life : Bonnie Bramlett

"We moved from the dining room into the bar car. Janis floats through the passageways, as if a breath of wind had picked up somewhere between her wrist and her elbow. The flat honeycolored plains outside look apologetic by comparison. Nature at this latitude is little competition for Janis, whose landscapes are always more flurescent than organic. Sultry Mother Earth, her eyes on stalks, peers at Janis through the window of the train, and then rushes off wildly to the right and left.

At the core of all this efforescence is Janis herself, a four o'clock flower gradually unfolding as the afternoon revolves around her in the tiny bar car. Even the gaudy jewelry and hooker shoes cannot camouflage Janis's imperial dignity.

Bonnie slouches in her chair as casually as Huck on his raft. Pretty tomboy looks in Levi's and a peasant shirt, making wry faces at the past she serves up to herself almost accidentally. The sad times seem to fly after her and Janis in this half-submerged alcoholic state. But they extricate themselves swiftly in sudden torrents of laughter. Janis's unmetrical laugh seems to lead its own robust life deep within, arriving on the spur of the moment, a wild rampaging guffaw galloping to rescuse an endangered flank.

No sooner have they risen above one sinking moment than they alight carelessly upon another, only to discover their resting place is infested with memories scarcely less treacherous. Two ballsy chicks railing against the unfairness of things, women is losers, ball and chain. But more than their brittle street rap what they have in common is the depth of their vulnerability barely masked by the chaep vinyl defenses they have wrapped around themselves. Tough, but melting easily, quizzical, petty, resentful of a host of wrongs and hurts both trivial and intimate, unexpectedly profound as well as ready to pawn off cliches on each other, slipping imperceptibly from state to state.

Bonnie whines and pleads with her own histories, extorting apologies from invisible defendants, and turns unexpectedly to tell a tale as poignant and innocent as Giulietta Massina in La Strada. As a little girl growing up in fifties Alabama, her mother took her to see this black gospel singer at a tiny local club. She was mesmorized, as unable to move as someone who has witnessed a vision. She asked her mother if she could go up to the man and touch him. As she put her little hand on his arm, he turned and looked at her. And from that day on she felt possessed.

JANIS [to waiter]: Screwdriver.

BONNIE: Scotch and Coke.

JANIS: I've got lots of tie-dyed velvet....I had these tie-dyed satin sheets, the most beautiful fuckin' sheets in the world, and I started makin' it with this cowboy and he shreded them up with his cowboy boots [laughs, ice tinkling]. Three hundred dollar satin sheets shredded by cowboy boots. I loved every minute of it.

BONNIE: Is that true?

JANIS: It is true, man, they're ruined.

BONNIE: Now, that dude can't've been that good.

JANIS [cracks up]: Well, how do you see it so far, David?

DAVID: It's a gas.

JANIS: So do I. To tell you the truth, man, I've woken up a lot....Listen, I didn't take this gig....the money ain't that great. I didn't take this gig for any reason other than this party, man. I said it sounds like a party, man, and I wanta be there. My band's picking us up in Winnipeg, and the Band is picking us up in Winnipeg. And I'm gonna pick one of them up in Winnipeg!

BONNIE: Hey, did you see our organ player? His name is Jim Gordon. And, Janis, I swear to God, Rick and Robbie were there. For ten years I worked with him....[catches a look on Janis's face] Oh, yea, you reach that article, huh? [Janis cackles.] I knew you'd read it. I read it too....

JANIS: The chick's beautiful, man...How old are you? What sign are you?

BONNIE: I'm twenty-five.

JANIS: Gosh, you're younger than me.

BONNIE: You're twenty-seven right?

JANIS: You seem as old as me.

BONNIE: I am as old as you. I'm older than you.

JANIS: I've been on the streets ten years.

BONNIE: I've been on the streets ten years - you ain't got that on me - I've been there, too.

JANIS:I knew you looked good. You just fired your old band, didn't you?

BONNIE: No, our old band just quit. They wanted to pick with Joe Cocker.

JANIS: All those eighty-five people? When I saw Joe Cocker at the Fillmore West and I read in Rolling Stone he had an eighty-five piece group...children, dogs, musicians, and he brings all life on stage. I went down to the Fillmore, and Bill Graham didn't let no one on stage but the musicians - he made all the chicks, all the babies, all the dogs, stand on the side. Because if he's singing and if he's playing music, he's playing music. He ain't talking about a life style, he ain't philosophizing. He's playing music. And he ought to get musicians up there and play the shit. If he wants groupies, he can get 'em after the show.

