Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Janis: Little Girl Blue (Disarming Films, Jigsaw Productions, PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on KPBS last night for the documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, a 2015 production (first released theatrically last December — the now-defunct Reading Gaslamp Cinemas had a poster advertising it that at first made me think it was a dramatization rather than a documentary) about the life of 1960’s singer Janis Joplin. “This is a case of our generation gap,” Charles said when the film was over; “to me, Janis Joplin has always been dead.” Not to me; though I never actually saw her in person (the closest I got was a rock festival at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco in which she canceled at the last minute and was replaced by, of all people, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, whose song “Ball and Chain” had been covered by Janis and had been one of her biggest hits — as I once pointed out to Charles, both Thornton’s biggest hits, “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain,” had been stolen from her by white artists, Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin, respectively, but though they’d made the money off them she’d had the sweet revenge of outliving them both — to which Charles replied, “Yeah, but only because she couldn’t afford as many drugs as they could”), Janis was a living presence in the rock scene of San Francisco during my adolescence. The basic outlines of the story: Janis was born in December 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas (whose only other resident to achieve fame in the wider world was Harry Britt, openly Gay San Francisco Supervisor who was appointed to replace Harvey Milk when Milk was killed) and was a misfit all her childhood and early adulthood. She discovered music early on but was asked to leave her school choir because she wouldn’t follow directions. She was a particular fan of the traditional country blues and also of the classic women blues divas of the 1920’s, especially Bessie Smith (and if you listen to Bessie’s records you can hear where Janis got a lot of her vocal devices, including the sudden register shifts and the growls), and she got a chance to perform at a bar named Theadgill’s after its owner, Henry Threadgill, who made a number of tapes of her and made some of them available to her record label, Columbia, after her death. In 1963 Janis went to San Francisco for the first time, became a heroin addict and got so strung out her friends took up a collection to send her home. While in San Francisco that first time she also moved in with a Black woman who became her Lesbian lover, and who’s interviewed in this film — like a lot of Janis’s subsequent partners of both sexes, she broke up with her because she couldn’t stand being around a heroin addict; she also says in the movie that she doesn’t think Janis took up with a woman lover as a spit-in-the-eye to her family and the people she’d known growing up in Port Arthur (though it’s occurred to me that Janis wanted so much to be like Bessie Smith that she became Bisexual at least partly because Bessie had been). She recovered in Port Arthur and moved back to San Francisco in 1966, where she met a nightclub owner and promoter named Chet Helms who was managing an all-male rock band called Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Helms heard Janis Joplin sing and thought she’d be a good match for his band, so he put the two together for two rocky years in which the band got invited to the Monterey Pop Festival and became among the many acts who “broke” there to a wide audience (including the Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, both of whom had achieved major stardom in England but were unknown in the U.S. until Monterey). There’s a humorous anecdote in the film that Janis and her bandmates were the only ones at Monterey who refused to sign releases so their performance could be filmed — D. A. Pennebaker, the director of Bob Dylan’s legendary documentary Don’t Look Back, had been hired by the concert organizers, John Phillips and Lou Adler, to shoot the whole festival and make a movie of it — so the nine cameras they had set up were pointed at the ground, unstaffed, during Big Brother’s first set. But the performance was so explosive that Phillips (the leader of the Mamas and the Papas) and Adler (their manager) offered Big Brother a second set if they’d let that one be filmed — they did, they ended up in Pennebaker’s movie and they became a national sensation. Alas, they’d already signed a recording contract with Mainstream, a small outfit based in Chicago that until they signed Big Brother had been primarily a jazz label — and Mainstream’s owner, Bob Shad, had insisted on recording their first album in Chicago even though the trip would cost them more than they would make from the recording. (Usually a band that has to travel a long distance will try to set up gigs along the way so the trip will pay for itself, but Big Brother was then totally unknown outside San Francisco and no one was interested in hiring them.) At Monterey they were scouted by Clive Davis, legendary record mogul and then president of Columbia, and he was determined to do whatever he could to get Big Brother and Janis in particular on his label — he ended up having to pay Bob Shad a ton of money for their contract, but he got them and Big Brother’s second (and, as it turned out, last) album with Janis was released on Columbia. Alas, the two Big Brother albums with Janis aren’t particularly good — though in the 1960’s there was a mystique about holding the band together no matter how imbalanced its members’ talents, listening to them today it’s clear they were a mediocre band that wouldn’t have gone anywhere without that powerful, wrenching woman’s voice in the lead. (On both Big Brother albums there are tracks where Janis is supposed to be singing backup while one of the male members sings lead — only, try as she might to suppress her volume to fit in, she can’t help but overpower them.)

