The redemption of Peggy Caserta

Richard Burnett
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Louisiana homecoming queen Peggy Caserta changed history when she moved to 1960s San Francisco and founded her famous multi-million-dollar Haight-Ashbury clothing boutique Mnasidika in 1965. 

Mnasidika (pronounced Nah-SID-Eh-Kah) – located 35 feet from the corner of Ashbury, at 1510 Haight – launched the bell-bottom jeans craze and became the epicentre of San Francisco’s burgeoning hippie scene, a hang-out for The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company. It was where Wes Wilson’s posters hung, Bill Graham sold concert tickets and Owsley was enjoyed.
 
Caserta eventually became the best friend and lover of soon-to-become rock icon Janis Joplin, who first stepped into Mnasidika to put down 50 cents to buy a pair of $4.95 jeans on a layaway plan. They became fast friends and had many fun adventures together, such as helicoptering into Woodstock. These stories and more are explored in Caserta’s must-read memoir I Ran Into Some Trouble (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing) co-written by Maggie Falcon, with a gorgeous cover designed by Wes Wilson. The rollicking read turns dark with the death of Joplin on October 4, 1970. Then Caserta’s world of psychedelic peace, love, LSD and rock kaleidoscoped into bereavement, heroin addiction, prison and desperation. After Caserta published the notorious 1973 bestseller Going Down With Janis for dope, she was hated, betrayed and self-exiled. 
 
But Caserta survived heroin addiction, society’s conviction, rehab, prison and caring for her mother with dementia, and writes about it all with brutal honesty in I Ran Into Some Trouble. It is a redemptive memoir. When we spoke, Caserta was everything I hoped she would be: an authentic survivor. I like her a lot. This is her story.
 
How do you identify?
I've never given it much thought. I have always lived what I consider to be a gay life. I was not a child that was traumatized by their family for being gay. I never came out. I never had to. We never talked about it. There was no trauma. Every now and then my mother said, “Are you ever going to get 
married?” And I said, “Well, it doesn’t look like it, does it?” It was never a big deal.
 
What was it like being an out woman in a very heterosexual and male-dominated hippie culture?
Mnasidika started succeeding beyond anything I imagined. As the money pours in, life starts to ease up and you’re not as pressed and strained about stuff. One day I looked up, I had a successful business and I was all the way out: “If you don’t like me, fuck you.”
 
You were pretty fierce.
A gay employee of mine – Peter, he was so precious – said to me, “You were so outrageously out and didn’t care who knew. You showed me that it was alright for me to be me.” I was just so flattered by that because I thought, “What a great thing to help somebody feel free enough to be who they are.”
 
When Mnasidika couldn’t keep up with demand for your customized bell-bottom jeans, you convinced the Levi Strauss Company to widen the bottom of their dungarees, creating the bell-bottom trend your boutique had become famous for. Then in 2019, Levi Strauss honoured you during the 50th anniversary of their bell bottoms.
A Levi Strauss historian reached out to me and I thought, “Well, I'll be damned.” I was blown away because I always wondered if Levi knew or cared where they got it. They sold millions! 
 
So we did a webcast in November 2019. I thought, 51 years later, I’m finally going to get credit for bell bottoms! I wish they'd write me a cheque for a million dollars, I’d love to give $750,000 to the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic which has been open for 52 years and saved so many lives over the years. But they gave me a jacket, some T-shirts.
 
You paid for stuff for a lot of people. You financed bands, got Jimi Hendrix a job, bought Jerry Garcia an amp, the list goes on. What was it like to be the epicentre of the counterculture in San Francisco?
Drummer Dave Getz (of Big Brother and the Holding Company) once said I was the nuclei of the in crowd. But I never knew that. We knew that the psychedelic revolution was exploding right in the doorway on the street, but when you’re making history, you don’t know you’re making it. I was just a girl trying to make a living, working for myself, doing the best I could.
 
Did you resent that people kept hitting you up for money?
No, I was stunned that I made that much. I wish I hadn’t said no to a couple of guys who had an idea for a synthesizer and needed $15,000. But generally I knew who was doing stuff and those who were just talk.
 
 
One of your first customers was Janis Joplin who put down 50 cents to buy a pair of $4.95 jeans on the layaway plan. 
She was unintentionally hilarious, sweet, fun and un-diva-ish. I just wish we hadn’t lost her so early. I mean, I had no idea I would outlive her by 50 years. I have precious memories of her coming in the store. She wasn’t famous yet, had no money and wanted to put 50 cents down on a $5 pair of Levis. I had heard her sing in a dive bar and she blew me away. I was awestruck by the way she delivered a song. I could not believe that somebody with that talent didn’t have $5, so I gave her the jeans. She didn’t know it was my place and we became friends. It started from there.
 
