Saturday, October 02, 2010

Janis Joplin, a Blue deeper

John Lennon received Janis Joplin’s gift for his 30th birthday after she died on October 4, 1970.  Along with Mercedes Benz, her recording of Happy Trails to send to Lennon for his birthday about a week away, was the last song she would sing.  Forever plagued with a poor self image and filled with distrust and doubt, Janis died without knowing that her songs would live on, to be discovered and re-discovered, to be revered and imitated, for generations to come.  

Pearl (Exp)Essential Janis Joplin

My first exposure to the music of Janis was as a kid at Trincas in Kolkata on nights they’d allow kids in, while Pam Crain sang Move Over and Summertime, and then as a teenager listening to Anjum Katyal at Calcuta School of Music with Nondon Bagchi and friends singing Cry, Cry Baby.  I was curious to hear what these gut wrenching renditions sounded like in the original.  Woodstock on a Sunday morning at Metro was the first time I saw and heard her.  It was part of a much more overwhelming experience but it remained etched in my mind, and my friends and I set out looking for the music of Janis Joplin.

She broke into the spotlights with the San Francisco band Big Brother and the Holding Company. They were already an established band and with Janis lending her voice, the act just got groovier.  Her stay with Big Brother was short and at the end of 1968, Janis left the group and went solo with the Kozmic Blues Band as her backup.

Cheap Thrills (Exp)I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!Janis Joplin - Final 24: Her Final Hours

When I first got hold of the Cheap Thrills album, I had never seen any album art that came close to it.  For those not familiar with LPs, these were large hard board sleeves, often with additional sleeves, printed or plain, paper or polythene, inside, and within that lay the black vinyl record, with its label which also was often used as part of the artists creative expression.  Like CD covers and booklets, these albums were another avenue to express what the band or singer wanted to convey through the album itself.  During the 60s and 70s, these album covers often became very strong statements of personal belief.  We had seen the likes of Sticky Fingers and Bitches Brew, but this was something else.  Straight out of pages of EC Comics, the cover art by Robert Crumb of Fritz the Cat fame (Harvey Kurtzman actually published Crumb’s work at one point), set the tone by demolishing any expectation that one might have had.  The music set out as standard 60s psychedelic rock till Janis sang.  You sit up and wonder what on earth is this woman doing?  

She could take a song and make it her own in an inimitable way, torturing the words and the melody to give in to her own personal anguish. Her live recordings are my favorite (Cheap Thrills is not live, just made to sound that way for some strange reason), and you can feel your hair rise as you hear her shrieking and wailing the lyrics as if in doing that she was expiating lifetimes of karma.  Her version of Summertime (all her versions of it) is the finest I have ever heard, and it brings tears to my eyes every single time.  You just know that she is singing about her own pain.  Another song she made her absolute own was Erma Franklin's (sister of Aretha, in case it don't ring a bell) Piece of My Heart.  Big Mama Thornton's (on whom she modeled her vocal styling) Ball and Chain was another song that she interpreted so intensely that when she did the encore at Woodstock, she just sang Ball and Chain over again, to rapt attention followed by thunderous applause.  

Time magazine called Joplin “probably the most powerful singer to emerge from the white rock movement,” and Richard Goldstein, in Vogue magazine, wrote that Joplin was “the most staggering leading woman in rock… she slinks like tar, scowls like war… clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave… 
Born January 19, 1943, Janis grew into the world of blues and white boys trying to imitate the black musicians. Always insecure over her appearance and her acceptance by her peers, she belted out charttoppers and lived the best life her life would allow her to know. Her friendships with Kris Kristoferson (whose Me and Bobby McGee is better known as a Janis song) and Seth Morgan brought her no solace though Seth brought her all the stash she needed, and they even got engaged just a month before she overdosed to death.  She sought the perfect love, and died without knowing she had already found it in her music.

Here is my 2011 cake for her, psychedelic like her automobiles and bikes, bluer than her saddest moments, and with lots of good green stuff in it.

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1 comment:

  1. Lovely post. It is a great feeling to know that music that was made half a world away can make people happy. I really wanted to like Janis Joplin as her name was sandwiched between 60s icons like Beatles and Hendrix, but I found that I could only admire her from a distance. The main problem I had was the over-emoting of some of the songs she sang, sacrificing subtlety and nuance that her original blues idols perfected, but that is just me. May be I should rediscover this woman's work again. Cake looks gorgeous. Cheers.


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