and for an encore she sings “Try A Little Tenderness.” As the song begins, I’m thinking, “Yeah, that’s how to make love to a woman—you try a little tenderness.” But then the song changes and I start getting a mixed message, as she growls, “You got to try a little tenderness/Oh yeah, you got to hold her, squeeze her, tell you can’t just can’t, can’t luh-luh-luh-leave her/You got to take her, make her give it up now, sock it to her/You got to nah-nah-nah, got to, drop, try a little tenderness!” With eyes wide, I gasp, “I’m not a virgin, but I think I have been doing it really wrong.”
Then Bill Graham comes out and introduces Big Brother and The Holding Company. The band is wild, with shredding lead guitars over driving psychedelic blues that makes you feel like you are being pulled onto a runaway train. But the thing is the singer. This red-haired woman named Janis; so vulnerable, injured but not broken, singing of being tough as she gives you another piece of her heart. Not the typically pretty woman, but she turns herself inside out exposing raw sexuality. Sometimes she screams with white heat like she is on the verge of being out of control.
I’m in awe of her. I shrink into my sheltered innocence. She lives a life that I cannot fathom. She bleeds into the microphone, “The sun came along, grabbed ahold of me and it felt just like a ball and chain.” I am sucked into a vortex. She rips her shirt open and screams, “Take another piece of my heart.” I’ve never shown anyone my heart, let alone given someone a piece of it. My god, what kind of life does this woman lead? She knows everything, and I know nothing. She screams the honest truth of rebellion with every note. She is integral to what the whole revolution is about. She is irrepressible life, and I am a waste of protoplasm.
Backstage with Janis Joplin
The Fillmore goes into a trance for climax after climax, and then the show ends. The crowd filters out, and I sit on the floor stunned, drenched in sweat. I remember Greg said to meet him backstage so I climb the stairs and step behind the curtain. I blink in the darkness, peering around for Greg.
My eyes get used to the dim light. There’s the singer with red hair, the woman named Janis. She’s looking right at me. She slowly moves closer, smiles and puts her hand on my shoulder. “Want a drink?” She holds out a bottle of Southern Comfort. I lift the bottle and swallow. It’s sweet and hot.
Her voice is husky, “So what are you doing?”
We are standing so close together I can smell the whiskey on her breath. Her question is so direct and clear.
“Oh, I’m waiting for my friend Greg to get a ride back to our apartment in Berkeley.”
“Well you don’t have to go with him, do you? What if you and I go somewhere?”
I feel like I’ve dropped through the ground into dark space. My lungs freeze.
“Oh, that would be great, but … yeah, I told Greg I’d meet him here.”
She moves her face close to mine, almost touching, “Sugar, forget Greg. I have somewhere we can go.”
“Wow.” I can’t breathe. “That sounds great.” She is too strong, too real, too honest. She is too far beyond me. My vision goes dark.
“But … Greg will be looking for me. He’s my ride home.”
She lowers her head and releases all her breath towards the floor. Then she straightens and smiles, leans forward, presses her lips against mine and pushes her tongue down my throat. She takes back the bottle, turns and walks into the darkness.
I swallow, thinking, “Wow, that girl drinks a lot of Southern Comfort.”
On the ride back to Berkeley, I tell Greg about my encounter with Janis Joplin. He hits the steering wheel with his fist, “What are you doing in this car? Why are you here with me? Are you completely insane?”
I turn to Greg, “You know, I think that girl likes me.”
“You are a moron. She doesn’t like you. She wanted to have sex with you.”
“Oh. Really? Oh.”
Free Love was a noble, flawed experiment, and for me—as for much of my generation— women led the way. I did miss the opportunity for sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll that night. But this courageous woman reached me with her soul and lifted me.
Driving home from the concert, I feel like living proof that it takes a village to raise an idiot. But as we cross the Bay Bridge, Berkeley doesn’t scare me so much. It’s OK to tell people what I really want, how I really feel. This singer named Janis showed me how to scream my own truth. Berkeley approaches and looks like a good place to get started.