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October 20, 2018

Rarely Seen Photos of Janis Joplin’s Final Concert at Harvard Stadium in August 1970

The evening of Aug. 12, 1970, was a warm one. Harvard Stadium had been transformed into a concert arena with the addition of rows upon rows of seats onto the field. An estimated 40,000 spectators were crammed inside. After it was discovered that some sound equipment had been stolen, the show was delayed. According to several accounts, the crowd was restless, near rioting.

They were waiting for Janis Joplin. The rowdy crowd started a very 1970 chant: “We want to ball you!”

Janis Joplin’ final concert contact sheet

When Peter Warrack shot a roll of film of Janis Joplin from the front row at Harvard Stadium in August 1970, he had no way of knowing it would turn out to be the psychedelic blues belter’s last show. Even after her death of an overdose two months later, Warrack never bothered to revisit his negatives.

“Oddly, while we were sitting there—and the crowd was getting into something, it became very smoky and sweet there, let’s put it that way—we could see, straight ahead, the open-scaffolding stage,” said Kevin McElroy, who was seated near the front with his boyfriend, Peter Warrack. “Janis was underneath. And she had a bottle of Southern Comfort, and she was just in a world of her own there. She just was doing what she wanted to do in the moment. After another hour-and-a-half or so—it was really quite a delay—she literally burst onto the stage. It was just electric.”

A self-styled celebrity photographer who lived in Boston, Warrack took thousands of candid snapshots of artists and actors over several decades. He took intimate pictures of Alfred Hitchcock, Diana Ross and hundreds of others. Even the notoriously reclusive Katharine Hepburn let him take a few shots.

Peter Warrack died in 2008 at age 72, but nearly his entire collection of photographs—around 15,000—remained unpublished during his lifetime. Until recently they languished in a vast collection of binders in several closets at McElroy’s residence in Boston’s South End. House of Roulx—a Danvers-based operator of an online boutique selling celebrity photos, reproductions of funny sci-fi art and copies of curious old photos—acquired the entire collection in 2015.

Taken together, Warrack’s photographs of Joplin are like a flip-book of the 27-year-old singer that capture a few fleeting, candid moments onstage. They are portraits, really, set against a black background, zoomed in close enough to count the bracelets on her wrist. The photographs show a side of Joplin that has been largely erased by her iconic status and all that she symbolizes now.

(Photos © Peter Warrack/House of Roulx, via WBUR)



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