The first night I heard Janis sing was after I’d been sitting about an hour in that coffeehouse with Dick Warren. She came in with a shaggy guy in sneakers with the toes cut out. I’d see this guy with Janis again, and I’d meet him again after he’d wound up with a group called Jefferson Airplane.
Janis had some metal rings and an identification bracelet on her wrist, and she kept raising her arm and shaking the sleeve higher, jingling the bracelets. Dick pointed her out right away. “Now she belts a song,” he said. “She’s really good.” He said she’d get around to singing when a few more customers showed up. “She likes a lot of people listening to her.”
A poet was reading from scraps of papers he’d scribbled on, but nobody was paying attention. With his sunken cheeks he reminded me of the poet Maxwell Bodenheim in Greenwich Village. When I thought about Bodenheim I always pictured him lying on the floor in that crummy room where he’d been murdered along with his young wife, who had been stabbed with a hunting knife. She was on the bed, with a coat thrown over her body. Neither were wearing shoes. Bodenheim had holes in his socks and a single gunshot in his chest.
I was glad when the skinny poet walked away and Janis and the shaggy guy took his place.
She had a banjo and was doing something with the capo while the guy strummed an old Gibson guitar. Janis finally got on a stool next to him, propped a foot on the rungs and started to sing.
The place quieted down and most everyone was listening. She closed her eyes, still holding the banjo but not playing it, and sang a blues number I’d heard in New Orleans the year before, while snooping around for a movie I was writing for director Curtis Harrington.
A makeshift spotlight rigged high on the coffeehouse wall opposite the piano was shining down behind Janis. She wasn’t directly in the light—more a silhouette against the thick blue smoke floating in the air.
Dick had been right: she was good. She sang low, slurring almost as though choking back
cries, underplaying words in a trembling way that carried the threat of something bottled up and moving inside her like a riptide. She coddled syllables with her mouth, did things to the words with her throat and tongue that gave them new meanings, that made you feel them more intensely, although there was a sense, too, that she wasn’t even sure what she was doing. Her voice would crack a little—a sharp tone pushing through a soft word. It was odd, like she’d been struck with a pain, but she kept right on singing without slowing down, just pushing the words together.
Once finished, the clapping seemed to slacken her and she grinned, nodding to the crowd. She sang a couple more songs: easy ones, folk stuff. She was a gal that went out the gate full-tilt, and for the rest, she just played along. When she went back to the table in the rear, Dick said I should talk to her and maybe hook her up with Herb Cohen in L.A., who ran a couple coffeehouses like the Unicorn and Cosmo Alley where Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti read their stuff to jazz. My first wife, Gina, had worked both places for Herb and I knew him pretty well. I said it wasn’t a bad idea. Janis had a way of getting it across.
I liked the song and told her so. Janis asked if I knew what it was. I said I’d heard it before, in New Orleans, and thought it was Muddy Waters. “Some of it was Muddy Waters,” she agreed. “I kind of improvise what I can’t remember.”
She laughed and suggested trading places with me, meaning she’d prefer New Orleans to where she was. I said I didn’t live in New Orleans but I’d take a rain check on getting back down there. “Or,” I said, joking around, “we could go together—make it in three days.” She said she didn’t want to wait that long, and if I had fast wheels we could do it in a day and a night as long as we hit Port Arthur on the way. “I haven’t got a car,” I said. “Not even a slow one.”
“So there goes Basin Street,” she said, still smiling. “We’re both stuck in fuckin’ Frisco . . .” Later I’d hear her throwing out little lines like that to see if people picked up on them, if she could get some banter going. She liked that, and the higher she got on speed the more she liked it. She said it could be like music—like blues and jazz, and you just went up and kept “tearing it off, and then another one . . .”
Racing down to Louisiana hadn’t been a serious proposal, though it could’ve been. We probably would’ve hit the road if I’d had a car and wasn’t with the Hungarian and our baby daughter.
I told Janis about Herb Cohen, and she said, “Sure, why not? An L.A. gig’s as good as anywhere if they’re paying for it.” I said she’d have to negotiate. She asked if I thought the L.A. guy would pay her expenses to come down and check it out. I said it wasn’t likely. She gave a fake smile, rolling her eyes, and said, “Well, that’s show biz for you.”
You wouldn’t have thought by her manner that she was as talented as she was. Her sallow, bumpy skin turned red at times like there was something wrong with her health or her blood was going bad.
I saw her a few days later when a cold wind was blowing through the streets and the coffeehouse door was open—no customers in the room, but the steam pipes were hissing and the heat was going out the open door.
