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The Night I Met Janis Joplin
Jeffrey Beyl


Recently one afternoon I was puttering around the house and my twelve year old son had the television on quite loud. Now, usually that doesn’t bother me but on this particular day it did. Maybe it just seemed loud because suddenly a commercial came on with this big-mouth rock star guy shrieking some jingle at what seemed like the top of his lungs. It was one of those moments, maybe you’ve had them too, where I just couldn’t take it, and hey, I like loud music. Sometimes at the end of the workday when I climb back into my car and turn the ignition key the music I had been listening to during the morning commute comes blasting out of the speakers making me think Whoa, Jeff, rockin out this morning huh? In fact I believe that some music has to be loud to be truly appreciated. I’m quite sure that my mother must have felt as I did on this day when I was young and put on Cream or The Doors or Hendrix and cranked it up.

But as I said, on this particular day I couldn’t take it. "Turn that thing down!" I yelled over the banshee wailing.
"What?"
"Turn that thing down!"
"Huh?" my son said.
"That guy sounds like a screaming elephant. Turn it down."
I’ll give you one guess what my son said. "Huh?" But thankfully he did turn it down.
Later that same afternoon, toward evening, I poured myself a glass of wine, put on one of my favorite old albums and by habit I turned the volume knob a little to the right. The music came forth and out from the speakers came the voice of a lady who could sing, who could wail and scream and belt out a song like none other.
"Hey Dad," my son yelled. "I thought that you couldn’t stand people who screamed. What’s with this?"
Well, he had me. She was screaming. "You’re right," I said. I had to smile. "You’re absolutely right. But."
"But what? Youuuuuuu said."
"I said I couldn’t stand screeching. This is not screeching."
"Oh really? Listen. Listen to that. You don’t call that screeching?"
"No," I said.
"Mmmm Hmmm. Right. Okay."
"That, my young son, my foolish, ignorant child, is not screaming. That is Janis Joplin."
Janis Joplin. My god, she was great wasn’t she? I saw Janis Joplin four times back in the sixties, all with Big Brother And The Holding Company. I saw them at The Avalon Ballroom, twice at The Fillmore Auditorium and perhaps best of all, at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Not Monterey Pop. I wasn’t at Monterey Pop. I was at the jazz festival. Same fairgrounds, same stage, only a few months later. What Janis did at the Monterey Jazz Festival was equal in every way to what she did at The Monterey Pop Festival.

What she did was knock an audience on its collective ass. Her performance at Monterey Pop went down in rock music history. We can listen to it. We can watch it on video. She was awesome. The look on Mama Cass’s face when her jaw dropped tells the story. But her performance at Monterey Jazz wasn’t recorded or filmed. What Janis Joplin did was establish herself as the premiere white, female, rock/blues singer of all time. What she did was sweep the feet out from under any preconceived notions, beliefs and expectations of what a "chick" singer could be. What she did was redefine, forcefully, what a woman was. She was not some back up singer. She was out front. She was the leader, the star of the show. She set the standard to which many female performers to this day are still trying to measure up.

She was not just another pretty face. In fact, some people say Janis was ugly. Well, okay, in a certain sense of the word she was not a centerfold. But Janis Joplin was not ugly. She redefined what a woman was. She redefined sexy. Not sexy, necessarily, I wouldn’t say she was sexy. But there was something about her. She was sensuous. She almost made love to a song. Actually, she didn’t almost make love to a song, she almost fucked it. She was powerful yet feminine. She was honest. She was there. She moved erotically, raw, almost naked. Watch her in the Monterey Pop video. You tell me. Look at her. Look at her nipples through that gray dress. You tell me. So okay, she’s not Raquel Welch. But there was only one Janis Joplin.

After her stint with Big Brother she fronted another band called The Full Tilt Boogie Band. Janis was "full tilt" herself, especially as a performer. She didn’t hold back anything. She was in your face. She sang her heart out. She told us to take a piece of her heart and we all did. She certainly took a piece of mine.
As I said, she knocked audiences on their ass. She knocked the music scene on its ass. Those of us who were there are still picking ourselves up.
Watch any video clip, look at any still shot of Janis performing. She always had that look like she was pouring everything into that performance, into that song. She always had that grimace, her frizzy hair flying, her face screwed up almost as though she were in pain. She was intense. She sang from deep down. She was gritty yet vulnerable. It was like she sang every song as if her very life depended on it. In actuality her death depended on it.

Janis Joplin. She was awesome. People say her band, Big Brother And The Holding Company, weren’t very good. They say her band couldn’t keep up with her. But I remember that not only did Janis floor em at Monterey Jazz, so did James Gurley, the guitar player. They did a rock rendition of Peer Gynt’s "Hall Of The Mountain King" where Gurley pressed his guitar up against his amp, feedback flying like Fourth of July fireworks. He threw himself, the guitar, the amp and the music all over that stage. Even Janis had to step back. The audience at that Saturday afternoon blues show was left speechless and spellbound. Compared to some of the other guitarists of the day, James Gurley wasn’t as polished as, say Carlos Santana or Michael Bloomfield. But listen to some of the old Big Brother stuff. Damn if Gurley wasn’t one of the forerunners of modern grunge guitar.
My feeling is that her band mates were both blessed and cursed by her talent. I mean, what local garage band wouldn’t give their left (well, you know what I mean) to have Janis Joplin out front? The fact is that she catapulted them to fame, stardom and gold record status. But the heat was on. They had to keep up. They had to back a great talent. They had to support an intensely powerful stage presence.

