Janis Joplin – Little Girl Blue: The Early Years (1963-65) (Godfatherecords GR. 999)
The Coffee Gallery, San Francisco, 1963: 1)Leavin´ This Morning, 2) Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, 3) Careless Love, 4) Bourgeois Blues, 5) Black Mountain Blues, 6) Gospel Ship, 7) Stealin´. The “Typewriter Tape”, Santa Clara, 1964: 8) Trouble in Mind, 9) Long Black Train, 10) Kansas City Blues, 11) Hesitation Blues, 12) Down and Out, 13) Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. “This Is Janis”, 1965: 14) Apple of My Eye, 15) 219 Train, 16) Codine, 17) Down and Out, 18) Turtle Blues, 19) I Ain´t Got a Worry, 20) Brownsville.
Once upon a time, before the Janis Joplin that we all know (and that has touched so many of us indelibly), there existed for a brief time another version of her. A young girl still not touched by the hippie revolution, still not scarred by the life of excesses, amphetamines, booze and endless touring. One that certainly wasn´t as colorful, explosive or innovative as the Janis we all keep in our hearts and minds, but who was also individualistic and unconventional in her own way, while remaining more traditional in her approach to country–blues: a rootsier, folksier Janis. This is the singer that has been documented here, in this slim but sufficient bootleg (consisting of a single disc) from Godfather Records. The material included here corresponds to three different moments: the first two sets come from Janis´s time as a coffee-house singer in San Francisco, between 1964 and 1965 (seven songs per set); the third one is the seven-song tape that Janis recorded as her presentation card in 1965, before joining big Brother and the Holding Company. Let us go step by step and discuss these three moments separately.
In 1964, a twenty- year old Janis was trying to establish herself as a regular name in the folk and blues coffee-houses in San Francisco; at that point she had already abandoned college without telling her family, moving to the Bay area in order to join the “beat” scene in some capacity. Her various biographers seem to agree that, at that point, she had no definite plans as for her future: she started singing after abandoning her early prospects of becoming a painter, and was extremely uncertain as to what expected her in the coming years. But for the moment, she was more than content to join the counter-cultural environment of San Francisco, where beatniks ruled the scene and where jazz and heavy blues where part of the basic musical soundtrack. Janis had been bullied mercilessly at school; doubtless it was a major relief for her to be able to merge into an environment where a rebellious attitude and an eagerness for adventure were the rule, rather than the exception. Some witnesses have reported their memories of Janis singing along to an autoharp rather than a guitar, in her very early attempts at placing herself before an audience; others have denied that such a scene ever took place, and that Janis always offered her performances either playing the guitar or having an accompanist who did. The Coffee Gallery and The Coffee and Confusion in San Francisco were two of the places in which she discovered and kept honing her unique gift: a strong, expressive and (at that time) clean voice, which seemed to gain in expression and depth every time that it expressed anger, frustration of pain. Everything in her personality was leading Janis to the blues, and that was the basis on which she would build her unique approach to rock.
