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JOHN BYRNE COOKE

Janis Joplin's road manager recalls the enduring legend...

Janis Joplin John Byrne Cooke has worn many hats in his life. A Harvard graduate, he's been a musician, a photographer and road manager for one of rock's most enduring legends, Janis Joplin.

A few years ago, he penned 'Janis - The Performance Diary'.

This is an edited version - to obtain the full interview click here

GJ: Were you originally a folk musician?

JBC : Yeah. By the time I started performing I was a bluegrass musician and a member of the Charles River Valley Boys, a bluegrass band formed in Cambridge, Massachusetts by a Harvard student in 1959. I became aware of the whole folk scene as a kid. I had some records. If you look back you can see that they meant something to me. They were really little beacons pointing the way, but at the time they were just part of my record collection. A 10 inch LP by Woody Guthrie, a 10 inch LP by Leadbelly. Things by Burl Ives. When I got to high school there were a handful of people playing guitar and influenced by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

When I got to Harvard in the Fall of 1958 there was nothing like a folk boom. Not long after Joan Baez started performing at the Club 47 in Cambridge. She was the first regularly scheduled folk act. this was at a time when coffee houses had chess, poetry and jazz. Over a short period of time, coffee houses became the center of the folk movement.

There were a lot of people in Cambridge influenced by the fact that Joan stood there onstage and played these beautiful songs. For me that was the beginning of going to Club 47 in Cambridge which arguably became the single most important coffee house in the United States, for the folk music years.

The club made these monthly calendars that were works of art in themselves. I have a pretty good assortment of those calendars and if you look at any month from 1964 to 1967, your jaw will just drop at the number of people you've heard of, who were playing there. (laughs) It was impressive.

The folk boom was a time when the new generation began to pick up guitars, banjos, fiddles, whatever, and play. At the same time, there were a lot of traditional musicians re-discovered. People went down to the south and dug out the old time white musicians and the early blues musicians, based on recordings they made in the very early days of the recording business, in the late-20s and early 30s, which were subsequently re-issued on Folkway Records or included in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.

GJ: Were you a guitarist or singer or both?

JBC : I was a guitarist and lead singer. Not the original guitar player and lead singer of the Charles River Valley Boys. In the Fall of 1961 the band's guitar player had gone to Europe and decided to stay for a while. I got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.

GJ: What were you studying at Harvard?

JBC : Oh, I have no idea (laughs). I took a year off between my sophomore and junior years because I really didn't know what my Major was going to be. Once you enter Junior year, you're pretty much committed. It becomes difficult to switch majors after that.

I spent a lot of time in Europe, the year before I became a Charles River Valley Boy. I decided to major in Romance Languages because I had some knowledge of Spanish.

GJ: I can see that if you're a Road Manager travelling the world, a background in languages could be useful?

JBC : In those days (68, 69 and 70), the international tours were not anything like as frequent as now. The only time during the three years I was with Janis Joplin when we went overseas, it was the spring of 1969 with the band that became known as the Kozmic Blues Band. We played 6 cities - Frankfurt, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam and London.

This was the only time that we went out of the USA, other than to Canada. Big Brother (and the Holding Company) had gone up to Vancouver a couple of times in their early career.

GJ: So after being a musician in college, what was your next step? Photographer or road manager?

JBC : Well, you know, I never regarded myself as a professional photographer. I was just taking pictures all the time. I started shooting 35mm in high school in (Putney School in Vermont). It was a school that was very strong in the arts, and continues to be so.

While at Putney I learned how to develop my own film. I got my first 35mm camera. When I was in Cambridge I had an uncle who lived just 15 minutes away in Arlington, he had a darkroom in his basement. I really just did it for my own interest, I made no efforts at all to show or sell any of my pictures. I knew people in the record business but I never offered them any pictures. I wasn't thinking commercially about photography, I was thinking more about playing music and enjoying the '60s.

