The Haunting Song Patti Smith Wrote For Janis Joplin—Two Months Before Her Death

Amidst a sea of tequila bottles and drunken musicians, Janis Joplin and Patti Smith forge an unforgettable friendship.

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N ew York City: August 1969. Janis Joplin is hanging out with her band at El Quijote, the restaurant attached to the Chelsea Hotel. She is the toast of hippie America. She doesn’t seem to notice the girl who has just strolled in.

Patti Smith and her friend Robert Mapplethorpe have recently moved into room 1017, the smallest bedroom in the hotel. At 23, Smith is a bookstore assistant who yearns to be an artist of one kind or another. The Chelsea represents her aspirations. She enters it as a novice might enter a convent.

Dressed in a long rayon polka-dot dress and a straw hat, she puts her head round the door of the bar. The scene is almost absurdly characteristic of its era, scattered in roughly equal proportions with musicians and bottles of tequila. Jimi Hendrix is there in his big hat, slumped over a table at the far end; to his right, Grace Slick and the rest of Jefferson Airplane sit around a table; to his left, Joplin pals around with the guys in her backup band. They are all here for the Woodstock Festival.

Returning to her room, Smith feels “an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people,” and she continues to make inroads into bohemia. Recently, Bobby Neuwirth became top dog after he popped up as a friend of Bob Dylan in the documentary Don’t Look Back. Now Neuwirth takes Smith under his wing, introducing her to Kris Kristofferson and Roger McGuinn. One day, he introduces her to Janis Joplin with the words, “This is the poet Patti Smith.” From that moment, Joplin always calls her the Poet.

[pullquote] Smith sits at the feet of Kris Kristofferson as he and Joplin sing his new song, “Me and Bobby McGee.” This is later deemed a moment of rock history.[/pullquote]

Over the coming year, Patti Smith joins those drifting in and out of Joplin’s suite. Joplin rests on an easy chair in the center, brandishing a bottle of Southern Comfort, even in the afternoon. One day, Smith sits at the feet of Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin as Kristofferson sings his new song, “Me and Bobby McGee.” In her rasping, wailing voice, Joplin joins in the chorus. This is later deemed a moment of rock history, but Smith is preoccupied with the poem she is trying to write.

After attending one of Joplin’s concerts, the singer’s vast entourage tromps off to a party downtown. Smith notes that Joplin—in magenta and pink, with a purple feather boa—spends most of the evening with a handsome man to whom she is obviously attracted. But just before closing time, he leaves with someone else.

Joplin bursts into tears. “This always happens to me, man. Just another night alone.”

Neuwirth tells Smith to take Joplin back to the Chelsea Hotel and keep an eye on her. Smith sits with Joplin and listens while she talks about how unhappy she is. Smith has written a song for her and, never backward in coming forward, seizes the opportunity to sing it. It is on the theme of the star adored by the public but lonely offstage.

“That’s me, man! That’s my song!” says Joplin.

Before Smith sets off for her room, Joplin adjusts her boa in the mirror. “How do I look, man?” she asks. “Like a pearl,” replies Smith. “A pearl of a girl.”

From the book Hello Goodbye Hello, copyright 2011 by Craig Brown, Simonandschuster.com

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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