The first of the performances recorded here is likely to come from 1963, and was recorded at the Coffee Gallery. Both the subject matter of the songs and the rough, energetic nature of the performance show the kind of artistic definition that Janis was seeking: these are pieces about sexual anxiety, jealousy, brutal violence and social exclusion, but also about a full sense of enjoyment and passion, and of occasional wonder at the simpler pleasures of life, irrespective of their possible immorality. Janis was clearly moving here on the darker, more dangerous (and authentic) side of blues and folk. The set begins with an extraordinarily dynamic “Leavin´This Morning”, in which Janis begins to warm the audience up; they respond eagerly and enthusiastically from the very start. This is followed by the erotic and yearning “Daddy Daddy Daddy”, which she used to play very often in her initial stints, and in which one can feel the atmosphere charging up, and a growing sense of complicity between the audience and her, as she slurs some of the sassiest lines here (“You know, he kisses me at bedtime/ gives me candy when I´m good…”) as the audience claps gleefully along. “Careless love” (an interesting piece written by Lonnie Johnson, about a woman´s revenge against an imprisoned man who has destroyed her family) is interpreted next with a sense of controlled violence and regret. And then comes a moment of rough, ragged magic: her interpretation of Leadbelly´s “Bourgeois Blues”, which quickly brings the game to a new, higher level. This is recognizably our very own Janis Joplin, belting out with rage all her feeling of fury and anger against racial exclusion (“Well, these white men in Washington, they just know how/ to call a man a nigger just to see him bow!!”); the audience is suitably moved and responds with loud cheer and applause: one can feel the full identification between the singer and her listeners here. She completes her set with a masterful version of “Black Mountain Blues”, a tune by Bessie Smith which she makes her own, hollering with both clarity and abandon. This first part of the CD is completed with two pieces, “Gospel Ship” and the traditional country-blues “Stealin´”; in both of them Janis sings along an unidentified accompanist. In several previous bootleg editions of this recording these two pieces have been placed at the beginning of this show rather than at the end (as is the case here). Since the recording breaks off between the five first five pieces and these two, it is impossible to tell which of the two bits came first that evening.
The second set is the very well-known rehearsal tape that Janis recorded at the home of Jorma Kaukonen in June 1964. Jorma (later of the Jefferson Airplane) is a figure that is not often remember as having been associated with Janis, but he was one of her usual accompanists in San Francisco; in this tape they can be heard in an extremely relaxed atmosphere, both of them playing number after number in a performance that, for most of its duration, is of good quality and could well have been executed before an audience. This recording has always been affectionately known among bootleggers as the “typewriter tape”, because Kaukonen´s wife is clearly heard on it, writing a letter on her typewriter all the time. As for myself, I´ll admit that I find the sound of the typing distracting for most of the time; it stops, however, just before the final song in the rehearsal, which allows us to hear an interesting rendition of “Daddy Daddy Daddy” without any added distraction. Jorma Kaukonen appears all through this tape as a solid and resourceful guitar player; he still hasn´t developed the much more florid style that he would later display in the Jefferson Airplane, but his backing and occasional soloing are crafty and inventive. “Trouble in Mind” and “Long Black Train Blues” are slow-moving, dark and brooding, with Janis purposefully elongating the vocals and the lines, yet keeping always the songs under control; in the latter of these two pieces, Kaukonen offers a particularly delightful solo, before being joined by Janis again and bringing the piece to a heightened intensity in its ending. “Kansas City Blues” is more jaunty, rhythmic and infectious; the performance here seems to bump and jump with sheer joy and abandon. But I would probably choose “Hesitation Blues” as being the best single piece in this section; its delivery is stylish, elegant and slow, as befitting the meditative nature of the song; Janis´s delivery communicates the intense yearning of the piece (“How much longer do I have to wait?”) while Jorma decorates the piece with original and expressive guitar figures. “Down and Out”, on the contrary, seems to come too quickly to a false ending; both of them try to recover it and give it an appropriate finale, but they do so without much conviction, as if eager to move on to the next number. Finally, “Daddy Daddy Daddy” is performed in a version that is very similar to what can be heard earlier in its 1963, Coffee Gallery rendition; it begins strongly and purposefully, but halfway through the piece Jorma starts fooling around with his guitar, as if unsure of where to go exactly; we can hear Janis laughing with glee, enjoying the minor chaos that is being created at this point, but somehow the song regains direction and reaches a rotund, authoritative ending. All in all, the whole of this second set is an endearing snapshot of Janis on her way to becoming a professional, showcasing how seriously she took her rehearsals, but also giving us a hint of her spontaneity when she was away from audiences, in an environment where she felt fully comfortable and secure. (Let us not forget that, at this point, she was still a couple of years away from losing her timidity completely).
