A few years back, MOJO magazine kicked off a series of introductory album packages in conjunction with Sony Music. A few writers were given the delicate task of not only providing the liner notes but actually sequencing the discs–which in the context of some of the artists involved was no easy undertaking. Such was the case with the Santana disc from that seriesâpictured aboveâwith which I was involved.
What follows are the notes from another planned entry in the series, one which never emerged due to some issue with the Janis Joplin estate I have since forgotten. Hey, I canât even remember writing these notes, but thatâs more my problem than yours, isnât it?
AN INTRODUCTION TO JANIS JOPLIN
Though there are few performers who have had as profound an impact on the shape of rock ânâ roll as did Janis Joplin, her recorded output is slim compared to that of, say, Elvis Presley or the Beatles. For that matter, it is even slimmer than that of the two contemporaries to whom she is invariably linkedâJimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison of the Doors. They were young, they were famous, and they died. Unexpectedly. In some ways, that association has become a hindrance to appreciating the musical legacy she left behind.
Perhaps predictably, Janis Joplin has come to represent the very concept of excess on nearly every level that she is examined. Her appearance? The term âugly ducklingâ appears in any biographical account of her youâll read. Her lifestyle? The intended title of her bandâs breakthrough album was Dope, Sex and Cheap Thrills before her record company prevailed and notably shortened it. But it was going to be called that for a reason. Her choice of recording partners? Big Brother & the Holding Company were undisciplined, loud, not good enough for her, she was told. Their successors, the Kozmic Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogie Band, were too slick, too normal for a talent such as hers, she was later told. And her voice? Extraordinary, powerful, mesmerizingâand to a generation that would come later, a generation used to studio polish and plodding professionalism, maybe too much so, too mannered, too full of yelping, of histrionics that, when heard out of context, admittedly sound over the top.
In many ways, Janis Joplinâs superstar status as a â60s icon has become an obstacle for those–particularly of the younger generationâwho would like to appreciate the spectacular music she created without wading through the attendant socio-cultural baggage appearing in nearly every account they encounter. Surely the prevalence of sex and drugs in Joplinâs era are an important aspect of her story; so too was her role as a âliberatedâ woman in less enlightened times vastly influential to an entire generation of young women and men. No one could justifiable downplay the importance of her cultural context in fully appreciating Janis Joplin.
Still, hasnât enough time passed now?
Consider the purity of the few recordings left to us by bluesman Robert Johnson. We hear them for what they areâworks of grace and beauty, timeless almost by definitionâand are not hampered in our appreciation of them by hundreds of writers who feel as if those recordings defined their entire generation and write their accounts accordingly. Canât we listen to Janis Joplinâs music and hear it stripped of all contexts but the most important oneâthe musical? And shouldnât we?
I am reminded of a conversation I recently had with, of all people, drummer Carmine Appice, once of â60s heavy rockers the Vanilla Fudge. We were discussing that bandâs appearance at the West Palm Beach Pop Festival, a three-day 1969 post-Woodstock gathering featuring headliners the Rolling Stones and, among many others, Janis Joplin. I asked Appice if Iâd correctly remembered the personnel of an onstage set Iâd witnessed then featuring his band, lead guitarist Johnny Winter, and Joplin herself. Thankfully–er, it was 34 years ago–I did.
âThatâs one of my all-time stories,â he told me. âWhen she gave me a slug of Southern Comfort I almost fell off the drum stool. People would say, `Oh my God, you knew Janis.â Itâs really wild that all these people that died youngâlike Hendrix, we used to tour with Hendrixâpeople left such a legacy, people donât even think that they were real people. Itâs unbelievable. People will say, `Oh man, you actually took a slug of Janis Joplinâs Southern Comfort!â But at the time, it was like, `Wow, what are you drinking, girl?â It wasnât like, `My God, Janis Joplin.â She wasnât `My God, Janis Joplinâ yet, she was just another one of our peers having fun.â
That may be the healthiest, most rewarding manner to approach any collection of Janis Joplinâs best recordings. Hear them as the work of a singer who wasnât My God Janis Joplin yet–someone who brought with her a diverse array of influences, created something new within the context of a rock ânâ roll that was still evolving, and attempted to be the very best at what she did. Someone intelligent, someone who read voraciously but probably rarely encountered the clichĂŠd term âJoplinesqueâ that has since become one of the most overused descriptors in the language of pop music criticism. Heard in this manner, Janis Joplin sounds extraordinary.
Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas on January 19, 1943 to parents Seth and Dorothy Joplin. A small town dominated by the petroleum industry, it would be her home throughout the â50s, the latter part of which would find her gravitating toward the works of beat poets and Jack Kerouac. Her interest in music grew, most notably toward the works of the blues of Bessie Smith and folk icon Odetta, an interest that was reflected in her informal performances at area coffee houses. During the early â60s, her interest in what was a growing American countercultural scene briefly took her to such storied locales as Greenwich Village in New York and Venice, California; beatnik culture was in her blood. By 1962, she had enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, where she would insinuate herself into the local performance scene, joining a local bluegrass unit, playing autoharp and singing the works of Smith, Jean Ritchie and Leadbelly. It is at this hallowed institution where Joplin was famously voted âUgliest Man on Campus,â which, in retrospect, was probably better than the other logical option. It was also where sheâd encounter two things that would have great meaning in her life: 1) drugs and booze and 2) Chet Helms, an old friend whoâd just been to San Francisco and was convinced it was the future. It was, as were the drugs and booze.
By January of 1963, Joplin had hitchhiked to San Francisco with Helms and got a taste of the local arts culture. Again, sheâd sing at local coffeehouses, and meet the pre-hippieifed likes of Jorma Kaukonen, later of the Jefferson Airplane, and Nick Gravenites, local scenester and later member of the Electric Flag, among many other credits. Sheâd also encounter two musiciansâguitarist James Gurley and bassist Peter Albinâwith whom sheâd join forces in Big Brother & the Holding Company. But that would be later: Joplin soon was on the road again, eventually returning to Texas in 1965 and re-enrolling in college, singing at area clubs, andâthe mind boggles at the parallel world possibilitiesâalmost joining the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, the local music scene was well underway. Among the new wave of bands was one Big Brother & the Holding Company, who debuted sans Joplin in late â65, and whose brand of musicâfascinatinglyâwas deeply influenced by such avant-garde jazz figures as Pharaoh Sanders and Sun Ra and openly embraced noise and distortion. The band played at both the famous first Trips Festival as well as the Fillmoreâs historic Tribal Stomp; in retrospect, had they never encountered Janis Joplin, they might have produced some historic noise records that would proudly sit alongside the earliest works of the Blue Cheer and MC5. But other things were in store. How about a chick singer? Chet Helms, now of Family Dog fame and acting as Big Brotherâs manager, saw that successful local bands the Jefferson Airplane and Great Society were making waves with female frontpersons, and suggested that Joplin return from Texas and audition to join the band. By June of 1966, Joplin was performing with the group at the Avalon Ballroom and her life would be forever altered.
Early days were still rough; the band played throughout the Bay Area and by August had landed a month-long stint at a club in Chicago. Running short of cash, they signed a record deal with the very eager Mainstream Records, who plopped them in studios both there and in Los Angeles to record their debut album, which even to this day retains a special charm. Titled simply Big Brother & the Holding Company–the cover-plastering of âfeaturing Janis Joplinâ would come laterâthe album is relatively restrained, though hints of Janis Joplinâs uniqueness surfaced on âDown On Meâ and the later single âCoo Coo.â The latter song, a version of the traditional âJack Of Diamonds,â as well as album closer âAll Is Loneliness,â penned by New York cult figure Moondog, signaled that early Big Brother were by no means focused on rewriting the Bessie Smith songbook.