What got me into the next phase, road managing, was really a result of the evolution of the counter-culture of the time. By 1965 you're beginning to get folk-rock groups and then, largely as a result of the British Invasion, rock 'n' roll became a big thing.

For people playing folk music including a fairly lively and pretty good bluegrass band, it became harder to make a marginal living. I thought it was time to do something else. I didn't think I was going to be a career road manager, I thought it would be a terrific job to do as a stop-gap, because I would go to a lot of places and meet a lot of people.

I knew Albert Grossman, who was Bob Dylan's manager, and a good friend of mine - Bob Neuwirth had been on the road with Dylan as his road manager for about a year.

Actually the first job I did, took me away from music for awhile but this was how things happened - amazingly - in the sixties. Bob Neuwirth had known of the filmmaker D.A Pennebaker because Pennebaker shot Dylan's 1965 spring tour of England. That film became the movie 'Don't Look Back'. In the summer of '67 Pennebaker had been approached by some people in LA who were putting together a musical event called the Monterey International Pop Festival in June of 1967. They signed Penny up to shoot the film of the festival. All of a sudden, I got a chance to go to Monterey as part of the film crew. The amazing thing that came out of that was that the Charles River valley Boys got our one and only Californian Tour. I really don't remember how it happened, which means it genuinely was the '60s.

We spent a month after the Festival playing a coffee house in Berkeley and the Berkeley Folk Festival. It was smack in the middle of the summer of love. However I was still looking for other opportunities outside of the band, and that fall Albert Grossman asked me to have dinner with him in New York. Albert had signed Big Brother and the Holding Company,, the band that had blown everyone away at Monterey featuring the stunning vocal talents of a girl from Texas called Janis Joplin.

At that point Albert managed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and he told me that he had some bands that needed a road manager. I ended up managing Big Brother and the Holding Company…

I saw Janis Joplin at Monterey when I was the soundman in Pennebaker's film crew. We had a kind of catwalk built on each side of the stage for filming which meant that we were closer to the musicians than anyone. On that occasion, I didn't meet her backstage.

GJ: But you realised you were seeing something pretty special…

JBC : Everybody realised it. Her performance and that of Jimi Hendrix. For Hendrix it was his first American gig. The next day both Hendrix and Joplin were major stars…

GJ: What was it like being Janis Joplin's road manager?

JBC : In the first year I was managing Big Brother and the Holding Company. It was all very diplomatic in those days - the band was five equal co-partners who had an equal say in any decision making. I think this mentality came out of the anti-commercial attitude of a lot of San Francisco bands at this time (such as Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane). They looked down on anybody who started getting egotistical. It was probably easier for me to deal with Janis during this period than later , after she had become a big star.

GJ: What happened to Janis? After a recording session, she went back to her motel, shot up heroin and died.

JBC : That's a whole other part of her life, and nothing that happened in anyway invalidates what I have been saying about the music. Any junkie is a duality. There's a real person in there and then there's this addiction. It's like there's another entity present. It's like the dark side. Janis was not on the dark side, because although she had an addiction she had cleaned herself up and kept that up for six months. For example, in June 1970 we travelled across the Canadian border and ran into the French Canadian Customs agents. They took Janis' purse apart, everything. And, she was laughing because she didn't have anything.

When Janis got bored she would dabble again. I mean recording sessions can be exciting but they can also be boring…

The heroin that she took, the night of her death, was something like 50 times as strong as you expect street heroin to be. My thought is that some dealer screwed up, you would never put out heroin at that strength deliberately because you'd be losing money.

GJ: Where were you when you heard the news that Janis had died?

JBC : I was the guy who found the body. I was largely in charge of handling the media. I had to call her manager, her attorney.

GJ: What do you remember most about Janis?

JBC : Well she was very smart and very funny. I remember the marked difference in her outlook in the three years between Big Brother and her last band. And she was funny all the time.

© 2002 Gary James. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.


See also, Sam Andrew

LINKS:

John Byrne Cooke

Official Site

Janis Joplin World Wide

Janis Joplin Life & Times


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