I’ve been sick in bed for most of this week and finally catching up on some NetFlix DVDs that I’ve been holding onto for months. One of them was the second disc in a series called “The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons.” I loved watching “The Dick Cavett Show” back in the day. It ran on ABC from 1969 to 1975 opposite “The Tonight Show.” Cavett was known as an erudite talk show host, rather uptight but with a great sense of humor. He seemed a bit of a snob, but as a pre-teen snob myself, I enjoyed his intellectual banter. My friends and I used to count the number of times he worked German or French words into a conversation, or how many times he mentioned his “close, personal friends” Woody Allen and Groucho Marx. Cavett always had an amazing assortment of guests, and he’d often convince people who never gave interviews to come on his show. I remember the excitement surrounding Katharine Hepburn’s appearance in October 1973. The four-time Oscar winner never appeared on television, much less a talk show, but she sat down with Cavett and wouldn’t stop gabbing. At the end of the show with Hepburn all revved up, he asked her if she wanted to stay and she agreed to tape an additional 90 minutes. I also remember honest hard-hitting exchanges with the likes of Bette Davis, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Fred Astaire. Most of these interviews were just released last week on a new DVD compilation called “The Dick Cavett Show: Hollywood Greats.”
But back to Cavett’s frequent exchanges with the rock icons of the day. Even Cavett himself, who turns 70 this November, was puzzled that so many incredible rock personalities appeared on his show. “I don’t know who said, ‘Dick would be great with rock people,’” he said in a recent interview. “I would have asked ‘Why?’ if I had been there. The fact that I had all these people on still surprises me. For some reason, I was accepted by the rock folk. Maybe they understood that they and I were on the same side of the Richard Nixon question.” Cavett was an outspoken critic of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War and he also railed against the censorship that had reached a boiling point the year he began his show. "Censorship feeds the dirty mind more than the four-letter word itself,” he said at the time. Earlier that year, CBS had deleted an entire segment on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in which Harry Belafonte sang against a backdrop of footage of police beating demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. CBS also refused to air an episode of the show in which Joan Baez mentioned that her husband was going to jail rather than accepting the draft. The show was cancelled shortly thereafter.
The censors were also on Cavett’s case, knowing his opposition to the war, and they probably went apoplectic every time someone from their “watch list” appeared on his show. One classic moment that the censors missed can be found on Disc 1 of the “Rock Icons” collection. Cavett taped a show on August 19, 1969, just hours after the Woodstock music festival had ended. The studio audience was made up of mostly young people who were on their way home from Woodstock and the show featured several acts from the festival who hadn’t even had time to clean themselves up. Joni Mitchell was also on the show in a supreme bit of irony. The woman who would write the song “Woodstock” had not attended the music festival even though she’d been invited to perform. The reason? Her manager thought it would be better for her career if she appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Oy. Following Mitchell, the Jefferson Airplane, still covered in Woodstock mud, performed an intense version of “We Can Be Together” and kept in the now famous line, “Up against the wall, motherfuckers!” The censors missed it but the audience went nuts. It was the first time the F word had ever been uttered on television. If that happened today, ABC and Dick Cavett probably would have been fined several million dollars each.
One unlikely repeat guest on Cavett’s show was Janis Joplin. Disc 2 of the set is completely devoted to the brilliant singer and features three of her appearances: one in the summer of 1969 and two in 1970, just a few months before her death from a heroin overdose. In addition to six electrifying live performances, including fantastic renditions of “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “Get It While You Can,” the DVD includes the complete unedited shows. Looking at the bizarre combination of guests in each program, you might think that the person who booked the show was on heroin himself. I say he was a genius.
