Janis Joplin on stage at Indiana Beach August 14, 1968.
Original publish date: August 18, 2014 Reissue date: August 13, 2020
As the last gasps of summer slowly wheeze out of our lungs, I wanna take you back to 1968. America seemed to be coming apart at the seams. It was a presidential election year in the United States. The nation was divided by disputes about civil rights and the war in Vietnam. This seminal year became the backdrop for a confluence of independent yet related phenomena. It marked the end of LBJ’s “Great Society”, the country was ensnared in an unpopular war, campuses were alive with dissent, years of racial unrest were reaching a boiling point, women were burning bras, divorce was on the rise and the youth of the nation were finding their collective voice.
The culture was getting younger, like it or not. Styles and indulgences were taken to revolutionary status; drugs, music, clothing, sexual liberties, you name it and it was changing. There wasn’t a single institution left unchallenged by the nation’s youth. To top it all off, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were tragically removed from the National stage at at time when both were needed most. In the critical year of 1968, as the atmosphere of threats, distrust, and violence poisoned the nation’s politics and public life, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became the mantra. The blows to the national psyche were catastrophic, and were only exacerbated by the urban violence that accompanied both major parties’ political conventions that August.
But 1968 was a golden age for music..artistic expression..and political thesis. On August 14, 1968, 46 years ago this week, an iconic symbol of the sixties was breezing through Indiana. Was it Richard Nixon? Hubert Humphrey? The Beatles? No, it was Janis Joplin and she was rockin’ the main stage in the “Beach Ballroom” at Indiana Beach. Yes, Indiana Beach in Monticello, Indiana.
At the time, 25-year-old Janis Lyn Joplin was the lead singer of the psychedelic-acid rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her performance at Indiana Beach came a year after her breakthrough performance at the Monterey Pop Festival and a year and 3 days before she stormed Woodstock with the Kozmic Blues Band on her way to becoming an American Rock n’ Roll legend.
Janis and Big Brother played for a crowd of about 100 people on that Wednesday night. Before the show, while the roadies were setting up the equipment, Janis casually strolled the midway through the games and rides and none of the park visitors bothered her. She later told friends that she “was just having a good old time.” No-one hassled Janis, no-one asked her for autographs, no-one screamed or hollered or caused a scene. Half the people didn’t even know who she was.
For the show, Janis and the band performed on the north stage that faced south. Although no playlist from that particular show exists, the Indiana Beach concert came just two days after the band released their second album, “Cheap Thrills” on August 12, 1968. So it is reasonable to deduce that Janis belted out classics like “Down on me” and “Easy Rider” from their self titled 1967 debut album along with new standards like “Summertime”, “Ball and chain” and “Piece of my heart” from the new album.
A concert at Indiana Beach in the 1960s was like going to the State Fair with the smell of grilling burgers and popping popcorn wafting in from the midway. “It had that carnival atmosphere,” one fan remembered. “It was like going to a big party.” Those who had front-row seats left with unforgettable memories. But with the passage of time, physical evidence has faded away and memorabilia has been long ago tossed in the trash or stowed away in long-forgotten boxes in the attics of Northern Indiana.
The White County Historical Museum is one of the very few places where memorabilia from Indiana Beach Concerts may be found. The museum has a collection of 1960s Era newsletters from the venue known as the “Indiana Beach Preview” and later “Happenings”. Even these newsletters change tone as the decade marches on with the early versions promoting what the park rather innocently called “Dance-In Experiences”. By the late 1960s, these same events were being called a “Psychedelic Experience & Musical Explosion”. Browse through these newsletters today and you will find bubblegum acts like Brenda Lee (I’m sorry, Sweet Nothin’s, Rockin around the Christmas Tree) to Big Bands to Beach Boy look-alike garage bands to the Beach Boys themselves. In these newsletters, music trends and styles change before the reader’s eyes. By 1968, psychedelic and hard rocker bands sporting mutton chops, long hair and wearing dashikis were showing up at Indiana Beach.
Some concert photographs and ticket stubs survive, but posters, contracts and other documentation have essentially vanished. Not even the Spackman family, former owners of Indiana Beach, know where such memorabilia can be found. Nobody was thinking in terms of posterity or Rock ‘n Roll history back then, they were just trying to get more kids into the amusement park to spend money on rides, midway games and food. Had they realized back then that today, those contracts and memorabilia would sell for a day’s receipts at auction, they most certainly would have saved them. By the way, a ticket to see Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the holding company sold for $ 3.10. Amazing huh?
Today, the Beach ballroom sits quietly behind the Indiana Beach arcade never betraying the Rock n’ Roll history it once held sway over. Few people enter the ballroom or even take notice of it. Inside, there’s an odd mix of outdated furniture as well as the old DJ booth. The cement floor remains that once withstood thousands of feet each summer all dancing to the sounds of rock ‘n’ roll royalty. The old stage stood on the north side of the ballroom allowing for a large space for standing room only crowds. The walls opened up to allow people from the outside as well as those docked on their boats, to see and hear the bands if necessary. (Did I mention only 100 people showed up to see Janis?) The ballroom can still be reserved for events, but most live bands now choose to play in the Rooftop Lounge, a bar just a short walk from the historic ballroom. A newer stage was built in the 1970s long after Janis Joplin’s raw, emotional voice pierced the summer air along Lake Shafer.
By the time Janis Joplin finished her set at Indiana Beach, she was on her way to becoming a legend. Big Brother and The Holding Company left Indiana for a gig at the Aragon ballroom in Chicago on August 16-17. By now publicists and media were calling the band “Janis Joplin and Big Brother and The Holding Company”, which led to dissension among the band. The other members thought that Joplin was on a “star trip”, while others were telling Joplin that Big Brother was a terrible band and that she ought to dump them. On August 18 Big Brother played the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. On August 23 they were playing the Singer Bowl in New York City and just over 2 weeks after performing at Indiana Beach, Big Brother was playing the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. It was at this show where Janis Joplin announced that she will leave the band at the end of fall tour.
In 1968, Time magazine called Joplin “probably the most powerful singer to emerge from the white rock movement”, and Richard Goldstein wrote for the May issue of Vogue magazine that Joplin was “the most staggering leading woman in rock… she slinks like tar, scowls like war… clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave… Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.” Her final show as a member of Big Brother was December 1, 1968 at the Family Dog Benefit in San Francisco. She had been a member of the band for two and a half years. From that day on, although she toured with a backup band, she would become Janis Joplin. By early 1969, Joplin was allegedly shooting at least $200 worth of heroin per day. But for that one brief shining moment in Monticello, Indiana, Janis Joplin innocently strolled the carnival midway as just another average kid. The rest, as they say, is history.
If this article about Indiana Beach “blows your mind”, wait til next week when I tell you about some other big name acts that played there. It will be groovy man. Tune in, turn on, tune out…next week.
Next Week: Indiana Beach Part II