A visit with Janis Joplin in the foreign country of Chicago’s past

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Janis Joplin in October 1970. | AP file photo

Janis Joplin sang at Ravinia. That seems so strange to me, to imagine the pride of Port Arthur, Texas, wailing “Ball and Chain” at the venue now given over to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, interspersed mostly with various low-key jazz groups and nostalgia acts such as Boz Scaggs and The Moody Blues.

I don’t know which feels odder, that Joplin performed there or that Republican Sen. Charles Percy was in the audience for the show in August 1970.

Then again, the past is a foreign country, to quote a novelist nobody remembers. They do things differently there. I was transported to the alien land of late 1960s, early 1970s Chicago over the weekend by pulling down a book that had sat neglected on my shelf, “All Together Now,” by former Sun-Times columnist Tom Fitzpatrick.

Parts amazed. Did the paper really send him to Pennsylvania for three weeks — three weeks — to cover the rescue of a pair of coal miners? Did he really sit unnoticed in the back of James Rochford’s car as the deputy police superintendent discussed disarming a deranged Marine who had killed two Chicago Police officers? A sad reminder how little access reporters get to the police or fire departments anymore, and how much heroism is hidden because of it. Fitzpatrick is right there for six hours as firefighters soothingly cut a pair of teenage girls out of the wreckage after an Illinois Central train slammed into a local commuter train, killing 44 people in 1972.


Tastes have changed. The deference given to Richard J. Daley is even beyond Trumpian flattery. Did Cook County President George Dunne really introduce Daley with “He’s a man’s man and a boy’s pal?” Good lord.

Fitzpatrick has arrows in his quiver we can no longer use.

U.S. Attorney Thomas Foran, parsing the Chicago Seven trial for a booster club in Wilmette, ends his remarks thus:

“We’ve lost our kids to the freaking fag revolution, and we’ve got to reach out for them. Perhaps because we came through the Depression we’ve become too materialistic with our two cars to a family. Our kids don’t understand that we don’t mean anything by it when we call people ‘n—–s.’ They look at us like we’re dinosaurs when we talk like that.”

Of course Fitzpatrick wasn’t forced to use the five dashes, which softens the blow. Our paper’s policy requires it, even referring to historical comments. I think such squeamishness is a disservice to history.

Tastes change. Whatever your feelings about the Washington Redskins — no dashes, for now — you have to welcome Supreme Court ruling that a rock band called “The Slants” can trademark its name. We don’t want the United States government deciding what is offensive. Besides, it all changes. Chicago has an Oriental Theatre and an Oriental Institute, even though “oriental” is well on its way to becoming a slur; it’s already against the law to use in federal publications.

Fitzpatrick’s book has flaws: too many portraits of supposedly colorful characters hanging around O’Rourke’s, boozehounds more sad than charming, his profiles a pallid parody of Nelson Algren characters. Some go on forever.

Though Fitzpatrick, who died in 2002, captures Joplin succinctly. He asks about what she calls “the Saturday night swindle.”

“Everybody has experienced it,” Fitzpatrick writes. “When they were kids and watched their parents get dressed up on Saturday to go out for a good time.”

“It was a swindle” Joplin replied, “because when I got old enough to go out on Saturday night I found out nobody was really havin’ a good time.”

Is success another swindle?

“Naw,” she said. “Not that way, it hasn’t. Everything lets you down, man. You know that. But once you know it, you’re okay . . . once you know you’re gonna get let down, there’s nothing to do but laugh.”

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