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Ridin' that train with Janis and Jerry

Published September 3, 2004

Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia were somewhere around Saskatoon when the drugs began to take hold.

Zipping through Canada in 1970 aboard a train christened Festival Express, the musicianship - certainly not the mood - was about to turn ugly.

Suddenly, Joplin was giddy, singing silly falsetto harmonies. Garcia's fingers clumsily plucked at a guitar. Rick Danko from the Band shared their buzz and delusion that a butchered version of Ain't No More Cane sounded pretty good. Booze spiked with hallucinogens can do that, even to music legends.

Among the rock 'n' roll artifacts unearthed in Bob Smeaton's documentary, Festival Express, the most striking is this one, that Joplin, Garcia and Danko might have preferred to remain buried. Festival Express, chronicling a five-day journey that could be called "Woodstock on wheels," opens today at Sunrise Cinemas in Tampa.

Smeaton, 39, heard the Saskatoon commotion before he saw it, poring over 80 hours of audio tapes for possible songs for the film, then matching the sound to 16mm footage shot simultaneously. The materials were stashed in the Canadian National Archives for 20 years before Smeaton's process began. Ain't No More Cane initially didn't sound like anything to include.

"This sounds rough," Smeaton remembered thinking. "It sounds like they're either very drunk or very stoned. It would be interesting to see what they looked like. Purely on audio, you wouldn't want to listen to it over and over.

"When I found the pictures and saw Jerry Garcia playing and all these great guys standing around just listening - and you can see what's going on; they're well off the map - it was just fantastic. It shows what a great time they were having. I wish there had been more (footage) like that."

Not that classic rock fans will complain. Festival Express is a treasure trove of rare performances at concerts along the route, where concertgoers protested the $14 ticket price, breaking down barriers and taunting police. Equally fascinating are scenes en route to the shows, when each train car housed all-night jams. Smeaton includes new interviews with surviving passengers, but seldom interrupts the musical performances, part of his overall retroscheme.

"I wanted (the film) to look like it had been made in 1970 or 1971," said Smeaton from his London home. "When I was growing up, I saw Monterey Pop and Woodstock, and the great thing was that you saw full performances of the songs. Now, when the MTV and VH-1 generations see a music documentary, they get very little music. They get 10 seconds of a song then some talking head comes up - who had nothing to do with the song, anyway - pontificating upon his opinion of what you want to hear. I wanted Festival Express to feel like you've gone to a music festival."

As a result, viewers get three numbers by the Band (The Weight, Slippin' and Slidin' and I Shall Be Released), four by the Dead, Buddy Guy's scorching version of Money, and songs by the relatively unheralded Flying Burrito Brothers, Mashmakhan and Delaney & Bonnie, among others. Even Sha Na Na, later a mainstream novelty act, comes across cool in these counterculture circumstances.

Then there's Joplin, whose stage performance of Cry Baby is the only reason Festival Express needs to exist, punctuated by an improvised monologue about deserting men, proven by her eyes to be autobiographical. Anyone who wondered why Hollywood hasn't been able to do a Joplin biography gets an answer here: She's simply impossible to duplicate.

Smeaton's original cut of Cry Baby used footage from four cameras. Then he decided to switch camera sources as little as possible to reflect Joplin's intensity.

"I thought: Hold on a minute," he said. "One camera shows the genius of Janis Joplin. You don't need to cut around Janis Joplin to make it look more interesting. Until this (single camera footage) runs out, I'm going to hold on that shot. That's the greatness of Janis Joplin.

"I must have seen it about 200 times and heard it before I watched it. Nine times out of 10, it still moves me to tears. You couldn't write that; it was off the cuff. You watch that on a movie screen and she's 40 feet high and I defy anyone with any degree of soul not to be moved. You've seen her partying the night before, imbibing in all manner of stuff. But she gets up onstage and tears your heart out."

Smeaton also discovered an audio artifact that, although no film footage existed, had to be included in the end credits: an early, possibly first version of Joplin singing Me and Bobby McGee.

"It sounded a bit rough around the edges," Smeaton said. "But I thought: Hold on, this might be the first time Janis Joplin has played this song. She's shouting out guitar chords (to other musicians) and she's obviously unsure about the words. Maybe she had just learned it herself, after Kris Kristofferson gave her it.

"We couldn't find the footage. Or maybe a cameraman walked away with it and it's sitting in his cellar somewhere. But I managed to use the audio over the end credits because it is a very historical piece. That became Janis' signature tune after she died, three months after the Festival Express finished."

[Last modified September 2, 2004, 07:45:19]

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