ME AND JANIS JOPLIN
DVD review of:
‘JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE’
(2016) Fusion Media Sales Ltd DOG340, Sony DADC
There was a Big Brother before Janis, and after Janis. Formed in 1965 by country-blues guitarist turned bass-player Pete Albin, with jazz-literate lead and rhythm-guitarists Sam Andrews and James Gurly, then drummer Dave Getz. Before Janis they were jamming around the Chet Helms Family Dog commune, ‘riding the same wave’ as Quicksilver Messenger Service or the Dead. Her confrontational vocals force tighter song-structures onto their loose improvisations, while their electric amp-battery forces her voice to compete, to strut and move like another instrument. Self-taught ‘primitive’ musicians, what their raucous Rock-Blues amalgam lacks in conventional dexterity is collectively balanced out by their tuned-in freedom, and by their links to the New Generation consciousness for which it was created. Magnified into Bay area gurus, it’s within this kaleidoscopic bohemia that Janis found the community she’d been seeking, audiences readjust their mindset to hers, accepting her non-judgementally on her own terms.
With its counter-culture sleeve-cartoon art by Robert Crumb, despite its musical flaws, ‘Cheap Thrills’ (Columbia, 1968), catches Janis at her peak. “Ball And Chain” and “Piece Of My Heart” display her power both as singer, and as radical symbol. When Elvis recorded “Hound Dog” he was taking a woman-centred song that Leiber and Stoller had penned for Big Mama Thornton, but he stripped away her sophisticated innuendo and retains only the volcanic wildness. With “Piece Of My Heart”, writers Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns’ song had originally been cut by Erma Franklin, and was never bettered. Like Elvis, Janis takes the emotional edge to tantrum-level extremes, while losing the emotional fluidity. Sam Andrews adds the distorted guitar solos that give it a sufficient psychedelic touch to shove it up to no.12 on the US Pop chart, but it’s a slight trade-off. Erma Franklin lived long enough to see her own track vindicated when its inclusion in a Levi’s TV-ad propelled its reissue to no.9 on the UK chart in 1992.
The group first do a histrionic “Ball And Chain” at ‘Monterey Pop’ – where they perform twice, and are featured doing the song on the 1968 festival docu-movie. The version they do on ‘Cheap Thrills’ was recorded live at Bill Graham’s ‘Fillmore East’ 8 March 1968 – or possibly at the ‘Winterland Ballroom’, where Janis milks the song into dramatic overkill. Although the album adds dubbed audience noise, this is the only track truly recorded in a live setting. On the DVD there’s also studio footage of them doing George Gershwin’s jazz standard “Summertime”, with back-chat, laughter and re-takes. It’s a song most usually associated with Billie Holiday’s beguiling interpretation, while Billy Stewart’s bizarre over-the-top vocals took it to a US no.10 as then-recently as 1966. Again, Janis takes it at full rev, crumpling and extemporising it into nine-minutes of exaggeratedly tortured shapes.
Her sole writing contribution to the album – “Turtle Blues”, is a convincing piano-led bar-room twelve-bar Blues, with the autobiographical reveal ‘I guess I’m just like a turtle, that’s hidin’ underneath its hardened shell.’ Saying that beneath the bravado, Janis was emotionally fragile, needy and vulnerable. It closes on the positive ‘I’m gonna take good care of Janis, yeah, honey, ain’t no-one gonna dog me down.’ Unfortunately, in this instance she’s unable to follow her own advice. For hers is not a cool intellectual art-appraisal, what’s in her voice is also in her feet, hips and gut.
Janis couldn’t quite believe her own celebrity, until she saw herself on the cover of ‘Time’. So that in late 1968 she quit the group, perhaps unwisely persuaded she’d outgrown their collective potential. ‘She’s hot shit. The band is sloppy’ she jives. Instead, they record ‘Be A Brother’ (1970), with the original members augmented by Nick Gravenites and David Schallock, achieving a smoother sound-structure that suffers from a Joplin-shaped hole. While she goes on to work with admittedly more competent musicians and a Stax-style horn-section – in the Kozmic Blues Band, and then the tighter Full Tilt Boogie, where, although her vocal technique displays finer control, the old euphoria is never quite recaptured. Both ‘Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama’ (1969) and posthumously-released ‘Pearl’ (1971) are fine records, but they lack the joyous intensity of Big Brother’s lurching bite.
The history of the Blues is littered with casualties. It comes integral with the job. As a solo star, Janis found herself the focus of greater expectations while deprived of ‘Big Brothers’ close family life-support system. When the press attacks her – even the counter-culture press, she’s wounded. Timelessly both vulnerably young, used and world-aged, she howls back at what she sees as ‘NME’s betrayal when they dole out a poor review. There’s a post-gig heroin fix after her Albert Hall show. And she’s shoved onto the ‘Woodstock’ stage lost in a narcotic high.
‘Pearl’ became a no.1 album, spawning a no.1 single with “Me And Bobby McGee”. The narrative self-destructive love of two hippie wastrels meshes her DNA, and her mature interpretative ability is flawless, evidence of an artistic growth that promises so much more, but again – it’s a Kris Kristofferson song. Although it might now be most associated with her version, it had previously been done by its author, as well as by Roger Miller, Gordon Lightfoot, Kenny Rogers’ First Edition, and later by the mighty Grateful Dead. Yet the acapella “Mercedes Benz”, the last track she ever recorded, was her own song, written with Michael McClure.
If Janis Joplin is Rock’s first wild woman, she’s far from the last. Comparing Janis Joplin to Grace Slick is like comparing Amy Winehouse to Adele… a false analogy. You can’t really balance Adele’s in-control three well-written well-constructed album’s against Amy’s arguably cleverer more jazz-literate single mature CD. Comparisons are odious, but sometimes helpful.
‘JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE’ (May 2016, DVF Fusion Media Sales Ltd Dogwoof DOG340) Director: Amy J Berg. With Janis Joplin, Cat Power (Chan Marshall, narrator), Kris Kristofferson, Juliette Lewis. Bonus features include ‘Female Lovers’, ‘Home Life’, ‘Influences’ and others. 103-minutes
Featured on website:
‘SOUNDCHECKS MUSIC REVIEW’
(22 May 2016)