30 Aug 2004: Months before her death, Janis Joplin gigged across Canada with the Grateful Dead, one of the few women on board the ‘Festival Express’ train. A new documentary describes life on the road with the hard-drinking, trail-blazing star.

When I interviewed Courtney Love in Seattle in late 1992, she fixated for a moment on a copy of a Janis Joplin biography. “This is the sort of biography I want written about me,” she said, picking it up. “I want to read out the first sentence, OK? ‘I was stark naked, stoned out of my mind on heroin and the girl lying between my legs was Janis Joplin.’ ” She paused for breath, looking in amazement at the first page of Peggy Casserta’s Going Down With Janis. “This Joplin book is insanely graphic, you know, all abscesses, butt-sex, heroin this, cocaine that. I can’t believe she was like that.”

  1. Festival Express
  2. Production year: 2003
  3. Country: UK
  4. Cert (UK): 15
  5. Runtime: 90 mins
  6. Directors: Bob Smeaton
  7. Cast: Janis Joplin, The Band, The Grateful Dead, Traffic
  8. More on this film

It takes a lot to shock Courtney Love. Even then, at the start of the 90s, the Hole singer-songwriter was no stranger to controversy herself. Yet even she was taken aback by the wild behaviour of a singer who had made her name over two decades previously. She also knew that, apart from the many stories about drugs, and about sex with men and women, Joplin is central to the story of women in rock; without her, Love and her female contemporaries might never have felt able to express themselves so freely.

Joplin, who sang with a bluesy soulfulness previously unheard of in a white woman, confounded stereotypes from the start. She grew up in Texas in the 50s, at a time when women performers were not encouraged to write their own material, and when the pressure to look and be “feminine” was acute. In the mid-60s, when she found a niche for herself in the hippy counterculture of San Francisco, the Supremes were still wearing spangly gowns and smiling sweetly.

The first major female solo singer to emerge after Aretha Franklin, Joplin was one of the few successful women in a very male world of dope and drink, guitars and groupies. Often, she saw no option but to behave in a male way while trying not to lose her identity as a woman; she knew no other way of being accepted. As a teenager, she had hung out with a mostly male gang of friends, and had an embarrassing propensity for shouting out, “Well, fuck you baby!”

Her role model was Bessie Smith, widely agreed to be the greatest female blues singer ever. Smith lived fast, drank hard and died relatively young, in a car crash in 1937, aged 43. Joplin once told Rolling Stone journalist David Dalton that she “never sang rock’n’roll, I sang blues – Bessie Smith kind of blues”. In 1970, shortly before she died, she put up half the money to buy a proper tombstone for Smith’s grave in Philadelphia.

Joplin began her career performing in clubs while she was attending the University of Texas in Austin. Shortly after being voted the “Ugliest Man on Campus” by her fellow students, she left for San Francisco. There, in the hippy enclave of Haight Ashbury, she hung out with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. She joined a band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and her moment finally came in the summer of 1967, when the band performed twice at the first Monterey Festival and secured a major record deal. The following autumn their first album, Cheap Thrills, went straight to number 1 in the American charts, and stayed there for eight weeks.

But Joplin was restless. At the end of 1968, she left Big Brother to go solo. She was beginning to show signs of paranoia. She worried that journalists were more interested in her lifestyle than in her music; she felt she had a role to play both off and on stage. “It’s not easy living up to Janis Joplin, you know,” she once said.

She knew it was a game, a way of fitting in, but she didn’t always enjoy playing the part: “Maybe my audiences can enjoy my music more if they think I’m destroying myself.” Sometimes she wanted to be herself, claiming, “I’m just a 50s chick.” By the time she reached Woodstock in 1969, it was clear she was struggling to hold it together; she had developed a heroin habit that made her a pale imitation of her former self.

In the spring of 1970, she formed a new band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band. She started to call herself “Pearl”. She stopped taking heroin. But her reputation went before her: some venues refused to book her, worried about her abusive language on stage and the rowdy audiences she drew. In September, Joplin and her band went into a Los Angeles studio to record a new album. She had started to use heroin again. On October 4 1970, after a hard night’s drinking with her band, Joplin went back to her room at the Landmark Hotel and died of a heroin overdose. She was just 27.

