Entry for October 27, 2006


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 series—pictured above—with 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 can’t even remember writing these notes, but that’s more my problem than yours, isn’t it?




Though there are few performers who have had as profound an impact on the shape of rock ‘n’ 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 linked—Jimi 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 “ugly duckling” appears in any biographical account of her you’ll read. Her lifestyle? The intended title of her band’s 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, mesmerizing—and 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 Joplin’s superstar status as a ’60s icon has become an obstacle for those–particularly of the younger generation—who 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 Joplin’s era are an important aspect of her story; so too was her role as a “liberated” 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, hasn’t enough time passed now?

Consider the purity of the few recordings left to us by bluesman Robert Johnson. We hear them for what they are—works of grace and beauty, timeless almost by definition—and 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. Can’t we listen to Janis Joplin’s music and hear it stripped of all contexts but the most important one—the musical? And shouldn’t we?

I am reminded of a conversation I recently had with, of all people, drummer Carmine Appice, once of ’60s heavy rockers the Vanilla Fudge. We were discussing that band’s 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 I’d correctly remembered the personnel of an onstage set I’d witnessed then featuring his band, lead guitarist Johnny Winter, and Joplin herself. Thankfully–er, it was 34 years ago–I did.

“That’s one of my all-time stories,” he told me. “When she gave me a slug of Southern Comfort I almost fell off the drum stool. People would say, `Oh my God, you knew Janis.’ It’s really wild that all these people that died young—like Hendrix, we used to tour with Hendrix—people left such a legacy, people don’t even think that they were real people. It’s unbelievable. People will say, `Oh man, you actually took a slug of Janis Joplin’s Southern Comfort!’ But at the time, it was like, `Wow, what are you drinking, girl?’ It wasn’t like, `My God, Janis Joplin.’ She wasn’t `My God, Janis Joplin’ yet, she was just another one of our peers having fun.”

That may be the healthiest, most rewarding manner to approach any collection of Janis Joplin’s best recordings. Hear them as the work of a singer who wasn’t My God Janis Joplin yet–someone who brought with her a diverse array of influences, created something new within the context of a rock ‘n’ 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 clichéd term “Joplinesque” 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 ‘50s, 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 ’60s, 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 “Ugliest Man on Campus,” which, in retrospect, was probably better than the other logical option. It was also where she’d encounter two things that would have great meaning in her life: 1) drugs and booze and 2) Chet Helms, an old friend who’d 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, she’d 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. She’d also encounter two musicians—guitarist James Gurley and bassist Peter Albin—with whom she’d 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, and—the mind boggles at the parallel world possibilities—almost 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 ’65, and whose brand of music—fascinatingly—was 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 Fillmore’s 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 Brother’s 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 “featuring Janis Joplin” would come later—the album is relatively restrained, though hints of Janis Joplin’s uniqueness surfaced on “Down On Me” and the later single “Coo Coo.” The latter song, a version of the traditional “Jack Of Diamonds,” as well as album closer “All Is Loneliness,” 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 “Janis,” from Country Joe & The Fish’s classic I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die album), and, on June 17th, the band performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival. That day, and the next day’s performance—the one immortalized in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Monterey Pop–would change the lives of many, many people, Janis Joplin’s most notably. To say that the band was spectacular would be an understatement, and, for that matter, redundant in light of the documentation Pennebaker’s 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 sexiness—more accurately, sexuality—and sang like a woman possessed, uninhibited, and capable of shattering glass if the occasion demanded it. By year end Mainstream Records would release the band’s album—it peaked at #60—and 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 album—the classic Cheap Thrills–to the very top of the charts following its release that August. It is certainly the band’s best album—there were, after all, only two—but 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 Detroit’s Grande Ballroom and San Francisco’s 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 1972’s In Concert and 1998’s Live At Winterland ’68 ) are in fact extremely interesting. Boasting a live, vital sound unlike either the Mainstream sessions—which were, in their own way, quaintly muted—or 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 Joplin’s rough-hewn vocals and the controlled noise was really like little else we’ve 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 ’60s 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 “Combination Of The Two,” her sweetly harrowing take of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and the instantly gripping “Piece Of My Heart”—in retrospect, the song which may most compactly contain every aspect of the qualities which made Joplin one of a kind—America 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 reach—so 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 “amicable split” 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 rifts—in its latter days, the band was officially billed as Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company—and 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, Joplin’s only link to the band she’d 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-‘em-up-and-knock-‘em-down mode but getting there—made its displeasure known. In many cases the same publications that had visibly complained about Big Brother’s 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 “Janis: The Judy Garland Of Rock?” 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 Joplin’s 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 York’s Woodstock Festival in August. By the next month I Got Dem Ol’ 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 band’s arrangements indeed veered toward traditional R&B, and the song selection—including covers of the Bee Gees “To Love Somebody,” the Chantels’ “Maybe,” and Rodgers & Hart’s “Little Girl Blue”—was relatively restrained. Nonetheless, Joplin’s voice bore a noticeable hint of subtlety on opening track “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)” that promised much. Common speculation at the time was that Joplin’s 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 Thrills’ rise to the top of the charts, Kozmic Blues peaked at the No. 5 slot. Joplin and her new band were everywhere—playing 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 Joplin’s 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. “She got cranked up even a little bit harder than Jim Morrison did,” he told writer Craig Rosen many years later, “and Jim could really get cranked up.” Considered by many to be Joplin’s 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 one—Nick Gravenites’ “Buried Alive In The Blues”—Joplin died from an overdose of heroin and alcohol at Hollywood’s Landmark Hotel on October 4. Sadly, much of Full Tilt Boogie’s recording debut included accompanying tracks laid down posthumously.