Janis was in the corner on a low stool near the piano, next to a window that was curtained off. Tight rolls of burlap and dirty napkins were wadded around the edges of the window. Some empty beer bottles sat on the piano keys, and Janis was leaning back over the stool, sucking in her stomach to fasten the buttons on her pants. The trouser legs were baggy like work pants, but so tight at the waist and seat the seams were busting. She was barefoot, and besides the pants, she wore only a brassiere, a faded, orange-pink pushup thing with a wide, big band around the ribs like something an old lady would wear. When she saw me standing in the doorway she made a funny, self-conscious face, not about being caught in that particular brassiere, but about being caught wearing one in general. When I nodded, she said, “I’m only wearing this thing ‘cause my tits are cold.”
She’d been sitting on a folded army blanket and couldn’t find one shoe, but quickly pulled on a large knit sweater that had baggy sleeves full of snags and so many loose threads it looked like fringe hanging down. She put on a jacket, a small man’s Italian cut with slanted pockets she had trouble getting her hands into. “You got a cigarette?” she asked. I gave her one and she said, “Just crashing on short notice, you know.” I nodded. “Got kicked out of the place I was staying at,” she explained. She took a few drags and asked if I had any dope. When I told her I didn’t, she got nervous and exasperated. “Fuck no,” she cursed. “Nobody’s got any dope.” Which wasn’t too far from the truth, but she got into a funk about people holding out on her—how they couldn’t help her or wouldn’t help her. She didn’t even want much dope, she said, but they were keeping it to themselves and wouldn’t share it. The fucking world was rotten, she said. It wasn’t that she was shooting shit like a lot of people, so she couldn’t see what they were being so selfish about.
Looking me squarely in the face, she said, “I’m not going to kiss their ass, man. You know what I mean?” I said I did, although I didn’t. All she wanted was some decent dope.
Late at night when she seemed to be the most awake, her eyes big and shining, she’d look spooked-out: a moon-faced teenager on a paranoid trip. It was the pills she was dropping. But earlier in the day when her eyes were like slits in putty, she looked older than her twenty years, and stared around defensively. A couple of times she was so bulked up in two or three sweaters she looked barrel-chested, walking around barefoot in the cold—her feet red under swollen ankles. She was a ragamuffin, someone that you’re afraid to look at too hard because she’ll probably ask for spare change. She’d be called a street person today;
back then, a vagrant, a drifter. Too young to be booked as a derelict, although she was almost busted a couple of times while panhandling Broadway, and did get arrested for shoplifting.
A small percentage of what the coffeehouse took in was paid to Janis on the nights she sang, plus a little from the tip cup, a coffee can near the singer or whoever was reading poetry or playing a guitar. The tourists still came to see the beatniks; like penitents they willfully exposed themselves to the scorn like the hiss of a snake, of the hangers-on. Or the crowd was there to listen to songs and hear the poets, and they would drop money in the can. That was where Janis later found the penny. She’d told me, “I remember my daddy saying a penny that’s dated before the first World War is going to be worth something.”
After the awful “gypping” she’d experienced because the penny hadn’t been mint, she’d pocketed the two bucks they’d paid and bought a half-pint to dump in her java that night. She’d wanted pills, and said she was afraid of drinking and “not having something” in her system to stay “smoothed out.” She worried about booze because it had killed Hank Williams’ bladder and bowels, she said, and she’d been told he didn’t feel pain when a cigarette went out in the spit on his lip. I said it was true about his bladder because I’d drank with Williams in a parking lot and he’d pissed his pants without knowing it. Janis said at one point during her life in Port Arthur, she thought of Hank Williams as an angel that came down through the roof and slept in her bed.
Dick told her I’d been an actor and hung around with James Dean in New York, and that I’d had motorcycles, and that Dean and I had partied with some oddball chicks.
Janis said she’d worn a ring on a piece of string around her neck that was supposed to carry a memory of Dean. She’d read the magazine stories about his “talking back from the grave” and wanted to know: Was he or wasn’t he dead? From what she could gather, his growing up in an Indiana hick town had to be as suffocating as her own childhood in Port Arthur. It turned a person into “a lusus
naturae,” she said, wiggling her eyebrows up and down. “It means you’re a freak of nature.” Then she said, “Isn’t that what we are?” I recall laughing and her mentioning the words were French. I said it sounded Latin to me, and she replied, “Well, it probably is.
I can’t tell a Frenchman from a greaseball except the wop’s supposed to have the bigger dick of the two.”