Shortly before her premature death, in the summer of 1970, Joplin performed at a series of festivals across Canada. With the Grateful Dead, The Band, Sha-Na-Na and others, she travelled from Toronto to Calgary on a train that became known as the Festival Express. This week sees the release of a documentary about the tour: a film crew joined the train and shot around 60 hours of material over five days, which has now been edited and augmented with commentary from surviving band members, organisers and journalists. Directed by British film-maker Bob Smeaton, who won Grammys for his documentaries The Beatles Anthology and Band of Gypsys: Live at the Fillmore East (about Jimi Hendrix), it is an extraordinary film, and the footage of Joplin is particularly strong, whether close-ups of her singing with abandon on tiny stages just a few feet from the audience, or scenes of her hanging out with other musicians, most of them men, on the train.

She clearly has the respect of everyone around her. After her death, Jerry Garcia, late singer of the Grateful Dead, remembered: “Janis was a real person. She was just like the rest of us – fucked up, strung out, in weird places. She was doing what she was doing as hard as she could, which is as much as any of us can do.”

“Janis was great on camera,” Smeaton says. “A natural. She looks very modern. We interviewed a lot of guys on the train who knew her personally. They said she was one of the guys, but she was very much a woman. She could drink with the best of them, but she pretty much stayed in control. There’s a great scene where she’s sitting with Jerry Garcia and Rick Danko [bass player in The Band] and she’s the leader, the boss. She knew exactly what she wanted and she went out and got it.”

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is how relaxed and happy Joplin looks. David Dalton, who was writing a story for Rolling Stone that summer and spent a long time shadowing Joplin, talks of the great atmosphere on board the train. “It was a reunion for everyone who had been around Haight Ashbury in late 1966. Back then it was a very communal society, no one had any money; they were drug-taking crazy visionaries. Janis was in her element. The folk scene has always been kinder to female singers; it’s more accepting of women than the rock world.”

Dalton says that Joplin took some getting used to. He remembers going into the Rolling Stones’ dressing room with her when they played Madison Square Garden. “They all blanched. She was too much for them. Here was a latter-day Bessie Smith! We actually seem to encourage female rap stars to be outrageous today, but Janis was pretty intimidating. She always had an impact on a room. People say she wasn’t very attractive, and maybe she put on weight, developed bad skin in the heroin years, but when I first saw her in late ’66, she was your absolute wet dream. She was very hot.”

Joplin had a reputation as a bohemian, an intellectual, and she never felt the need to hide her middle-class roots; she was happy to sit and talk about books, films and life. Dalton thinks she may have spent too much time thinking. “She was very reflective. She was maybe too smart, too introspective. She ruminated about everything. But while she was fragile and vulnerable, she was also fearless. She’d go into any bar, even alone. She was certainly more fearless than her band.”

At the time of her death, Joplin was engaged to Seth Morgan, a former drug dealer who later killed himself and another girlfriend in a motorbike accident. She wanted to settle down, to be looked after. She was happy with the album she was recording – the vital, passionate Pearl, which was released posthumously. In other words, she was in a happy place. Dalton says she never talked of suicide or death; he always imagined her growing old, sitting on a rocking chair on a porch with hens running around her.

But Country Joe McDonald, a musician who went out with Joplin in San Francisco, says he has always believed she was a victim of her gender. “Sexism killed her. Everybody wanted this sexy chick who sang really sexy and had lots of energy. People kept saying she was just ‘one of the guys’: that’s a real sexist bullshit trap, cos that was fuckin’ her head around. She was one of the women. She was a strong, groovy woman. Smart, you know? But she got fucked around.”

While Joplin may have become rock’s first female casualty, her legacy lives on. Although she may not be cited as an influence as often as, say, Patti Smith, without Joplin there might have been no blues-punk from Polly Harvey, no teen blues from Joss Stone, and no “odd” or eccentric behaviour from the likes of Björk or Sinéad O’Connor.

And it seems that her time may be coming again: Renee Zellweger is due to start filming a Joplin biopic, Piece of my Heart, before the end of the year. Nothing, though, can match the power of the real thing, of watching her perform live. As Bob Smeaton says: “She proved you could survive as a woman in the rock’n’roll business. They may not realise it, but all of the women performing today were given a doorway into rock’n’roll by what Janis Joplin achieved.”