Janis Joplin with Paul Butterfield Blues Band - Madison Square Garden, Dec 6, 1969 by WNTI's Greg Lewis
1969 was my first year in high school. Like most 14 year olds, I wanted to be 18 years old. Possessing a full mustache and long hair I easily passed for 18. However I was 14 and knew nothing. I was intrigued by the stories that I had heard from older brothers and sisters of friends who had attended Woodstock earlier that year. I had been listening to Beatles, Stones, Animals and other British Invasion bands along with Motown, The Rascals and all that great music from the sixties since I was 6 or 7 years old. All of it, thanks to my sister, who was seven years my senior.
By 1969 she was away at college and I was being turned on by my brother, three years my senior, to Iron Butterfly,Cream, Vanilla Fudge, Led Zep, Steve Miller, Jefferson Airplane and other psychedelic bands [all of which were heavily blues influenced I would realize years later]. An older friend scored tickets to see Janis Joplin at the Garden two months prior to the gig. I jumped at the chance to go before I even knew if I could secure permission from my parents. I felt confident I could manipulate that part. Of course I did, though I do not remember the particulars. A good thing I did, as I will point out in a moment.
My hometown of Massapequa Long Island was a bedroom community of NYC. My father, brother and sisters all rode the Long Island Railroad in to NYC every day for years. We were a 45 minute ride from NYC on the LIRR and I was pretty familiar with Manhattan from many trips there as a kid. This one was to be much different though because I was going there with my peers. There would be no adult or authority figures which was beyond cool.
Catching the train that night from the Massapequa train station, the platform was loaded with young long haired kids heading in to the Garden to see Janis Joplin. I was the youngest of our gang so I basically kept my mouth shut and soaked it all in, hoping nobody would notice I was 14. Each stop along the rail more long haired kids piled on until it was basically our train. There were smoking cars on the train that had an odor similar to my friend Rick's older brother's room. This was quite an event before the event.
When the train arrives in Penn Station [which is right below MSG] that same train reverses direction and goes back the route it just covered. As I stood with my mug against the train door waiting for the doors to slide apart, I see the passengers waiting to board our train to head back out to LI. When the doors open the first person I see waiting to step aboard is my MOTHER. Rock my world. She is fine. She smiles and says, 'Well hi son. Are you going to the show? Have a good time. I'll see you later.' Somehow I thought she might had seen the events on the train ride in and was going to scoop me up and take me home. I was 14.
Now we head upstairs to the Garden and the place is bustling. All sorts of characters hustling this, that and tickets with the cops seemingly uninterested in it all. The anticipation is high even though I have no idea what to expect. We get in and we are sitting in the nosebleed section. The acoustics at the Garden in those days were not the best but everybody was digging it anyhow.
The opening band was Paul Butterfield [post Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop]. I remember myself and the crowd enjoying his set. I don't have specific music memories, just impressions.
When Janis came out it was wild. Having snuck down closer to the stage by this point, [I was 14] we had a better view. I remember seeing her swig from a bottle of Southern Comfort on stage. I remember Johnny Winter coming out to play the encore with her. I also recall a fellow from my high school named Ralph who had a seemingly odd crush on Janis. Ralph was there that night and rushed on stage to kiss Janis. I forget if he actually did, though he did get a chance to say something to her and have her respond. Different times then. Janis wasn't spooked at all and it didn't seem like a big deal to those who were there. The cops or the security who were there thought differently. Apparently when they got Ralph out of view they roughed him up a bit. A friend saw Ralph a day or two later looking a bit lumped up. Ralph claimed it was worth it.
39 years later my memories are mostly of being 14 more then the actual music played. I also remember feeling this was something I wanted to do every chance I could. I sometimes wish my first concert had less extraordinary musicians so the bar wouldn't have been set so high. Truthfully, it really didn't matter. By summer vacation 1970 I was again taken to NYC by older friends to witness the phenomena known as the Fillmore East for it's final year and a half. Yikes! This has become a novel, hasn't it?
Cheers mateys, Greg