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Janis Joplin: Voodoo Lady of Rock

by Michael Thomas - Ramparts Magazine

John Cooke had a party a couple of months ago in an iron lung factory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The factory belongs to J.H. Emerson and Company, that’s his uncle. Picture all these people, say a hundred odd, following little red arrows through three floors of hospital supplies, artificial limbs, pleural suction pumps and special rocking beds (they’re for people with polio, John explains) now and then picking up a straggler who has lost his way, counting out ten paces in accordance with the sign stuck to the micro-manipulator, and turning left up tiny wooden staircases. It’s like sneaking in and out of all the doors you ever saw that say "do not enter;" you keep looking over your shoulder and you talk in whispers if at all. Fianally you come to a door with "Spider Man" on it, and that’s where John Cooke lives when he’s in Boston. Inside, there are deviled eggs and chili beans and booze and everybody Jim Kweskin knows in town.

John Cooke, Harvard ‘62-’63, sometime photographer, weekend moviemaker (he was on the Pennebaker crew at Monterey,) refugee guitarist from the Charles River Valley Boys (he’s the one who used to sing "Yes, It Is") has a new gig. He’s the gentleman road manager for Big Brother and the Holding Company. Which means he wakes up the boys in the band and gets them on a plane to Detroit in time for their show, makes sure everybody has a television in his room, and explains to Albert B. Grossman, the group’s manager, just how surprised you feel when you wake up in the morning on a sunny Boston day and find $5,000 worth of equipment was heisted the night before from the Psychedelic Supermarket and there’s two sets to play that night and a concert tomorrow afternoon and you can’t even get into the club because there’s a symposium on the "Boston sound" going on. And it also means getting in some Southern Comfort for the party, and then Janis Joplin grins that San Francisco grin. She grins all the way home when she’s feeling good.

At John Cooke’s party, I was trying to get the last butterscotch out of a Callard and Bowser’s package, but my finger kept slipping on the silver foil and I finally had to tear it open, and Janis Joplin came in, wearing a not-so-brand-new fur pillbox hat, with a fur handbag on her arm and bells jingling against the tight blue silk on her thighs, a quart of Southern Comfort under her arm and beads around her ankle.

"It’s 100 percent proof," she said to someone at the door. Her voice rasps, like she’s got sand in her throat. She’d just come from a concert in Providence, and she was weary, but she was grinning.

"It was groovy. All the kids were, like, hippies."

Her face is pale, almost chalky; but she looks as though she spends a lot of time outdoors; her forehead is furrowed and her cheeks are plump, her hair is raggedy-it’s the kind of face to catch the eye of whoever it is that draws Li’l Orphan Annie, except that Janis’ eyes roam too far and stare too hard. She looks like a beautiful barmaid with beads. She cackles when she laughs.

"We were playing in a club in L.A. (and, you know, we don’t know anybody in L.A.) and we walked into the dressing room, and there’s thousands of empty beer cans and Southern Comfort bottles and whiskey bottles all over the place, and drunks sitting all over the floor, and Leary sitting cross-legged in the middle with his beatific smile. And Peter came lurching over and drunkenly talked to him for about 30 minutes, incomprehensible, and Leary sat there just like a bird, sweet and clear. He was real nice. Did I ever say he wasn’t nice? He didn’t drink, though. But then, we didn’t take acid, did we?"

That’s Peter S. Albin, Gemini, bass player for Big Brother, who wrote a song that begins:

I’m a pterodactyl, I’m a pterodactyl, I’m a pterodactyl, Flying for your love, Flying for your love, Flying for your love, For your love...

He’s always the most gregarious. It was he who somehow got himself locked into an iron lung at the party. A big wooden box it was, like an electric chair with a lid and a plexiglass helmet on top. A bunch of people came to look, one or two blew smoke down his air hole; he looked pretty bashful after a while.

I first saw Big Brother more than a year ago; it was the first time I’d ever been to San Francisco and the first time I’d been to the Fillmore. It was before the hippies became a middle-class phenomenon and a national embarrassment, and Haight Street was not yet the Atlantic City Boardwalk of the underground. It was when, if you’ll forgive the rank nostalgia, a hippie was a hippie and not a Time magazine stringer with a borrowed flower in his hair. It was when the Fillmore still had a little fresh air.

I went to see Howlin’ Wolf in his overalls. But before he came bebopping out with his soulful broom, while I was still trying to find a good place to sit on the floor and take in the light show, Big Brother came on, and somebody I knew from New York gave me the warning: I wouldn’t believe Janis something, he promised; he couldn’t believe her and I wouldn’t believe her, she was fantastic.

Country Joe’s famous last words: Into my life on waves of electric sound, And flashing light, she came...Janis...

Now, the band was ragged, the music manic, overblown and incoherent most of the time; they played fast and loud but nothing much went anywhere-it was an anarchic psychedelic jerk-off. But Janis was, truly, something else. She sang like a rock and roll banshee and leapt about the stage like a dervish. It was the raunchiest, most attacking rhythm and blues singing I’d ever heard; it made the fifteen-year-old kid next to me feel so good he spilled a bottle of orange Day-Glo paint all over my shoes.

"Who’s that?" I asked him, "Oh, that’s Janis Joplin," he said. "Look at your shoes."

She sang like a down-home psychopath. She threw the microphone from hand to hand, she straddled it and threatened to eat it whole; she tossed her head and stamped her foot and punched her thigh and shook her fist at the audience, and she shivered all over. She wasn’t pretty, she was just plain shake-that-thing erotic.

