They Keep Chaucer-ing Austin, #3
Janis Joplin and Geoffrey Chaucer were both born in ’43. At some point in ’66 or ’67, they both came into steady contact with the most acclaimed poets of their day. Janis & Geoffrey delivered their best work shortly before dying. As an artist, Geoffrey started later & finished later.
Janis & Bobby & Kris & Donnie
I don’t know the exact date in 1970 when Kris Kristofferson hears Janis Joplin sing “Me & Bobby McGee” for the first time. Or the first time Janis performed the Kristofferson song for anyone else. We know Kristofferson heard it after October 4, the day Janis died, and that the recording destroyed him.
Days later, we know Kristofferson returns to Janis' performance, and this time he listens to "Bobby McGee" on repeat. She worked out her version with some help from Bobby Neuwirth, Dylan's buddy from Don't Look Back. Janis cut "Bobby" not long before she died, and Kris is sure she was sure he would love this. Back to the start. Windshield wipers keep time as Kristofferson collapses, recedes, lifts the tone arm, & drops the needle again. He'd be wishin' Lord that he was stoned, if he weren't already. We don't know how many repetitions Kristofferson completes before Donny Fritts joins him.
"He listened to it over and over again because he felt like this was going to be a real big record, you know. He was going to be hearing it, and he wanted to get used to hearing it just by himself," Donnie Fritts remembers.
Donnie doesn't need to know how long Kris has been at it to know that only Kris will know when he's finished. Kristofferson explains he was trying to "steel" himself, but he could have gone with steam instead. He's green wood too soon for this fire. He's gotta lotta sticky hissin' sap & smoke working through him. Back to the start. Only Kris can judge when wounds that won't heal up are plausibly steeled up for all tomorrow's Bobby's. One more from the beginning. Maybe this time she’ll make it past Salinas, warm & safe & held close. Something more than freedom left to lose.
The record keeps spinning. The least dead voice on Earth keeps singing the living shit out of Kristofferson's song.
Except this recorded performance, this overwhelming testimony that only fragile impossible things could ever matter, this song stopped being his song before Donnie got here. Now it belongs to Janis, and Kris played his part. The song's tomorrows have been traded for one of her recent yesterdays, when Janis caught a feeling and spent it all. Enough of her fire and light sticks to spinning tape for those reels to whirl together ends and beginnings indiscriminate.
Penelope Tom Sawyers the suitors of Port Arthur. She sets 'em up in shifts. When the weavers clock out, the un-weavers clock in. She frees enough circumspect headspace to write "Bobby McGee" on her way to Austin via Beaumont. She'll belt it out at the next Wednesday hoot. Maybe she'll teach Kenneth Threadgill to yodel along. Leave the whitewashers of Jefferson High back in Port Arthur trading rumors of her looming return.
Let Donnie bear witness to Kris watching Kris fall apart. Again.
Never-Will & Could-Be
Maybe Donnie is wondering his own what-ifs about Janis' vocal after a dozen more reps. Would this sound any different if she were still alive? Not in the room or nearby, but somewhere in the world either singing or not singing, right now. Or how would this sound to Kris if all the Never-Will were still Could-Be?
Seems unlikely that Janis could be alive and not singing. Or that she could be singing and not be some approximation of Monterey in '67 or the last rallies of "Bobby McGee" in '70. It's Monterey where Mama Cass sees Janis perform for the first time, and where we get to see Cass see Janis, and Cass says "wow." Janis Joplin proves she belongs on the best lit outdoor stage anyone's ever seen, however unlikely.
But there's never really been next weekend. Clearer now that we don't have any real weekends on the horizon or any real-ish guesses of when we will. Some of the interruptions have become permanent and more will.
Upon the release of Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, if you guessed correctly the trajectory of Lauryn Hill's discography, that would make you an asshole. We just happen to be living through a timeline where Lauryn Hill could be making music like Miseducation, and it just isn't happening. If you saw this coming, you're a prescient prick.
Which brings us back to what got my hackles up in the first place when I watched The Devil and Daniel Johnston with commentary from director Jeff Feuerzeig and producer Henry Rosenthal.
“We wanted to make the statement that in our alternate universe -- that Henry and I live in -- Daniel Johnston is our Bob Dylan.”
The suggestion of "an alternate universe" in regard to Daniel Johnston makes our least likely thread all-too-vivid, as obvious as the stitches on a baseball.
We have access to the answers for what-if-Daniel-had-survived-that-plane-crash-in-'90.
We've lived through what would have happened.
If somehow Bill Johnston could have executed a flawless forced landing in the woods
If the old fighter pilot could have wrestled control from his younger, stronger passenger
If there had been time to correct the chaos of the spinning descent
If somewhere between the treetops and a mile and half in the sky, Mabel Johnston's impossible prayer catches the passengers on a magic carpet
Somehow Bill & Daniel Johnston can walk away from the plane. They pose for photos and slip them into another album in the Johnston Family Archive, safe at home.
If no plane falls in the forest, does this marquee make a sound?
All of these impossibilities line up. We're on the timeline where Daniel survived. This is how much music & art he made after the crash & who cares & how much. This is the continuity where Stockholm sings along in 2003 to every word of "Devil Town," and their echoes pin the celebrant vampires lining the victory parade route in Dillon, TX.
Daniel was here to hear it all until last September.
Which Dylan was Daniel?
He was the Dylan who survived the speeding motorcycle crash in the summer of '66.
Before and after the crash, Dylan recorded with The Band. In the fall of '66, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko record "Beautiful Thing." It's a sketch of song with Manuel singing and playing electric piano. Danko accompanies on bass.
It's from the first disc of a book-shaped boxset, The Band: A Musical History. The sketch is sandwiched between The Band's recording dates with Dylan.
I have another Dylan-as-Daniel comparison to suggest next week, but this one snuck up on me. I have searched for a Dylan song that sounds like Daniel, but I have not had much success.
I can't help it if I'm unlucky.
Played in reverse, Manuel's electric piano sounds more like a chord organ, I think. This is Track 20 on Disc 1.