Though the album was completely finished by the end of 1966, it would sit in the can until September of the next year. And of course much happened in the interim: The band played at the first Be-In at Golden Gate Park, Joplin moved in with Country Joe McDonald (and would later be the subject of âJanis,â from Country Joe & The Fishâs classic I-Feel-Like-Iâm-Fixinâ-To-Die album), and, on June 17th, the band performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival. That day, and the next dayâs performanceâthe one immortalized in D.A. Pennebakerâs film Monterey Pop–would change the lives of many, many people, Janis Joplinâs most notably. To say that the band was spectacular would be an understatement, and, for that matter, redundant in light of the documentation Pennebakerâs film itself provides. Joplin mesmerized everyone who saw her, providing a third option for those who saw the role of female pop singers to lie, depending on their hipness, somewhere on a sliding scale between Grace Slick and Leslie Gore. Joplin sweated, exuded sexinessâmore accurately, sexualityâand sang like a woman possessed, uninhibited, and capable of shattering glass if the occasion demanded it. By year end Mainstream Records would release the bandâs albumâit peaked at #60âand Big Brother signed a management deal with Albert Grossman, a powerful mover-and-shaker who represented Bob Dylan, among select others. It was a deal that would open many doors.
Perhaps the largest door was that belonging to Columbia Records, who signed the band in February 1968, and whose promotional wherewithal took their next albumâthe classic Cheap Thrills–to the very top of the charts following its release that August. It is certainly the bandâs best albumâthere were, after all, only twoâbut the recording of it did not come easy. Initially intended to be a live album, to perhaps replicate the magnetism Janis Joplin had so memorably displayed during her Monterey performance, it instead turned out mostly to be a live sounding album. Attempts to capture the band live from Detroitâs Grande Ballroom and San Franciscoâs Winterland were deemed unsatisfactory, so the band and producer John Simon instead recorded the group in studios both in New York and Los Angeles. Few can deny the power and impact of Cheap Thrills, yet with hindsight, the results of those attempted live recordings, released well after the fact (on 1972âs In Concert and 1998âs Live At Winterland â68 ) are in fact extremely interesting. Boasting a live, vital sound unlike either the Mainstream sessionsâwhich were, in their own way, quaintly mutedâor the polished Cheap Thrills, the tracks offer proof that Big Brother were indeed fierce noisemakers on occasion, particularly guitarist James Gurley–and that the combination of Joplinâs rough-hewn vocals and the controlled noise was really like little else weâve ever heard. I for one would like to hear much more of this stuff.
But for most of world, Cheap Thrills was where it all began. Boasting a one-of-a-kind Robert Crumb cover that has cemented itself into â60s pop cultural consciousness, the disc sold over a million copies during its first month of release. As it should have: Rarely has any one album so completely announced the arrival of a performer as singularly versatile as Janis Joplin. Between the ripping syncopation of âCombination Of The Two,â her sweetly harrowing take of Gershwinâs âSummertime,â and the instantly gripping âPiece Of My Heartââin retrospect, the song which may most compactly contain every aspect of the qualities which made Joplin one of a kindâAmerica embraced the singer with a visible fascination. Like the hippie bands that had started turning up on the cover of such staid institutions of Life magazine, Joplin represented something new and significant and, most importantly, substantial. That she rarely failed to have a bottle of Southern Comfort within reachâso unladylike—was just one of those youthful affectations her generation seemed to proudly wear like a badge or, in her case, peacock plume.
Within a month of Cheap Thrills release, it was all over for Big Brother. Manager Grossman announced an âamicable splitâ between Joplin and her band; by Christmas they would play their final gig together, in, appropriately, San Francisco. Why did they split? The standard answer involves drugs, booze, ego riftsâin its latter days, the band was officially billed as Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Companyâand undoubtedly a torrent of voices telling Joplin that she could do better than the sloppy and unruly bunch with whom she had risen to fame. Joplin was an artist; Joplin needed polished accompaniment; Joplin needed a disciplined group capable of playing dependably in tune, et cetera. By year end, friends Nick Gravenites and guitarist Mike Bloomfield helped assemble a new band for Joplin. This would be a band capable of playing the R&B Joplin had long embraced, one featuring a horn section, keyboards, all the trappings of classic rhythm & blues. And Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrew would be the holdover, Joplinâs only link to the band sheâd just departed. The name: the Kozmic Blues Band.
