If you haven’t heard of Big Brother and the Holding Company by now, you’re going to miss your chance. Not since the Monkees has a group arrived at the music market with so much advance promotion. The difference, of course, is that the Monkees’ hype cost $250,000. In the case of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the build-up just naturally flowed - because Janis Joplin was the lead singer. Janis Joplin? If she weren’t so feminine, she might have become a lady wrestler. She’s pop music’s only broad, and whether she’s singing or talking, it’s with all the soul of a Hell’s Angels exhaust pipe. Like Mae West, she could be the greatest lady who ever walked the streets. Six months before she even had a record out, she was being treated as one of the biggest stars in pop music. One week after the record hit the stores, she was firing the rest of the group. Janis Joplin had decided to send Big Brother and the Holding Company back to San Francisco while she shopped around for another band.
"They don’t help the words, they either fight ‘em or just lay there like dead fish," she said. It was 2:30 p.m. and she was drinking screwdrivers for breakfast. "I want a bigger band with higher highs, a bigger ladder. And I want more bottom - I want an incredible amount of bottom. I want more noise. When I do a rock tune I want it to be so HUGE..."
We were sitting in a restaurant near the Chelsea Hotel, where Janis makes her home when she’s in New York. She had just got word that her album had been certified for a gold record, but then the title of the album, after all, was "Cheap Thrills." Janis had wanted to call it "Dope, Sex and Cheap Thrills," but the image-makers up at Columbia Records had already started their genteel talk about how this was The Most Eagerly Awaited Album since Bob Dylan’s "John Wesley Harding." They were probably right, but that’s what made the album wrong. Janis could have been certified for a gold record two summers ago, when she erupted onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival like a gusher out of a Port Arthur, Texas oil field, which is where she happens to come from. Impresario Albert Grossman signed her on the spot, but was it to a management contract or an insurance policy? By the time the record companies finished bidding for her services, the figure was so high that Columbia Records is still too embarrassed to mention it. The price was several hundred thousand dollars and the package must have included the Golden Gate Bridge. After that kind of build-up, any record put out by Big Brother and the Holding Company would have to be anticlimactic.
"I guess I was disappointed," Janis said, into her third drink. The album’s producer, John Simon, would not even allow his name on the credits. "I was just helping them out," Simon explained. "I wasn’t the producer. It’s not my kind of music." Actually, the album is worse than anticlimactic. They tried recording it at a performance and they tried recording it in a studio. In the end, it was a mixture of both. Janis’ improvisations turned out to be memorized licks sung the same way every time she did the same songs. Her two vaunted blockbusters, "Piece of My Heart" and "Ball & Chain" explode with too bang and not enough fire.
The only time something begins to happen is when Simon, a sort of Leonard Bernstein of pop music, and Janis decide to show each other what they can really do. With Simon at the piano, Janis sings "Turtle Blues," a classic 12-bar lament which she wrote especially for the occasion. "I guess I’m just like a turtle," the song goes "hiding underneath its hardened shell...but you know I’m very well protected...I know this Goddamed life to well!" As Janis says, "I can sing a 120-bar blues in my sleep." That doesn’t leave much room for an audience.
If "Cheap Thrills" is noteworthy for little else, Janis Joplin has one of the most distinguished female voices of the decade. It is a voice that has been aged in Southern Comfort and cured with Kahlua and milk. It is a voice that cuts you like a razor, but you can still hear the innocence in it, a claim to purity that soars out of the garbage of her throat, carrying evil harmonies. When Janis sings, it’s as if she’d calling out to you from the second-story window of a bordello, inviting you up.
"You know, I can really sing," Janis said, "but I also know I’ve got a lot to learn." She had finished her third screwdriver and gave her the rest of mine. "I guess it happened too soon for me. That means that I gotta do all my learning in front of people. That’s scary."