(from WGLT Sound Ideas interview, 9/25/2018)
In June 1966 when Janis Joplin began rehearsing with Big Brother and the Holding Company, women didn’t front rock bands. In the world of AM radio for the teen scene (underground FM radio was still a year or so in the future), they were young, pretty women, with long straight hair singing pretty songs backed by artful session musicians—Marianne Faithful, with her pure tone singing “As Tears Go By” or Merilee Rush singing “Angel of the Morning.” Or they were folk singers—Joan Baez or Judy Collins trilling Child Ballads to a strummed guitar. Or they were a voice in a folk group—Mary Travers in Peter, Paul, and Mary harmonizing “Blowing in the Wind.” And if they belted a blues-inflected song, their artful, carefully strategized belting owed as much to Judy Garland and cabaret as to Bessie Smith or Etta James or the gospel inflections of Aretha Franklin who had yet to roar up the charts with any of her classic Atlantic singles. Check out this 1963 youTube clip of Judy Henske singing her best-known number “High Flying Bird.” And Jefferson Airplane’s recording of this song (either the initial studio recording with Signe Anderson) or this performance from the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967, which illustrates both folk rock’s continuity with the pop folk from the earlier 1960s and how folk rock groups were beginning to move beyond those roots into what we’d now term “psychedelic.”
Where performers like Judy Henske and Grace Slick enacted artful personas as they sang, Janis Joplin, it might be said, sang only as herself—raw, intense, unmasked—with joy, even exhilaration, and pain, recasting blues and rhythm & blues (Bessie Smith to Irma Franklin and Etta James) into confessions that seemed actual and of the moment rather than enacted or performed. This clip from a TV studio performance sometime in early 1967, before the group was a commercial success, opens with “Down on Me.” And here Joplin becomes the “me,” is the “me,” isn’t staging the “me” but instead authenticates it in a kind of vocal equivalent to method acting. And it’s no accident that when Cheap Thrills was finally released well over a year later in August of 1968, some of the most compelling tracks are live, concert recordings.
Eventually Pearl would be Janis Joplin’s best-selling album, a studio affair with more disciplined and versatile musicians than the members of Big Brother, but the Janis Joplin who refashioned the paradigm for women as rock singers is the voice catalyzing Big Brother, inhabiting that soundscape, and not simply singing as if without a mask but as if masks were no longer possible. Something of this can be glimpsed in her two sets at the Monterey Pop Festival, when she and the group were not stars, hadn’t yet signed to Columbia records, and were relegated to a slot on the opening afternoon rather than a featured slot in the evening. That set was unfilmed, but recorded, and made such an impact that a second, evening slot was added—and filmed. The first (unfilmed) set opens with “Down on Me,” followed by “Combination of the Two,” and builds to a climactic and cathartic “Ball and Chain.” What seems the added excitement of their success is, I’d suggest, evident in their performance “Combination of the Two” from the second (filmed) set.
In spring 1969, Janis Joplin would not have been the girl a self-respecting fraternity brother would take to a party or a dance. She was the girl he’d screw, then head off in his tailored blazer, corsage in hand, to pick up his date—a nice sorority deb in her pricey party dress, her make up impeccable, her saloned hair to be admired and not touched but maybe a decorous kiss at the end of the night. So why would the Greek Council of Cornell University book Big Brother & The Holding Company for its 1969 Spring Concert? Why not something tasteful like The Fifth Dimension or The Association or Dionne Warwick. Or the slick choreography of The Temptations. Or even Tommy James & The Shondells (you know, “Crimson & Clover” but not “Hanky Panky”)?
A digression (that’s not): Cornell, fall 1967 and the new freshmen are filing into the field house for registration. First stop, an ID photo, and in a few weeks all the pictures of the eager and anxious, the lads and lasses, to be published as a book to help people get acquainted—the book known locally as “the pig book” so the lads could better parse, as Joplin once termed it (but speaking of the “gentlemen”), the “talent.” And that fall several shrewd upper class men (jackets and ties, and seeming so mature to the young ladies filing in they must be at least graduate students and maybe even professors) are at the door handing out questionnaires asking for name and answers to questions about intimate “experience” and preferences—all billed as a university psychology study, so that the answers to be correlated in coming weeks with those pig book pix and guide campaigns of conquest. Apocryphal? Perhaps. But we believed the story as it made its rounds by what then passed for social media (aka word of mouth). And whether folkloric fantasy or predatory prank, the episode reflected the dynamics of the place and time.
A digression (that’s not): Cornell in the late 1960s. You’re either Greek (living in a fraternity or sorority) or Independent (living in a slummy apartment). In the early 1960s, Greek meant assuming you were simply on some sort of cruise before claiming your rightful place in daddy’s corporate world (or trying to pass as if this was one’s class and what one had a right to expect), while Independent meant intellectually serious or scholarship poor (and those often the same thing). In the later 1960s, Greek still meant “aspiring” to that law firm partnership or a teak desk in an executive suite, but it also meant Republican and pro Vietnam War (because ain’t no way you were going to get sent to the jungle), while Independent was coming to mean anti-war and leftist politics increasingly mixed with counterculture experimentation.
So when Janis Joplin & Big Brother and The Holding Company took the stage that night, the Greek Weekend audience was a sea of navy blue blazers and colorful prom dresses eddied with jeans and work shirts. As the saying went, “Different strokes for different folks.” For the Freaks, a possible moment of belonging; for the Greeks a chance to smugly gawk, knowing Ms. Joplin, in spite of the hippy garb and being a star, was the homely girl whose family didn’t count. The girl you’d screw, not the one you’d date.
And, so, yes when the fraternity officer (the social chairman or some such) stepped onto the stage, interrupting the show, he was clean shaven, crew-cutted, and navy blued in that regulation blazer. I couldn’t, I confess, actually see his expression, but I imagine a smirk at what he took to be the witty joke of the gift he would so formally present as a token of the (mock) esteem of the Greek brothers she was being paid to entertain. But as he crossed toward Janis, each step was more tentative, as she eyed him up and down, instead of waiting demurely. And when she undid the bow and unwrapped the box to dangle out the mink bra he and brothers were offering in faux homage (aka a put down), it was only right that she delivered her line, turning away from him and toward us in the crowd: “Honey,” she drawled (and maybe even took a sip of Southern Comfort), “the fur’s on the wrong side”—letting us know that what mattered was her pleasure, not his. And even though she might be willing to “screw,” he wouldn’t be the “talent” she’d choose, and she was (mostly) past being the girl who didn’t count. And whatever the scars from Port Arthur, and whatever the pain still to come, she was, for sure, done with being used.