("A sex goddess," said John Cooke) ("You’re fired, John," said Janis)

"Gonna knock ya, rock ya, sock it to ya now!" she sang. It wasn’t a promise, it was more of a threat.

"I think the way that you’re good at anything, I mean I can’t say for anyone else, but I know for me, when I’m singing, I can’t be thinking about my motivation, you know. I can’t be thinking about any kind of bullshit idea like that. I’ve gotta just close my eyes and get inside my head and sing. And when I’m singing, it’s really like a rush, do you know what I mean, it’s such a heavy moment. When it’s gone, it’s, like you can remember it, but you can’t ever be aware of it again until it happens again. And then it’s all there again, and then it goes. It’s, like, just a great moment, you know? It’s like an orgasm, you can’t remember it, but you remember it."

The band came together in 1965, the way bands did in San Francisco that year. Peter spoke to Sam and Sam called Jim, and eveybody knew Chet Helms (because a Family Dog is a band’s best friend,) and David gave up painting for awhile, and they all got together at somebody’s house, and what else would they choose to be called but Big Brother and the Holding Company?

"The name is just a head trip," says Janis. "It doesn’t mean anything. Before I joined the band it was called Big Brother and the Holding Company, and we said as a joke I was Big Brother because I was the girl and the least likely one to be Big Brother. Now people think that’s really true."

Says long tall Sam: "First time I ever met Peter, he had this weird idea for starting a rick group which would speak to all the children of the nation in their own language. I thought, what’s this nut trying to do, what trip is he on?"

They’d all been playing a little rock and roll, a little bluegrass, a little folk music; Sam had even played classical guitar, and Janis was singing a little blues in the bars round about.

"I went to California at a very young and fucked-up stage, about eighteen. I used to sing in a little bar outside of Austin, Texas. Fantastic bar. All kinds of real live hillbillies come in every Saturday night, and everybody brings their guitars and sits around a big wooden table and drinks free beer and plays. I sang Rosie Maddox songs. But I didn’t really sing hard until I got with this band."

They began playing in the ballrooms and the parks, rabid blues-country-freak-rock, if not for all the children of the nation, at least for all their friends and neighbors in the California sun. They even cut a record for Mainstream about that time, but it didn’t get released until after the Monterey Pop Festival. It’s a funky kind of record, it sounds like it was recorded on a six-transitor portable-not too loud so as not to wake the neighbors. Nobody takes any risks, but still, it’s ballsy, you can tell what was going on and there are suggestions of what might have been.

"The reason that the record is so bad is because we were young and naive and we were misproduced and we had no manager and we were, if not ill-advised, not advised at all, and we didn’t know what we were doing and they took advantage of us. They gave us three days to do the whole album, and, like, if we tried to do anything creative in the studio, they would have thrown us out. Then they just held it until, you know, our name got to be big after the Monterey Festival, and then they released it."

Big Brother is a better band now than they were at Monterey-they play better and Janis sings better; and they were better at Monterey than they were when they made their first record. And, with luck, they’re a better band than they were the Friday night in March when Bill Graham decided to bring some San Francisco charisma to New York and christened the Village Theater the Fillmore East. Big Brother got up and set out to fight the battle of Jerico right then and there and lost. They fell victim to their own reputation. What I’m trying to say is, they’re getting better all the time, but, unhappily, they’re getting louder, too, and there’s not much a good girl can do to be heard but scream to be heard, so that Big Brother, at best, walks a thin red line between music and noise. And that night, when the sound was on (and lousy sound it was) they were appalling. She hollered like a fishwife.

"I wanna show ya ,baby, that a woman can be tough ," she sang. I felt like the Feiffer cartoon character who goes up the mountain with a flower and a bell and a joss stick and a pair of crystal spectacles and a Ravi Shankar tape cartridge, all prepared to glimpse eternity in a snowflake, only to find that the pill in his hot little hand is, say, 750 milligrams of Compoz. It was a rude awakening. Any good band plays a down set now and then, but Big Brother does it with what seems like vengeful glee.

"At the beginning of the year we each bought two pounds of speed, see..." says Sam, but they all cry nay.

Janis says: "Like, at a point, it seems to me, at some tenuous point, I wouldn’t be able to say when it was, out attitude towards, like, how we were going to do the songs changed. Where my head is at is that I don’t like to improvise a whole lot. Improvising vocally is very hard, we do put some of that into our songs, I have parts where I improvise, but I’m not going to go on stage for a 45-minute set and just improvise, man. So I want what we play to have, like, well, possibly, you narrow down your range from how good you can be down to where you’re better every time, and you don’t have such a variance. I think the music ought to get to where, like, at your worst, you’re good, and when you’re inspired, you’re much better, you know what I mean. And, in order to get to where you’re at least good, you’ve gotta learn the tune. You can’t rely on inspiration every night."

Janis Joplin, her eyes closed, her nipples hard under her silver knit shirt, singing "Love is Like a Ball and Chain" at Monterey, wretching it out of some deep dark nether region of her Texas soul: one of the very, very heavy moments in rock and roll. It was then she stopped being the girl who sings with Big Brother and became the voodoo-lady of rock.

Big Brother is in steady hands now, none other than the ever so nimble fingers of Albert B. Grossman, the Big Daddy of managers. They’ll get all the time they need for their next Columbia record, and all the advice they could possibly want. They get their photo taken by Richard Avedon these days.

"He’s just mashed potatoes," says Janis.

And John Cooke may be host of the year.


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