Today is the first day of summer. No matter where you are right now, from lounging next to a pool from plowing through hump day work, please understand the importance of this day. It is the starting line of fun, fun, fun, at least until your daddy takes the T-Bird away.
But what if you don’t have a T-Bird? Don’t worry - your good friends the books will take you places. Yes, you can look to the New York Times and NPR and Oprah to figure out what you should be reading this summer. I have a feeling, though, that you won’t enjoy those books half as much as you will Going Down with Janis by Peggy Caserta (as told to Dan Knapp).
This was my first adult summer book. I’ve got a little story about that.
Imagine the middle of June of 1981. High noon. It is bright outside, as if we were living inside the sun instead of millions of miles away, and sticky hot – the kind of hot that glues clothes and skin together. The kind of hot that commands something cold to drink, and not water but a chilly bottle of Coke. The kind of hot that was welcome on the last day of school.
The public library was right across the street from the bus stop where I got off on the way home. I stepped in and went right to the 780 section (which in the Dewey Decimal System means music), looking for a reward for months of dutiful schoolwork.
One book stood out immediately – a book painted an almost fluorescent green. Today, almost all books in the library have their original covers wrapped in plastic, but in 1981 it was common for older books to be coated in several layers of paint, with the title stamped on the spine.
I opened the book, and the contents were as – how should I put this – as colorful as the green cover. This is the first line of the book, and it has become a classic when it comes to rock biography - heck, biography of any kind.
I was stark naked, stoned out of my mind on heroin, and the girl lying between my legs giving me head was Janis Joplin.
Oooh, I just had to read this. I checked it out, took it home, and got more of the same: more sex, more drugs, more rock, plus nuggets of violence, illegal abortion, portable toilets with pyramids of feces, and Lee Harvey Oswald. In other words, places that fifteen-year-old me wasn’t going to visit in person any time soon. Better yet, it was salted with language as saturated as one of those black-light ready posters advertised in the back pages of rock magazines such as Creem:
But not tonight. The heroin had seen to that. GoodGodMotherfucking Queen Smack. For all we knew, the sheets we were floating on could have been liquid gold. Over in the corner on a table, the light from a cheap plastic lamp had been transformed into a beneficent minor sun, warming our brittle bones and transporting us to some pestless place where the temperature and humidity were eternally right.
Get your hands on Going Down with Janis this summer, and I can guarantee you that you will just enjoy it more than any book on this year’s “recommended” lists. And don’t wait until fall; this book almost requires sunshine and cold soda.
Now, I can hear the literalists out there asking this question: “Was the story true?”
Who knows, except Ms. Caserta herself? More to the point, is truth necessary to enjoy this book? No more than it would be with, say, a book of fantasy or futuristic fiction.
I am going to start re-reading Going Down with Janis today, and in a future post let you know what I think about it now. Perhaps I will enjoy it as much as I did thirty-one years ago. Perhaps I will feel ashamed - this may be a story which requires more scoops of compassion than pinches of delight. Perhaps the story of one woman’s slippery slide down the path to a heroin overdose is not the most entertaining one since The Wizard of Oz.
But that’s a story for another summer day.