You and Janis became best friends and sometime lovers.
People seem to be so interested in the gay thing, and I understand that. But truth is that Janis was straight. I was gay. The common denominator was that we were both wild and had such mutual respect. But Janis and I were never going to set up housekeeping. She was going to be on the road making money, making music, and I had my own career.
 
Looking back, with all the darkness that came into your life after Janis died, were you ever upset with Janis for turning you on to heroin?
No, because ultimately we all make our own choices. I didn’t know anything about heroin because I was a pot-smoking acidhead. It’s a whole different high, different world. But once I started doing (heroin) with her, it really took the edge off. It just made us feel normal. We didn’t do heroin because we were miserable, we did it for fun. 
 
In your book you say that Janis did not die of a heroin overdose. In her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel, she was wearing her slingback sandals and you believe she accidentally and fatally tripped on the shag carpeting, fell onto the bedside table head-first and broke her nose, which could have led to asphyxiation and death.
I’ll say it till I die: Janis did not overdose. There is no question. She tripped and fell. Look, I’ve passed out on heroin enough to know that you don't end up with a pack of cigarettes in one hand, and $4.50 in the other. You do not live long enough to get up, walk to the lobby, get change for $5, buy the cigarettes, walk back to your room and lie down straight between the two beds and die. There is no way. I wish I’d been there. I should have been there.
 
You waited a long time to correct your first memoir Going Down With Janis, co-written by Dan Knapp, which I have never read. 
Don’t read it. It’s trash. It was so obvious that ghostwriter and publisher took a very nice, sweet story and turned it into pornography. It scandalized me and my family. It paralyzed me. But I think the ghostwriter and publisher knew I was vulnerable. I sold the rights to the editing to buy heroin. But you know what, Richard? I’m going to have to own some of this. It’s almost 50 years later. No, they didn’t respect me. But you know what? I wasn’t respectable. I wasn’t. I was a strung-out junkie.
 
Through all of this, your mom always had your back.
Yeah, both my parents. They loved me and never let me down.
 
Your mom saw you come out of the darkness a survivor, and you took care of her for the last 13 years of her life, until she passed away at age 99. 
What it ultimately did was take away any guilt I felt for the mistakes, the disappointment and the addiction. She said to me about two years before she died, “I want you to know if you ever thought that you owed me anything, you never really did. I love you. Any slate that you have is clean.”
 
I think I Ran Into Some Trouble is a redemptive memoir.
It was a long time coming. All those years I wanted to redeem myself.
 
The final two paragraphs, you end on such an uplifting, hopeful note. I’m so glad you made it to the other side.
Thank you. 
 
This interview has been edited and condensed.
 
 
 
 

Remembering Janis Joplin

 
Here are some Janis Joplin memories from interviews
 
I’ve done over the years.
 
Legendary Montreal impresario Donald K Donald – a.k.a Donald Tarlton – got into the rock promotion business by accident backstage at the old Montreal Forum one night in 1968 when Joplin puked on the shoes of Tarlton’s mentor, renowned local promoter Sam Gesser. At the time, both Tarlton and Joplin were 25.
 
“It was the beginning of the Rock’n’Roll era and Sam had a hard time relating with the culture,” Tarlton told me. “He hired me as the stage manager. Janis was drunk and threw up all over his shoes. Sam was horrified, looked at me and said, ‘Donald, you can take over all the rock stuff.’ And that was it. I became THE rock promoter of Montreal.”
 
Another Montreal native, late Canadian folk icon Penny Lang, was supposed to teach Joplin how to play guitar back in the fall of 1970. When Janis died, her keyboardist Ken Pearson, another Montrealer who was then the love of Penny’s life, returned home without Janis. “Once I spoke with Janis on the phone, I was in pretty bad shape,” Lang recalled. “I’m bipolar and I’ve had some rough periods. I was looking for Kenneth and Janis was a great help.”
 
Joplin was managed by the influential NYC manager Albert Grossman whose roster included Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, The Band and Canadian music icon Gordon Lightfoot who once told me, “I’d see Bob Dylan in the office. And Janis was in a corner reading a book.”
 
When the late Richie havens headlined Montreal’s Oscar Peterson Concert Hall in 2008, he told me, “I’m sure Janis died of a broken heart. She was taken out of (her first band) Big Brother by Albert Grossman. But Big Brother was her family, she couldn’t bring them along and that messed her up.”
 
Janis died on October 4, 1970.