He had told me more than once his stories of recovery from alcohol and cocaine. In those days, he had been a bass guitarist in San Francisco for the band Blue Oyster Cult. Later his real fame came with Janis and her band. He was as one of its founding members.
They were three wealthy kids, the band members, who grew up in the suburbs with their modern glass houses and big lawns across the Golden Gate. The fourth band member, drummer Dave Lampkin, was a Jewish kid from some shabby Brooklyn neighborhood who had been a painter like Johnny Haig who sang with Janis on vocals. That’s how they met. Johnny and Janis were the band, really.
We often sat around the gold fish pond on Lombard Street with a coffee and talked on Saturday mornings. My wife Susan slept late, I didn’t care. Those perpetual fall days always felt good on the crooked street.
“We were pretty drug-addled,” he remembered, sipping his hot coffee, “all of us lived together in a house on Fulton Street, and played maybe three times a month at the Fillmore. We had just signed a recording contract with Atlantic, they gave the band thirty grand for signing, a lot of money for musicians then.”
“Seems funny, when Beyonce makes two hundred million for a tour,” I said.
“Yeah. But we were riding high,” and he started to laugh, “eight miles high.. Haig had stopped sleeping with Janis, and she brought whatever guy she fancied on the street in, night after night. No one cared.
“Free love, flower children,” I remarked, with a laugh.
“By then, Lampkin started paying more attention to Janis, and they got closer, as a couple. After that, things got stranger. Lampkin had this girlfriend in New York come out, and she lived with him too. She had some Jewish, or Arabic name, Zeeva, it meant desert wind, or sand storm, something like that. She looked like Barbara Streisand in the face with great figure, he remembered.
“Were you ever with Janis, you know?” I asked him, peeking up at the small balcony off the bedroom in my apartment, but saw no movement from my wife, the glass door still shut tightly, curtains pulled.
“At some point, she wanted all the guys in the band, one after the other,” he said, “it was the freewheeling way. So sure, I was number two, or three. But she had this possessive thing about Lampkin. Then the girlfriend showed up.”
They had all lived communally in the Fulton Street house for a year. He said that the girlfriend went crazy, became really psychotic after maybe two months, and even once had threatened Lampkin with a butcher knife. She was terribly paranoid all the time, thinking that he was sleeping with other women. Maybe he was.
“You probably didn’t know Janis was a diabetic, she had been one since she was a little kid,” he told me,“ but kept it hidden. Made her feel like a cripple or something.”.
“I don’t ever remember hearing that.”
“Janis would give herself an insulin injection right after she got up, whenever that was, usually when she had her tea in the kitchen. She’d pull up her dress, grab a handful of flesh, and stick the needle into the fat of her thigh. She wasn’t shy. I saw her, we all did, So did Zeeva.”
“That was before the pills, huh?”
“Yeah, the needle. So one night we’re having a big party, lots of people, booze and drugs, at the house, and I’m upstairs using the bathroom. When I come out I see Zeeva standing in Janis’ bedroom, looking at one of her insulin bottles, holding it up to the light. I was half in the bag, so I just ignored it, and went down to the party. I saw her a couple of other times that summer in Janis’ room, and she’d laugh and say she was looking for something.
“Just sort of examining the insulin bottle. Curious.”
“The girlfriend was insanely jealous, really sick in the head too, believe me. She killed Janis, not the heroin. She tampered with the insulin, cut its strength and Janis died of diabetic shock. He eyes rolled back in her head, she never got to the heroin on the night table… She might’ve had a trace of heroin in her blood from the other night, but bad insulin killed her…”
“You believe that.”
“I know it. Janis was murdered. You know how the cops were then, hippies and drugs, especially in San Francisco. Not much of an investigation.”
“So did you tell the police.”
“Not until a year later when I got clean and sober. They just laughed at me, the detective I talked to, he looked at me and kept saying, ‘Sure, sure.” Then they did nothing.
My wife was awake and out on the balcony now, and she called down, “Hey, you guys aren’t talking about me?”
Bruce Colbert is an actor, filmmaker and writer in New York City.
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