In 1969 Janis and her newly acquired big-shot manager, Albert Grossman (who also handled Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary), decided it was time for Janis to leave Big Brother and become a solo artist. Janis put together a new band and added instruments like horns and a Hammond B-3 organ, which led Rolling Stone to publish a snotty article to the effect that Janis should return to Big Brother and her roots in San Francisco psychedelica instead of trying to reinvent herself as “the new Aretha Franklin.” (Ironically, her biggest hit with Big Brother, “Piece of My Heart,” was a cover of a 1967 soul record by Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister.) This group never had an official name but was called the “Kozmik Blues Band” because the one album Janis made with it was called I Got Them Old Kozmik Blues Again, Mama. One story I was surprised did not get told in this film was that Janis’s first performance as a solo artist was scheduled for a Stax-Volt Records convention in Memphis, Tennessee, and Janis was the only white act on the bill. She played last and had to follow Ike and Tina Turner — and watching Ike and Tina before she went on totally unnerved her. She felt she had been totally outsung and outplayed, and the day after she called a band meeting and announced that she wanted to get her group of casual, easy-going, perpetually stoned hippies to perform a tight-knit stage act like the one she’d just seen from Ike and Tina — who by then had been together nearly a decade and had honed their electrifying performances through arduous rehearsals and long strings of one-nighters on the chitlin’ circuit. Eventually the Kozmik Blues Band expired — it appears that Grossman fired them en masse — and Janis formed another group called Full Tilt Boogie, which she acclaimed as the best band she’d ever worked with even though she still assembled its membership more from her friends and actual or potential fuck buddies rather than looking for the strongest and most powerful players she could get. (An example of what Janis could have become if she’d gone after the best musicians available came out in 1982; it was a song called “One Night Stand” and was part of a posthumous LP called Farewell Song. On it, she was produced by Todd Rundgren and backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and the combination of technically expert production and a first-rate band behind her produced one of Janis’s greatest records.)

Janis: Little Girl Blue comes off as a pretty normal story of a prodigiously talented rocker blowing it on drugs — especially heroin, which Janis seemed to be on and off of for much of her life; largely at the urging of David Niehaus, one of her more serious boyfriends and someone who’d never given an interview about her until this film, he’d successfully got her to kick and she stayed clean and sober until she went to L.A. to record the album Pearl with producer Paul A. Rothchild (who, ironically, had offered Janis a solo contract with Elektra in 1966 which she’d turned down out of loyalty to Big Brother, and who had produced all the Doors’ records until they’d fired him just before the sessions started on Pearl). She stayed clean throughout the recording until the night before she was to cut her vocal on the last song, “Buried Alive with the Blues,” whereupon she decided to celebrate the imminent completion of what she and everyone around her was thinking would be her best record to that point by scoring some heroin and doing it in her hotel room. What she didn’t know — and neither did anyone else until one of Joplin’s biographers thought to look at the hospital records in L.A. that weekend and noticed about 13 other heroin overdoses — was that she scored an unusually pure sample of heroin, so she may have injected the amount of substance she was used to but it contained a much higher concentration of active drug. (Long-term heroin users who go back on the drug after quitting it also often forget that their body has lost its tolerance, so a dose they could have absorbed at the height of their habits will kill them; this is probably at least part of what happened to Janis, and more recently it’s also what killed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.) This film was narrated by singer Cat Power (though she’s credited under her real name, Chan Marshall), and overall was a good presentation of an inevitably sad story; even before she died Janis’s voice seemed to bear the weight of all her traumas and pain, and a lot of people (including me) were sure her voice wouldn’t have lasted much longer even if she had survived. Indeed, when I heard her cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” and noticed that after years of just standing in front of a band and screaming into a microphone Janis had finally learned to sing softly in parts of a song and build tension instead of charging hard from the first bar to the last, I thought, “Damn! She died just as she was learning how to sing!”