She made people mad and seemed to do it on purpose. Then she’d feel bad and want their sympathy. One night I saw her hit a guy with her fist. I thought they were kidding around, but they weren’t,
and she was about to hit him again when someone grabbed her arm. That didn’t stop her. She threw a punch with her other hand and got him in the stomach. Another time she almost got into a fight with a mean-looking bastard even I wouldn’t have tangled with. She knew him, and was laughing, when he said something she didn’t like—that she was a “goofball on legs,” something about her brain being bopped out of sync—and then she said something about knocking his teeth
He only grinned, showing slabs of teeth like a dog daring her to try it. She said, “Lucky nobody gives a shit what a stupid person thinks.” Then her manner and tone changed; she became hushed and confidential. “Last time I saw you,” she said, “you said you’d be holdin’ the next time you’re in and you’d get me straight. I mean, didn’t you say that? Don’t you fuckin’ lie and say you haven’t scored, man, because I know you have. Okay, man?”
I can still remember her—nodding her head, mad, and her upper body bobbing like she had a hinge at the waist, and that wide, open-mouthed, plain-faced smile that wasn’t joyful, but belligerent. “She looks for trouble so damned easy,” Dick Warren said, “she’s going to get herself killed one way or another.” Not only because she was so ready to pick a fight, but because she did it alone, fogged-out, a nowhere-to-crash-half-the-time loner pushing, pushing. Her mouth drew up at the corners, showing more lower teeth than upper ones. She was a tough-talking chick, ready to slug it out, but then suddenly grinning and being a pal—and this in turn gave way to something neither sexy nor vulnerable, but sad: a kind of child you had no idea what to do with.
She’d sit and twist her hair. Once she said she thought she had lice and needed “a fuckin’ monkey” to pick the bugs off her scalp and keep her groomed. I’d seen her comb her hair up high on her head, or pull it back and sort of tie it there, leaving a halo of stray hairs that looked like wires sticking out of her head when lit from behind. Sometimes she’d plaster it down with a strong-smelling pomade that flattened her hair out wet and shiny, and stiff as a dead bird. Once she wore a pink bow on a curved comb as big as something out of the Little Rascals movies. She confused people.
I remember Janis sitting in a coffee joint talking about Cowboy Copas and Patsy Montana and how she always wanted to be like Patsy Montana. “I’ve never told nobody that,” she said. Singers like Joe Turner,
Leadbelly, Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith she felt connected to on the outside, but “on the inside,” she said, “my ass is as white as Patsy Montana and Doris Day’s ass!”
I said, “Prove it,” just joking, and she gathered her shirt in one hand and pulled it up on one side of her chest, showing a bare white breast. She laughed and got red in the face, and I felt a little shaky.
Dick told Janis I knew a lot of movie stars and that Tex Williams was a friend of my family. I’d been an artist, he’d said, been to Paris and even painted pictures for Herb Cohen’s beatnik cafes.
When Janis told me she’d wanted to be a painter and live in a Paris garret, she was chewing on a big wedge of onion. It was one of the few times I saw her eating. Peeling away layers of the onion, she put sugar on it to keep from crying. As we talked she scratched and dug at her throat, her skin breaking out red where she’d rubbed it with wet, onion-juice-laden
Janis asked me about the time I’d seen Hank Williams at the Grand Ole
Opry, and about drinking with him
in an L.A. parking lot a few months before he died.
At twenty-nine, he was just four years older than James Dean at the time of his death, but she didn’t think it was such a “sorry picture”—
neither Hank’s early death nor Dean’s. “Williams wrote what —
a hundred and fifty songs?” she said. “Couldn’t read or write music?” If she could do a tenth of what Hank did in the next forty years of her life, she said, she’d be blessing the day she was born instead of calling it a day “God didn’t wanna get out of bed and said, ‘Fuck it’...”
Blood transfusions by way of the blues, she said, were what she needed, and what she got, from Bessie Smith and Big Mamma, “So I get blacker the more blues I sing.” She truly believed she’d been torn somewhere in her life between the Negro world and Patsy Montana’s, and this “eclipse,” as she called it, was going to keep her “hollowed out”—unable to “sit herself down” in either world. If she didn’t do it, she said, “the thing’ll backfire,” and she had no intention of following Hank or James Dean to an early grave.
It didn’t matter what she “willed” herself to do, because life was like bowling, she said. She liked to bowl but she wasn’t any good at it. “The Man upstairs says this chick’s an alley cat—an ugly chick that bowls in the gutter every time.” What she was good at, she said, was getting high, and if it was possible for me to score by that afternoon she’d see that I got the best seat in the house when it came to the day of reckoning.
