Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A rediscovered pearl - Janis Joplin

Having given my blog a bit of a makeover yesterday, and rewritten some of the bio bits, it occurred to me that one of the most important landmarks on my musical journey has been disgracefully ignored so far on this blog – Janis Joplin. I hardly took notice of Janis when my brother first bought one of her records back in the early ’70s. Things more or less stayed like that until about ten years ago, right when I was in the midst of drowning myself in Mahler and Messiaen, when I happened to hear again that amazing voice on a documentary about her life and death. And so I not only went out and bought some of her CDs but even re-watched Bette Midler in The Rose. I could have done without The Rose, it turned out – one of those movies which, at least for me, is never as good when you watch the second time. But I kept Janis and, even now, she just seems to get better and better.

Janis’s blues-rock is iconic – that raspy, guttural voice, plucking notes out of the dirt and grime of human pain, and turning it into a celebration of passion; that way she screeches and screams from the heights, the way she grabs the depths by the balls; the way her music builds its thrust, its fire, its nerves with each breath, swelling to an orgasm of intensity; the way her music is reborn with every note.

These are the things that made Janis Joplin so extraordinary, the things that sent audiences aghast when she first started singing to them in the ’60s, but arguably there is nowhere where she really captured the essence of her style like she did on her album Pearl, still incomplete at the time of her death in October 1970. Here on Pearl, with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, she seems to have at last found a band that understood the importance of being her band, rather than of her being their singer.

But it’s not that it’s just a backing band. You just need to listen to ‘Buried Alive in the Blues’ – left without Janis’s voice when her death, the day before she was due to record the vocals, intervened – with its deep, funk-driven bass and its wild electric guitar and organ, punctuated by keyboard blues, to see how well this band understands the place where blues and rock intersect. Rather, it’s a band that provides just the right space in which Janis can breathe and create, because it knows that that’s where its energy comes from too. It’s a band that has an ego, but an ego that grows out of hers.

Pearl abounds with moments that make you think that music should only ever be performed like this – raucous and raw, music where the musician’s innards pour out at you, music that might well cut you to pieces if you stand too close to it.

There’s the way Janis builds to the visceral howls of ‘Cry Baby’; the laid-back, worn and torn roughness of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’; there’s the way the sweet opening of ‘Trust Me’ becomes harsh and anguished, like from a woman who has known too little trust.

But perhaps the most telling moment on Pearl, the moment that seems to capture so much of who Janis was, is the lonely, unaccompanied, unadorned ‘Mercedes Benz’, speaking to you in all its honesty, even while it staggers along, half on show, half hidden away in private, like a shy, slightly awkward, slightly bold, schoolgirl in front of a class, singing a song she has made up, not sure if people will admire her for it, or laugh her out of the room. Of course, they did both to Janis, and 'Mercedes Benz' is a gruff, cynical little song which, in less than two minutes, seems to capture so much of the emptiness, the false promises, of the capitalist way, of the world of rock and, as it turned out, of the life of Janis Joplin.

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