By far Joplin’s 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 songs—the No. 1 hit “Me And Bobby McGee,” penned by friend Kris Kristofferson, and the appealingly informal “Mercedes Benz”—it 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 1998’s Live At Winterland ’68, featuring Joplin live with Big Brother. Together they are screeching—both vocally and instrumentally—and heard in the context of the late ’90s, they do not sound like an old hippie band, they sound like contemporary folk artists playing loud, electric rock ‘n’ roll. If you shut out the preconceptions of four decades’ 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 ’78 or the odd Folkways archival compilation—you will hear art being made that is simply timeless. In short: It is the best way to hear all of this music. Because that’s how they’ll hear it 50 years from now. And you can bet they’ll be listening.


BIG BROTHER & THE HOLDING COMPANY The most restrained Joplin in the catalog, Big Brother’s debut has come to develop a quaint sense of charm, largely due to the versatile, non-bluesy song selection—Moondog is covered, no less. Though “Down On Me” and “Bye By Baby” are here, the occasional veering toward San Franciscan folk territory is remedied by Joplin’s deliberately unsmooth vocal.

CHEAP THRILLS Nearly every aspect of Janis Joplin’s vocal approach is on display on this, the classic San Franciscan rock album, and Big Brother’s backing is both sympathetic and surprisingly dynamic. With “Piece Of My Heart” and “Ball And Chain” dominating, this may be—song for song, and in terms of overall impact—Joplin’s strongest showing.

I GOT DEM OL’ 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 “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)” and “Work Me Lord” show the singer’s growing sophistication and vocal control. And the strings on “Little Girl Blue” 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 “Me And Bobby McGee” and “Mercedes Benz.” Had there been more albums to come, they’d further refine this format. Spooky song sequencing: Last track is “Get It While You Can.”

IN CONCERT A surprisingly sturdy posthumous set, most notably for its eight live Big Brother tracks—ones deemed unsuitable for release circa Cheap Thrills. Adding much-needed balls to early tracks like “Down On Me” and “Bye Bye Baby,” and introducing the quite hip “Flower In the Sun,” 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 bands—Big Brother, Kozmic Blues and Full Tilt Boogie—and an exceptional collaboration with the Butterfield Blues Band, “One Night Stand.” Especially of note: her Big Brother medley of “Amazing Grace/Hi Heel Sneakers.” Unexpectedly substantial.

JANIS—BOX SET The best collection of Joplin’s 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 Joplin’s impact on the era—and the era’s impact on Joplin.

LIVE AT WINTERLAND ’68 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 “Ball And Chain” and place this band proudly alongside Blue Cheer, Sonic Youth and other proponents of noise as art. Add in Joplin’s wonderfully dynamic vocal and you’ve got an unqualified masterwork.


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