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Janis: The Judy Garland of Rock?

by Paul Nelson - Rolling Stone

NEW YORK-When Janis Joplin danced on stage in front of her new, as-yet-unnamed, six-piece band at the Fillmore East February 11 and 12, she seemed to have victory within her grasp. How could she miss? There had been a "sound test" for the band (as road manager John Cooke put it) in Rindge, New Hampshire, a "preview" in Boston-but this was Opening Night, the Big Debut, and the city’s rockers have been working themselves into a lather for days. All four performances were sold out, and ticket scalpers roamed along Second Avenue offering paradise at prices that would have been out of line for a kilo of hash.

Tuesday’s opening night crowd had more than a hint of uptown prosperity to it. Affluent reporters from Time, Like, Look, Newsweek, and other bastions of slick-paper supremacy laid claim to most of the complimentary tickets, while those hardy souls from the lower echelon rock press either stood outside in the slush, their faces pressed against the glass, or somehow got past the door only to huddle together in the lobby and standing-room areas to look in vain for an empty seat. Mike Wallace and the CBS television crew were on hand documenting the building’s events for a March 4th segment of 60 Minutes to be called, with true media irony, "Carnegie Hall For Kids."

Through the balloon-filled air, the Grateful Dead, the "other half" of an all-San Francisco program, started to play "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl."

And play they did-one of those wonderful, comfortable, one-long-song sets that went uninterrupted for close to an hour and actually managed to neutralize much of the inherent tension by turning the concert into something not unlike a freebie in the park or a pleasant party at somebody’s home.

The band played well-but, more important, gave New York audiences something of the idea of rock as a relaxed and relaxing way of life, not as a sporadic series of super-hypes for super-groups. There were no artificially induced high points or low points, no cream-in-your-jeans climax-instead, a steady stream of satisfying music which simply went on until it stopped.

Nonprofessional response to the buildup was interesting. One long-term Joplin fanatic, a young man named Ronnie Finkelstein, approached the Fillmore with ecstasy and hurried to his seat just as the Grateful Dead began their set. "I found them original and satisfying," he said. "I wanted Janis, though."

"I rushed back when Bill Graham-the dirty capitalist!-introduced my girl. The ban futzed around for about five minutes, and then, with a short brass intro, Janis appeared out of nowhere. In a cape-gown sort of thing, she danced for a minute, then threw off the cape to reveal her famous shoulder-strap pants outfit. I was excited!"

Another admirer put it even more succinctly. "I’ve had a hard-on since four o’clock this afternoon waiting for this."

This consisted of an incredibly nervous Janis Joplin-hair flying, long fingers showing white clenching a hand mike-in front of her new group: Sam Andrew from Big Brother and the Holding Company, lead guitar; terry Clements, sax; Richard Kermode, organ; Roy Markowitz, drums; Terry Hensley, trumpet; and a temporary bass player, Keith Cherry (ex-Pauper Brad Campbell is expected to come down from Canada to join the band as a permanent member as soon as he can get a work permit.)

The first song made a number of things both painfully and delightfully clear. The potential to become a genuinely great rock singer is still there, but so are the infamous and disheartening Joplin tendencies toward vocal overkill. Indeed, Janis doesn’t so much sing a song as to strangle it to death right in front of you. It’s an exciting, albeit, grisly, event to behold. But it would seem to belong more to the realm of carnival exhibition than musical performance.

Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Richard Burton: "Without flow or pattern, he jerked from strangled sobs to harsh, intolerant roars, lacking a middle register for contemplation. It was all stubbornly conscientious, rising to something like grandeur in moments of decision, but I couldn’t help noting that absence of...the essential." The same words might almost apply to Joplin: her glory is that she doesn’t lack even the essential; her tragedy is that, as yet, she has been unable to use it.

On the first number, the band made all the local stops, while Janis was an express. The singing and playing simply failed to mesh, Joplin constantly projecting and the group continually receding. Between verses, the vocalist as dancer seemed more a constrained Radio City Rockette than a free-form blues singer. Every moment was stiff and preordained.

The applause was respectful. People seemed to be biding their time, waiting for the big explosion. Janis and the band plowed into the second song, a Nick Gravenities composition, and made it sound a smudged carbon copy of the first. Any sense of pace was forgotten. The audience began to pall. Joplin reached for her bottle of booze, a trademark which had been placed proudly on top of an amplifier with all of the deliberate care inherent in the planting of a religious symbol.

Things started to go better. "Maybe," an old Chantell’s signature tune from the late Fifties, was good and hard, and "Summertime," born of Cheap Thrills but now instrumentally processed through Ars Nova and Blood, Sweat and Tears, brought with it flowers, affection, a watermelon rasp, some sneaky CBS cameramen, and a more appreciative response from admirers. Janis swayed a bit, rubbed her head fetchingly, and hitched up her pants with a jump.

Robin and Barry Gibb’s "To Love Somebody" was rendered needlessly grotesque as Joplin ran through her rapidly depleting bagful of mannerisms in a desperate attempt to inject even more meaningless into the song by almost literally wiping up the floor with it. Then, a fast one, written by the group, which Janis said she wanted to call "Jazz for the Jack-offs." Again, the local-express syndrome, with a real credibility gap developing between star and support.

Came the highlight of the new act: Joplin’s moving and only slightly overripe singing of the beautiful new Nick Gravenities song, "Work Me, Lord." Empathy and art formed a strong partnership at this point, and passion, throughout the evening so misused and purposeless, finally found a home in spiritual rock.

