Photos courtesy of David Getz website
Life with/out Janis & Big Brother
by Randy Patterson
October of this year will mark the 40th anniversary of the passing of Janis Joplin. Joplin, who would be 67 years young if she were alive today, left her indelible mark on the rock and roll landscape during her four short years of stardom.
The band responsible for launching her into the stratosphere of rock superstardom was the San Francisco–based Big Brother and the Holding Company. The addition of Janis's bluesy voice in 1966 was just extra-tasty icing on the cake, because by then Big Brother was already a great band with a strong and growing fan base in the Bay Area. The partnership lasted only until the end of 1968, when Janis left the group to go it alone.
One of those who were there to watch it all happen from start to finish was the Big Brother drummer, Dave Getz. I recently interviewed Dave to discuss his new CD, Can't Be the Only One (see here). The album title comes from a song that Janis wrote the lyrics to (but never recorded) when she heard Dave and the band jamming in a rehearsal studio. The original lyrics, written on a promotional flyer, are still in Dave's possession and have only now been recorded.
Discussing the story behind that song, I couldn't help but discuss Janis with Dave. The song's lyrics reveal the pain and insecurity of one who is lonely and feeling unloved—feelings commonly associated with Janis.
I started off the interview by asking Dave the same question I asked his band mate in Big Brother, guitarist Sam Andrew, during my interview with him for Perfect Sound Forever: What is the least covered or most misunderstood aspect of Janis? While similar to Sam's, Dave's answers add a little more color to the mosaic known as Janis.
"Of Janis? I think that the most misunderstood aspect of her is that she was some wild, crazy sex maniac. Or that she was completely loose and free about everything, or just partying 24/7. It's just not true. A good example of it was when the Cheap Thrills album art was stolen from Columbia back in the early seventies; it appeared at a Sotheby's auction sometime in the early eighties. We tried to sue Sotheby's because they didn't have providence. We knew that it had been stolen. Sotheby's said that the person who had consigned the artwork claimed that he had received the artwork from Janis directly; that they had met at the offices of some teen magazine in the late sixties when Cheap Thrills was done and she was carrying around the artwork with her. They shared a cab ride in Manhattan, going downtown, and she liked him so much that she gave him the artwork. And then he had the artwork and was selling it at Sotheby's.
"It was a complete fabrication--a lie--because Janis, well, first of all, she never had the artwork. But, let's say that she had gotten it--had gone into Columbia and stolen it herself. She wasn't the kind of person that would just give somebody something that was so important to her in a cab ride. But the fact was, because she had this reputation as a drug addict, alcoholic, loose, partying 24/7... red hot mamma kind of image, that she would do something like that and they could say that was believable. To anybody that even knew Janis, that was completely unbelievable. You hear that all the time.
"It's like this book that Ellis Amburn wrote about her [Pearl: The Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin]. He has her with Albert Grossman, her manager, and things like that. It wouldn't have happened in a million years-- not that she wasn't looking around just like guys in a lot of rock bands are--looking for somebody to take back to the motel room. That happened from time to time. No question about it. The fact, also, that she liked getting high and using heroin and liked drinking, all of that, it was all true. But she wasn't drunk 24 hours a day, and she wasn't high 24 hours a day. She had certain guys that she was attracted to, and she had certain women that she was attracted to, but she didn't get it on with everybody.
"Anyway, that's sort of a big misconception. They don't understand how she was like a regular person. So, yeah, there's the tendency to oversimplify her and buy into the kind of exaggerated image. In some ways, she's at fault, too. Especially in the last six months of her life, she played on that image."
Since the image most of the public has of Janis is distorted, I asked Dave how he would describe her, since he knew her so well. His answer was thorough and balanced.
"I would describe her in a lot of ways. I would say that she was extremely intelligent. She was extremely funny. She was extremely quick witted. She was emotionally quick. She wasn't like a passive/aggressive person at all. She was the kind of person who, if she was hurt, would express it. She was very emotionally right under the surface. She didn't know how to keep her emotions buried, passive/aggressive like most of us are.
