The Lefsetz Letter: Rhinofy-Janis Joplin Primer

28 Apr The Lefsetz Letter: Rhinofy-Janis Joplin Primer

The Lefsetz Letter: Rhinofy-Janis Joplin Primer
Bob Lefsetz

Nobody heard it until after “Cheap Thrills,” but despite distant, lame instrumentation and production, Janis’s magic shines through.
At first, we in the hinterlands, i.e. not San Francisco, were thrown off by Joplin’s vocals, the same way we were years later with Rod Stewart’s, but we soon became enamored of her voice.
We can debate all day long her range and proficiency, but there’s no denying her passion, which is evident here, on the single from Big Brother’s initial LP.
Some people just have to make it. They need it. It’s palpable. You can hear and feel the PASSION!

Despite “Cheap Thrills” not truly being live, it mostly being recorded in the studio, this opening cut has truly got the Fillmore feel, with the energy and excitement.
You only knew this track when you bought the album, but still, there was something infectious about it, like you were being initiated into the cult.
When Janis sings… “Whoa… whoa, whoah, whoah, whoah” you just want to get closer.

The Bert Berns/Jerry Ragavoy composition that put the band over the top, the one that played everywhere when “Cheap Thrills” hit big in the summer of ’68.

It was the career-defining number. Just like Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” and so many other indelible debut tracks, but in this case, there was more…
P.S. Joel Selvin has just written a book about Mr. Berns… fascinating!

Instantly accessible, because we already knew this song… But the spacey arrangement made you want to run off to the Bay Area and join the hippies, and so many did!

The piece de resistance, the track that stuck from “Cheap Thrills,” the one that established Joplin’s bona fides.
I’ve got to reinforce that “Cheap Thrills” didn’t sound like pop music, it sounded like nothing on the radio, and that was its magic. If you bought it, opened the Robert Crumb cover and listened to it, you were a goner.
Remind me to tell you the story of playing guitar with Mr. Crumb in his apartment back in ’73…

She fired the band, since everybody said they were so bad, which they were, but this is almost always a mistake, because talent is superseded by feel and emotion. They’d coalesced as a unit, never underestimate this. Hell, that’s what’s wrong with today’s music, with its usual suspect players and writers, it’s not organic, and Big Brother & the Holding Company most definitely were.
With its all star cast, “Kozmic Blues” was much slicker, but that was a detriment. But it did all come together on this cut.
We could just say Gabriel Mekler was not as good a fit as John Simon, who produced “Cheap Thrills.”

And speaking of producers, on paper Paul Rothchild was not a good fit for Joplin either. But maybe the fact that she died during the album’s production and they had to employ scratch vocals gave the result magic that may not have been in the grooves if Janis had lived.
Who knows.
But it’s clear that “Pearl” is Joplin’s definitive statement. The one where it all comes together, the band and the singer, and it all starts here, with an opening cut full of energy, one that grabbed you immediately, despite not being an AM radio hit.
“Pearl” is the one posthumous album that lived up to the hype.

She cowrote this one, and it sounds as fresh today as it did yesterday, despite the ancient references, because we all have hope, especially in the underclass, and that’s what this song is all about, along with a huge dollop of humor. That’s the way our star musicians used to be, funny people poking fun at society and the human condition, before they all became automatons selling out in search of a buck.

We had no idea who Kris Kristofferson was, without this cover we might never have known.
This is Americana… going on the road in search of adventure and yourself.
Brilliant song, but Janis makes it her own. Hell, she owns the key line…
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
That’s the magic of music, when done right it distills life and serves it up in a matter of minutes.

It’s the organ, along with Janis’s tour-de-force rendition of this Berns/Ragavoy composition originally done by Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters back in ’63.
But this is the version everybody remembers.
It’s a story song, it’s like Janis is singing in your ear, or you stumbled upon her on a little stage in your local beer joint and she’s ringing your bell like no one on the stadium stage.

And ain’t that the case, get it while you can, because you may not be here tomorrow, like Janis.

This is a fitting closer to “Pearl,” and Joplin’s career.

Today stars are different. They’re belting without nuance, they’re dieted down to nothing, they’re two-dimensional.
But Janis Joplin was not. She was one of the boys. She drank her Southern Comfort and did her best to fit in, which she never really did, the road is a boys’ club.
But the truth is Janis Joplin needed to make it. With her bad complexion and youth in an insular two-bit town, she was the constant outsider, with a personality too big for the burg to hold her. She had to leave to prove herself.
And it was big news when she returned for her high school reunion, triumphant.
But the truth is you can never go back home.
Once upon a time, before Facebook, we could leave our upbringing behind, move to California and become the people we were inside, which is what Janis Joplin did.
And for a few years there, we were all entranced.
And she was not mysterious, she was not distant, she appeared on Dick Cavett, she toured, but we never really knew her. Because she always played the role.
And that becomes tiresome, putting up a front for people who are never satisfied with enough. You turn to substances to get you through. And sometimes they bite you in the ass.
And I’m not saying if Joplin lived she’d be on the victory lap Aretha Franklin is presently on, but the truth is there has never been anybody like her since. Which is why we remember.

Not all the songs were hers, but she was definitely an original.