Night I Met Janis Joplin
one afternoon I was puttering around the house and my twelve year
old son had the television on quite loud. Now, usually that doesnt
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 youve had them too,
where I just couldnt 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. Im
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
But as I said, on this
particular day I couldnt take it. "Turn that thing down!"
I yelled over the banshee wailing.
"Turn that thing down!"
"Huh?" my son said.
"That guy sounds like a screaming elephant. Turn it down."
Ill 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 couldnt
stand people who screamed. Whats with this?"
Well, he had me. She was screaming. "Youre right," I said.
I had to smile. "Youre absolutely right. But."
"But what? Youuuuuuu said."
"I said I couldnt stand screeching. This is not screeching."
"Oh really? Listen. Listen to that. You dont 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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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 Casss
face when her jaw dropped tells the story. But her performance at Monterey
Jazz wasnt 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 wouldnt say she was sexy. But there
was something about her. She was sensuous. She almost made love to a song.
Actually, she didnt 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, shes 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 didnt 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, werent very good. They say her band couldnt
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 Gynts "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 wasnt as polished
as, say Carlos Santana or Michael Bloomfield. But listen to some of the
old Big Brother stuff. Damn if Gurley wasnt 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 wouldnt 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.
Its easy to say now, afterwards, who was great and who wasnt.
Its easy to say who was influential, who copied, who left their
mark on the music world and who faded into obscurity. Its easy to
say now, now that shes dead, that Janis was great. But, man, she
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; Im getting
ahead of myself. Let me back up a bit and set the scene a little.
Back in the late 60s 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. Im sure Keith Jarret needs no introduction by me. Hes
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. Bachs 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. Hed 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. Hed 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, "Im 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 didnt 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 its 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? Im 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, its 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 wasnt 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 could tell by listening and not watching. She said maybe she has heard
a lot of Janis Joplin since weve been married and, okay, finally
its sinking in. "Like Im brainwashed." She said.
"Its either that or its that Im finally just realizing
that she really was good."
"No." I said. "She really was that good. Look at her."
I directed my wifes 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 aint
"Okay, I guess youre 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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