Joplin’s 1969 appearance had something of a counterculture theme. In addition to Janis, the show featured the improv group “The Committee” featuring a very young Howard Hesseman (who is called Don Sturdy for some reason). Many of the skits performed by this group would never be allowed on television today, such as a bit in which an African-American man teaches Hesseman how to “act black.” The other guest was English rock critic Michael Thomas, all of 25 years old and taking himself very seriously. Sparks fly when Janis challenges his work and the function of rock critics in general. At the end of the show, “The Committee” asks Cavett, Joplin, and Thomas to join them in an improvised “emotional symphony.” Each person is assigned an emotion which they must express on cue. Janis, quite in touch with her emotions, performs gamely with the group while Cavett looks painfully uncomfortable.
My favorite Janis Joplin appearance is from June 25, 1970. Joining her on stage are Raquel Welch, fresh from the premiere of “Myra Breckenridge” and at the dizzying height of her fame as an international sex symbol; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the former Mr. Joan Crawford, looking quite handsome and debonair at age 61; and Chet Huntley, who was about to leave his partner David Brinkley after 14 years of delivering the nightly news together and spends all his time on the show openly lusting after Raquel Welch. Watching contemporaries Joplin and Welch interact provides a fascinating glimpse into the polarities that beset America at that time. Welch represents everything that Janis is not. She appears on the show in a micro-mini dress that I don’t think would be allowed on broadcast TV today. She is gorgeous, refined plastic from head to toe and flaunts her sexuality unabashedly, her large, perfect breasts jutting out of the low-cut knit. Janis is decked out in her vintage rock duds but wears not a stitch of makeup. Her wild hair would have made Raquel’s hairstylist weep and unlike Welch’s careful poise and affected speech, Janis sits slumped in her chair and blurts out anything that comes into her head. But here’s the thing. Although it would have been quite easy for Janis to mop the floor with Raquel, the two women treat each other with great respect even though they clearly have wildly different opinions about most things. Their conversation is amazing. Joplin freely admits that she didn’t care for “Myra Breckenridge” and Raquel doesn’t seem to take offense. The women seem to accept the different roles they have in American society and though Cavett sometimes seems to clench up at what he calls their “arguing,” Janis is always quick to point out that she is enjoying the free-spirited discussion and doesn’t consider it an argument at all. Raquel tries a little too hard to shake her bimbo image, but through her convoluted ravings about world events you can see that she was definitely no fool. Douglas Fairbanks just enjoys the ride, and it’s sweet to see how excited Janis gets when he talks about meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald as a child. Joplin says she is a Fitzgerald fanatic and after one of Raquel’s diatribes she encourages the actress to read a new biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, making a comparison between the two that flies straight over Welch’s head.
What is most remarkable about watching these shows, apart from seeing what an utterly authentic person Janis Joplin was, is the difference between the REAL conversations they contain, for better and for worse, and the manufactured, artificial sound bites that pass for conversation on talk shows today. I have a hard time watching any of the current crop of TV talk shows, even when I admire the host. Everything is forced into a few brief moments and there is always the overriding objective of plugging some commercial entity. All hosts and guests are prepared in advance so they can simulate conversations that show everyone to the best possible advantage. No warts, no disagreements, no truth.
Janis’s final appearance on Cavett’s show occurred on August 3, 1970. The eclectic guests that night included actress Gloria Swanson, who at 73 could have passed for 50; a very young Margot Kidder, years before “Superman,” who walked onto the stage in her bare feet wearing a floor length granny dress and gigantic glasses; and former pro-football star Dave Meggyesy, whose ground-breaking book “Our of Their League,” was about to be published to great controversy. Meggyesy was an anti-war activist who wrote about how sports in the United States dehumanized athletes. He resented the jingoistic use of football to sell the war in Vietnam and today is the president of Athletes United for Peace.
Joplin seems genuinely curious about what it was like for Gloria Swanson to make films in the early days of the film industry but Swanson seems to have a hard time relating to the singer, instead wanting to show off her legs and 1930s-style outfit. A waif-like Margot Kidder sits curled up in her chair and breathlessly blurts out her recent discovery about how the old-time actresses always made their nipples stand out underneath their thin silk gowns. “They used ice cubes!” she giggles, embarrassing Dick Cavett who continues to squirm as Gloria gets up and demonstrates how she used to deal with the underwear lines under her costumes in the days of the silents. The mood changes dramatically when a very serious Dave Meggyesy, wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt and jeans, presents his leftist views about sports in America. Despite his earnestness, you can feel the sexual tension between him and Janis Joplin rising by the second.
