The best and worst thing to happen to Big Brother and the Holding Co. was adding Janis Joplin to their line up. There is probably a 50/50 split on whether people like her or not. I am firmly entrenched on the not side. Do I think she is talentless, no, I can’t deny her that. I just don’t like her signing style. Well, on most of her work, anyway. I also find her histrionics annoying, personality grating and the way she spoke incorporated the worst of the sixties phony hippy vernacular – “Oh weow, maaaaan”. She sounded like a haggard, chain-smoking house wife long before she had the chance to become one. I don’t mind her less oppressive contributions to Big Brother and the Holding Co., it is just when she took center stage, that’s was all there was – the band just didn’t exist.
Prior to the arrival of Janis, Big Brother and the Holding Co. was a fine little psychedelic band. I have often heard them called sloppy; an adjective I certainly don’t agree with. I enjoy their ferocious style. To me, musical precision is the death of rock. If I want to listen to math, I’ll put on some Bach. Give me distorted guitars and over driven amps pushed to their limit.
It could be argued that without Janis, Big Brother and the Holding Co., would have remained little more than a footnote in the San Francisco music scene. That may be true, but you get the impression that some of the band would have preferred to find out on their own. The bitterness that surrounds lead guitarist, James Gurley, is palpable. It is suggested in the film that he thought of himself as the star of the band, and perhaps, without Janis, he would have been – though with far less notoriety. He had a raw, visceral energy on stage that exploded in his freeform, acid drenched guitar playing. To me, that is when this band really shines. That said, the band did need someone up front, as no one member, nor combination of members, had what it takes, vocally, to front the group.
The writing was on the wall for Big Brother and the Holding Co. as soon as they sat down as a band to watch D.A. Penebakers film, The Monterey Pop Festival. Big Brother and the Holding Co. was not originally slated to appear in the film, as all the artists were asked to play for free and they declined. After their set, the response was so rapturous that the film makers begged them to appear in the movie and they capitulated – though it is not made clear whether they received payment for it. As a result, one career is launched and another is torpedoed.
The Monterey Pop Festival film opens with a Big Brother and the Holding Co. song that features the entire band – this is not in the documentary, but I think it is an important point. It is audio only, and is playing as the opening credits roll. They sound great, ebullient, and the entire band features in the song – it is a band song. The trouble starts when the film gets to their live performance (which is in the documentary). The band, expecting to see the band featured as a unit in their big shot at fame, ended up witnessing, basically, a solo performance of Janis – the cameras hardly moved from her for the entire song. The damage was done, the seeds of bitterness were sown, and it was only a matter of time until all the whispers in Janis’ ears to dump Big Brother and the Holding Co. would come to pass.
It is sad really, but to be honest, she was too big for them. To this day I’d still rather listen to Big Brother and the Holding Co. than solo Janis. If I really want to hear Janis, I’ll just stuff a bunch of cats into a pillow case and swing around over my head. Fan or not, it is hard to deny her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival was one for the ages.
Big Brother and the Holding Co. did solider on without the woman voted the ugliest man at her high school, but it was never the same. The band members are philosophical about it, but you can see that the scars haven’t healed after all these years. James Gurley seems completely indifferent when the subject of her death is raised – he is icily cold. One member, Sam Andrews, did go with Janis when she left. He makes a good point, in that he liked the direction she was going in and wanted to come along for the ride. Fair enough. When Janis’ new group, The Kosmic Blues Band, folded, Sam was back in Big Brother and the Holding Co. by the end of 1969.
I really like this film, in spite of Janis. I have probably watched it three or four times. It is a great piece of history that takes place during one of the most important eras in modern music – the San Francisco music scene of the mid to late 60s. The interviews are with to the band members and there are no unnecessary pseudo-authoritative guest speakers giving their opinions on what happened. What really makes this film standout is the excellent live footage culled from a few different sources (one of which being the very respected, KQED-TV studios in San Francisco. That particular show may now be purchased in its entirety). The live footage really shows what a truly unique band they were for those 900 nights.