Peggy Caserta, Janis Joplin’s Love, Comes Clean (for Real This Time)

Peggy Caserta at Mnasidika, her shop in Haight-Ashbury, with in-store leathersmith Bobby Boles. Photo: Herb Greene/Courtesy of Peggy Caserta

Peggy Caserta remembers the moment when Janis Joplin became Pearl. “I’d wanted to start calling myself Ruby,” says Caserta, whose second memoir, I Ran Into Some Trouble, was published yesterday by Wyatt-MacKenzie. “I never liked the name Peggy, and wanted to be more floozy, you know? Somewhere along the line, Janis started talking about changing her name to Pearl.

“One morning, we got up at the Chelsea after a night of debauching,” Caserta tells me. “Still stoned, she wanted a hot-fudge chocolate sundae, junkie food, so we went to Serendipity for breakfast. We’re sitting there, and Janis is reading the New York Times, and all of a sudden she just busted up and screamed, ‘You won’t believe this!’ There was an ad in the paper that went, ‘Ruby said to Pearl, Pearl, why don’t you be a stenographer?’ Not only did it have both of our new names, but Janis’s parents had wanted her to be a stenographer. We laughed and laughed that morning, two young, silly, southern girls …”

If you know your Joplin lore, the name — Peggy Caserta, not Ruby, which never took hold — should sound familiar. Forty-five years after the publication of her book Going Down With Janis (“A Raw and Scathing Portrait of Janis Joplin by Her Female Lover” proclaimed the hardcover jacket), the 77-year-old Caserta still gets the occasional “Are you THAT Peggy Caserta?” She is, although she lives a very different life now: semi-retired in Louisiana, 24 years sober after a long on-and-off relationship with heroin. In between, there was drug-dealing, financial ruin, jail, harrowing street violence, and finally more than a decade spent caring for her failing mother — all of it chronicled in her memoir in a wry, funny voice that couldn’t stand in sharper contrast to the Penthouse Forum approach of Going Down With Janis. (Caserta has disowned the work of Dan Knapp, her ghostwriter, on that earlier book, and in our interview she wouldn’t speak his name; asked for comment, he responded with a two-word Facebook message: “Not interested.”) Co-written with Maggie Falcon, I Ran Into Some Trouble considers the whole of Caserta’s life, each era as carefully considered and vividly drawn as the headiest days of Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and Mnasidika, Caserta’s Haight-Ashbury hippie boutique that dressed the new rock stars and brought the money its owner would need to keep pace, in so many ways, with a newly famous sometime lover.

Going Down With Janis has, over the decades, become a sort of cult phenomenon. You say people still track you down, but if they know you only from that first book, they’re in for a revelation.
I didn’t write that trash. I sold out for drug money, and I’ve lived in the shadow of it for 40-some-odd years. That book scandalized my family. My mother and father were devastated. I lost my friends. I was so embarrassed that I just dropped out. I’m not going to make excuses for using, because a drug addict really needs no excuse, but every time that I thought I could get clean or tried to get clean, I would think about that book, and all I’d want to do is numb out again. I was so horrified by it and my parents were … oh, God, they were heartbroken. It was horrible. Nothing good came of it. I hate that book. What I hate about who they think I am is that most of them believe I wrote that smut. I read an article online just recently and it mentioned me as “Janis Joplin’s friend.” Somebody responded, “The skank that wrote Going Down With Janis is no friend of hers.” That hurts a lot.

Even after all these years?
It’s been awful. It’s been awful. I sometimes just wanted so badly to scream out and say, “I didn’t write that trash. That’s not me. I wasn’t responsible for her using or her dying.” I loved her. I adored her. So I just stayed hidden for, God, 25 years or more because I just couldn’t take the criticism. It’s just too much.

What made you decide to tell your story again, then?
In the back of the new book, there’s an acknowledgment to a girl named Karen Anderson, who wrote a customer review on Amazon [in 2002]. I write, “After years of insults, along comes a Karen Anderson and acknowledges, in a public forum, what was my voice and what wasn’t, giving me a chance to exhale and try again.”

For years I thought, I have to write a correction. I have to write the story I wanted to write. But I stayed strung out, and it’s very difficult to be that far off into the spoon and get anything done.

Years later, I had gotten clean and started trying to live straight. I began to write a little, and I had written maybe two or three chapters when I decided that I needed to go back home and take care of my mom in Louisiana. This was in 2005 — she was in her 80s. I felt grounded, and knew I should start writing again.