How lucky we are that Janis Joplin’s personality is captured on tape in these interviews. She tries to explain the difference between getting underneath the music, as she does, and coming at it from the top down. “If I hold back, I’m no good. I’d rather be good sometimes than hold back all of the time.” She gets flustered whenever Cavett calls her a “lady rock star” and asks him to just call her a singer. When asked who her favorite “lady singer” is, she says Tina Turner and then has to explain who that is to Cavett who has never heard of her. There is the poignant moment when she tells Dick about her plans to attend her 10th high school reunion in her home town of Port Arthur, Texas. She playfully asks Cavett if he’d like to be her date.
Dick Cavett: Well, I don’t remember having any friends in your high school class.
Janis Joplin: I don't either. I don't either, believe me.
Dick Cavett: Do you think you'll have a lot to say to your old high-school classmates ?
Janis Joplin: I don't have a lot, man.
Dick Cavett: You were not surrounded by friends in high school?
Janis Joplin: They laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state, man. So I’m goin’ home.
She did go to the reunion and by all reports it was a painful trip for her. Janis Joplin proved that being the most authentic person you can be does not necessarily protect you from your demons. Weeks after her trip back to Texas she was found dead of a drug overdose. I remember when she died and in my mind it is forever linked with the drug deaths of her fellow musicians and some say former lovers Jimi Hendrix (three weeks earlier) and Jim Morrison (nine months later). All three of these icons were 27 years old when they died. What a waste. The last recordings she completed, just three days before her death, were “Mercedes-Benz ” (later used in an actual Mercedes-Benz commercial, a move that I'm guessing would have made Joplin's stomach turn) and a birthday greeting for John Lennon. Lennon, another frequent guest on “The Dick Cavett Show” later told Cavett that Joplin’s taped greeting arrived at his New York home the day after she died.
Janis Joplin would be 63 if she were alive today. I think she would have remained a dynamic voice in the music industry and a significant figure in the cultural landscape of this country. “Don’t compromise yourself,” she once said, “you are all you’ve got.”
While Bette Midler’s 1979 film “The Rose” was loosely based on Joplin’s life, there are now two big studio films in development about her. It was announced yesterday that “The Gospel According to Janis” will finally start shooting in November. The long-delayed project, to be directed by Penelope Spheeris, was to have starred the singer Pink in the title role, but a recent casting change gave the plum part to actress Zooey Deschanel who will do all her own singing. We’ll have to see if she can pull it off. Other stars who were considered for the role include Scarlett Johansson, Lindsay Lohan (aaargh!), and Britney Spears (AAARGH!). The second Joplin pic in development is called “Piece of My Heart” and is slated to star Renee Zellweger as Janis. Gulp. Other actresses who were considered for this one include Courtney Love (no way!), Brittany Murphy (NO WAY!) and the one person I think would have been absolutely perfect in the role, the great actress Lili Taylor who even looks, sounds, and sings like Janis Joplin. Oh, those idiots in Hollywood.
A few weeks ago, the Joplin family mercifully put the kibosh on a planned reality show called “Searching for the Pearl” which would have documented a nationwide search to find the next Janis Joplin. That person was to have headlined a new world tour next summer with bands that played with Joplin including Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Kozmic Blues Band, and Full Tilt Boogie Band. As if there could ever be another Janis Joplin.
On Janis Joplin’s posthumous album “Pearl,” the song “Buried Alive in the Blues” was released as an instrumental because she died the night before she planned to record the vocal track:
It's real hard you know, it's real hard being buried alive
It's real hard being buried alive
When you're buried alive they walk right on by you
When you're buried alive they never care about you
When you're buried alive, oh, you reach out for somebody
And when you're buried alive you can't seem to press on through.