JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE
Director: Amy J. Berg
review by Andrew Darlington
My daughter teases the question, in the dayglo San Fran psychedelic swirl, why is it I prefer Grace Slick to Janis Joplin - because Grace is prettier? Well - Grace's piercing laser-bright beauty makes for a persuasive argument, but no. Grace wrote. Janis - largely, didn't. She's merely an awesome force of nature. But in 1966 'chicks' were not supposed to act that way, hoarse and sweating, insistent and foot-stamping, demanding and whisky-rough, frantic and erotic, but on her own terms. It was Janis who faced the contradiction of the gender-defying chanteuse, redefining the feminine stereotypes, while embracing the traditional female blues persona of the eternal loser. She was a re-invented woman for the new era.
This DVD investigates the reality behind the image, using a blood-trail of archive clips - photos from her scrapbook, letters and clippings, illuminated by new interviews with musicians, and family members - younger siblings Laura and Michael. Telling how Janis was born in Port Arthur, Texas at 09:45 on 19th January 1943, and spent her first 17 summers as an awkward misfit outsider, a trouble-prone beatnik in the repressed uptight 1950s, compensating for her homely ugly-duckling social exclusion by acquiring a love of the blues, listening to Lead Belly 78rpms, Odetta, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. She sang in Austin hootenannies for free beer, then hitchhikes to San Francisco as part of the great proto-hippie Haight-Ashbury exodus, doing solo floor-spots in bars and North Beach folk clubs on her first visit, retreating home a meths-freak. Until, on her second trip she joins Big Brother & The Holding Company.
There was a Big Brother before Janis, and after Janis. The band was formed in 1965 by country-blues guitarist turned bass-player Pete Albin, with jazz-literate lead and rhythm-guitarists Sam Andrews and James Gurly, and 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.
As journalist Lillian Roxon notes "she lopes about, dressed like a dockside tart, funny little feathered hats, ankle bracelets, sleazy satins. Her hooker clothes, she calls them with a hooker laugh. And she drinks. Drinks - think of that - in a drug generation. She drinks Southern Comfort; a 24-year-old chick singer with the habits of another decade." Janis is curses, tequila and sex, to watch her growling and stomping live is to mainline on aphrodisiacs direct through the gut. But, of course, there were narcotics too. Unhappy, in conflict with herself, she was scared of drugs, yet drawn to them.
Released in the 1967 August 'summer of love' Big Brother & The Holding Company(Mainstream) neatly catches the vibe of the time with each group-member's face framed in the stylised petal of an ornate flower. Although the album illustrates their best work together as a solid unit - despite the Columbia reissue adding a 'featuring Janis Joplin' cover-flash, it was re-mastered from an acetate the group were less than happy with. There are two songs credited to Janis, but the biggest - Down On Me (lifted as a single that hit US #42), is a trad freedom song she adapts with depoliticised more upbeat lyrics, "believe in your brother, have faith in man, help each other, honey, if you can, because it looks like everybody in this whole round world, is down on me." Not that adapting trad songs is necessarily bad, everybody from Bob Dylan to the Animals was doing it, and using the template helps reinforce her familiarity with folk-blues roots.
But there's a weird interview-clip of early Pink Floyd. Before the internet, news travels slow... The Floyd imagine their free-form playing is influenced by the LSD-laced west-coast scene, as it was news-reported in the music press and hyper-inflated by underground magazines. Yet when they finally get to the west coast and see those groups live, they find "Big Brother & The Holding Company were just a blues band!" Which they were, but she makes for a mean blues singer and looks the part, with her extravagant hats, trailing draperies, tangled hair and glasses, while their debut album shows a rolling roughness around the obvious excitement of her voice, which Columbia - who subsequently sign them, are twitchy about chancing on record again.
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 Chainand 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 #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-advert propelled its reissue to #9 on the UK chart in 1992. Janis' blues is screaming three-octave primal energy, shrieking pleas for love and security, desperate for delivery from some terrible, urgent, but not entirely unpleasant, physical pain, until - transcending subtlety, the emotional therapy of the performance transforms itself into self-willed triumph.
Compared to previous white artists - say, Dusty Springfield, her rawness is stunning. But she loses out against - say, Tina Turner's dynamism with the Ike Turner Band. And if Janis is the "white Aretha Franklin"... why not simply listen to Aretha? The Rolling Stones take Bobby Womack's Valentinos' song It's All Over Now and completely reconstruct it, tightening and re-arranging it unrecognisably, in the same way that they reinterpret Arthur Alexander's You'd Better Move On. Ball And Chain was both written and originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton. And while Janis' respect and admiration for the artist is obvious - guitarist James Gurley recounts how she saw Big Mama performing the song in a San Francisco bar, she was doing her best to replicate, not reinvent that buzz. Yet she realises her own limits, "all I've got now is strength," she admits.
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, 8th 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 #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 12-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.
She has a unique vocal talent, but it's one that's also allied with ambition. Part-fuelled on revenge at the hometown small-minds that plagued her first 17 summers, there's a touching sequence where she returns to Port Arthur to attend her school reunion. Intended as a triumphal 'look at me, I'm a big star' in-your-face to all the cruel tormentors of her teenage years, she finds her gold discs mean nothing in shifting their perception of the Little Girl Blue, flouncing in her feather boa and flamboyant hats, she's once a freak, always a freak.
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.
Leonard Cohen's song Chelsea Hotel #2 - "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, you were talking so brave and so sweet, giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street" is about his encounter with her. David Crosby tells how Janis attacks Jim Morrison with a bottle at a Calabasas party, after she'd had one-off alcohol-fuelled sex with the Lizard King. She had friends and lovers of both sexes who cared about her. The Dead's 'Pigpen' McKernan, Country Joe McDonald, David Niehaus - an American she met in Rio de Janeiro, Peggy Caserta (who wrote Going Down With Janis, 1973), and TV chat-show host Dick Cavett who talks wistfully about her. But, when forced to choose, it's narcotics that win out every time. A lethal combination of emotional and commercial pressures that wreak a terrible toll, and she died of heroin OD 4th October 1970, in Hollywood's Landmark Hotel.
Pearl became a #1 album, spawning a #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 albums against Amy's arguably cleverer more jazz-literate single mature CD. Comparisons are odious, but sometimes helpful.