Monday, November 10, 2014

"On the Road with Janis Joplin" by John Byrne Cooke (2014)

To my mind there has never been a good book yet about Janis Joplin’s life on the road; from Big Brother and the Holding Company through the final days of the Full Tilt Boogie Band. Now there is. John Byrne Cooke was the road manager for all three incarnations of Janis’ career and he was taking notes; and filming some of it on his 8mm. And because he did that we have a great record of what Janis; and the 3 bands she fronted; were doing from early 1968 until her death in October 1970.

Written in the present tense and against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the attendant election of Richard Nixon in 1968, this book is almost animated in its presentation. The 1960’s were lively, to be sure, which can make them difficult to capture on paper. No such problem for the author here. He has done a great job of melding the two into a very entertaining, and yet informative, account of one of the most vibrant stars of the decade.

Along the journey you will hear the story behind some of the stories which have become legendary since Janis Joplin’s passing. The Jim Morrison and Janis fight; in which she smashed a bottle on his head while playing pool and he told her she couldn’t sing the blues worth a shit;  or the slapping of Jerry Lee Lewis, who slapped back; are two great examples of the raucous side to Janis. But there are softer moments, too.

A bit of rock and roll history gets thrown in; the situation which existed in NYC that literally made Bill Graham feel as if he had to open a decent musical venue on the East Coast is explored. The Anderson Theater was right across the street from another old Yiddish Theater. Bill Graham had it up and running in about 8 weeks flat. Big Brother and the Holding Company were the headliners on opening night.

My own memory of “Cheap Thrills” did not include the fact that within a few weeks of the album’s release and ascension to number 1 on the charts in November 1968, the band dissolved by the end of November. Janis was going to front a new band and they were already booked for engagements beginning in January. Many fans were upset with the breakup. Big Brother seemed to embody the San Francisco scene and the album, with its cover by Robert Crumb, quickly became an icon of acid rock and hung on the walls of many bedrooms across the country.

This new band became the Kozmic Blues Band and featured a horn section for the first time. With this album’s releaaseI began to think of Janis as the female version of James Brown. Listen to, and watch, some of the performances and her introductions on You Tube and you’ll see what I mean.
Still not happy with the sound she was searching for led to the Kozmic Blues Band going through many changes in personnel. Mr. Cooke has supplied a listing of personnel associated with each band at the front of the book which comes in handy for reference on several occasions. Just keeping track of the horn section is a chore. They underwent 3 changes in that department before getting it right. Still, they produced a magnificent album with the release of “I’ve Got Them Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama.”

The author also adds a nice touch to the book by showing the dates of almost all of the shows Janis performed with the band during his time as road manager, which was pretty much her entire recorded career from before “Cheap Thrills” until the very end. This lends an air of immediacy to the narrative as you can actually see the hectic touring schedule as you read about what the band was up to in between shows and cities.

With Full Tilt Boogie Band being formed and a new album waiting to be recorded Janis ventures back home for a high school re-union in 1970. I always have felt that this visit; along with the lack of any real acknowledgement of her success by her peers; contributed to her spike in heroin use which finally killed her a few months later. Instead of just giving her a dozen roses and making her feel welcome, she was summoned to a meeting of the “clique” and asked what she “wanted”.

What can you say to that? So, she replied that she was just there to enjoy herself and they took that a license to basically ignore her. That; along with the fact that her parents were away at a wedding for someone else’s daughter; had to have hurt her. You can see it in her face when watching the film of the press conference.

The Full Tilt Boogie Band had recorded about 10 songs for the new, as yet unnamed, album when Janis died. The numbers ran from a Capella to raw vocal tracks and even an acoustic version of “Me and Bobby McGee”, the song written by Kris Kristofferson. If you look at the material you get the sense that Janis was trying to lay out all of her musical influences and styles in one album. This is a woman who was influenced very early on by Jean Ritchie and her dulcimer; which she often played using a feather. She was also a devotee of Bessie Smith; a la “Turtle Blues.” And she also enjoyed country music, hence her acoustic version of “Bobby McGee.” With her death came the unique problem of what to do with these recordings.

The outcome was a posthumous album which would have made Janis proud; “Pearl.” It was named using the nickname she had bestowed upon herself while on the road. It was a way for her friends not to have to call her Jains Joplin. When Kris Kristofferson was invited to the studio to hear the demo of Janis singing “Me and Bobby McGee” he was only able to listen to the first 2 verses before leaving in tears.

This is still my favorite version of the song. It’s exactly the same length as the overdubbed version on “Pearl”. I have included a link to it here;

If you like Janis Joplin you will find this book very enjoyable. If you are interested in the 1960’s there will be much to interest you. And if you enjoy learning about the history of making music this book will fit the bill nicely. 

But the best part of reading this book is that it was written by someone who enjoyed what he was doing then, and is still finding satisfaction in it all these years later. His enthusiasm for his subject is palpable and easily transferred to the reader.

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