It did not go over well, at least initially. The burgeoning rock press–not yet in its inevitable set-âem-up-and-knock-âem-down mode but getting thereâmade its displeasure known. In many cases the same publications that had visibly complained about Big Brotherâs looseness were now bemoaning their departure. Gigs in Memphis and the East and West coasts were deemed spotty and inconsistent; Rolling Stone, conspicuously displeased, popped Joplin on its cover in March 1969 and creepily asked âJanis: The Judy Garland Of Rock?â Still, Janis Joplin solo star had never been more visible, appearing on the still influential Ed Sullivan Show and making her sole European tour in April and May. There, an audience who had heard but never seen the magic was captivated by Joplinâs magnetic presence. A concert was filmed in Frankfurt, another broadcast in Amsterdam, and her appearance at the Albert Hall won near-unanimous accolades.
Returning to the States in June, Joplin and her new band began recording her next album, intermittently making pop festival appearances and inevitably appearing at New Yorkâs Woodstock Festival in August. By the next month I Got Dem Olâ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! hit the stores. Bearing a cover that (oddly) resembles the sort that American indie labels such as Matador Records might release today, the disc was anything but the freakout the blurry cover image of Joplin promised. The bandâs arrangements indeed veered toward traditional R&B, and the song selectionâincluding covers of the Bee Gees âTo Love Somebody,â the Chantelsâ âMaybe,â and Rodgers & Hartâs âLittle Girl Blueââwas relatively restrained. Nonetheless, Joplinâs voice bore a noticeable hint of subtlety on opening track âTry (Just A Little Bit Harder)â that promised much. Common speculation at the time was that Joplinâs voice might give out were she continue to abuse it with the yelping and whooping that had in fact become her trademark, but this was something new.
Unlike Cheap Thrillsâ rise to the top of the charts, Kozmic Blues peaked at the No. 5 slot. Joplin and her new band were everywhereâplaying festivals (such as the West Palm Beach festival in November), making television appearances on shows hosted by Dick Cavett and Tom Jones, appearing at Madison Square Garden. Drugs and drink were an increasing part of her lifestyle, and this was not secret knowledge. By the start of 1970, she disbanded her new group and announced her intention to clean up. And by April, she would put together her last band, Full Tilt Boogie. It was a marked step up from its predecessor, and those who saw that band perform typically said so.
The recording sessions for what would be Janis Joplinâs final album began in September, 1970, just a month after her final live concert performance. Producer Paul Rothchild was the perfect fit for Joplin: a man with a distinguished recording pedigree whose other best known client was none other than Jim Morrison and the Doors. âShe got cranked up even a little bit harder than Jim Morrison did,â he told writer Craig Rosen many years later, âand Jim could really get cranked up.â Considered by many to be Joplinâs very best album, Pearl received the sort of reviews the singer undoubtedly would have loved, had she been around to read them. Finishing all her vocal tracks but oneâNick Gravenitesâ âBuried Alive In The BluesââJoplin died from an overdose of heroin and alcohol at Hollywoodâs Landmark Hotel on October 4. Sadly, much of Full Tilt Boogieâs recording debut included accompanying tracks laid down posthumously.
By far Joplinâs biggest album, Pearl stayed at the top of the charts for nine full weeks following its release in January 1971. Bearing two of her best known songsâthe No. 1 hit âMe And Bobby McGee,â penned by friend Kris Kristofferson, and the appealingly informal âMercedes Benzââit was a happy ending to a sad story, and an affirmation that Joplin was heading in an artistic direction that would serve her well, had she lived long enough to pursue it.