BONNIE: You can get them local, man. You don't have to bring them. My girlfriend told me that she got in a fight with her girlfriend because her girlfriend said that she read in Rolling Stone that someone was supposed to have seen me yelling to them, "You dirty motherfuckers! You stole my band," and all this shit. It made me really mad because I really love my musicians.

JANIS: Did you lose that great organ player?

BONNIE: Bobby Whitlock. Man, he's in England with Eric. There's a million and one musicians in this world that's never even been heard of that can just kick ass.

BONNIE: Yeah, so as far as your musical ability, we can always find other musicians. But I love those guys and it really did drush me, but I was cool. And it hurt me and it killed me. But I was cool! And it's a lie that I said it. It may not be a lie what I thought. I was crushed. I can admit it now we have a new band. We're together. In the meantime, you know Bobby Keys, that great sax player. He had no gigs, man, because they let him down. Eric told him he could come over to England and make a lot of bread doing sessions. And he believed him. So now he says he can't pay for the plane. So, in the meantime, he's sitting home with no gigs. Because I'm not going to fire the new band.

JANIS: I've worked with three bands, four including when I was a kid, but three pro bands. We got on stage and did it anyway under the lights, but those boys really help you. The singer is only as good as the band, and this is the first band that really helped me. I got a drummer, man, that drives me up the wall, I wanna tell you. I was doing this shit in a tune last week. You know how you have a verse, bridge, verse, and then you have a vamp? The vamp is free, it's Janis. Janis gets to sing or talk or walk around the stage and act foxy, whatever she wants to do, right? It's free, and all the band is supposed to do is keep up the groove. So I was singing, "Well I told that man, I said baby, I said baby, I said baby...." I went up in thirds. And when I hit that high "baby," I did a kick with my ass to the right, the drummer went bam! with a rim shot. And I turned around and said, "My God, where did you learn that part, man? I just made it up a minute ago." I walked off stage and said, "Where did you learn to play behind singers like that?" And he said, "I used to back strippers." That's how you learn to play, man.

BONNIE: Watch that ass. When it's going to the right, you hit a rim shot. That's exactly what I tell my drummer.

DAVID: Clark is a great drummer.

JANIS: He's subtle, but he's all right. Right on. I guess that's what I need. I ain't real subtle either, to tell you the truth.

BONNIE: When you listen to your band, what do you listen to the most?

JANIS: Drums and bass.

BONNIE: I know. Me too. Drums and bass. It's the bottom; it's the rhythm.

JANIS: That's what kicks you.

BONNIE: Since you are a lead instrument yourself. Everyone wants to play their own ax, like the greatest guitar player. You listen immediately to the bottom. You're the lead instrument, so all you need is rhythm. You listen immediately to the bottom.

JANIS: All you need is the bottom, the middle you just count on to fill in, but what you need is that kick in your ass, man.

BONNIE: Because you know you've gonna do your lead right as long as your bass and drummer are together.

JANIS: If you get the kick in the ass. You hear it when thy're great. But mostly I'm so involved with the song that I don't even hear the band, you know what I mean? All I hear is when they're wrong. When they're right, I just keep singing and talking my shit and telling my stories. But as soon as someone does something wrong, man, I get goony.

BONNIE: When you're rapping and all of a sudden they hit a hum, dum, dum, into another groove. And you ain't ready for it, you turn around and look at that drummer and bass player. Jim Keltner used to get so mad at me. He'd say, "Why do you turn around and give me dirty looks?" That's no dirty look, that's my face.

JANIS: That's when you were in the wrong place when I was in the other place.

BONNIE: I was here and you were there. And you're not supposed to be nowhere that I ain't.

JANIS: That's what I dig about the group I got now. I had groups that learned the tunes, learned the stops, learned whatever-the-fuck. This band, man, I could be in the middle of a verse and go on a different trip, and they can follow me. They won't go with the arrangement. They go right with me, man. Like if I decide to extend the verse for 8 bars, 16 bars, whatever the bars are called? When I get through saying something, I ain't through so I keep talkin'. They don't quit. They know I'm not through, so they keep playing.

