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A Backstage Pass to Intimate Moments in Rock's Odyssey

Meeting Joplin and her demons, having cornflakes with Lennon and coffee with Bono, going to Folsom with Cash and outraging Elvis.

July 22, 2006|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

It was the fall of 1969, and Janis Joplin, the biggest female star in rock, seemed invincible on stage -- long, reddish hair swinging wildly as she stretched her vocal cords to alarming limits: "Come on, come on, come on, come on and take it ... take another little piece of my heart now, baby!"

But the 26-year-old native of Port Arthur, Texas, was so self-destructive that no one thought she'd make it to 30: too many drugs, too much booze, too much, well, too much everything.

I was a young writer, new on the job, and I desperately wanted to interview her while she was in town to play the Hollywood Bowl.

I talked my way into her dressing room. What I discovered beneath her hard-boiled image was someone I never dreamed of.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
John Lennon: An article in Section A on Saturday about Robert Hilburn's memories of nearly 40 years as the Times' pop music critic referred to John Lennon being a child in London during World War II. Lennon grew up in Liverpool.

It was the first of many private moments I had with great artists in my nearly 40 years as The Times' pop critic. Among the encounters: sharing cornflake dinners with John Lennon, having a post-Grammy coffee with Bono and sitting in the kitchen with Johnny and June Carter Cash. Each one gave me not only insight into the creative process but also a deeper understanding of what drives artists -- or destroys them.

Joplin's Bowl show came near the end of rock's most explosive decade. Bob Dylan and the Beatles had turned the primitive energy of teen-oriented '50s rock into an art form that could express adult themes and emotions. Rock stars were suddenly pop culture gods whose music was embedded in the social and political fabric of a generation.

But many musicians found it difficult to adjust, especially those like Joplin, whose art was driven in part by feverish personal demons and an overpowering lack of self-esteem.

As we saw decades later in the suicide of Kurt Cobain, no generation is immune from the pressures of fame. But the rock star role was particularly difficult in the '60s and '70s, an era when young people prided themselves on stepping into the unknown.

When I caught up with Joplin at a rehearsal, nothing about her suggested "star." It was as if all the flashy boas, oversized glasses and Gypsy-hippie attire were her way of compensating for the beauty that nature failed to provide. Minus that camouflage or an audience to energize her, she seemed weary.

Finally, she retreated to her dressing room, collapsed onto a sofa and reached slowly for a pack of cigarettes. She was tired, she said -- tired of fighting with businessmen and musicians and the writers who wanted to know where the pain in her voice came from.

When her road manager closed the door on his way back to the stage, the room felt like a cell. Like the best rock 'n' roll, Joplin's music was mostly about freedom, and yet she seemed trapped. I felt like an intruder. I didn't want to be just one more guy asking about the pain.

"Is there anything you'd like to talk about?" I asked.

Joplin stared back at me across the room.

"Man," she finally said, "don't you even have your own questions?"

For me, the time with Joplin was a crash course in rock 'n' roll reality -- an introduction to themes I'd encounter time and again. In the end, she got past my clumsy start and began talking about feeling like an outcast growing up, her music, her lifestyle and the one constant in her world: loneliness.

"Somehow you lose all the old friends," she said. "When we're not on stage, we rehearse, lay around in bed, check in and out of motels, watch television. I live for that hour on stage."

On stage that night, Joplin "the star" emerged. Ultimately, though, the lonely hours proved too much. Less than a year later, Joplin was dead in a hotel room. An accidental heroin overdose, it was said. She was within walking distance of the Bowl.

Making Elton John a Star

After the turbulent '60s, you could still hear ringing guitars and loud, rebellious voices on the radio and in college dorms, but the soulful center of the pop experience shifted to folk-based singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and Neil Young.

The West Coast citadel of that movement was the Troubadour in West Hollywood. On what proved to be the club's most historic night, Elton John, a 23-year-old Englishman, made his U.S. debut on Aug. 25, 1970.

Everything about him was fresh. There were moments of rock energy, but the heart of his sound was in tender, intimate numbers. The gentleness of it seemed revolutionary against the roar of the '60s.

After the show, I raced to the office, where I wrote a rave: Elton was going to be the biggest star in pop. It has been 36 years, but John still cites that review -- giving me credit for making him a star. The funny thing is, at first I believed him. I really thought I had star-making power.

I soon got over that.

The next year I raved about John Prine, a young Chicago singer-songwriter whose folk-country style employed a literary ambition and soulful insight that was extraordinary. But Prine never became a major seller, though he is widely regarded as one of the greatest songwriters of his era.

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