It is difficult to imagine a Bob Dylan or a John Lennon peppering an interview with constant nervous interjections of "Hey, I‘ve never sung so great. Don’t you think I’m singing better? Well, Jesus fucking Christ, I’m really better, believe me." But Janis seems that rare type of personality who lacks the essential self-protective distancing that a singer of her fame and stature would appear to need.

One gets the alarming feeling that Joplin’s whole world is precariously balanced on what happens to her musically-that the necessary degree of honest cynicism needed to survive an all-media assault may be buried too far under an immensely likeable but tremendously under confident naivete.

She knows the band isn’t together yet. Haven’t worked together long enough-"Hey, it takes longer than a couple of weeks to get loose, to be really tight, to push. But conceptually I like it, and I think I’m singing better than I ever, ever did." This is what Janis Joplin wants, this band, these songs, all of it. "I mean, I really dig what I’m doing, but I just wish the band would push as hard as I am. Hey, I’m the lead, you know-but they’re hanging back way too far for me."

It all takes time, she knows. Janis wants to sing and she wants other people in the band to sing, too. You get a bunch of musicians together so everybody can contribute to the final product, make it something larger than the sum. "Trouble is, we haven’t really had a chance to get into each other yet."

"It’s going to get better. She’s sure it’s going to get better. Like maybe she’ll add a new cat next week- "great big ugly spade cat." He blows baritone and drums like Buddy Miles. "He’s really heavy. I really need somebody to push, you know. There’s really not enough push in the band yet."

The band’s got an even dozen songs together now. Not enough repertoire yet. But Nick Gravenities has been a big help. "Isn’t his "Work Me, Lord" beautiful? Oh, man-whew! Man, I love that guy. His songs really say something."

Clive (Davis, president of Columbia records) isn’t hassling her to records right away, and it’s just as well, Janis says. She doesn’t understand people recording before they have a chance to work at it. "Hey, I want to play a little more, I want to gig a little bit so that the tunes get together before I make a record."

Janis exudes several things at once: that the act is going fine right now; that’s it’s not so fine; that it’s going to get better; that, despite herself, there’s the terror that it might not, unless something happens.

She’s looking for a cat to be musical director, knows she doesn’t know enough to do it herself. Somebody to pull it together. Like Michael Bloomfield. everybody’s doing arrangements now isn’t working. Maybe that will have to come first before a new name for the group can be chosen. "I want a name that implies a band but has the person’s name in it, right? Like the Buddy miles Express. That has an identity is it. We were thinking," she laughs, "of Janis and the Joplinaires-ha!" Except that isn’t what a band is. What is the band? Too soon to say.

"Well, people say that I’m singing great, man. The whole San Francisco scene, which I was afraid might be a little pissed at me for officially disclaiming the familial San Francisco rock thing, has been fine. Jerry Garcia [of the Grateful Dead] told me that I made him cry. The Dead have been so good to me, man. They’re so warm and everything. I really needed that because of the pressure-I’ve been really scared because this is important to me.

"The kids-well, they’re missing the familiar tunes. You know how audiences are. And I really want to do the new songs. I don’t want to have to get up there and sing "Down On Me" when I’m eighty years old. The reason I did this was so that I could keep on moving. Once I get the new tunes on a record, then the kids won’t mind."

It will all be better then.

Doing the 60 Minutes segment had been really funny, Janis said she just laughed all the time at the media and the Big Build-Up she had gotten. It was too much to take seriously. "It’s surreal. It’s got nothing to do with me, really. I’m beginning to be able to cope with it. I don’t believe it, you know-I mean, you can’t." One thing you’ve got to be sure about, she thinks, is that you don’t start believing you are worth all that attention, Janis laughed.

So the 60 Minutes crew had come first night, set up with the band, and Janis-"I was really goofed at the time," she explains-told Mike Wallace: "Listen, man, if I start saying something you don’t like, just scream ‘FUCK’ because they’ll have to take it out of the TV thing." If he asked a dumb question she’d do the same.

There sat Mike Wallace, cool and urbane, asking Janis Joplin something like, "Can a white man sing the blues?" "I just looked at the camera and said, "FUCK." I did the interview, but I don’t remember it, being stoned."

Janis Joplin and her group played their first official gig at the Second Annual Stax/Volt Yuletide Thing in Memphis on December 21st. Since then, the band’s personnel has changed somewhat because one musician was drafted (the FBI took him away) and another, Marc Doubleday, decided he didn’t want to go on the road.

Before the February 11th and 12th concerts at the Fillmore East, the group played in Rindge, New Hampshire, February 8th and at the Boston Music Hall February 9th. Road manager John Cooke refers to the Rindge date as a "sound test," Boston as a "preview," and Fillmore East as "opening night." The band will tour the East for a month, rehearsing weekdays, gigging weekends, then back to San Francisco for a couple of weeks, then to Europe for a month-possibly to do a show in London with the Hells Angels. Janis had thought the Fillmore East "opening" had gone well- "I’m really doing good," she thought-but the audience reaction had been decidedly mixed.

The kid who’d kept that hard-on all that while thought Janis was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, and didn’t want to say any more than that. But Ronnie Finkelstein liked her better with Big Brother. Ronnie thought she was flaunting her sexuality and that altogether it was a vulgar display. "Her thing now is showboating. Her dancing is a drag. Everything is a big put-on." An ex-worshiper, art director Gene Mallard, felt that success most definitely had spoiled Janis Joplin. This new thing was a brassy burlesque show-the old hypnoticism was gone-there was an air of boredom. "Miss Superstar and her group," said Mallard, "are just another put-together plasticized show."


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