Janis Joplin: Big Brother's White Soul

03 Sep Janis Joplin: Big Brother's White Soul

by John Poppy, Look
September 3, 1968

“Without the music, I might have destroyed myself. Now, my feelings work for me.”

Early afternoon in San Francisco. What if her all-out performances wreck her throat? She looks away, “Maybe I won’t last long, but if I hold back I’m no good now.”

An MC who really knows what he’s doing introduces them all in one breath, without commas: “…here they are Janis Joplin Big Brother and the HOLDING Company!” Whang! Everything happens at once. The boys flail out their first chord at the instant Janis strides up, snatches a mike by the throat and bellows – what? What is she singing? It starts off sounding like, “You don’t own me…” but thousands of watts of electricity ram the voice, the drums, the guitars past hearing into other realms of sensation. In the audience, 19-year-old Mimi sits gripped by the authority of Big Brother’s sound, keeping the beat with her whole body. She weeps with joy every time she hears Janis Joplin. “I need a man, I need a man, I need a man to love me…” Is that what she is singing? ” don’t know,” Mimi says, but tears have filled her eyes anyway.

Well, Janis was right. During a break in rehearsal several days earlier, she had dismissed lyrics with a downward wave. “Don’t worry about the words, man. What we’re trying to do is get people moving.” That is what the primitive rock bands of bygone years used to say, but Janis adds a dimension: she delivers all of herself, gut, marrow, joy and sorrow, to you when she sings. She moans, she croons, but most of all she shrieks – to the despair, she claims, of her mother back in Texas, who is supposed to have asked her, “Janis, why do you scream when you’ve got such a pretty voice?”

She’ll do anything “to make you feel what I feel.” Part blues, part rock, her style inspires talk of “soul,” that secret link between the survivors of some huge, shared suffering. She has it, say her fans. Not really, say purist black listeners. “Awww,” says Janis, “you know why we’re stuck with the myth that only black people have soul? Because white people don’t let themselves feel things. Man, you and any housewife have all sorts of pain and joy. You’d have soul if you’d give in to it.”

Break time. The concert was half over. Neatly dressed students drifted around the college gym (no smoking, no dancing during the performance) while, back in a locker room, Janis and the boys changed out of sweaty costumes and tried to think what to play for a second set. Sam nearly dropped his guitar when he skidded near Janis. “Ugh, you’ve been spitting on the floor,” he grinned in mock protest.

“Yeah,” she admitted, “I’ve got a lot of crap in my throat,” and took another sip from a Styrofoam cup of her favorite lubricant, Southern Comfort. Hip fans sometimes hand her a bottle of that instead of flowers.

Janis can be gross. She knows it, digs it and doesn’t even try to be little and pretty – which is one reason for the authority she holds over an audience. In the language of soul, she’s got herself together; she if focused. Her effect comes only partly from the voice. There are also the eyes, the jabbing finger and the body. Janis is trim, but moves onstage like a 300-pound mama. When she stomps, her hips and shoulders and elbows and head move right along with her feet in a heavy blast of grace. None of this is accidental. Janis and Big Brother’s four men are professionals, not just electrified hippies. they practice long hours in a loft, working hard to let the soul come out.

Big Brother and the Holding Company is one of the oldest San Francisco groups, but one of the latest to taste the record contracts and concert tours of the Big Time. Back when folk, jazz and rock were starting to merge, its men came together just to get stoned and play for people dancing, to groove with the sounds, not to make money.

Janis joined them in middle sixties. They taught her to change her blues with the pulsating power of the big amplifiers, she gave them a voice, and they all kept on playing to make their friends dance. (Now, these are our people! Whee!” Janis crowed when she saw the grimy, pot-smoking crowd in the Straight Theater on Haight Street a few nights after the college performance.) In the old days, Big Brother was practically the Hell’s Angels private band. Things do change, of course: It is said that the Angels now have a couple of managers and want Blue Cross, while Big Brother makes records and concerts to play for sit-down concerts. But they haven’t changed too much. The group still plays for their friends, including the Angels, and still behaves in the loose, low-key family way you never feel in those shiny bands created for TV. You can spend several days with them and realize later that first names – Peter, Sam James, Dave and Janis – are all you want, all you need. Would the music sound different if you knew more?