Every newspaperman gets interesting letters. For example, the one dated April 26, 1971:
“Dear Mr. Jahn,
“I am writing a biography of the late singer, Janis Joplin. While talking with Jerry *****, a writer for the Newark Star-Ledger, he mentioned that you had been with Janis Joplin on the night she died …”
No, I wasn't with Janis the night she died. We didn't get along nearly well enough for her to want me with her on her special night. (Besides, that night I was in England making a ham sandwich for Mama Cass.) Janis and I had a Southern Comfort and Coke one time, her cough syrup-like drink, and that was one thing I don't care to do again (ever try one?) And I did see what Janis looked like first thing in the morning one time, hung over, in desperate need of makeup, a comb, coffee and, um, well, Clearasil, clumping down a motel corridor wearing a scowl and a cotton housecoat with little pink flowers on it.
But hell, it was at Woodstock, or near Woodstock at any rate, and we all looked a little raggedy-assed. Apparently unaware that it's wrong to collar critics before their morning coffee to ask their opinions, she asked what I thought of her new band ... the first post-Big Brother and the Holding Company band. This was the band that she told me, during the Southern Comfort and Coke, that she wanted to name "Janis and the Jackoffs."
I was stupid enough to tell her that I thought they were a little so-so. Very un-Janis-like, she sniffed "Well, that goes to show how much some people know!" and huffed off, housecoat flying. I felt a bit let down. Janis's reputation for being a barroom bad girl should have endowed her with more substantial epithets.
Jeez, Louise, can you just imagine what Courtney Love would say?
Within months Janis agreed that "the Jackoffs" lived up to the name she wanted to call them. She dumped them and formed a new backup band. A year after Woodstock, Janis came to town backed by Full Tilt Boogie. I loved them and said so in the Times.
There is a greater lesson here. Janis was a prime example of not knowing what you’re good at. Janis was a great barroom blues shouter. But there were lots of those, slightly floozy babes who sang blues and rock. Just not in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. What made Janis unique was the band she became famous fronting, Big Brother and the Holding Company.
They were the ur-San Francisco psychedelic band. They were loud and messy, all fuzz tones and feedback and they were beyond loud, they were deafening. They were, let’s be honest about it, not very good. Lead guitarist James Gurley once inspired the line, in Rolling Stone I imagine, “Eric Clapton may be the best guitarist in the world and James Gurley may be the worst, but …” And the writer went on to tout the value of wild emotion and balls. Clapton was controlled. Gurley never heard the word. It would have done him no good. He was sleeping with Janis.
There were lots of psychedelic bands in San Francisco in 1967 and thereabouts. What Big Brother did to secure their place in history was hire a wild blues shouter, Janis Joplin, at a time when “chick singers” were in the Grace Slick mold. Cool and unemotional. What worked for Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin was the contrast. It was amazing, jaw dropping. The boys would play a bit of ear-shattering psychedelic rock and then Janis would come on, singing a chorus of barroom blues. She was hot and lured the audience in, and then the guitarists would come back and nail the audience against the back wall with fuzz and feedback. It was awesome.
So what did Janis do when she became famous enough to ditch Big Brother? She hired a mediocre blues rock backing band, the never- named Jackoffs. When that didn’t work, she hired a good blues backing band, Full Tilt Boogie. And what was she then, a barroom blues singer with a great band. She had no idea what she was good at it. For my money, she never rose to the level of her early San Francisco days.
Listen to “Ball and Chain,” the signature tune on Big Brother’s “Cheap Thrills.” Then listen to her later butchery of “Me and Bobby McGee,” clearly the worst version of that song ever recorded (the best was by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, aka Elliott Adnopoz, son of a Brooklyn doctor). Of course Janis’s is the one everyone remembers.
You have to know what you’re good at. If you can’t figure it out yourself, ask around. You’re probably unemployed now, so find what turns you on and do it. “Follow your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell said when he wasn’t feeding George Lucas story lines.
I just recorded “Bobbie McGee” with a local singer named Kat Walker, on a CD that is mostly jazz standards. We tried to talk her out of it, but she was adamant, it did turn out pretty good. She wanted to copy Janis’s scatting at the end, but we convinced her that was definitely uncool, so she did her own thing.
The first version I ever heard of the song was Gordon Lightfoot’s, then Janis, then Kris Kristofferson himself. In some of the simpler versions, the song has a real wistful charm, which Janis kind of rolls over like Mac truck.
I will have to look for Ramblin’ Jack’s version. I heard him perform at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans once, at a kick-off party for Douglas Brinkley’s “Magic Bus” summer history course he used to teach when he was at UNO. Townes Van Zandt was the headliner. Elliot didn’t sing much, he just fingerpicked the guitar really fast and told a story about traveling up into the mountains of North Carolina with Jack Kerouac.
There is some good footage of Janis and Full Tilt Boogie in the movie “Festival Express”, both playing concerts and hanging out jamming with other musicians, like Jerry Garcia and Rick Danko. My friend and colleague, New Orleans saxophonist Jerry Jumonville, appears in the movie also. He was on tour with Delaney and Bonnie at the time.
The author Seth Morgan, reputedly Janis’s last lover, moved to New Orleans after the success of his novel, “Homeboy.” He was working on a new book and renovating a home, but he was killed in a motorcycle crash on the St. Claude bridge over the Industrial Canal.