Janis Joplin And Her "Big Brothers" Come Back Live And Raw
A boon for classic-rock fans in recent years has been an increased activity in vault-mining, as record labels are discovering, polishing up, and releasing a lot of unearthed "new" material from favorite bands in the form of live shows, as well as outtakes, demos, new songs and alternate versions often tacked onto "Legacy" or "Deluxe" reissues of classic albums.
Janis Joplin fans have reason to celebrate with the appearance of Big Brother & The Holding Company: Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 and the two-disc The Pearl Sessions (both Columbia/Legacy). The former was originally recorded by legendary '60s acid guru/Grateful Dead associate Owsley "Bear" Stanley III, who supervised the mastering just prior to his 2011 auto accident death in Australia.
Rocks Off recently spoke with Big Brother drummer Dave Getz about the live record, the long shadow of the girl from Port Arthur, and a musical collaboration more than 40 years in the making.
Rocks Off: How did you first find out about the existence of the tape and then that it was going to be released?
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DG: I knew about the recording many years ago because I've always been friend with Bear. And at one point he played it for me about 30, 34 years ago, and I thought it was pretty fantastic.
Then, about 13 years ago, he came back and got the four guys in Big Brother back and brought us to a studio and played it through these giant speakers. And I think the band was unanimous in that we all hated it. We started to hear all the imperfections, the wrong notes, the timing wasn't good, guitars out of tune, etc. Bear was inconsolable and thought we were crazy and we sort of had a falling out over it.
Years later, I got a copy and I heard it more detached from my own playing and more as a time capsule. It's so balls-out musically and the energy is fantastic, so I didn't care about the mistakes anymore. It captures something about Janis that the other records didn't.
RO: Listening to it, any favorite moments?
DG: I think "Coo Coo," an old Appalachian folk song that we did. It was a connection to Janis' folky days. The tempo is so fast [on our version], though. It's not like we were meth freaks, that was just the energy we had.
RO: I have to love the band's stage announcement that warns Hell's Angels in the audience that the cops are ticketing their bikes outside.
DG: That was great (laughs).
RO: Has it frustrated you over the years that casual fans tend to only see Big Brother through the Janis prism? Even on this CD cover, a huge graphic of her is looming over four musician shadows.
DG: It changes over the years how you feel about it. I was more defensive in the '70s about the band's legacy and that we were better than people thought and not just Janis' backing band. I couldn't even listen to the music at one point. Then you go back another way.
But I know there was value and that we had something. And a lot of people feel now that there were some things that Janis did with Big Brother that she couldn't with the other bands, despite the fact that they were technically better musicians.
RO: Lots of people outside of San Francisco found out about the group through the Monterey Pop movie.
DG: I have a lot of memories of the Festival, and we were the only act that played twice. The reason was that when we first went on, we refused to sign a release to be in the film because we felt at the time that we didn't mind playing for free for the people, but when someone was trying to make money from it, we didn't want any part of that. Other bands didn't sign it either--The Grateful Dead and Steve Miller didn't sign, and that's why they're not in the movie.
But we did five songs -- and Janis only sang three of them. But she was a big hit and people talked her into doing a second time in a prime spot. There was a lot of infighting over that. In the end, she won out and we went on again. And what happened was that when the movie came out, it was, like 101 percent Janis and there was no band.
They cut out the guitar solo and focused the camera on Janis. And at that point, she became separated from the band as the star, and we were to many the backing band. It was the beginning of the end for [our collaboration].
RO: When I was growing up, I read all about the mystical "Summer of Love." As I got older, I read more accounts that painted a not-so-rosy picture of the reality.
DG: When the Summer of Love happened in '67, it was kind of the beginning of the end, because the early and mid-'60s were a great time in San Francisco and the drugs were just pot and maybe acid. In the beginning, the psychedelic drugs were used by people on a spiritual pursuit, writers and artists and musicians and psychiatrists. They were spiritual seekers and not thrill-seekers.
But then methamphetamine and heroin started to show up, and it became a bad scene. That's not to say there wasn't also a lot of great music happening and people exploring, but the overall look of it changed from the mid-'60s. By the end of 1967, it was starting to look like squalor, like the streets of Bombay. And the vibe changed.
RO: Any particular memories of playing Houston?
DG: Big Brother played in Houston in 1987 when we first got back together at Rockefeller's, opening for John Lee Hooker. And I think we've probably played there with Janis in '68.
RO: The title track on your new solo CD, Can't Be The Only One, was co-written with Janis 43 years ago. Was it lost, or you just hadn't thought about recording it until now?
DG: It wasn't lost. Right at the time that Janis had announced we were leaving Big Brother, we had a rehearsal and I started playing a riff on the keyboard and everybody joined in and we jammed. Janis said she really liked it and was going to write words for it. She gave me the words, but we never rehearsed again as a band.
So I put the lyrics away in a box with a bunch of other stuff, and I would show it to people as a piece of memorabilia. And when I started to record my own music in 2002 and I looked at the lyrics, and I thought they were some of the most revealing lyrics she'd ever written. They were about who she was and seeing herself from a distance, and where she was going. The last verse she wrote she says "Reachin' too high babe on the feeling that you're gonna get burned." She was about to embark on a solo career and seeing herself that way.
So I wrote the music and tried it with a number of different singers, but Kathi McDonald was the perfect person because she was the singer who replaced Janis in 1970 when we first got back together. And that was a karmadelic thing!
Live at the Carousel Ballroom and The Pearl Sessions are both available now.