The day I met my idol: Janis Joplin © 2010 Dakini Verona
It was a cold winter’s night in the middle of December, 1969. There I was, standing on the street called “St. Mark’s Place”. St. Mark’s was where I hung out. It was the East Village (lower east side of Manhattan). I did more than hang out in the streets, I lived there. Most people do not understand street life; they think living in the streets means you sleep in the street. That is not always the case and it was not the way it was for me. I spent my waking hours hanging out. Sometimes I would be panhandling; sometimes I would just stand and watch the people go by. Sometimes I would watch them watch me, like those brightly colored tour busses with the gawkers and their flashbulbs.
We called ourselves “freaks” but everyone else called us “hippies”. Didn’t they know that all the real hippies were gone? Sure, there were those that looked like the flower children of yesterday, but there were posers. We called them the “bourgeois hippies”. They were those that came to the East Village on weekends to attend the concerts at the Fillmore. They lived in the comfort of their mommy and daddy’s home in the suburbs and never went hungry. They wore bell bottoms that were sold in boutiques, not those found in Navy surplus stores. They had money and lots of it. Those “hippies” had no clue about the ideologies embraced by those of us that lived in the subculture. They still revered the values of their parent’s and we – the real hippies had thrown that all away. Materialism was not only rejected it was our enemy.
Well back to the story. There I was – on the streets, no place to go. How did I get there – all alone, on that street corner, in the dead of winter? What was a 15 year old doing in the streets with no place to call home? I’ll get to that a bit later, but meanwhile, let me finish telling the story of how I met Janis.
I was standing in front of the Hippodrome with a small group of freaks. Suddenly, everyone around me started to whisper “Far Out! Look, right there. Across the street, it’s Janis!” I turned and looked. Sure enough. It was Janis. My heart stopped.
Suddenly, I found myself drawn to her. I just had to get closer. I rushed across the wild New York City traffic and melted into crowd which surrounded her. I stood back and watched in awe. Her presence was unmistakably that of the goddess she was. She had earned the title “Queen of Blues”, but even when she was not on stage, she had an unmistakable charisma. I was on the sidelines and watched her glow brighten the faces of those around her on that dark and dirty street. It was like watching a parade of light.
I began to scream from sheer joy, yet I uttered no sound. It was all inside my head. She was giggling like a little school girl – excited to have the adoration of her fans. She devoured the attention. It was then that I heard her infamous “cackle” and my knees went weak. Janis was wearing one of her trademark coats with lots of fur on the collar and cuffs. This one also had trim down the front, which resembled those worn by Russian Royalty. How appropriate that she be regally robed!
On her arm was a small man that seemed to be invisible, compared to her. A young aspiring actor, whose name escapes me as I write this. I remember thinking that he looked like a desperate little leprechaun clutching his pot of gold. It was his lucky day, too. I guessed. His only claim to fame: to walk in the shadow of a super star. What I saw in his eyes was not what I expected. There was no love, no admiration; in fact, he seemed disturbed that she bathed in the attention she was getting. He actually looked annoyed. He wanted a taste of what she had, but it was as clear to me then as it is to me now – he was nothing… forever to be known to me as “the guy with Janis”.
So there I was, in disbelief. Stars in my eyes. A grin plastered on my face. My mind screamed silently “Janis is right here in front of me!” And then. It happened. She actually looked over at me. Yes! Right at me! My face flushed and the world stood still for a moment. I could hear my heart beat in my ears, so I knew I was alive – otherwise I would have believed I had dies and gone to heaven.
To my further amazement she smiled at me, her eyes glinted as she nodded her head down and with a slight gesture of her hand beckoned for me to get closer to her. My brain shut down at this point and in disbelief I walked over next to her. To be honest, I almost tripped on myself as I skipped over to her. “Hey chicky” she said, “How the hell are you?” I am sure I must have responded…but not for a million dollars could I tell you what it was I said. “Want a drink?” she asked, as she reached in under her wooly robes and pulled out a bottle of her trademark drink: Southern Comfort. She opened it up and handed it to me saying “here, have some.”
Now, at that point it could have been arsenic or even holy water, it didn’t matter, there was no way I was going to refuse to drink whatever it was she offered. My fingers electrified when I touched the bottle, as they slightly brushed against her hand. I put the bottle to my lips and felt the rim warm my lips. She must have been carrying that bottle for some time under her coat.
I slowly savored the sweet nectar of the thick swill. My tongue was instantly awake from the burn of the alcohol. I quickly swallowed and the hot glow followed the path to my gut. The burning must have been reflected on my face, because she giggled at my reaction. It was a giggle that only Janis could perform. I never took my eyes from hers (except for the brief moment I tried to swallow the hot liquid).
She turned to the “shadow man” to offer him a sip of the drink. He too, came alive once she acknowledged his meager existence. Clearly, she was the star that night. Little did I know, little did any of us realize that our precious pearl would soon be lost to the addictions that consumed her body and soul, as is so common for all the great ones. The brighter the light, the faster the candle will burn – so they say.
Within a moment she was gone. She disappeared as quickly as she arrived, all that remained were footprints in the snow. The lingering taste of her “drink” left its impression for a short while.
To this day I smile fondly each time I see a bottle of Southern Comfort. Thank you, Janis – wherever you are, for acknowledging this little girl. It was one small and insignificant gesture on her part: offering a drink of swill to a cute little street urchin – but the experience itself marked my soul forever.