It’s easy to say now, afterwards, who was great and who wasn’t. It’s easy to say who was influential, who copied, who left their mark on the music world and who faded into obscurity. It’s easy to say now, now that she’s dead, that Janis was great. But, man, she was!

I can still see it in my mind. The Fillmore Auditorium. The (so-called) dressing room. It was more of a waiting area where the band members kind of hung out before going on stage. There was an old couch against one wall and some chairs. There were a couple…but wait; I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up a bit and set the scene a little.

Back in the late 60’s my father used to know a jazz saxophonist/flautist named Charles Lloyd. He had a band called The Charles Lloyd Quartet. While they were a jazz band they had begun crossing over and were becoming recognized and accepted by the younger rock audiences. Charles had some fantastic musicians in the quartet. Musicians like Keith Jarrett on the piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums. You may recognize these names as being giants in the jazz music scene for many years.

They were cool. What a band that was. To listen to their stuff today, like the album "Forest Flower", this music proves as hip as anything out now. Hipper, in fact and this is because of the musicianship of the guys in the quartet. Jack DeJohnette, I remember as being a kind of happy go lucky guy but he is one of the greatest drummers in jazz or rock. I’m sure Keith Jarret needs no introduction by me. He’s a phenomenal pianist in many styles. Listen to "Forest Flower" then listen to any of his later jazz recordings. From there go on to "The Koln Concert" or his recording of J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier and decide for yourself.

Charles Lloyd was a tall man with a longish Afro. He used to wear a fedora style hat, glasses and a green army jacket. He’d stand on stage and blow his sax in that breathy, sultry way of his, or play his flute and weave his tall body in a sinewy, cobra-like dance. The rock audiences at The Fillmore ate it up.

They happened to be playing The Fillmore for a couple of nights when my brother and I were up visiting our father in San Francisco. I remember the first night I had worked my way up close to the stage. I wanted to watch Charles. He was hypnotic. This music was more for listening than for dancing so the audience was mostly sitting on the floor. I ended up sitting beside a girl who had a drawing pad in her lap and she was pencil sketching a picture of Charles playing his flute and doing his willow-reed thing with his body. I remember being just as spellbound by her sketching as by the music. I remember, too, feeling proud and kinda cool that I had just spent the day with my father and Charles roaming around the city and eating a hamburger with him and here was this girl drawing his picture. I like to think that she still has that picture. I like to think she still has the picture that she drew of the next band up. Now this band got the people on their feet and dancing. They were called Big Brother And The Holding Company and that girl drew a pencil sketch of the lead singer, Janis Joplin. I wish I had that picture now.

The second night though, we arrived at The Fillmore a little late. My father, Charles, my brother and I went up to the dressing room. The rest of the quartet were already hanging out up there, waiting. Charles was thirsty. They were due to go on soon. He’d be blowing into his instruments for an hour or so and he wanted to wet his throat. We had stepped into the dressing room, which was fairly crowded with various band members. Charles said to my father, "I’m thirsty." There was this frizzy haired chick standing close by with her back to us and my father turned to her and said, "Hey, would you mind getting Charles a drink of water." She turned around and it was that chick singer from the night before, Janis Joplin. And by God, she said, "Sure" and went off and came back with a glass of water and handed it to Charles. She didn’t say, "Get it yourself, asshole," or simply point off toward the water cooler where he could get it himself. She walked off and got it for him. She was the star of the show. She was the queen of the San Francisco music scene. She was the queen of rock and yet she smiled, said "Sure" and humbly walked off to get it for him. I thought that was cool. I still think it’s cool.

But the coolest part came after she handed Charles his glass of water. She went over to the couch to sit next to Jack DeJohnette. He was smiling and kind of waving "hi" to me, this 14-year-old punk standing there. Janis followed his gaze toward me. She had a bottle of Southern Comfort in her hand now. She smiled and held it out to me like, here kid, ya wanna sip? I’m sure I just stood there like an idiot. But I remember Janis Joplin smiling at me then standing up and coming over to me and patting me on top of the head. She then took her own sip from the bottle laughed out loud and went back to sit next to Jack DeJohnette on the couch.
Janis Joplin was one of the greats. Recently my wife said to me, "You know, it’s either a case of brainwashing or she really was good."
"What do you mean by that?" I asked her. I was watching a documentary film on the life of Janis Joplin. My wife was sitting on the couch reading. She wasn’t watching the film. She said that she found herself liking what she was hearing.
"It sounds like she put a lot of emotion into her singing." She said.
She could tell by listening and not watching. She said maybe she has heard a lot of Janis Joplin since we’ve been married and, okay, finally it’s sinking in. "Like I’m brainwashed." She said. "It’s either that or it’s that I’m finally just realizing that she really was good."
"No." I said. "She really was that good. Look at her." I directed my wife’s attention to the Television screen. Janis Joplin was singing "Ball and Chain" at The Monterey Pop Festival. "You think she put emotion into her singing? Look at her. If that ain’t emotion…"
"Okay, I guess you’re right. I just never really paid attention before. But sitting here just listening to her sing in the background while I was reading, well, she was pretty good." And my wife went back to her reading, a new fan.
But that was something. Janis Joplin. She was awesome. I miss her.

© Jeffrey Beyl March 2003Jab168@yahoo.com

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