Janis Joplin, Pearl

Lenny Kaye

By Lenny Kaye

on 01.04.12 in Reviews

Janis had every reason to be happy and everything to live for in September of 1970. During the difficult previous year in which she left Big Brother and the Holding Company, the band that had nurtured her, and then fronted the semi-soul revue of the Kozmic Blues Band, she was increasingly caught up in self-destructive behavior, becoming a hard-living caricature of herself.

A landmark testimony to Joplin’s forceful presence, even after her death

In a sense, she was acting out a microcosm of musical and personal growth that is not far removed from any artist's moving from their community into the world-at-large. As is the case in most hometown "scenes," whether San Francisco's Summer of Love or Seattle's Summer of Grunge or — well, you name it, from Athens to Montreal — the growth from indie-cred to major label dread (if we can be so black-and-white) is one perennially fraught with soul-searching, wrong turns, skid marks and a constant reassessment over what is gained over what is lost. Sometimes the artist is caught between two opposing poles, unable to satisfy the demands of either, and falls into the abyss below.

Janis took six months off in the beginning of 1970 to rehabilitate and reassess where her extraordinary voice and stage magnetism had taken her. When she reemerged in the spring of 1970, she set about putting a band together that would combine the family spirit of Big Brother with the sense of musical empathy she so desperately needed. When her friend Bobby Neuwirth asked if she was ready for a night of full tilt boogie, thus was christened the Full Tilt Boogie band. Its line up was a classic drums, bass, guitar, twin keyboards of piano and organ — and the feel was familiar, comforting, and allowed her to be her own gal.


Janis Joplin

To make a record, one more presence is needed: a knowledgeable and respectful producer. Paul Rothchild, who had guided many of folk's grandest names before entering the rock era, most notably with the Doors, understood Janis and where she wanted to go with her music: that he needed to help fuse a sound that highlighted her voice, that gave it room to breathe, to encourage her confidence to sing beyond Janis-isms, all the while keeping those Janis-isms intact for those who loved them, and that which made her unique. The tightrope walk.

Unfortunately, sometimes you fall off the wire, especially if you're high-strung, and you look down at the ground far below. After only a couple of weeks recording, completing basic tracks and sketching probable overdubs, Janis took the edge off a too-quiet night in her motel room and was found dead of a heroin overdose, her body unprepared for such indulgences.

Rothchild finished the album, piecing together these definitive primal screams from multiple vocal takes and scratch vocals, and the Full Tilt Boogie band listened ever closer to the voice of Janis as they framed her. The result is her most opalescent album, what happens when you pry open the protective shell to reveal the living creature inside, to see the beautiful orb that is created when the oyster feels a grain of sand and starts to build a body of work around it.

The Legacy edition of Pearl was released in 2005 to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Janis Joplin's tragic passing, on the cusp of completing this landmark album that would become her most assured triumph, fulfilling her promise as San Francisco's great blues hope and opening the pearly gates to what should have been a long and celebrated career. Her singing is by turns both joyous and filled with expiated pain; and the performances, from an off-the-cuff rendition of "Mercedes Benz" to the love song that lies at the root of "Me and Bobby McGee" to the out-and-out weep of "Cry Baby" to the fulfilled prophecy of "Get It While You Can" testify — and yes, no other word will do — to her sensuality and seduction as a live force of nature.

That quality is more than shown on the second disc of this Pearl reissue, which captures a baker's dozen of songs from her stopovers on the trans-Canada Festival Express Tour, which took place from June 28 to July 4, of 1970, virtually a warmup for the Pearl album that would start recording in September. A ribald trek across the great white North on a chartered train with the Band, the Grateful Dead, Delaney and Bonnie, Buddy Guy, and numerous others, Janis seems at home in the riotous, nonstop party atmosphere, relaxed and ebullient and finally feeling like she has come to terms with who she could be. In "Maybe," she pleads "please" like no other since James Brown; in "Summertime" she hits notes that seem to have no unearthly reason to come out of the human vocal cord, laying her heart on the line with each one. She joshes with the crowd, revealing vulnerability and bravado in "Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)" and "Little Girl Blue", and delivers a passionate, imploring version of "Ball And Chain" that shows you can't have one without the other, the all-too-human contradiction that makes her song as strong today as when she first spun it out into the air.