You say nothing good came of the first book, but certainly it was a landmark for its depiction of Janis’s gay relationship. There’s something to be said for that kind of visibility, and you must have heard from people telling you this over the years.
Amazingly, yes. People have said, “Thank you so much, it changed my life.” One girl said, “I read it and I walked in the living room and said, ‘Mom and Dad, I’m gay and I’m going to California.’” I thought people would read it and say, “God, I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to do drugs,” and some people have told me it made them want to get high.

It’s remarkable now, as an inside look at the everyday life of a rock star from that era.
If you could put all the smut aside, maybe it is a remarkable book. I don’t know. I would say things like, “We made love that night,” and the co-author would change it to something like, My fingers crept up inside her moist groin and plunged in …

I never even said that we were lovers, in the lesbian sense. I never believed that, nor did I really want that. I adored her. I loved her. But to be her lover was to resign yourself to being invisible, and as hard as it may be for people to understand now, I thought I was as groovy as her.

You say you don’t believe Janis was gay.
I never saw Janis as a gay girl. She was straight. She was wild. I’m gay, and lived a gay lifestyle even then. I was obvious. I had a girlfriend, Kim, there on the scene all the time, but Janis was never going to do anything that her parents didn’t approve of, other than sing. She always said she was going to get married and settle down and have the white picket fence and the two kids and 2.2 cars, or however that saying goes.

Well, let’s investigate this a bit. She clearly was connected to you, and there was sex, obviously.
I really don’t know how to answer this. I can honestly say that to this day, nobody has ever been as happy to see me as she was. How can you not love somebody that clearly digs you that much? People say, Come on, Peggy, admit it, she was in love with you. Well, I can’t. We never said I love you, ever. We adored each other, we had mutual respect, she respected me as a businesswoman way more than I think I deserved. And she loved that we were both southern girls.

Photo: Book Cover design by Wes Wilson

You write in the new book about the blame you’ve taken for Janis’s death. I’m wondering, did the distrust of you among Joplin’s entourage and management start before she died? Do you think it stemmed more from your sexuality or your drug use, or both?
It was very early for people to be as obviously gay as I was. I mean, it was just me and my girlfriend Kim that were way out gay at that time and in that place. And as much as her band, and her manager Albert Grossman, and her road manager John Cooke tried to protect her from [Caserta melodramatically lowers her voice] the gay thing and the image that it might project, it certainly hasn’t hurt her legacy any.

And Janis’s inner circle knew that I didn’t turn her on to heroin. I wasn’t the catalyst for that. But I was her dope-shooting pal, and there’s no question about that. So I understand their position — she was their livelihood. They were making a living working for her, whether they were playing music with her or being a roadie or a manager, and they didn’t want anything to jeopardize that. They saw me as somebody that was playing very dangerously with her, and I understand that. But I didn’t start it. I never saw a needle outside a doctor’s office until I met her.

One part of the first book that people latched onto — I’ve even seen it crop up in various unpublished screenplays for the biopics that have been in development over the decades — is that final night of her life, when she, you, and the man usually described as her fiancé, Seth Morgan, had planned a three-way, and you and Seth stood her up. She overdosed that night, alone at the Landmark hotel in Hollywood …
She didn’t overdose.

Let’s come back to that in a minute …
I’d already bailed on the idea of a three-way when I figured out who she had in mind. It never occurred to me that he wasn’t going to show up. He later claimed that it never occurred to him that I wasn’t going to be there. What he did was miss his plane because he was fucking someone else.

Actually, though, what people have latched onto more from the first book was that I called George, Janis’s and my drug dealer, and he was bringing me heroin at the Landmark. Janis had been clean, though how clean I don’t know. She just happened to walk out to get cigarettes and ran into George in the Landmark lobby. That started her thinking about it, and she came up to my room to get high. We got high together, and that’s what people remember, more than me not being there that last night.

Circumstances have to line up or the storm doesn’t come. The Gulf waters have to get hot when the winds are coming, and then there’s a hurricane.

I don’t believe that she was through with heroin by any means. That’s a pretty delicate sobriety if all you have to do is see the connection to start using again. No, she wasn’t through, but I didn’t want to be the one to start it in motion again.

When you say people wanted someone to blame, how did your being gay play into that? Those people weren’t open to being gay, and yes, it bothered them that they knew what my position was with Janis. We were shooting dope and we were making out and they didn’t like either one. I was so easy to blame, but I wasn’t the only one using heroin with her. Two of the guys from Big Brother and the Holding Company were shooting with her long before I was. [Guitarist] Sam Andrew, in a taped interview [for Little Girl Blue], said that he and Janis used to shoot heroin and talk late into the night and it was just so much fun. And he’s right. All three of us shot dope together many times and it was fun, I mean, we didn’t do it because we hated it.

