Friday, March 28, 2014

#42 Jammin' with Janis Joplin

    Every generation has its talented artists who seem to grow into the role of the tragic hero. Usually, the public watches as these stars descend from their coveted position in the limelight into an off-stage life filled with entertaining melodrama, and too often, ending in an early death.

   The final insult to these stars is when the beneficiaries of their estate promote them as artists deserving of iconic status. This is how many short-lived artists spend the remaining portion of their careers - as a manufactured memory. During the late '60's this tragic hero role is played by Blues Rock legend Janis Joplin. She has a very brief career, but is best remembered for her tragic personal life, and unromantic death rather than her music.

    During childhood Joplin feels disenfranchised from her world, and craves copious quantities of attention. As her mother confides, her daughter's childhood was unhappy and unsatisfied with (receiving a lot of attention). The normal rapport wasn't adequate. This may be what motivates Joplin to gravitate toward the performing arts in her teens, and encourages her to develop her moderate talent into a magnate for public adulation.

     Ironically, when she does attain her attention, the sensation proves too overwhelming, and she seeks refuge in a variety of drugs. Unfortunately, her substance abuse develops into an addiction, and only serves to accelerate her eventual implosion. In fact, during the last couple of years of her career, right up until today, Janis Joplin is not a real person, but rather a one dimensional character created by the entertainment industry.

    The part of her story which involves Paul Butterfield begins when she leaves her native Texas in '63 to live in San Francisco. While there, she attaches herself to the local music scene, and records some rudimentary Blues with the help of Jorma Kaukonen (the future guitarist Jefferson Airplane). However, by '65 her reputation as an out of control abuser of amphetamines (speed), some heroin, alcohol (Southern Comfort), and psychoactive drugs becomes a serious concern within her social circle. Friends can see that her addictions are taking over as her emaciated body is growing weaker each day, so they institute a final act of kindness. They organize a party in an effort to raise money for the young Joplin to buy a one way bus ticket back home.

   For a year she tries, and almost succeeds at reintegrating into mainstream life in Port Arthur, but gives up, and returns to San Francisco in '66. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, has ignited a national Blues Rock craze a year earlier, and it is especially vibrant in San Francisco. So, this time Joplin's intention is to avoid substance abuse, and concentrate on her singing. She has a raspy (almost abrasive) voice  which she skillfully uses to project the raw sex appeal of world weary, throw your caution to the wind, female Blues Rocker. Local band, Big Brother and the Holding Company recognizes her talent, and ask her to act as their lead singer.     

   Joplin's addition to the band proves to be a wise combination as they gain national attention with her at the front of the group. As their fame expands, they travel to Chicago for a recording session, and manage to secure their first record contract. Then, music industry titan Albert Grossman sees the potential income in Janis Joplin the blues singer, and he signs the band up as his clients. However, Grossman is aware of Joplin's past substance abuse problems, and so, stipulates in the contract that she can not use any intravenous drugs. The agreement is signed, and a long prosperous career should be in front of her.

    However, her break through performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in '67 proves too overwhelming for the young star, and she starts using again. When Grossman finds out, he takes out a $200,000 insurance policy on her life. It sounds cold, but he is a businessman.

    By the spring of '68, the band is now billed as Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, she is a national star, nurturing the public persona of the hard livin', hard drinkin', get while ya can, female blues singer, Rock's answer to Billie Holiday. The relatively new genre of Blues Rock has never had an artist of Joplin's caliber, so she it seems that everything she does is considered ground breaking, especially for women. At the height of her career she is promoted as Janis Joplin: The Queen of Psychedelic Soul.

    As she plays the growing Rock circuit with other rising stars like Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Richie Havens, Elvin Bishop, and of course Paul Butterfield; she develops her powerful stage charisma, and abilities at working an audience. The first time she shares the stage with Butterfield is at the Wake for Martin Luther Jr. concert in the spring of '68.

    During her very brief career (four years) she shares the stage with Butterfield a number of times. Unfortunately, most of the performances are never recorded, and the ones that are, tend to be have very poor sound quality. For example, she works The Pavilion in New York, Madison Square Garden, Ravina Park in Chicago, the Civic Centre in Baltimore, and the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, and Butterfield jams with her each night, but none seem to be recorded. 

    The performance routine seems to be that the Butterfield band is Joplin's opening act, and Butterfield jams on a couple of songs during her set. (she never seems to reciprocate.) One of these performances is captured on tape though. Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company appear at Ringe Arena in Braintree, MA, in Oct. of 1968 with Butterfield as the opening act. Some audience member manages to capture a couple of songs with the two. (both are terrible quality). However, one of the songs, Raise Your Hand, does feature a dynamic harmonica solo by Butterfield. You can hear the taper yell Yeah!! when he starts, and then the audience's energetic applause at the end of his solo is stunning. There is also Live or Die Blues, and Bo Diddley, both are terrible recordings.

    By far, the best recording of the two is from a March '70, Columbia Studio session in  in L.A. with Grossman's new staff producer,Todd Rundgren. During these sessions, Joplin records three versions of the song One Night Stand with the compete Butterfield Blues Band as a back up band. Apparently, Columbia's intention is to release the song as a single, but the idea is abandoned.

   Of all the times that Joplin and Butterfield performed together live, this studio track is definitely the most complimentary. It is one of those occasions where you realize that, if her personal path had changed, an album of her with the Butterfield Blues Band would become a classic.

    However, several months after those sessions, Joplin is found dead in her motel room on Oct. 4th 1970 of a drug over dose. A generation of 60's Rock fans lose another hero on that day, and Albert Grossman collects $200,000. Decades after her death Janis Joplin has become an icon, especially to female singers who harbor desires to break free.

Rolling Stone ranks her as #28 on its list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.


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