'I never ever thought things could be so wonderful!'
On the cusp of stardom, Janis Joplin writes home
Today’s letter comes to you on the anniversary of Janis Joplin’s death. She passed away on 4th October 1970, aged just 27.
When she wrote this excited letter home in 1967, 24-year-old Janis Joplin had been the frontwoman of Big Brother and the Holding Company, a band from Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, for close to a year, and things were finally coming together: a record deal with a small label, a comfortable wage, a new apartment and a steady boyfriend all contributing to the good mood. But it was soon to intensify, as just two months later her star would rise to heights previously unimagined thanks to a jaw-dropping performance at the Monterey Pop Festival—a now legendary gathering that also played host to Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding, and which resulted in Joplin’s band being signed by Columbia Records, her voice destined for greatness.
Behind the scenes, however, she was walking a tightrope from which she would ultimately fall: an addiction to heroin that began long before her ascent. Tragically, three years after this letter was written, Janis Joplin was found dead in her hotel room.
Dear Mother, family
Things are going so good for us & me personally I can’t quite believe it! I never ever thought things could be so wonderful! Allow me to explain. First of all, the group — we’re better than ever (please see enclosed review from S.F. Examiner) and working all the time. Just finished 3 weeks straight engagements, 6 nights a week & we’re booked up week-ends for well over a month. And we’re making a thousand or over for a week-end. For single nights we’re getting from $500-$900. Not bad for a bunch of beatniks, eh? And our reputation is still going uphill. It’s funny to watch — you can tell where you are by the people that are on your side. Y’know, the scene-followers, the people “with the finger on the pulse of the public.” One of the merchants on Haight St. has given all of us free clothes (I got a beautiful blue leather skirt) just because 1) she really digs us & 2) she thinks we’re going to make it & it’ll be good publicity. Our record is enjoying a fair reception — much better than our first one which was much, much better. We made #29 in Detroit but we don’t really know what’s happening because we never hear from Mainstream. It’s a long & involved story but we really feel like we’ve been used & abused by our record co & we’d like to get out of the contract but don’t know whether we can. We talked to a lawyer about it & he seemed fairly negative & we can’t even get ahold of our record co. to talk about it. So until further news, we’re hung up. There’s a slim possibility we might go to Europe & play this summer. There’s a hippie boat going back and forth & rock bands get free passage if they play on the way over. And Chet, head of the Family Dog, is trying to organize dances over there & if he does, we’d have a place to work. Probably won’t work but it sure would be groovy. Speaking of England, guess who was in town last week — Paul McCartney!!! (he’s a Beatle). And he came to see us!!! SIGH Honest to God! He came to the Matrix & saw us & told some people that he dug us. Isn’t that exciting!!!! Gawd, I was so thrilled — I still am! Imagine — Paul!!!! If it could only have been George. . . . Oh, well. I didn’t get to see him anyway — we heard about it afterwards. Why, if I’d known that he was out there, I would have jumped right off the stage & made a fool of myself.
Now earlier, I spoke of how well things are going for me personally — it’s really true. I’m becoming quite a celebrity among the hippies & everyone who goes to the dances. Why, last Sunday we played a Spring Mobilization for Peace benefit & a simply amazing thing happened. As the boys were tuning, I walked up to the front of the stage to set up the microphones &, as I raised the middle mike up to my mouth, the whole audience applauded! Too much! And then as we’re getting ready to play, a girl yelled out “Janis Joplin lives!” Now you can’t argue with that, and they clapped again. Also, a rock publication named WORLD COUNTDOWN had a collage on its cover using photographs of important personages in & about the scene & I’m in there. Also they’re bringing out a poster of me! Maybe you’ve read in Time magazine about the personality posters. They’re big, very big photographs, Jean Harlow, Einstein, Belmondo, Dylan, & Joplin. Yes, folks, it’s me wearing a sequined cape, thousands of strings of beads & topless. But it barely shows because of the beads. Very dramatic photograph & I look really beautiful!! If it wouldn’t embarrass you, I’ll send you one. I’m thrilled!! I can be Haight-Ashbury’s first pin-up.
Speaking of Haight-Ashbury, read the enclosed article from LOOK magazine. There’ve been lots of articles written about the scene here. Newsweek has had two & this one. And even the Chronicle — they’ve all had articles with more understanding than the one in Time. As a matter of fact, I just plain quit reading it because of that article — not because I was mad. Because I was aware of how distorted they were & I figured they were probably that wrong about everything. I really am not social critic enough to know/discuss what is going on, but in answer to your question — Yes, they are our audience & we’re hoping they can turn on the rest of the country because then we’d be nation-wide. We’d be the Monkees! Well, at any rate, a good article.
Okay, onto news: For one thing we’ve gotten a raise — the guys with wives were feeling constrained, so now we get $100 a week. Good heavens.
Second in importance, I have a new apartment. Really fine!! Two big rooms, kitchen, bathroom & balcony. And I’m right across the street from the park! You can’t really understand living there with a yard, but here you can go 10-20 blocks without ever seeing a living plant and I just look out my window or step out on my balcony & I’ve got fresh air & trees & grass!! So wonderful, sigh. My new address is 123 Cole St., S.F. Still in the Haight-Ashbury. Have lots of plans for the place — two rooms need painting but I may just end up hanging stuff up on the walls. I’ve sort of got the front room fixed up now & it’s really nice to live in. SIGH! See what I mean, about things going my way? Also, I have a boyfriend. Really nice. He’s head of Country Joe and the Fish, a band from Berkeley. Named Joe McDonald, he’s a Capricorn like me, & is 25 & so far we’re getting along fine. Everyone in the rock scene just thinks it’s the cutest thing they’ve ever seen. It is rather cute actually. Speaking of boyfriends, I’ve been hearing from John again. He’s written several letters. For some reason I get the feeling he’s planning on coming out here & is sort of putting out feelers.
Next, guess what (special for Dad) I’ve done — I’ve quit smoking!!! Still want one now & then but it’s been about a month now. I felt it was just too hard on my voice. I’d been smoking for 10 yrs! I got a real bad cold & bronchitis & I just couldn’t smoke for about a week & when I got well, I refused to start again. I may break down but I hope not. This is really better for me.
More news, George is really getting to be a fine dog. Learning things every day. Today he learned the hard way not to run across the street to the park by himself — he got hit by a car. But the vet said he wasn’t hurt very badly — bruised & scared. Poor thing, he’s just moping around with a very paranoid look on his face.
I’m having a few clothes made for me now — had a beautiful dress made out of a madras bed spread & now she’s working on one out of green crepe with a very low V neckline. I’ve been making things out of leather lately. Made a beautiful blue & green Garbo hat & pair of green shoes.
I’m also sending our new promo picture. Not very flattering of me but a very strong picture. Pretty good looking group, eh?
Really enjoyed seeing the pictures of all of you. Looking beautiful, Mother. And Laura looks really cute! Is her dress white or silver? And I’ve never seen Mike look so charming. Must be the Big Brother T shirt.
Now, please let me know when you are coming. Oh, I have so many places to take you to & show you! But we’ll be working so let me know as soon as you can your plans. Well, I guess that’s it for now. Write me.
The above letter is taken from the book, More Letters of Note, published jointly in 2015 by Canongate Books and Unbound. A limited number of special editions are available to buy directly from the Letters of Note shop.