And Sam never got the blame that you did?
Janis and James Gurley and Sam Andrew [both Gurley and Andrew are deceased] were shooting heroin from the beginning of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the three of them. I think the gay thing just tipped the scale to where I got more flack for it all. Sam certainly shot as much dope with her as I did. It has to be the gay thing.

Going Down With Janis became a sort of touchstone for gay and lesbian people who read it back then. Did you feel any support there?

There’s never been a gay girl ever that I’ve met who blamed me. They just say, “God, what was it like knowing her?”

Looking back after all these years, do you have any sense of regret?
Of course I do. I wish that Seth had been there that last night. Or that I had been there. Or that we both had been there. I wish George hadn’t entered the lobby and I wish she hadn’t chosen that moment to get cigarettes. So regrets, yes, of course, the regrets we all have — that we lost her. Some people say, “Oh, we lost her so young.” Well, for me, I regret that we lost her at all. I figured we’d be friends forever. I regret that I wasn’t there that night when she tripped and fell. I could have picked her up.

What happened that night? In the book, you say that it wasn’t an overdose — that she just fell and smashed her face on the nightstand in her hotel room, and then passed out.
The police wanted to talk to all of us from her inner circle, to see if they could piece together what happened. When I got to the Landmark, the room wasn’t taped off yet. Noguchi was there, two or three police. Paul Rothchild, her producer, I think was there. Kris Kristofferson was there. Seth was there, John Cooke was there. They were all gathered around outside her room, and I walked over to them.

I didn’t want to go in her room because I didn’t want to see her dead. But the coroner wanted to talk to me, and so I looked in. There were two double beds on the left, and I couldn’t see anything of her but her foot, sticking out at the end of a bed. She was lying on the floor, elongated, and that’s not what happens when you shoot an overdose. You don’t stand up and then lie down straight to die.

Back then, the rugs were shag carpets, and at the Landmark it was old shag carpet. Janis and I both wore these little slingback sandals — you can see them in the pictures of us at Woodstock — and they had tiny little hourglass heels. Tiny. She went and got cigarettes, she came back in, and as she’s turning the corner of the bed, I think that little tiny heel caught in one of those shag loops, and she tripped, and she fell way forward. She hit her head on the night table and broke her nose. I figure the blood backed up in her throat and cut off her air supply. I’m sure the fact that she had heroin and other things in her system didn’t help her any. Maybe if she hadn’t been loaded and on something, she might have been able to struggle up.

But she tripped and fell, honey. I’m positive of it.

Let me think of how I want to say this. One way or the other heroin caused the dice to roll the way they did for Janis Joplin, right? So what difference would it make if … I mean, does it bring comfort to you in any way to believe that it wasn’t an overdose? What I’m trying to get at, and not doing it very well …
Yeah, you are. I’m getting what you’re saying. Why would it matter to me whether or not she tripped or whether or not she overdosed? And in the final analysis, it shouldn’t matter because she’s gone, but yeah, I do feel more comfortable knowing that she tripped. Either way, it was an accident, and I’ve never thought of it until you asked this, but I guess it is more comfortable thinking that she tripped. But honey, seriously, I shot dope with her so many times, both of us shot right to death’s door. She would not have been in that position on the floor. She definitely did not shoot an overdose. She got up and walked to the lobby and got change. It just does not compute. It doesn’t.

You know, Peggy, this brings up a subject we haven’t really touched on. After all these years, why do you still care what people think?
I’m still hurt because I was accused of being a liar when I told it as clean and as clear and as truthfully as I could, and it took more than three decades for the truth to start seeping to the surface, for people to even say, oh, yeah, she was telling the truth about her relationship. Those pictures that Jim Marshall took of me and Janis together at Woodstock didn’t surface for 30-some odd years. 20/20 got ahold of those and sent them to me and said, “There are people who believe that the unidentified female in these photographs might be you. Would you identify these pictures?” And of course I did, but I took a deep breath when I saw them because I thought about all the people who said that I wasn’t even there.

Forty-five years is a long time to want to correct your story.
I was hiding for those first 25 years. Later, social media brought it all back to life. The phone would ring and I’d hear my elderly mom say, “Oh, that’s my daughter, just a minute. Peggy?” And I’d think, Oh my God. One woman told Mom that Janis wants to talk to me, that she came to her in her dreams. I got on the phone and said, “Now you listen to me. Don’t call my mother anymore. And if Janis wanted to talk to me, she would come to me in a dream, not you.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Peggy Caserta, Janis Joplin’s Love, Comes Clean (for Real)