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Backstage memories of Janis Joplin’s final concert, 50 years ago at Harvard Stadium

Janis Joplin shown performing in 1970, in an image from the documentary film "Festival Express." In August of that year, she would play what would be her final concert at Harvard Stadium.
Janis Joplin shown performing in 1970, in an image from the documentary film "Festival Express." In August of that year, she would play what would be her final concert at Harvard Stadium.Handout

Aug. 12, 1970, was another hot day in Cambridge. But temperatures had cooled down to the high 70s by sunset, perfect weather for the crowd at Harvard Stadium, where Janis Joplin and her newly formed Full Tilt Boogie Band would make their first local appearance together — part of the season-long Schaefer Music Festival — finishing up a string of performances that summer before heading to the recording studio.

Turns out the music gods were busy working overtime, making sure it was a concert people wouldn’t forget. That afternoon, the sound equipment in the stadium’s south end zone was stolen. After replacement speakers and amps finally arrived that night, and two opening acts had played, Joplin performed her final concert, not just of the tour, but forever. She and the band spent September recording the album “Pearl,” but Joplin died, reportedly due to a combination of heroin and alcohol, on Oct. 4 at age 27.

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Between my sophomore and junior years at Emerson College, I had scored a summer job on the security detail at the Schaefer Music Festival. I was one of the Red Shirts — bright red T-shirt, big white peace sign in the middle — hired to keep people from jumping the chain-link fence so they wouldn’t have to pay the $2 admission, then, at concert time, to stand near the stage, blocking any overzealous fans from climbing the steps.

Full transparency: I was, at best, ineffective at my job. During previous concerts that summer (Ten Years After and Van Morrison come to mind), if a would-be gate crasher offered me a joint, I would accept it, then turn my back for a moment. Once a show started, I would sneak away from my post, pull a “civilian” T-shirt out of my pocket, put it on over the red one, and sit down in the crowd.

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But for Joplin, I was on my best behavior, at least for my duties at the stage. First, because management warned us that the fans were getting restless over the sound equipment delays. Second, because I was a Joplin fan. I had seen her play with Big Brother and the Holding Company at Ridge Arena in Braintree, and with the Kozmic Blues Band at Woodstock, and felt I had an allegiance to her. No one, among the reported 33,000 people in Harvard Stadium, was going to get by me and up on the stage.

But that determination was never put to the test because, for reasons never explained, after performances by the bands Gas Mask and Eagle — using shaky replacement equipment — management placed a half-dozen of us right on the stage, in the midst of roadies who were bringing in even more sound support, and gave the directive to “protect” Joplin.

Joplin, however, didn’t need protecting; she needed the show to start. She needed to bare her soul to her fans. The band was nowhere to be seen, but Joplin was up on the stage, pacing near the back, taking sips from a paper cup (another Red Shirt later told me he saw her with a bottle of J&B scotch, not her customary Southern Comfort).

Our orders, beyond protecting her, were, “Don’t mingle with the talent, don’t even speak to the talent.” So, we stayed away from her. But the evening’s emcee, WMEX DJ Bud Ballou, frustrated by the delays, and fast running out of excuses to appease the audience, apparently needed someone to talk to. “I’m gonna tell you the exact truth,” he told the crowd at one point. “Janis, and everybody, is here. We’re not stalling because Janis didn’t show up, or anything like that. Everyone is here.” After a later announcement, he came up to me, waving his arms toward the masses, and asked incredulously, “Can you see all the purple haze out there?”

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It’s hard to recall how much time went by or what happened onstage between the end of Eagle’s set and the beginning of Joplin’s. There were loud, unintelligible shouts coming from the stands, there were Frisbees floating over the field, and the sight of that purple haze became the smell of marijuana wafting through the stadium. The Full Tilt Boogie Band members slowly congregated near a stack of equipment cases. At about 10:30 p.m., pushing their way past Ballou, they and Joplin took the stage.

And she was taking no prisoners. The brief, half-hour-plus show — comprising a few songs fans knew, a couple of her own favorites, and new material she would record for “Pearl” — was a raucous affair. She launched into a high-spirited, screaming cover of Etta James’s “Tell Mama,” then slowed down the pace, but not the energy level, on John Hall’s “Half Moon.” Joplin, like the band and its name, was going full tilt. The crowd loved whatever she did, even those songs they’d never heard before.

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Joplin spoke a few rambling words about being tired of “the social and political and religious set-up,” which led to one of those new ones — a powerhouse, mostly a cappella version of “Mercedes Benz,” followed by a potentially vocal-cord-shredding, rough-edged take of her own “My Baby,” and some funny, randy chatter about her San Francisco days when she would “go out into the street looking for a little piece of talent.” Both “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “Maybe” were comparative low points in a concert full of high points, but the audience’s enthusiasm never flagged, and they ate up her gloriously ragged rendition of “Summertime.”

I’ve been told that she closed the show with “Piece of My Heart,” but I don’t recall hearing it. That might be because her cover of “Summertime” has always been a favorite of mine; it could be that memories get a bit rusty after 50 years. The vision I still have of the end is an empty space on the stage, where, for the previous half-hour or so, Joplin had been holding sway — singing, moaning, howling, becoming one with her music and her audience. Then she was gone, and I would never see her perform again. Alas, neither would anyone else.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.