She wasn’t good at scoring dope either, she claimed, and couldn’t stay as stoned as she wanted. She said she had to please people or do what she didn’t want to do in order to get high. There wasn’t anything more important than being stoned, she said, except “lovin’,” but even that was more rewarding if you were high. She was probably good at “lovin’,” she claimed, but because she wasn’t a glamour queen she didn’t think she’d score so hot in that department, either. “People I want to ball,” she said, “just don’t seem to be on the same wavelength as me.”
Janis wanted to know if James Dean was queer. I didn’t believe he was, but that was a whole other can of peas. “It wouldn’t bother me,” she said. “I know queers that’re okay, and it only makes a problem if you want to ball someone who doesn’t want to ball you, or who’s queer for someone of their own sex . . . If you ball your friends you don’t get
into hassles about people being hung up... It can be a guy or a chick in the sack,” she said, rambling on, “and that’s what makes you even more a freak.”
After hanging around Grant and talking to Janis, I got the feeling she pushed the hard-ass speed act to cover something else. I didn’t know clearly what it was. Dick said she was scared and mixed up and it was almost impossible to get a look at what she wanted to hide, like she wasn’t in touch with it at all.
I recall seeing her only a couple of times in a dress, looking like a dance hall floozy or a short man dressed as a woman, and bungling attempts at “romance” by sleeping with anyone she thought desired her for whatever reason she’d dream up. Some, like the guy with the slab teeth or the one across the alley from City Lights, used her, she told Chip, “like you’d use a hole in the fence.” She couldn’t get close to coming with these guys she was balling because they’d finish quick and make excuses to get away.
She blamed herself—it was always her fault and never the other person’s. Even with bad dope, it usually boiled down to being Janis’s fault. Those she floated around with did not hesitate to let her take the fall. They seemed a
scroungy, conked-out lot, some shooting smack without worrying who knew, or when or where it came from.
Despite what’s been said or written about Janis shooting smack on Grant, she was not—at that time. Heroin wasn’t easy to come by. In North Beach it cost more money to make a solid connection than most people were able to pay for the dope. But Janis was guilty by association.
Dick had been popping for more than a year, but he said Janis turned down an offer to try and was scared. Chip was shooting a little—skin shots at first—and Janis did some coke-sniffing, but couldn’t stop throwing up. She said she’d make a rotten junkie and was afraid it’d ruin her will to sit on top of the “eclipse, because a fuckin’ devil’s at the bottom of the hole.”
Plus, she was convinced she couldn’t carry a tune and was “a musical failure.” A lot of negative vibes were being launched along Grant, and I made notes about how “the girl from Texas” seemed pulled to the sorry side of things—like someone walking out of a Hank Williams song. She could sway into bad scenes as though it were a calling,
more trusting of many people than she should have been.
One time, sharing booze, she was squirming on the seat and it would’ve been easy to sack her down, but I didn’t. Again she put her hand up under the sweater, scratching at her tits. I thought she’d pull it up again, but she just said fleas were eating her alive.
Because of the beautiful Hungarian freedom fighter I was living with, the mother of my daughter, I’d temporarily given up the non-monogamous sex chase. I felt my days of juvenile glory before the movie cameras were behind me, and I was only trying to keep my head above the economic undertow. I rarely smoked dope, I wasn’t doing pills, and half the people I knew thought I was a square—some even thought I was a cop, undercover among the die- hard Beats—but that was okay. A benny now and then to keep me pounding at the typewriter all night was about the extent of the dope I did back then. Janis and I were at different ends about dope. I drank and I’d been hooked on sex—my fast fix for the past few years, which I’d temporarily kicked, and Janis wasn’t the prize to pull me off my track of reformation. Plus I thought I’d get a dose of something—the least of which was clap—if I got into her pants.
Partying with “the girl from Texas” was something around a distant corner, though always in the air, ever since that morning I caught her wearing the old lady’s brassiere.
She was shooting speed not long before we went in separate directions, sticking the needle under her skin a little in Dick’s kitchen. They’d fix in the breakfast nook, using a drugstore hypo to shoot it. But even then, Janis didn’t tie off like Dick or the people I knew in New York. Janis said she’d pulled the rubber tube for him one night and he stuck the needle in, drew some blood up into the tube, then pushed the whole mix right in.
