Saturday, March 4, 2017

“On the Road with Janis Joplin” – a review

by John Byrne Cooke
Berkeley Press (division of Random House/Penguin)
© 2014 - $17.00

Rock music leapfrogged over me.  Mom wouldn’t let it in the house and I was loath to defy Mom.  So all the great groups, the Stones, the Dead, Jefferson Airplane – you know ‘em, I don’t – I missed out on, although I could give you most any lyric from “Oklahoma” or “Guys and Dolls” and know Sinatra’s songbook pretty well.

Fast forward to about 1992 and I’m attending the Jackson Hole Western Writers Conference in hopes of becoming a something I didn’t have the tenacity to become.  It’s Fourth of July Weekend and I find myself sitting on a hillside at the Snow King resort, drinking a beer, eating a burger, watching fireworks and hearing them boom and echo off the darkened mountainsides; and chatting one-on-one with one of the presenters:  John Byrne Cooke.

John is a talkative guy – perhaps a bit more so than other authors – but with good reason.  He researches and writes on interesting topics.  His trilogy “Snowblind Moon” (Tor 1986) tells the remarkable saga of Native American life on the plains during the time between the Fetterman Massacre and the events at Little Big Horn.  “South of the Border (Bantam, 1989) posits Butch Cassidy’s return from Bolivia.  “The Committee of Vigilance” (Bantam, 1994) is a novel centered on the raucous quest for law and order in gold rush San Francisco.  In 2007, Cooke published, “Reporting the War” (Palgrave MacMillan) a treatise on press freedom during American conflicts from the Revolution to our current War on Terror.  All interesting stuff.

The only concert I believe my wife ever attended, as a teen growing up in “the City,” was one featuring, perhaps, Big Brother and the Holding Company fronted by Janis Joplin.  Oh Lord!  Come to find out, John Byrne Cooke served as a roadie for that group.  He didn’t mention this to me at the Snow King.

Rather, I had to wait until I found his memoir, a loving tribute to an immense talent, that I realized his interests were even more varied – his life much more interesting – than simply researching the west and the press.  Reading through his work, I find myself transported back to the 60s, enjoying those bands that I’d never heard, traveling roads decades before I actually traveled them, and witnessing the love, the weed, the passion and the camaraderie of those young people whose generation I was both a part and not a part of.

John is a fine storyteller and Janis’s life was a fascinating, if tragic story.  I’m thankful that Cooke was there to see it and has decided to share it in his fast-paced, page-turning, readable style.  I now feel as if a little piece that had been missing as been put into place.

See your local, independent bookseller.

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