This Day in History
1971 — Janis Joplin’s version of the song written by Kris Kristofferson hits number one.
“Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train, And I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans”
The song, sadly, hit the top of the charts posthumously for Janis Joplin. The iconic and troubled singer had earlier died of a drug overdose.
“Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained. It rode us all the way to New Orleans.”
Joplin’s version of that song has always been a favorite of mine. At the height of the song’s popularity I was in a relationship with a young woman. Well, at least that was the impression I had. I’ll call her Barb. Barb was smart, funny, creative and more than a little psychologically unhinged, not to mention secretive. Her life seemed to be a neurotic swing between a repressive sexual frigidity and nymphomania. I had met her during a bout of the latter.
A date with Barb always involved wandering through previously uncharted territory. One night in a restaurant, over mugs of beer and a basket of onion rings, she suddenly began laughing hysterically. She accused me of being like every other man in the world and that all I wanted was sex. Then, to emphasize her point, she began dunking onion rings in her beer and flinging them at me. Whap, a wet onion ring stuck against my shirt, whap, another onion ring hit me in the face. My previous dating experiences had not prepared me for such a moment. All eyes in the restaurant turned toward us as onion rings continued to hurtle toward me.
“I pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandanna I was playin’ soft while Bobby sang the blues, yeah”
Only two options occurred to me, retreat or engage in a food fight. I slid from my chair and made my way to the restroom. I stood there a while wondering what to do. A life as recluse in some remote forest did hold a certain appeal at that moment. Having no other viable option I reluctantly returned to the table. I had some hope that maybe she’d be gone, ditched me, taken a taxi home. No such luck. Before I had a chance to address the situation she started talking, all pleasant and chatty and acting like nothing unusual had taken place. I didn’t see how it would be in my best interests to revisit the scene so I just followed along in the new direction. One thing she never was, was boring.
“Windshield wipers slappin’ time, I was holding Bobby’s hand in mine We sang every song that driver knew”
A few months down the road, with the affair less rocky of late, she seemed almost normal and I had some hope. A Saturday night, we had seen a movie, stopped for a beer, and then went back to her apartment where she opened a bottle of wine. There were no surprises, the evening was pleasant and I spent the night. Before I fell asleep, wrapped in her arms, I remember thinking, “this could work.” I liked her, and we were on the same page for so many things in life. She was interesting to talk to, insightful, and when the craziness was tapped down, we walked to the same beat.
“From the Kentucky coal mine to the California sun There Bobby shared the secrets of my soul”
Sunday morning, asleep, warn and content, when suddenly I was being shaken awake. “Bunk, Bunk, wake up!” Bunk was my leftover nickname from college that some people still used.
“Huh?” I came to my senses at the urgency in her voice.
“You have to leave, hurry, you have to leave!” She sounded panicky as she shook me, almost pushing me from the bed.
I didn’t understand and was reluctant to leave a nice warm bed. “What time is it?”
“Almost 7:30. Hurry!”
“Through all kinds of weather, through everything we done Yeah, Bobby baby kept me from the cold”
She got up and started to get dressed. Probably still a little tuned from the night before, I was having trouble clearing my head. What was going on?
“It’s still early,” I said, “what’s the rush?”
Facing away from me, with her hands behind her back to fasten her bra, she paused, and said “My fiancée is coming to pick me up for early Mass.”
In my foggy state I struggled to process what I had just heard. The only words that came to mind were “I thought you and I were going together” and they sounded so stupid I said nothing.
She turned and rather desperately said, “Please, Bunk, can you leave?”
“One day up near Salinas, Lord, I let him slip away He’s lookin’ for that home, and I hope he finds it”
I nodded. Mostly because she looked to be on the verge of a breakdown and I didn’t want to make the situation any worse. At the door, saying a quick goodbye, as way of…an apology, no, not that, what, I don’t know, she gave me a joint. I still had hair in those days which I wore semi-long, down over my ears. I tucked the joint behind an ear, shrugged a goodbye and got out of there before the fiancée showed up.
“But, I’d trade all my tomorrows, for a single yesterday To be holding Bobby’s body next to mine”
The weather added its contribution to my dark mood. A gray, overcast day, not too cold, but the wind was providing a nasty bite. Winter and spring were still in a battle for supremacy and that Sunday morning was a draw. I drove my VW Bug down Washington Avenue, at that time a decaying, desolate stretch of Minneapolis. Not another car on the street, the world, my world, looked to be a post apocalyptic setting. Rattled, I was not concentrating on driving. My head was spinning with what had just happened. The car radio was playing and “Me and Bobby McGee” came on. I turned up the sound and Janis took me to some forlorn corners of the song.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”
I was into the intersection before I realized the light was red. At the same moment I saw the squad car, parked on the street facing the intersection. Oh crap! I was probably still half drunk, not to mention the doobie behind my ear. The penalties for marijuana possession were quite severe back then. Already in a state of collapse, my world was facing an even more desperate downward spiral. Two cops sat in the car, each with a cup of coffee and a doughnut. And there I was, blowing through a red light right in front of them. This scene still plays out in slow motion in my mind. I looked at the cops, the cops looked at me, looked at each other, and through some unspoken agreement, turned their attention back to the coffee and doughnuts.
“But feelin good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues Hey, feelin good was good enough for me, mm-hmm”
With no flashing lights behind, I continued along Washington Avenue, my load more than a little lifted. I laughed out loud and was able to look at what happened with Barb in a different light. Certainly not the relationship I wanted, but hey, at least I wasn’t the fiancée. I sang along with Janis.
“Hey, hey, hey, Bobby McGee, yeah”