The Janis Fund
It's a lucky thing so many rockers die young, because a big chunk of the music industry is dedicated to making money off past greats presently residing in pine boxes or decorative vases. And right now, it's Janis Joplin's turn to be resurrected.
This summer, VH1 placed Joplin, who perished after a heroin overdose in October 1970 at age 27, in the number-three spot on its "100 Greatest Women of Rock" list, immediately after Tina Turner and just before Bonnie Raitt. A week or two later, the stage musical Love, Janis debuted in Chicago following a successful engagement in Cleveland -- and word has it that the production is Broadway-bound. And shortly thereafter, Legacy, Columbia Records' reissue arm, put out expanded, remastered editions of five Joplin-related albums: 1967's Big Brother & the Holding Company, the 1968 Big Brother platter Cheap Thrills, 1969's I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! and 1971's Pearl, both Joplin headliners, and the posthumous collection Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits. The first four of these platters are also part of Box of Pearls, a boxed set that includes Rare Pearls, an EP featuring several tracks unavailable elsewhere.
But rather than establishing Joplin's genius beyond all doubt, these CDs -- which join Janis Joplin With Big Brother and the Holding Company Live at Winterland '68, initially released by Legacy last year -- suggest that the Joplin cult is built more on iconography than on good records. There's no question that Joplin is an important figure in rock and roll, if only because she established a tough-but-tender archetype for countless frontwomen who followed her. But she was neither a songwriter of much note nor a conceptual visionary who changed the way we understand popular music, and today, the wild vocal histrionics that wowed acid-gobblers during the late Sixties and early Seventies often seem more grating than revelatory. Of the four newly available non-compilation discs, two of them are flat-out lousy, and a third is more of a time-capsule piece than a consistently pleasurable listen. And while the fourth, Pearl, is actually pretty impressive, its quality has almost as much to do with the presence of a good backing band and intelligent production as it does with Joplin herself. Far from showing those too young to have been around when Janis still trod the land of the living how much they missed, the long-players may well cause subsequent generations to view Joplin as someone more interesting to hear about than to hear.
Of course, setting aside biography to concentrate on the music is especially difficult in Joplin's case; the graceful, dramatic arch of her life story seems to have been constructed by an ancient Greek tragedian. She grew up in Port Arthur, an oil-refinery town in Texas that was hardly ideal for someone with artistic impulses. She felt ostracized and picked on by the local louts and was plagued by insecurities about her musical talent. As noted by writer Jaan Uhelszki in the liner notes to Greatest Hits, she first traveled to San Francisco in 1963 but returned before long to spend more unhappy time in Port Arthur. Finally, in 1966, she returned to the Bay Area and fell in with the members of Big Brother and the Holding Company, who had a gig as the house band for the Avalon Ballroom, which was managed by pioneer promoter Chet Helms. The group, originally dominated by guitarists Sam Andrews and James Gurley, was loud and undisciplined, stretching out folk, blues and pop constructions with screaming guitar solos and wild jams that sometimes lasted even longer than their drugs did. The result was what became known as psychedelia, and the addition of Joplin, an emotionally volcanic hippie chick, was just what the dealer ordered. Along with the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother, with Janis in tow, became exemplars of the new musical order.
Too bad so little of this spirit comes across in Big Brother & the Holding Company, first put out by the ironically monikered Mainstream imprint. As Andrews points out on the reissue's liner (co-written by Jud Cost), "The guitar sound...was strictly out of the 1950s. But we didn't know how to ask for what we wanted." True enough, the production, by Bob Shad, is tinny and weak, without any of the oomph achieved by Bob Dylan and other edgy folk-rockers of the period. Even Joplin, who was difficult to bury in any mix, frequently sounds underwhelming. Worse, much of the material would have to improve to reach mediocrity. Sung by Gurley, "Easy Rider" is an embarrassing curio larded with lyrics such as "I've got a horse/He lives in a tree/Watches Huckleberry Hound on his TV"; "Caterpillar," from the pen of bassist Pete Albin, is the lamest kind of pop novelty; and "Blindman," another showcase for the boys, touches on garage rock without getting nearly dirty enough. Joplin, for her part, frequently comes off like a blues-mama wannabe, screeching the title of "Women Is Losers" as if diction alone could establish her credibility and sounding hardly different from countless poseurs who arose in her wake on "The Last Time," a single tacked onto the album. She comes off best on "Down on Me," in part because she sometimes leavens her trademark oversinging with a seldom-employed part of her creative ammo: subtlety.
