It was a mere coincidence of time and happenstance. But it seemed to sum up an era with cruel finality. In New York last August, Rock Superstar Jimi Hendrix completed a record album, flew off for a brief tour of Germany, wound up in London, where he died of an overdose of sleeping pills. In Los Angeles, White Blues Queen Janis Joplin was finishing up an album of her own when she too perished of an overdose – in her case heroin. They had both lived lives of loud, frenzied desperation that had made them – in the opinion of many – burned-out cases, and both at the identical age of 27.
Their last records are now at hand. Anyone with an ear can hear that Janis and Jimi were far from burned out. Moreover, each was instinctively aware that pop music has started to move beyond the pulsating eroticism Janis and Jimi once typified toward deeper, more poetic expression.
The new records either dispense with buzz and blast entirely, or else hold it tightly under control. Hendrix’s “The Cry of Love” (Reprise) contains more tenderness and calm than anything he ever did before. “Angel” for example substitutes rich, poignant Beatlesque harmonies for the handful of blunt blues chord changes that used to characterize much of his work. “Drifting” is a lighter-than-air romantic ballad that could almost be sung by Crooner Johnny Mathis: “Drifting on a sea of forgotten teardrops/On a lifeboat/Sailin’ for your love/Sailin’ home.” Big-beat songs like “Freedom” and “Nightbird Flyin’ ” do hark back to the past, yet for once, there is no screech or reverberation to get in the way of the music. For the uninitiated – or for those who turned off when Jimi turned on before an audience like a black Elvis Presley – “The Cry of Love” should be sufficient proof that there was indeed heart beneath his mod show-business veneer.
Joplin’s “Pearl” LP (Columbia) is not just her best LP, but in all probability the best ever recorded by a white female blues singer. In contrast to the blowsy, brassy backing of three earlier LPs, she is supported this time by the Full Tilt Boogie band, a tightly knit combo dominated by Richard Bell’s superb piano. Never before did she exercise such control over her voice. To hear her build Kris Kristofferson’s country blues ballad, “Me & Bobby McGee,” from tree-shaded quiet into high-noon bustle is to know that pacing and nuance are not just the property of lieder singers. The familiar full-throated Joplin warbling is still present – in “Cry baby” and My Baby.” But the final song, “Get It While You Can” is mournfully ironic:
“We may not be here tomorrow,
And if anybody should come along,
He gonna give you his love and affection,
I say get it while you can, yeah, get it while you can.”