But then comes the true cream of the crop. It is to be found in the final section of the CD: the seven-song set that Janis recorded in 1965 as a kind of presentation card, in order to make her first bid at serious professionalism. The version that we have here is embellished by the arrangements recorded by guitarist James Gurley, who produced the version of this material that was to be published in 1995, and which was later shelved and became illegal (for reasons that remain a mystery to me); Giuseppe Insingo (bass), Able Perkins (piano) and Hongo Gurley (drums and percussion), along with other occasional musicians, were also involved in this post-production process. The set was supposed to be carry the title “This is Janis”, and it has also circulated widely among fans under this name. There is an element of skepticism that must inevitably come to any fan´s mind here: wouldn´t it be better to have the original recording of Janis accompanying herself on guitar only, without the added post-production, since we know that this material exists as well? The answer must undoubtedly be “yes”…but a qualified “yes”, since the version we have here is also a true aural pleasure as it is. And it is here that we really begin to hear the real Janis Joplin emerging into her full powers.
James Gurley was often criticized for sloppy musicianship (sometimes a bit unfairly) during his time with Janis and B.B. & the Holding Company. But it is certain that he developed into a fine guitarist after the years, after Janis left the group, and in the later decades after her death. What he did here is a prodigy of good taste and intelligence in the arrangements, which suit every song finely: unobtrusive when they must be, and yet aggressive and strong when the piece requires it. “Apple of My Eye” and “219 Train” are simply delightful: in the first one, the steady and solid rhythmic makes of a fine cushion for Janis´ expressive and urgent interpretation; in the second one, the pristine clarity and controlled feeling of the vocal delivery is matched by the delicate punctuations of Gurley´s guitar. And then, the first true gem arrives: an explosive version of Buffy Sainte-Maries´s “Codine”, with lyrics rewritten by Janis. The stakes are definitely raised here: Janis pronounces every line with a mixture of resignation and vindictive anger that is truly moving; in the choruses, she raises her pitch and wails in spine-chilling fury: “And it´s real, Lord it´s real!” It becomes a poignant reflection upon the dangers of addiction, with no moralising. If one stops and thinks of her later destiny, then lines such as “Codeine will kill me baby, that´s the bargain we´ve made” become even more powerfully moving: we have a full-blown masterpiece here.
And the best thing is that there are still more treasures to be found here. The version of “Nobody Knows You when You´re Down and Out” is restrained and world-weary, with an elegant vocal performance that fully communicates the deep sadness and wisdom of the piece; “I Ain´t got a Worry” receives a relaxed and almost country-style treatment, with beautiful slide guitar decorations. But perhaps it´s an early version of the intense and authoritative “Turtle Blues”, the same song that would later be immortalized in “Cheap Thrills” that shines most powerfully. Janis has sometimes been appropriated as a feminist icon, and no matter how debatable that understanding of her figure might be, there is no denying that a piece such as “Turtle Blues” tends to justify it, with its firm determination against any form of abuse: “You know I´m gonna take good care of Janis,/ Honey ain´t no one gonna drag me down…no, not again!” The CD closes with a dynamic, good-rocking, effervescent version of “Brownsville”, which would later be recovered by Janis and Big Brother & the Holding Company in their live sets.
It is sometimes expected that a review of a Janis Joplin CD will conclude with a lament for the brevity of her career and the tragedy of her death, etc, etc… But I personally would say: to hell with all that! Janis was put into this world to shake it, no simply to steer along; she was one of these brilliant personalities who chose to live in their own terms at every moment, no matter what the cost, and the best that we can do is to celebrate her having been with us. The last seven pieces in this CD fully reassert this conviction: it is enough to listen once again to “Turtle Blues” or to “Codine” to feel once again all the strength and abandon that would characterize her later masterpieces. At her best, Janis´s performances are sufficient to make one realize that life is a terribly intense, painful and yet enthralling experience, worth every single second; sometimes the passion in her voice is enough to make us aware of new forces arising within ourselves, forces that we didn´t even know existed. Inevitably, we bootleg addicts will keep asking for more and more of this experience: in the memory of Janis, please, keep the archival material (official or unofficial) coming.