Big Brother and the Holding Company
Sam with a trusted friend
Interview by Randy Patterson, Part 3
I bring the conversation around to the latest release by Big Brother, entitled, The Lost Tapes.
"Well, I didn't have a lot to do with that project. I'm not much for fumbling around in the past, revisiting the musty halls of antiquity, not creating, but recreating. Big Brother played real early on at a club called The Matrix in San Francisco. Marty Balin and his father owed it. Anyway, the sound man, he was real smart, recorded everyone. It was technology from that time, of course. And he had recorded all these tapes. They were collected together, those performances. So, they're us a LONG time ago – before – even before our first album. Paleolithic.
"And, so they are, drum roll, THE LOST TAPE! We'd known about them for years but it was hard getting to hear them. That's the way we sounded, I guess, when we first got Janis and before we first really went into songwriting mode. The selections are almost all other people's tunes.
"I don't know what fans think. To me, the playing on it is abysmal, inchoate, you know? But, then, a lot of people say they like it. So I have to honor that. I don't want to be second-guessing other people's opinions. "There's a lot of energy in the production of The Lost Tapes. It documents when we started out. My favorite aspect of this is Peter Albin, who's the bass player and he was the leader of the band at that time. This is Peter as he really was. And it sounds like he's Lenny Bruce/Mort Sal/Bob Newhart – that early 60's atmosphere. You know, Tommy Smothers. I mean, this real goofy announcing style. He talks and he mumbles until he backs into something. I loved Peter when he was like that. So, that, to me, that's what The Lost Tapes is: Peter's self-deprecating, eccentric persona."
Later, he adds, "It was a lot of fun. That brings up the fact that Janis was a real trouper. And they never get THAT in these screenplays. She was willing to do – she'd play, like a tambourine for 15 minutes when we'd go through our instrumental madness. She really loved what we were doing. She looked up to it. She was a real artist and the music was highly experimental and she'd just play, like, a clave or a guiro orsomething. She'd wail like a banshee. You know, she'd be really experimental. She had fun doing that. She was an artist, every bit as into it as we were.
"Janis would defer to Peter. He would announce things. We'd kind of laugh at him and with him, because he mumbled and lisped. I think he was missing a tooth. Everything 'thounded' kinda like 'thith,' that Tommy Smothers thing. He had that thing down. It was hilarious."
The mention of Tommy Smothers gets us off on a tangent about the Smothers Brothers and one of their writers, Steve Martin.
"I always thought that Dickey was the business man; dominate guy and pulling all the strings behind the scenes. And it emerges in this Smothers Brothers documentary that it was really Tommy running everything. Being the rebel and kind of shooting himself in the foot when they went against that CBS censorship thing. He over did that and really, I suppose, harmed their career. But, you have to make a stand somewhere and, God bless him for that."
Segueing to Steve Martin, he adds, "Well, one of the writers was Steve Martin. It may have been his first job. There was a club in San Francisco called The Boarding House and Peter Albin played in a band called The Dinosaurs. They would play there and Steve Martin would warm up for them. Nobody knew who he was. He already did that stuff like the arrow through the head and making the mic real high so it looked like he got short. We said, 'Who IS this guy? My god, he's so funny!' Quite a guy!"
As I do in every interview I do with artists from the classic rock era, I ask Andrew if he sees any difference between the music of today and that which was produced in the '60's and '70's.
"Well, there's a lot to say about that. Technically, it's a lot better today. It's a LOT better. There's no comparison. I'm real conscious of this because at every gig for Big Brother, I have to hire a singer to replace Janis and a guitar player to replace James Gurley. And these people are usually around 30 years old. The difference in their playing and their technique and their presentation, it's like – I mean, they're better – every guitar player that I hire is better than anyone in the '60's - plays better. And, why not? They have tuners now. There's a $20 tuner now that you can carry around in your pocket. Meanwhile, for us in the 60's, the tuner was like this oscilloscope that cost about $450. It was like a scientific machine. So nobody could afford it, you know? So, bands with a keyboard could tune to that, but we were 'guitarred and feathered,' as far as tuning goes. Yikes!
"Also, there was literally no book on how to play rock and roll when we started. There was a really good jazz book by Mickey Baker, of Mickey and Sylvia, and I had read that book when I was about 18. Practiced out of it but there was no book on rock and roll. Now, there are not only books, but there's DVD's you put in your computer and watch this guy do it, your own private lesson. That would have seemed miraculously simple to us.
