I don’t just write books about rock music, I read them, too. A LOT of them. Recently I polished off Spider from Mars: My Life with David Bowie by drummer Woody Woodmansey. Woody’s definition of a “life with” is really just a fairly brief period of months, to be honest. But as a rock book it ticks off items on the usual checklist: road stories, visits to the studio, and typical artistic conflicts. Like many books about rock and roll, you get a simple story told by a guy who seems pretty simple himself.
Sometimes, though, you come across a work from a deeper thinker, someone with a gift for not just telling tales but adroitly putting them into a context that reveals a greater significance. That’s exactly the case with a book I’ve just finished written by the late John Byrne Cooke.
The title – On the Road with Janis Joplin – seems to promise little more than another set of tales from on stage and backstage. I was drawn to it because I was instantly a fan of Janis when I first heard her. And the same year I saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience as a 13-year-old in the spring found me at Janis’ feet at the Quaker City Rock Festival in the fall. But, despite the book’s obvious title – one designed to attract the attention of casual fans – upon delving into the pages it quickly becomes clear this book is “something more.”
That actually shouldn’t be a surprise, given Cooke’s pursuits later in life – including crafting pieces published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. And his father was Alistair Cooke – a writer and host for more than two decades of PBS’ Masterpiece Theater – so it’s clear certain gifts were passed on in the bloodline.
Cooke was already fairly established in the realm of folk music when he was recruited to serve on the crew of filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker as he documented 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. But it was another connection that set him on a path to his years working for the mercurial Joplin.
Through his involvement in the folk scene Cooke had become close friends with singer and scene maker Bob Neuwirth. As anyone knows who has seen the film Don’t Look Back (also created by Pennebaker), Neuwirth had another close friend: Bob Dylan. It was through that connection that Neuwirth became aware that Dylan manager Albert Grossman – having just signed Joplin and her band big Brother and the Holding Company – was looking for a road manager for his new charges. Neuwirth heartily endorse Cooke for the job – despite the minor detail that Cooke had zero experience as a road manager.
Cooke’s writing about his own coming up to speed on the road and the often-chaotic world of rock in the late 1960s is fully involving and thoughtful, without sinking into over-analysis.
How does this book play out? Well, I guess we all know the answer: in the case of its titular subject, it’s a tragedy, one that played out 50 years ago this week. Cooke, who discovered the lifeless body of Janis, draws the reader into the melancholy panic of that dark moment. But the telling of the entire tale is what matters here, and On the Road with Janis Joplin is clearly a cut above the vast majority of rock and roll books.