important work in color
1967: Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin (on Mainstream Records). 1968: Cheap Thrills (with Big Brother and the Holding Company).1969: I Got Dem Ol Kosmic Blues Again Mama! (with the Kosmic Blues Band). 1971: Pearl (with the Full Tilt Boogie Band). 1972: Janis Joplin in Concert. 1973: Janis Joplins Greatest Hits. 1988: Anthology. 1982: Farewell Song. 1993: Janis (Box Set.).1984: Cheaper Thrills.
BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING COMPANY:
1978: Be a Brother. 1971: How Hard It Is.
ETTA JAMES: Janis was "like an angel who came and paved a road white chicks hadn't walked before."
B.B. KING: "Janis Joplin sings the blues as hard as any black person."
BIG MAMA THORTON: "That girl feels like I do."
NAT HENTOFF: the first white singer "since Teddy Grace, who sang the blues out of black influences but had developed her own sound and phrasing."
ETTA JAMES: "I began feeling proud to be her role model. When I heard her sing, I recognized my influence, but I also heard the electricity and rage in her own voice. I loved her attitude."
JOHN MORRIS: "never met a black musician who didn't love her."
There was a time, in the sixties and early seventies, when Janis Joplin was more controversial than, say, the Velvet Underground or Captain Beefhart. The Velvet Underground and Captain Beefhart would be so loudly and so consistently declared underrated that their contributions became hard to overlook. At the same time, a more deadly dichotomy of critical opinion was picking apart Joplin's career. In the sixties, Joplin suffered a white-girl-singing -the-blues backlash; Joplins first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, were targeted unmercifully in the pages of Rolling Stone Magazine (which later, in 1987, in what would become its typically toadying approach to rock and roll criticism, declared Cheap Thrills one of the best rock albums ever made). Although many of the most important critics of the era - Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs, for instance - were enthusiastic about Big Brother and Janis, typical were statements like the following, from Jon Landau: "Gurley and Andrew don't know a decent rock or blues chorus between them and the rhythm section never happens. [Janis'] melodrama, overstatement, and coarseness are not virtues, they are signs of a lack of sophistication and a lack of security with her material." Landau disliked Jimi Hendrix as well, for many of the same reasons, although he would later go on to manage Bruce Springsteen's melodrama and overstatement. Landau and many other of Joplin's early critics have been discredited. And so have many of the musicians that so loudly proclaimed the awfulness of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Blues and rock and roll purists in general - Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, a young and green Steve Miller, Robbie Robertson - had some of the most hateful things to say about San Francisco psychedelia. Like the producer John Simon and his meticulous perfect pitch, which was a liability when working with Big Brother and the Holding company - this is a group of people who never quite caught up with the vast potential of sixties' music.
Theres an oft-told story about Joplins unprofessional performance at a black charity event thrown by Stax/Volt artists. The politeness and punctuality displayed by the hosts was disrupted by the undisciplined spirit of Joplin and her entourage. Imagine: a rowdy, rock and roll band: who woulda thought? The writers who have gloated over this story seem to want us to agree that bad manners must mean bad art. As if it was the bourgeois façade we loved about black performers and their music. One wonders how the story would have been interpreted if it had been the Sex Pistols stumbling drunkenly into a benefit that included a bunch of middle-of-the-road white performers.
Joplins persona has continues to invite some odd speculations. Certain feminists have painted Joplin as a sado-masochistic co-dependent caught up in a mans world. But Joplins context was the blues and r&b genres where, when men are the singers, its often a womans world. The genres focus is on relatively unchanging elements in the relationships between men and women. Feminists hear the songs and suggest Joplins point of view should have been stronger, more challenging; Joplin chose to sing about what is often the reality the emotional mess, the abyss of rejection, the self-doubt. As a result, Joplin has had different standards forced upon her than forced upon Otis Redding or Eric Clapton, for instance. When Clapton sings "Layla" or Otis Redding sings "Try a Little Tenderness," they get close to achieving the emotional heat of the average Joplin song and are praised for their passion. Joplin does it and shes criticized for her weakness.
Joplins talent was worthy of the Greeks. Feminists have often been uncomfortable with what they think is Joplins lack of artifice. They take for granted that she was singing about herself and her relationships, and not about men and women and their relationships. The comfortable distance artists like Clapton and Jagger put between themselves and their personal lives isn't always obvious in Joplins music. Her between-song rapping as captured on the concert albums could seem embarrassingly truthful, but the raps weren't necessarily true. Anything a singer says between songs has to be considered suspect - fictional elaboration. Joplin seemed to capture too perfectly the painful moments when things are going profoundly wrong in a relationship: the games, the head-trips, and the humiliation. She was the musical equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman film, which is why she was forced to qualify, as an act of defense, her soul music as Kosmic. The Kosmic blues - not the blues, blues. Feminists have missed the point that men have responded just as certainly as women have to Joplin's passion. If there were aspects of seventies/eighties feminist thinking that might have enlightened Joplin, no doubt she would have come to terms with these ideas in her art. Whether she chose a Dworkin mode, a Paglia mode, or something in between, she was enough of an artist to have made it interesting.