BONNIE: I used to do the exact same thing with Delaney. I'd never keep my eyes off him, because you never knowwhat he's gonna do. He might want to tell his life story.

JANIS: I do it all the time.

BONNIE: I do it too. I tell my life story every show I do.

JANIS: Sometimes I wonder if they're worth it, man. If they're worth all that fuckin' grief that they drag out of you. But you can't think about it in those terms, right?

BONNIE: The only thing I wonder about is, not if they're worth it, but if they understand it. Because I hate to expose myself completely and have it go this far over their heads. Because that's what you're doing, you're taking off completely the whole plastic down from the front of you. You might as well just get nude, because you're completely exposing your inside feelings. It's reality, it's not a show when you really get into it as much as that. I really get uptight. Not at what they yell, it's just that they shouldn't yell anything at all. What I want to hear from that audience is understanding. I don't want to hear someone yell, "Where's Clapton?" I'm standin' up there, I got three children and it's very hard not saying it! I'm giving up someone who really belongs to me, because this is something I have to do as a complete individual. But they are individuals, too, so I can't subject them to my life - it's their own choice. I don't get them high, I don't get high in front of them. I don't want to give them mescaline. That's their own choice. I wish I could take that tape from Germany, because we never played so hot. And they were yelling, "boo, hiss." Because they figured Eric was going to have his own shit. Eric Clapton with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. It looks like there's Eric Clapton's group, and then there's Delaney and Bonnie. They didn't think he was going to play with us. I have no pride. It hurt my feelings. I cried. And I couldn't do any more than four numbers. Because I'm not going to cram anything down anyone's throat who don't dig it. You're completely putting the whole plastic shield down and exposing your whole inner feelings to everyone. This is the only way I can get release from what I feel. You gotta talk. You gotta tell. And I have the God-given talent to be able to do that. I don't have to live in a plastic shell all my life. And I think it should be appraciated. And if you don't like it, I think you should get your money and split. And if people writing about it don't dig it, they have no business interviewing me. Let them interview someone they like, because if you don't have something nice to say, don't write about that person.

JANIS: I had a couple of shows where I played the whole show really into it, completely giving all I had, man, and I was doing a free-form thing: talking, bringing it all out, letting it all go, man. Just talking about Janis and all the men that hurt her, and all the men that maybe she let down. And everything that you got to say, man, all of a sudden it starts coming out of your mouth, and you didn't even intend it to. And all of a sudden I heard them speak, I heard them talking in the middle of my fucking shit, man, and I stopped and I waited to see if they'd quit.

BONNIE: It's like a sledgehammer in your chest, man.

JANIS: They didn't quit. And I grabbed the microphone and said, "I ain't cryin my ass for you, man." I put the microphone down and walked off the stage. I blew my contract and all that shit. But fuck that, man. I ain't gonna get out there and cry my soul out for people that are talking about: "How's your brother? Did you get laid on Thursday? That's a cute dress!" I'm up up there talking about my pain. Fuck you, man.

BONNIE: Our pain is common. You know the feeling that a woman has - it's very hard for a man to get to a woman because they take it in different ways. It's like a woman can understand another woman. And everyone has been in love and been turned down. And everyone has had someone who really loved them that they just didn't love. And what are you going to do? You don't want to hurt him, but you just don't love him. And that's hurt and that's pain. So you're telling that to people, and there's a lot of people that can relate to that. In the meantine, Joe Shmoe is assin' off, and you're being very serious. And people say, "Delaney walked off stage! He thinks he's so hot!" He's exposing himself, and everyone's laughing. They're ignoring him, ignoring his whole soul. It's really ugly to do. Because everyone, in the meantime, is talking about understanding and loving one another and peace and let's talk about it, let's be truthful with each other. And here's someone on a platform in front of thousands of people. There's probably 45,000 that understand, that have been through that. And then there're the others that have maybe been through that, but don't even want to look at it. So they schmaltz it up for everyone else. And if it happens that they're sitting in the front row, and you're trying to do something....If you where Frank Sinatra you could look up to the left light or the right light, but I gotta look my people in the eye.

BONNIE: Why do they spend their money to come there?

JANIS: It's the fifties against the sixties. In the fifties they used to sing songs because they had nice tunes and they had nice melodies. They didn't hear the words. They were nice to foxtrot to or something.