In the years that have followed, a number of additional Janis Joplin recordings have surfaced. They were issued first and foremost because the demand was there, certainly, but that is not to deny their inherent worth. Most fascinating may be 1998âs Live At Winterland â68, featuring Joplin live with Big Brother. Together they are screechingâboth vocally and instrumentallyâand heard in the context of the late â90s, they do not sound like an old hippie band, they sound like contemporary folk artists playing loud, electric rock ânâ roll. If you shut out the preconceptions of four decadesâ worth of pop culture, movies, plays, books and romantic notions about tragic heroes and simply listen–in the same manner as you might listen to an old, scratchy â78 or the odd Folkways archival compilationâyou will hear art being made that is simply timeless. In short: It is the best way to hear all of this music. Because thatâs how theyâll hear it 50 years from now. And you can bet theyâll be listening.
BIG BROTHER & THE HOLDING COMPANY The most restrained Joplin in the catalog, Big Brotherâs debut has come to develop a quaint sense of charm, largely due to the versatile, non-bluesy song selectionâMoondog is covered, no less. Though âDown On Meâ and âBye By Babyâ are here, the occasional veering toward San Franciscan folk territory is remedied by Joplinâs deliberately unsmooth vocal.
CHEAP THRILLS Nearly every aspect of Janis Joplinâs vocal approach is on display on this, the classic San Franciscan rock album, and Big Brotherâs backing is both sympathetic and surprisingly dynamic. With âPiece Of My Heartâ and âBall And Chainâ dominating, this may beâsong for song, and in terms of overall impactâJoplinâs strongest showing.
I GOT DEM OLâ KOZMIC BLUES AGAIN MAMA! Searching for a post-Big Brother format, Joplin found mixed success here with the Kozmic Blues Band. Still, standout tracks like âTry (Just A Little Bit Harder)â and âWork Me Lordâ show the singerâs growing sophistication and vocal control. And the strings on âLittle Girl Blueâ are as far removed from Big Brother as she could get.
PEARL Her massive commercial success, and certainly most accessible album, boasts top-notch production, excellent song selection, and well-known hits âMe And Bobby McGeeâ and âMercedes Benz.â Had there been more albums to come, theyâd further refine this format. Spooky song sequencing: Last track is âGet It While You Can.â
IN CONCERT A surprisingly sturdy posthumous set, most notably for its eight live Big Brother tracksâones deemed unsuitable for release circa Cheap Thrills. Adding much-needed balls to early tracks like âDown On Meâ and âBye Bye Baby,â and introducing the quite hip âFlower In the Sun,â the disc amply proves Joplin was more at home onstage than in the studio.
FAREWELL SONG With touching liner notes by Country Joe McDonald, this set offers Joplin backed by all three of her bandsâBig Brother, Kozmic Blues and Full Tilt Boogieâand an exceptional collaboration with the Butterfield Blues Band, âOne Night Stand.â Especially of note: her Big Brother medley of âAmazing Grace/Hi Heel Sneakers.â Unexpectedly substantial.
JANISâBOX SET The best collection of Joplinâs work, this three-CD set features the expected highlights and previously unheard delights–such as her first recording (ca. 1962), early tracks with Jorma Kaukonen, and her groundbreaking appearances at Monterey, Woodstock, and on the Ed Sullivan Show. Excellent notes by writer Ellen Willis thoroughly examine Joplinâs impact on the eraâand the eraâs impact on Joplin.
LIVE AT WINTERLAND â68 A time capsule from heaven, this may be the single best document of what made Big Brother & the Holding Company a fascinating, still underrated band. Check out the piercing guitar shriek that opens âBall And Chainâ and place this band proudly alongside Blue Cheer, Sonic Youth and other proponents of noise as art. Add in Joplinâs wonderfully dynamic vocal and youâve got an unqualified masterwork.