There's precious little of this last characteristic on Cheap Thrills, which initially hit stores just after Joplin's popular breakthrough at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Wrapped in a famous cover illustration by R. Crumb, the disc is frequently ludicrous, in large part because the men of Big Brother are amateurish players utterly convinced of their instrumental prowess. Many of the solos, including the prolonged excursion in "Combination of the Two," are monumentally dumb, and so is the conclusion of "Oh, Sweet Mary," during which a Brother wails something along the lines of "hut-nuh, hut-nuh, hut-nuh, hut-nuh, ooooooh YEAAAAAH!" Joplin, too, generally employs the too-much-is-just-enough method, rendering George Gershwin's "Summertime" in a bizarre wheeze and tearing apart "Piece of My Heart," one of the few songs in the Holding Company's catalogue that still stands up. And that's not to mention the nine-minute-plus "Ball and Chain," the dippiest sort of tour de force imaginable. Perhaps some people can still take this stuff seriously, but even those who can't will probably find Cheap Thrills enjoyable. It's like a high school picture of your parents that mutated from cool to hilarious long before you were born.
I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! isn't so lucky. Chockablock with unimaginative horn charts and lifeless background vocals, the settings conceived by producer Gabriel Mekler aim at a sophistication that's frequently at odds with Joplin's undisciplined wailing. On tracks like "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and "As Good as You've Been to This World," introduced by a nearly two-and-a-half-minute brass fantasia that makes Blood, Sweat and Tears seem like Ornette Coleman by comparison, Joplin seems like a ruffian crashing her own party. The attempt to turn "To Love Somebody," by Barry and Robin Gibb, into a towering soul scorcher along the lines of "When a Man Loves a Woman" comes across as utterly forced, and even "Kozmic Blues," which became a mainstay of Joplin's repertoire, is limited by an overly ornate arrangement. Joplin slices through "Blues" like a laser through cream cheese, and it's an impressive display -- but when she tries the same tack on a bonus-track cover of Dylan's "Dear Landlord," her unwillingness to back off a bit makes her seem as if she's abusing the song more than singing it. On most of the recording, she uses only two gears: first and fifth.
Pearl, which was finished after Joplin's death, works far better because producer Paul Rothchild, who also worked with Jim Morrison, another of the early Seventies' most famous cadavers, keeps things simpler, dispensing with the horns and other filigree in favor of more straightforward accompaniment. The players on the disc, dubbed Full Tilt Boogie, include a couple of refugees from the Kosmic Blues Band, but Rothchild makes certain that they support the star of the show. Just as important, he gets Joplin to shape her performances with greater care, understanding that her roaring will seem even more awesome if it's preceded by the occasional purr. That doesn't mean Joplin is straitjacketed; "Cry Baby" kicks off with what's arguably her most concentrated shriek ever. But on "Move Over," credited to Joplin, she lets the riffing do some of the work for her, and her more deliberate approach to "A Woman Left Lonely" and Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" (her biggest hit) allows the pieces to build, not fizzle out. Finally, "Mercedes Benz," a silly little ditty that Joplin sings all by her lonesome, transcends its novelty status by allowing her to display a sense of humor that was usually buried under delirium. The tune's jokes don't always hit pay dirt -- why must she make amends because her friends all drive Porsches? -- but Joplin's boisterousness puts them over anyhow, implying in the process that she had more to share with her audience than agony.
The strength of Pearl makes Greatest Hits superfluous; five of the twelve songs on the reconstituted version of the latter come from the former, and Hits would have been better if even more had been included. But just because Joplin came close to fulfilling her promise shortly before her passing doesn't mean that she would have scored countless more triumphs like it had she steered clear of hypodermics. In many ways, the contemporary with whom she had the most in common was Joe Cocker. Like her, he had a crazy stage persona and a striking voice, but he was dependent on good material and sympathetic musicians and producers for his success -- and when he ran out a few years later, he was reduced to crooning bad duets for the adult-contemporary crowd. Joplin might not have suffered that fate, but it isn't difficult to picture her at a neighborhood dive in Anytown U.S.A. circa the Nineties singing about Bobby McGee for the handful of old-timers who still remember when she was the Bride of the Beatniks.
Instead, the manner and timing of Joplin's death turned her into a modern martyr, and so she remains. And in the end, it doesn't really matter if her music doesn't always live up to her legend. Chances are good that the people who are buying won't notice anyway.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.