"She was also very serious--musically serious; very hip; very aware when she heard other singers and what they were doing and what she could steal. She was a musician. She was very much into her musical adventure and her musical journey. Getting better and working at it. Sometimes she was uncertain that she was as good as people were telling her. I heard her a number of times say, ‘Aw, I can't ever sing like that--like Aretha Franklin or anything.' She definitely had low self-esteem and insecurity and, at the same time, she had a huge ego--a HUGE ego and a huge sense of herself as being the best at what she did and being right on the level with the best up there."
Every aspect of Janis's life has been explored in biographies such as Ellis Amburn's Pearl, Peggy Caserta's Going Down with Janis, and Michael Spörk's excellently written Living with the Myth of Janis Joplin: The Story of Big Brother and the Holding Company, as well as in countless other rock biographies, autobiographies, and documentaries. One common theme throughout all the stories about her pre-stardom days was that she was considered an ugly duckling. One story goes so far as to say that a University of Texas fraternity voted her "The Ugliest Man on Campus."
When I asked Dave if he thought that all of this abuse had fueled Janis's insecurities, he pounced on the question: "Yeah! She was an ugly duckling when she was growing up, at least in her teen years. She was considered from the time she was 14 or 15 to the time she was 19 as a kind of ugly duckling chick. She got a lot of abuse in that area so she had to try to find some other value in herself--a way to find some self-esteem. Singing, of course, was it."
I thought of some of the lines in "Can't Be the Only One," which express the pain that a teenaged--or even a 25- year-old--Janis must have felt:I can't be the only one cryin' at night... ...too much sadness in this world... ... take this lonely heart from one lonely girl...Just as I asked Sam Andrew last year, I asked Dave what Janis would be doing if she were alive today. With a laugh, he dove right into the complex nature and unpredictability of Janis.
"There's so many images that come to mind. One of the things that comes to mind, if you look at Janis physically and try to project where she was going physically, at least in terms of drinking and drug abuse, and you try to project her sexuality, project to the future, you could see her as being fat, a big red nose, kind of dikey. You could project that kind of thing.
"On the other hand, musically, I can see very easily in my mind her doing other genres. I could see her doing a blues record, country record, even; or a tribute to somebody that she really loved, like Odetta [Holmes]; even, possibly, going back and doing all of Bessie Smith's work. Just exploring a lot more genres that she was capable of than she really got to do. I think that would be a realistic projection--that she would have got to do a lot more, musically, and explore a lot of the areas, in some way, that she was capable of.
In the course of the conversation, Getz offered other possibilities as to what Joplin would be like had she not overdosed alone in her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel. He concluded his thoughts by saying, "So, if she changed her way of living and gotten straight and found something else, who knows? You just don't know because she certainly had intelligence. She was very, extremely smart and could've wound up writing. She could've been writing her autobiography at some point."
What a story I'm sure Janis could have told. The stories of what was and what could have been. How painful it was to be laughed at and insulted as a teen and young adult. I'm sure that she would have her own descriptions of the hole that she obviously felt in her heart and soul from just wanting to be loved and cherished and how she ultimately got herself through the darkest of nights.
If, as Dave Getz mused, she had walked away from her drug and alcohol abuse, she would have been an inspiration to others who found themselves where she was and found hope to keep on keepin' on. She, no doubt, would have shared in greater detail how other great artists had inspired her to shoot for the stars and how she, in turn, had the same effect on yet other artists.
Perhaps the closest to Janis Joplin's autobiography we will have is the song "Can't Be the Only One." As Dave wrote in the liner notes of the album:"... but what I saw for the first time was not only how honest and personal these words were, but also how prophetic they were at the time she wrote them. She still felt pain and loneliness despite all the accolades. She knew that there were others that felt the same; this was her connection with her audience. She wasn't ‘the only one cryin' at night'. She knew that she had to give what she had to give. ‘I'll add my part, take this lonely heart...' She also knew her own tendencies and what could happen: ‘Reachin' too high, babe, can't help from getting burned. Twenty five years of sorrow and tears (she was 25 in '68) you'd think by now I would have learned.' She saw her own tragedy as it was about to unfold."
Also see Randy Patterson's website
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|