Right now it's different for a guitar player because he's playing D minor, F whatever-the-fuck, but I'm up there saying, "I feel, you know, I hurt, please help." I'm saying words, man, and if I look at an audience and they ain't understanding me, it's just like getting kicked in the teeth.

BONNIE: As much money as Las Vegas has, they ain't got enough for me. They gonna have to come up with a lot of bread.

JANIS: I turned them down, too. Do you know what's very strange, bizarre? Seven or eight years from now the people going to Las Vegas will be fans of ours - they're gonna have grown up and they're gonna be our crowd, man. We can go back there and rock 'n' roll. The sixties are selling now in Las Vegas. Ten years from now the seventies are gonna be selling. And if the Jefferson Airplane still manage to keep their dregs together, they're gonna be playing there, too.

BONNIE: I certainly hope you're right, man, because I had a super bummer in Las Vegas.

JANIS: I went there once. I checked into this motel and they gave me a coupon worth a dollar at the roulette table, a dollar in quarters at the slot machine and a coupon worth two drinks. I played a dollar worth of roulette and I lost. I had two free drinks and said, "Fuck 'em." I came out of there stoned anyway. They asked me, "How did you learn to sing the blues like that? How did you learn to sing that heavy?" I didn't learn shit, man. I just opened my mouth and that's what I sounded like, man. You can't make up something that you don't feel. Bonnie, she's a bitchin' singer. You know she ain't making up nothing. That chick's a woman, man. I don't know what kind of dues she's paying, but she's paid them; she's still paying them. She's an honest-to-God real life woman, man, or she wouldn't be able to sound like that. I didn't make it up. I just opened my mouth and it existed.

BONNIE: You know that a lot of people say the trounle with women is they don't think about what they say before they say it.

JANIS: That's the good thing about women, man. Because they sing their fuckin' insides, man. Women, to be in the music business, give up more than you'd ever know. She's got kids she gave up.... Any woman gives up home life, an old man probably. You give up home and friends, children and friends. You give up an old man and friends, you give up any constant in the world except music. That's the only thing you got man. So for a woman to sing, she really needs to or wants to. A man can do it as a gig, because he knows he can get laid tonight.

BONNIE: A lot of musicians are married and worship the footsteps their wives walk in. But they go on the road and they ball, and they have a ball. But when they are home, no one is going to break their marriage up, there ain't nobody gonna hurt their children. But what man would have you and let you do what you must do?

JANIS: That's the trouble! You either got to be as big a star as the chick or you got to be a flunky. And no woman, at least me, I don't want an ass-kisser. I want a cat that's bigger and stronger and ballsier than me. When I'm pulling my shit as a songer it's hard to find him, because the only cats that hang around dressing rooms are flunkies. They're all right for a night, but when you want to talk about a man, ain't no man in the world needs to hang around a dressing room. The men are out in some log cabin growing grass and chopping trees, and I never get to see them. But that gives you more soul, right?

BONNIE: When Delaney and I met, it was that fast. I married him seven days after I met him. I was never married before, I was twenty-three. He was never married and twenty-six and no one even thought avout getting married. For ten years before I met Delaney, I lived in hell. I worked in strip joints and truck stops, and I went on between the second-best and the best stripper. You got to have a break so the star could come out. I'd be out there singing a sing and they'd be yelling, "Take it off, baby!"

JANIS: I wasn't even a chick singer until I became a chick singer. I was a dope dealer and a hang-out artist. And a chick on the street trying to find a place to sleep and a cat to lay. I didn't ever sing until they turned me into a rock 'n' roll singer. I sang for free beer once in a while, but I never even wanted to grow up to be a singer. It was a very bizarre experience.

BONNIE It's really weird. I never wanted to be anything else. That was my whole life.

JANIS: All my life I just wanted to be a beatnik. Meet all the heavies, get stoned, get laid, have a good time. That's all I ever wanted. Except I knew I had a good voice and I could always get a couple of beers off of it. All of a sudden someone threw me in this rock 'n' roll band. They threw these musicians at me, man, and the sound was coming from behind. The bass was charging me. And I decided then and there that that was it. I never wanted to do anything else.

It was better than it had been with any man, you know. Maybe that's the trouble.

An excerpt from, Piece Of My Heart: A Portrait Of Janis Joplin, by David Dalton, who was with Bonnie and Janis on the Festival Express in 1970.