Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Wails From the Crypt (An Occasional Series): Janis Joplin

[So I was browsing through some back issues of the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review the other day, and this piece on a Janis Joplin movie struck me as holding up rather better than a lot of my old stuff. In retrospect, I think I was a little too dismissive of the feminist critque, but hey, I was a kid; on the other hand, I think I nailed the then unimagined The Rose for the bullshit that it would be rather presciently. In any case, with nary a word changed, here's how it ran in the May 1975 issue.]


IT's more than a bit difficult to write about Janis Joplin without getting mired in the rhetoric of sexual politics, but I'm going to try because the new film about her -- titled, appropriately enough, simply Janis -- manages (if only by accident) to pull that little trick off. It's a flawed film, to be sure, not really a documentary and not really a concert flick either, but I'm told that its schizophrenia is just a reflection of the way the project was researched. It was supposed to be a compilation of concert footage, but along the way the filmmakers kept unearthing all sorts of fascinating material and they couldn't make up their minds.

Actually, I'm rather grateful for that. Had they really done the documentary number -- interviewing the people who were close to her who, from all accounts, were a rather venal and insensitive lot -- we would have been forced to confront all sorts of larger issues, which I think would have been brutally cruel to her memory. The woman is dead, and theorizing about her death, attempting to turn her somehow into a symbol, is both a violation of her privacy and terribly dehumanizing. Somehow it cheapens her very real personal agonies if you try to make them into something else, something representative of some currently fashionable philosophical position you may be pushing. We are also spared, thank God, the kind of morbid cult mongering such a documentary would have inevitably produced -- the Judy Garland-ization of Janis -- although, on the basis of the audience reactions I witnessed, such a process may already be underway and out of the control of the filmmakers in any event.

My own feeling is that what destroyed her had at least as much to do with an artistic decline helped along by the media as it did with her personal problems or the role of women in society. Those hewing to the feminist line on her case might reflect on the parallels in the career of Joe Cocker. Like Janis, he was built by the media into something other than what he really was -- a singer in a rock-and-roll band -- and forced to be the new Ray Charles, just as Janis was cast as the new Bessie Smith. These days, Joe is falling apart, on stage and off, in a manner heartbreakingly reminiscent of the latter days of Joplin.

At any rate, all this comes across very strongly in the film, especially in the scenes with Big Brother, who incidentally were the most criminally underrated band in rock history. They provided the perfect instrumental equivalent to the things Janis was doing vocally, and the music they made together, despite what we were reading at the time, had almost nothing to do with the subtlety of the blues, but instead with the anarchic and joyous (the key word) clatter of rock-and-roll. The Monterey Pop sequence, with Janis wailing "Ball and Chain," bears this out. The performance, despite what the song is supposed to be about, is nothing if not celebratory; the energy is all directed outwad and it's breathtaking. Later, of course, we see the band in the studio [recording what became Cheap Thrills], and producer John Simon is trying to turn them into musicians. This particular segment (shot by D.A. Pennebaker, probably for what her manager Albert Grossman visualized as another Don't Look Back) is especially telling. The band is listening to a playback and Simon is geting really annoyed at his lack of success in getting them to conform to his sterile musical conceptions. What finally does it for him is that Janis is having none of it. Rather than listening, she's simply babbling away energetically about whatever it was that had happened to her that day. Unfortunately, the John Simon's of the world eventually won out; Big Brother was fired, and for the rest of the film we watch Janis with a succession of predictably competent back-up musicians who, with their very anonymity and lack of feeling, forced Janis to strip herself naked onstage in an attempt to summon up something like the excitement that had come so easily and spontaneously in the days when she was just one of five loveable hippies making undiscplined but infectious noise.

The film does, however, without really trying to, convey the feeling of disintegration on a psychological rather than musical level, and there is one sequence that will haunt me. Janis is on the Dick Cavett Show, and she is witty, brash, and very much in control. She projects the image we all had of her -- one that was of course a total lie -- with such panache that it's next to impossible not to believe in it. In the course of the conversation, she mentions that she's about to attend her high school class' tenth-year reunion, and she seems to truly relish the idea of returning in triumph to a place where some basically creepy people had worked hard at making her unhappy. Ah, sweet revenge! Then we cut immediately to the reunion itself, where Janis is being inteviewed by a local TV reporter; she's obviously very high, and the facade is beginning to crumble. In the midst of some reminiscences there is a moment -- brief, but unmistakable -- when she is suddenly again the little girl nobody had asked to the prom, smarting from an entire adolescence of rejection, and for just that brief moment she is on the verge of breaking down completely. You see the realization of this in her face, and she pulls back, becoming the Tough Mama again. But you know you've just glimpsed someone almost literally on the brink. It's really rather horrifying, especially in the light of what was about to happen to her.

