While Janis Joplin’s final concert remains poorly documented 45 years later, rare photographs from the performance are finally getting their first public look. The backdrop for the concert just so happens to be Harvard Stadium.
Peter Warrack attended the show in August of 1970 with his partner, Kevin McElroy, and shot photos on his Nikon. Warrack has since passed, but his photos have been acquired by House of Roulx, a new boutique e-commerce imprint from larger company JG Autographs.
Five years ago, McElroy initially sold the company a series of autographs, but only recently did he share with them a collection of about 15,000 photographs that Warrack had taken, all of which included the original negatives. Hours of flipping through these photos yielded shots of Diana Ross and many others, but most importantly, several shots of Joplin’s final show.
The images have been restored from their negatives and are now available for purchase through House of Roulx. Given the significance of the photos, the company even partnered with an artist, Jace McTier, to create an artist rendering of Warrack’s photos. While these photos are the majority of surprisingly limited evidence of the show, the local lore is part of it, too.
Decades ago, Scheafer Beer co-sponsored a summer concert series at Harvard Stadium along with the city of Boston’s “Summerthing’’ arts initiative, a program launched in 1968 to help “cool off’’ the city in the heat of the summer. The stadium could fit more than 35,000 attendees, but these events were limited to 10,000 and a $2 ticket fee per person. By 1970, the lineup was nothing to sneeze at: Highlights included The Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, Ike and Tina Turner, Van Morrison, B.B. King, and The Supremes.
Big names drew big crowds, and problems early in the series threatened its future.
“The first few performances were marred by extensive gate crashing and damage, by minor crimes such as purse-snatching and post-concert vandalism in Harvard Square,’’ Nathan Cobb wrote for The Boston Globe.
“The powers-that-be at Harvard in 1970, I’m not sure how thrilled they were with the whole hippie movement that was going on,’’ says Ken Zambello, a professor of rock history at Berklee College of Music. “1970 was sort of a turning point in that the first first phases of ‘selling out’ started to rear its ugly head. Promoters wanted to charge $10 to experience that counterculture.’’
Upped security helped the concert series mature, however, and by August, it became as enjoyable as once anticipated. Whether it was preppy Harvard kids or stoned youngsters, the stadium hit capacity the night of August 12 for Joplin, despite the show almost not happening at all.
“There was an incredible delay for the concert to start,’’ says McElroy, a South End resident who was 19 when he attended the show with Warrack. “The equipment was stolen during the night, that’s what was explained to us. They were waiting for more equipment to come in and we ended up being stalled for an hour or hour and a half.’’
McElroy remembers being just yards away from Joplin during this delay. She was “in her own world,’’ drinking Southern Comfort next to the stage, waiting.
“It was the beginning of a good engagement between her and the audience when she finally hit the stage,’’ says McElroy. “It was just incredible music, she just soared. They communicated back and forth, it became sexual almost, back and forth between her and the audience. She played with it, she made it happen. And the audience wanted her, they were yelling, ‘We wanna ball you.’ May have been a reference to ‘Ball ‘n’ Chain,’ which she had been singing, I’m not sure. She had a good sense of humor.’’
Joplin wasn’t noticeably inebriated in her performance, but her set did only last eight songs. According to Zambello, however, that was par for the course at that point in Joplin’s career.
“I think a lot of people would be shocked at how short her regular performances became,’’ he says. “She had a pretty good idea of how much energy it would take to last a certain amount of time on stage. After a while she had sort of a set rule that after 30 or 40 minutes, that was going to be enough for her.’’
McElroy doesn’t recall anything abnormal about the show — nobody rushing her offstage, no visible distraction, no harbingers of what would become of Joplin.
“It was a terrific night, she was great, and we were just young kids. It was a crazy period of time, we had just been through Kent State. If you were living in the city of Boston at that time, it was a period of excitement and protest.’’
Less than two months later, on October 4, 1970, Joplin died from a heroin overdose.
Jared Gendron, founder of House of Roulx, was initially surprised at how little footage was available of this concert. But it does make sense in retrospect that the show wasn’t exactly mobbed with press.
“You have to step back for a second and remember that to those attending, it wasn’t her last concert,’’ he says. “It was just another concert that happened to be the last.’’
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