"Now, these guys had grewn up on – they took as their starting point, Jimi Hendrix, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert. They learn all that stuff as their first step. Our first step was learning a blues scale. They learn, like, tapping harmonics, twelve tones, augmented and diminished substitutions. So, they're PHENOMENAL players. That's one thing, the education.
"But, when you talk about the 'meat', the context, the content, what you're really saying with this technique, well, there's not the focus in society now and you cannot synthesize that focus, that belief system, that simplicity, that one world view that there was in the 1960's. You can't package that and sell it. In the whole general society, there's not the same feeling as there was. People in the '60's were really committed. And they came out of the folk thing and they were serious and single-minded in a way that someone today can't be serious and single-minded.
"Today, music is a business, big time. There's Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles, a school that turns out sensational guitar players, technically way beyond anything anyone could do in the 60's. In the 1960's, it was the first time. It was your first time love. And, now, these guys have fallen in love 500 times and they've even seen the porno movies. The first time is so different. You just can't replace that." "Gary Moore, can play really great blues – lyrical, beautiful, meaningful. But it's just not going to sound the same as Reverend Gary Davis or Mance Lipscomb, or Elizabeth Cotten. Gary Moore or Paul Gilbert are far better technically. They're way better players, better than, say, Skip James as far as the knowledge – and the technique, the tuning, the complexity of ideas. But, soul, content, emotion, belief, faith? Just listen."
I ask Sam if there are any artists that have commanded his attention lately.
"We have some ferocious guitar players now. They're unbelievable. One that you might look up is Joel Hoekstra. You can Google him and see what he's doing. He's so interesting and he's so committed to his art and there's a sense of humor and warmth there.
"I hear a lot of unsigned bands. I don't really follow anybody. My music listening is really haphazard unless I'm working on a specific project where there's a goal in min. Otherwise, I don't have the radio on, ever, really. My wife is an excellent classical pianist. She plays Scriabin, Bach and Beethoven, Mozart and such. So I hear a lot of that. You know, I hear a lot of unsigned bands in their seriously developmental stage, because they mail CD's to me, and that's about it, as far as popular music goes."
In the course of the conversation, I mention Bonnie Bramlett, formerly of "Delanie and Bonnie and Friends."
"You know, we almost went to Europe together. I called her. We got really close on that one. She was going to go to Europe and be the singer with Big Brother. I don't know what happened to cause that to fall through. She's just a doll. She's got real soul." Sam then mentions a little gem of a movie that I hadn't heard of called, Festival Express in which Bramlett and Joplin are together.
"It's really good. I recommend it. She and Janis are talking a lot. Their conversations are just so sincere and heartfelt. That's what I miss, that warmth. They took a train across Canada and there were several bands on there. The Grateful Dead were on there. Buddy Guy, probably the best musician. Janis. In fact, it might be her best live singing – her best performance on film. They would stop all the way across Canada and get off and perform. And, then, meanwhile, getting as drunk as they – only as they did in the '70's. You know, total disregard for sanity or health or anything else. Totally blitzed. And they filmed all of that. Those people were having really a fun time being young and crazy. That, I missed. I wish that I could've gone on that. I don't miss Woodstock, but, oh, how I wish I was on that train.
"So, Bonnie Bramlett and Janis are having these drunken conversations. They're both so sweet and so genuine. They're really saying important things to each other. Two real women, really communicating with each other."
In wrapping up our conversation, I ask Andrew what he thought Janis would think about all of this (the music, the industry and the like).
"Probably the same as we do. I don't know, hard to tell. She was so perceptive. She might be spearheading some of what goes on today. I don't know. I'm not sure how that would have turned out for her." And so we say our good-byes and go our separate ways. On the drive back to my hotel near San Jose, I think about the chat we just had and the rich substance of it all. While Sam Andrew isn't a "coulda/shoulda/woulda" kind of guy, I couldn't help but think of what could have been if Janis Joplin hadn't died. No doubt there was a lot more for her to give.
However, while the world was robbed of what was still churning inside her heart and head, we still have Sam Andrew and Big Brother and the Holding company. If you're fortunate enough to have them stop in a town near you, take advantage of seeing this legend perform.
And, while you're dusting off those old vinyl records to hear "Ball and Chain" or "Piece of My Heart," why don't you go ahead and order The Lost Tapes and relive the idealism and innocence of the '60's, if but just for a moment.
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