Chip was skin-popping smack by then, so it was around and always present. She was shooting it into the back of her hand, or on the inside of her calf above the ankles. If she shot it into her thigh or arm she’d be a junkie, she thought, and nobody wanted to be a junkie. She said, “It’s something you kind of hit at by a weird default you don’t even know you have . . .”
She’d told Dick she thought Janis was crazy because Janis said if she could be as black as Chip she’d give her soul to Satan. Chip said, “I told her if I had half the talent she did I’d be in New York instead of suicidin’ with a bunch of freaks in San Francisco. She ought to wake up and make it happen the color she is, and stop dreaming there’s a nigger underneath her lily-white hide.” Chip also sang folk songs, but had given up because “being a Negro without a name,” as she put it, she couldn’t get a gig in Frisco or L.A., despite any rumors of racial acceptance. “Rhythm and blues—okay,” she said, “but no intermixing of color on the stage .”
One night Chip, Janis, Dick, the Hungarian and our baby, and I met at a little Italian place on the corner near the park. Chip and Dick were high, but Janis was a real mess. She had some pills that looked old and crystallized, blank capsules with bands around them. She slopped food around like a spastic, had trouble finding her mouth with the fork, and swayed back and forth, waving her hands. Chip had talked to Dick about some contacts for Janis in L.A., maybe singing at the Troubadour or getting in with Lenny Bruce. We were going to make a plan, but Janis couldn’t even manage a plate of spaghetti.
When we left she took the spumoni in a paper cup, then bought a quart of beer at the market by Columbus, across from the park. She took a few swigs standing on the sidewalk, then started puking in the bushes. Chip and Dick said enough’s enough and walked the other way to the wharf, leaving Janis, who told me she was in pain. She kept vomiting after swallowing beer, and I said, “Stop drinking the damned beer!”
She handed me the bottle but there was puke on it. The Hungarian asked her if she wanted to bed down on our couch, but Janis only wanted to know if I had any uppers. “Even low-grade?” she pleaded. “I coulda sworn these fuckers were uppers, man, but I’m going down fast—something’s all fucking wrong . . .” I said I didn’t have any, but she didn’t believe me. While my girlfriend and the baby horsed around on the grass, Janis sat on a bench and tried to eat the spumoni. It was late, I recall, and the baby was half-asleep. I asked Janis if she wanted to take a taxi with us back to our place. She’d stopped throwing up and said, “I’m going to be mad if I don’t get something in my system to straighten me out.” She asked me if I was sure I didn’t have any dope, and again I said no. She nodded—as much as calling me a liar—and walked off, taking the beer but leaving the spumoni on the bench.
Maybe twice I saw her with a guy from Texas who didn’t like me and whom I didn’t like. We didn’t even know each other, but according to Janis he figured she’d been making it with me the same time she’d been making it with him. She said they had a lot in common, like Port Arthur music and dope.
Before I left (San Francisco), I saw Janis in a Chinatown drugstore. I remember the Seeburg Solotone record selector on the old soda fountain, and Janis on a stool in front of it with her head going back and forth to the music. She looked pretty,
a lot of makeup on her eyes like a Paris whore, and a fishnet tee-shirt tucked into tight jeans. A long, braided, Indian sort of sash was around her waist with the end hanging to her knees.
She’d put her coins in the jukebox and asked if I’d lend her enough for some french fries. I got two orders of fries, which she ate with a mountain of salt and ketchup. A lot of things were happening in New York, she said, and people were hitting out for the Village folk scene. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do and asked, “What’re you doing?” It occurred to me that we were both sort of launching the idea of going to bed right then. I asked if she remembered showing me her breast, and she got very docile and said, “You want to look at it again?” I sort of laughed though she hadn’t said anything funny, and told her I was going out of town. I shook her hand, which felt small and warm, and realized that my fidelity to the Hungarian was something Janis had no way of understanding. That earlier night in the restaurant and park, it was as though my baby had been nothing more than a duffel bag. It was, for Janis, like those invisible boundary lines just didn’t exist.
I didn’t tell her I was heading to Hollywood, but in case she made it to New York I gave her a couple of names to look up. I wrote the numbers on the back of a snapshot of Hank Williams taken in Fort Worth in ‘52. Janis looked at it, eating the fries, then stuck the picture up under her shirt against her bare stomach, saying her pockets were too tight. I left the change on the counter. She dropped one of the nickels in the slot to play the same song again, giving me a funny, almost sad smile as she rocked on the stool, singing silently with the lyrics while her smoky eyes seemed so separated from the rest of her face.
From LAID BARE: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywood