Wednesday, August 12, 2015

I Must Be in the First Row: Janis Joplin's Final Concert

Nobody knew it, but the thousands that attended Janis Joplin’s concert in Harvard Stadium in Boston 45 years ago tonight witnessed her final performance. I hadn’t planned on going and, even if it weren’t her last concert, it certainly was memorable.

Janis Joplin, Aug. 12, 1970
Photograph: Peter Warrack
On a hot August evening, my friend Calvin, who I knew from volunteering at The Storefront Learning Center in the South End, had traveled up from Roxbury to my un-air-conditioned apartment on Ashford Court in Allston. Our apartment lease ran through the end of August, so I stayed in Boston and was joined by two Harvard friends who were working in the city that summer. We knew there was a Janis Joplin concert that night at Harvard Stadium, so we decided to check it out. The stadium was a mile-and-one-half away.

As has been reported, the concert was supposed to be limited to 10,000 persons. However, because the band’s equipment had been stolen, the concert’s beginning was delayed for a number of hours while replacements were located. We encountered a mob scene upon arrival. I’ve read reports that people scaled the stadium walls to enter; in any case, Calvin and I simply walked in an open gate.

Here’s where it got interesting. Of the estimated 40,000 people who eventually made it into the stadium, we ended up in the first row, right in front of the stage. So how did we get there, without any type of pass or VIP IDs, without once being stopped?

Calvin was a 6’3” black man with a neat Afro and wire glasses. He was probably one of the most dynamic persons I’ve ever met, very self-assured but not intimidating. Calvin simply walked through the crowd with authority, seemingly parting the sea of white kids, as he headed toward the stage. Perhaps a few people said something to him, which he simply ignored. Whenever anybody asked me where I was going, I kept walking and replied, “I’m with him.” I think there were two dynamics working: one, fear of a confident black man making his way through a crowd and, two, persons feeling it would be racist to stop him just because he was black.

Calvin, undated photo 

I’ve read various accounts of the quality of the concert, only 8 songs long, and some recordings exist. My recollection was she was far from top form, given one can assume what she may have ingested during those hours of extra down time. Calvin, an excellent judge of people, figured she was wasted on some combination of substances and beverages. According to noted photojournalist Gwendolyn Stewart who was also in the front row, Joplin was cowering in her trailer as the crowds swelled. She was never in danger, as the stage was raised high off the ground, safe from a rushing horde that never materialized. I do remember the sexually oriented banter between Janis and attendees; it was pretty mundane and good theater. She would die of a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970.
Unfortunately, my good friend Calvin passed away much too early 30 years ago. Those were different times, seemingly long ago but still in many ways fresh as yesterday.