Less than a year after I met Janis Joplin, she was dead.
Fifty years ago, I was an ambitious, plucky 18-year-old with a daily radio show on KFH, a powerhouse of a CBS affiliate in Wichita, Kansas. The AM side of the station was adult contemporary and talk; the FM side, known as Channel 97, was where I spent most of my time. The playlist was underground and psychedelic album-oriented rock. Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Burdon, The Who, The Byrds, and Big Brother and The Holding Company were always in the mix. The Doors, Iron Butterfly, Procol Harum, and Quicksilver Messenger Service were favorites of mine.
It’s important to note here, for the sake of the story, that I didn’t look the part of an acid-rock radio jock. I had short hair, wore button-down oxford shirts, Bass Wejuns, and I had more than one argyle sweater. Preppy long after, and long before it was cool again, I wore slacks with cuffs.
My looks usually didn’t make much of a difference. I had a deep voice and an engaging delivery—and the medium was radio, after all.
The program director for both sides of the house was, when he was on the air, Jack Barry; in real life, he was Barry Gaston. At an October 1969 programming meeting, he gave me two front-row tickets to a Janis Joplin concert at Henry Levitt Arena—her opening act was the spectacular James Cotton Blues Band. Barry also gave me a press and backstage-access pass. I had an assignment: Cover the concert and interview Joplin. I was thrilled and up for it.
I called my buddy, David Link with the news. Today he’s an attorney in Wichita, at the time, he worked for The Wichita Eagle.
Free tickets! David was excited. On Friday night, October 24—with a list of a dozen carefully written (and program-director-vetted) questions in hand—I picked David up in my blue and white ’65 Ford Galaxy 500 convertible, and we headed to the arena.
We were off on what we thought would be a musical adventure.
Halfway through Cotton’s set, David and I slipped out of our seats and headed backstage. A security guard guided us thorough a cavernous space to meet Janis Joplin.
She was sitting at a table being attended to—fussed over, actually—by a few of her people. She was much smaller than I had expected. I introduced myself; she took a deep swig of tequila—from the bottle. She was getting toasted. She was already rude. And it was clear she had no use for me or my penny loafers. She looked over her shoulder, cursed at someone that I didn’t see, and then started to stare at me. Her eyes were intense and cold, but then, for a just a flicker of a moment, she looked needy—almost childlike. Her unblinking stare made me feel uncomfortable and disoriented. Defensive, I suddenly, without thought, went utterly off-script as I asked my first question.
“Why do you drink so much?”
As the words passed my lips and reached Janis Joplin’s ears, they created an internal fury in her, the likes of which I could never have imagined. She looked hateful—more hateful than I’ve seen anyone look since. She remained silent, slowly stood with eyes locked on me, and projectile vomited. I tried to dodge the stream, but it caught me on the left shoulder and arm.
It was pretty clear that the interview was over.
David and I headed to the men’s room. I washed the mess off my shirt, and we were back in our seats before she started her set.
On the stage, there was a bottle of Jack Daniels. She visited it often as she sang.
At one point, late in the show, she started ranting about a feather boa. “Some fucker,” she scream-slurred, “stole my boa.” Looking in my general direction, she started pleading, tearfully, plaintively for its return. Again, she seemed innocent, afraid, and childlike. But again, just for a moment.
Overnight, the story of the concert and Joplin’s missing boa hit UPI, Associated Press, and the other wire services.
The next afternoon, Jack Barry poked his head in the FM production studio and asked me, with a smug smile and a bad-boy twinkle in his eye, “How was the concert?”