Janis Joplins first album without Big Brother Ive Got Dem Ol Kosmic Blues Again Mama is a great album. Its release in 1969 was marred by the politics mentioned above. Many West Coast critics considered Joplins sudden departure from Big Brother an act of treachery, and many of the critics who disliked Big Brother, suddenly wanted them back. They attacked the Kosmic Blues Band as being less than Big Brother, even outright shoddy. Sorry, but the charge doesnt stick because were talking about Luis Gasca, Terry Clements, Snooky Flowers, Lonnie Castille, Maury Baker, Gabriel Mekler, Richard Kermode and Sam Andrews. Joplin sings beautifully on this record. With the exception of a cover of the Bee Gees "To Love Somebody," every song on Kosmic Blues is a classic despite the musical fuzziness around the edges. Sam Andrews reverbed guitar wash blending with the horns on "Work Me Lord" is as moving as Michael Bloomfield's work on "One Good Man." On "Work Me Lord, " Joplin accepts pain as destiny, as tribulation. The horns and Andrews harmony playing are regal. The elegant horn breaks on "As Good as You Been to This World" easily cuts Motown, and the loose sprawl of San Francisco big band, is a legitimate counter part to the tight Stax recordings. You seldom hear this kind of horny kinetics anymore, although the musical interaction never goes as far as it probably should for a girl who was singing rock, as much as soul. (The Full Tilt Boogie Band used on Pearl would not forget their rock and pop roots, which would make them more suitable for Janis.) The "Kosmic" blues Joplin was talking about is presented in her dialogue with God on "Work Me Lord;" its there in her evocation of time passing slowly on "Little Girl Blue" and the bands chord coloring; its there is her masterful recasting of "Ball and Chain" on the title track, where pain almost metamorphoses into anger with an exploding dynamic that hints at violence before cooling back down to uneasy resignation. "Try" is sexual incantation, a fevered, lusty romp that is flattering in its determination to win a sexual/emotional prize. With all three of her bands Big Brother and the Holding Company, Kosmic Blues Band, and the Full Tilt Boogie Band the dynamics were worked hard. It was mandatory that tempos fluctuated, that volume swelled to explosive levels, only to come crashing down to earth in bitterness, or stopping suddenly in fainting disbelief, a catching of emotion before it all got too deadly. These dynamics, which are often hard to capture in the studio, worked largely because Joplins voice was so convincing. When the band went down, she took it into convincing emotional terrain, when the music escalated it was because the emotion was escalating. Every move the band made was reciprocated by a change in the emotional meaning Joplin was imparting. When people say subtle, they often mean bland or boring. With her melismatic chants, her sweaty determination, her pleading conviction, her heart-rending screams, her sly understanding of male role-playing, her staccato playfulness, her unflagging conviction, Joplin could bring experience and inner turmoil to life right in front of you eyes in way that made even good blues singers seem perfunctory, and made other r&b singers seem rushed and superficial. Joplin had a wonderfully musical voice, and despite its rough edges; she remains one of rocks greatest voices.
What would she have done when r&b became old hat? Something else, probably not as good, like Aretha Franklin, for instance? Or would she have sustained a more pop oriented style line Joe Cocker or Tina Turner (both of whom have gruffness and a limited range that dog their voices a bit?) Or would she have found a completely different way to express herself, like Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder did in their later careers? Was her voice really on its last go round on Pearl, as some people have suggested (if so, she would have been the first singer to completely lose a voice, so the idea is doubtful.) Or would she have backed off a bit and found different avenues to travel down, like most singers? What is certain is I Got Dem Ole Kosmic Blues Again, Mama, Cheap Thrills, Pearl, Janis Joplin in Concert and Farewell Song are five out of a perfect five. (The first Big Brother album on Mainstream is low budget and embryonic; Joplin is cast in a marginal role and hadnt quite found her voice. The Janis soundtrack has a disc of acoustic cover tunes not too well performed, along with a few rare live cuts, only a couple of which are interesting. The box set is great.)
As Ezra Pound pointed out, all ages are contemporaneous. Nobody sounded like Big Brother and Janis Joplin then and nobody sounds like Big Brother and Janis Joplin now. But the post-Joplin recorded work by Big Brother and the Holding Company Be a Brother and How Hard It Is never quite found a focus given the disparate contributions of the band members. Unlike other San Francisco bands (Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead,) democratization didnt quite jell. Given the high quality of a tune like "Heartbreak People," Nick Gravinites might have pulled the band together, given enough time in the lead vocal spot. But that was not to be. They are a class act now, and if you have a chance to see the nineties version of Big Brother and the Holding Company, don't miss them.
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