I have my own memories of Janis -- the first perfomance with Big Brother in New York, which was one of the most exciting rock-and-roll shows I've ever had the good fortune to attend -- and I prefer them to the kind of visions the films presents. But for the moment anyway I think the film will do. It distills an individual, her music, and even a whole era with remarkable power, and it has a great deal to say about the essential callousness of too many in the world of rock, on both sides of the stage. (In what other field of endeavor, after all, do journalists publish polls in which people vote on which star will be the next to kick the bucket?) Far better a movie like this than the kind of exploitive fictionalization you know Hollywood must be preparing at this very moment. Janis isn't a great piece of cinema, and I certainly can't recommend it as a particularly important musical document (for that we'll have to wait until Lou Adler and Pennebaker open up their vaults and give us the complete Big Brother set from Monterey) but I suggest you see it anyway.

A brief postscript: A check over at Amazon reveals that for whatever reason there is no video of this available. Odd, that.


Peter said...

A great column, Steve and, yes, it holds up brilliantly, not at ALL dated. It deserves anthologizing.

I share most of your views of Janis Joplin but not all of them. Despite Cheap Thrills being far and away her greatest (not to say "only worthwhile") album I can't see her being able to continue with Big Brother even if Grossman and Columbia had let her. She and the band were headed over the high side by then. Blame it on my Calvinist upbringing but this is the best example of the Doctrine of Predestination in my lifetime. She was a basket case before anybody knew her name.

In fact, you could argue that Cheap Thrills captured something the other two great San Francisco albums (Moby Grape and Surrealistic Pillow - did you have to ask?) missed almost entirely: the kind of inspired incompetence that a new generation of bands would claim they invented ten years later. Instead of punks who had deliberately thrown out all frame of reference they were folkies who had been given the keys to the music store by Bob Dylan. But the effect was the same: a joyfully ugly noise unto the Lord.

But I don't see Big Brother's blocky chords, stiff rhythms, and aimless, super-loud soloing holding up over time. I think in the end Albert Grossman and Clive Davis were right. With decent, conventional musicians she would self-destruct (as you so eloquently described it here) but she'd die a star, and her music would inspire the generations. Staying with Big Brother she'd have ended up like, oh, Maria Muldaur. If she'd lived, which you seem to think she would have. I'm not so sure.

spot check billy said...

Interesting that this film doesn't seem to be available, but I'm pretty sure I've seen just about every scene you described used by someone else. I guess there just isn't that much footage of Janis, so it keeps getting recycled.

What someone said of Brian Jones is just as true of Janis (and Jimi) - if they were alive today, we'd all be surprised. What's amazing is that the equally doomed Micheal Jackson outlived them all by twenty odd years.

steve simels said...

Pete: Thanks for the kind words, and I take your point about Big Brother, but I think we're both right. Neither of the guitarists may have been a blues player (I remember Mike Bloomfield making fun of them at the time) but what they did was damned effective, and in any case the rhythm section was as pro as any in rock in 1967. IMHO.

Brooklyn Girl said...

What someone said of Brian Jones is just as true of Janis (and Jimi) - if they were alive today, we'd all be surprised. What's amazing is that the equally doomed Micheal Jackson outlived them all by twenty odd years.

You can throw Jim Morrison into the mix.

And "odd" years is right.

I think the difference between all the earlier dead musicians and the recently dead one is that Michael's demons seemed based more in self-loathing than in self-destruction. His performances were also much more programmed and controlled; I'd bet that if you saw him two nights in a row, the show wouldn't vary one bit. Brilliant talent, yes, but no spontaneity, no passion.

As far as Janis and Big Brother are concerned, the band sounded clumsy, but somehow it still worked. And they did give us that great R. Crumb cover ...

Gummo said...

Another fine piece from the archives, steve.

I think the example of Janis & Big Brother also points to another rock-n-roll truism -- the best bands are greater than the sum of their parts. The most famous example would be, of course, the Beatles, none of whom, especially in the beginning, were virtuoso musicians, but put them together and something magical happened.

Janis did make some fine music after she left Big Brother, but when you listen to Cheap Thrills, there's something wonderful going on there that has nothing to do with the quality of the guitar playing (though their arrangement of Summertime is still thrilling), the precision of the rhythm section or even the power of Janis's voice. Try to pull it to pieces and it falls apart; but all together, it's a classic.

Anonymous said...

YOur columns would make a great book

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it all comes together for a little while and magic is created. But it rarely lasts, as in this case. Do we mourn the moment's passing or rejoice it ever happening.


TJWood said...

Big Brother are actually still a band and play numerous dates a year. See their website for details.

I never got to see the movie, but I imagine it is what you said it was. I concur with Anonymous in that some collection of your old SR columns--definitely including this one--is in order. On the subject of Mr. Jackson, while I realize his music doesn't quite fit in with the mission of this blog, I'd be interested to know if you were planning any columns or essays or whatever with any angle on his recent death. If so, and if it's as good as this Joplin piece, we need to be reading it.

steve simels said...


My thoughts on Michael went up at Box Office yesterday. If anybody's still interested.

TMink said...

Steve, I hear you on the Michael post. And may I say how much I appreciate and respect people who are able to critique people from their own side of the aisle.

Rock on.