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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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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