By Mike Greenblatt
The release of Big Brother & The Holding Company’s “Live At The Carousel Ballroom 1968” by Columbia Legacy trumps “Cheap Thrills” in so many ways.
“First of all,” says founding member singer-songwriter-guitarist Sam Andrew, “ ‘Cheap Thrills’ was kind of a cobbled-together project. It wasn’t really live. There was only one track that was live all the way through. The rest of it was kind of doctored, made into an artifact representing a live concert.”
“Live At The Carousel Ballroom 1968” remains a stunning psychedelic document of a conflicted band bursting at the seams creatively and personally.
“It’s so great to have a really live album out there to show what this band could do,” Andrew adds.
Indeed, the raggedy hippie glory of “Carousel” points to a heavier, more jam-infused freak-out of distorted guitars. In the opener, “Combination Of The Two,” a song Andrew wrote that captures the joyful abandon of being wild, free, young and stoned, lead singer Janis Joplin sublimates her usual chew-up-the-scenery stage presence to mesh within the context of the groove. And don’t think being stoned wasn’t an integral part of 1960s San Francisco.
Recorded and produced by Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the sound, in many ways, approximates the vicissitudes of an LSD trip.
“I’m not sure that there would have been a scene without LSD,” said Starfinder Stanley, Bear’s son. “It was a facilitator that helped smash through that generation’s inhibitions to unleash a flood of creativity, simultaneously fomented a profound re-imagining of societal mores and changed the world. Could you have had a psychedelic movement without the psychedelics? Seems unlikely.”
Andrew points to Owsley’s rainbow-colored vision as giving this new live album credibility.
“Yeah,” he says, his smile detectable through the phone lines, “this one’s really all-the-way live, all right, with Owsley at the helm. So that gives it some kind of cachet. It’s fun. Listening to it today brings me right back to those times.”
The lead guitar of James Gurley is front and center. Gurley, who died at age 69 in 2009, was the star of the band when Janis arrived. Big Brother & The Holding Company, pre-Janis, was an acid rock, totally psychedelic jam band that improvised and dabbled in jazz. The band’s jams were the toast of the town, and Gurley was the guitar hero.
She was a country-blues-folk hick from bumf*ck nowhere Texas, landing in the big city for the first time. Gurley, bassist Peter Albin and drummer Dave Getz looked at her like she was from the moon, which, for all intents and purposes, she was. Not Andrew. Whether Andrew fell in love with her at first sight, or after he followed her out of the band in 1968, even he doesn’t know. But he understood her. Sympathized with her. Recognized her great talent and promise. And, in the back seat of a car, wrote “I Need A Man To Love” with her. It’s the second song on “Carousel,” and Joplin’s performance of it is so riveting, it sends goose bumps up the arms.
“She was coming to join the band as far as I was concerned,” Andrew remembers. “It was more of a first rehearsal than an audition. Some people in the band didn’t like her. You have to understand, it was a band, so there were four different viewpoints. They’re looking at her for the first time. She displaced James as the star. Peter was the leader until she arrived. So naturally, they took a slightly more jaundiced view than I did. As a songwriter, I thought, ‘Hey, this is great!’ They actually wanted to ‘get rid of the chick,’ as someone said. I don’t remember who. They thought she was spoiling their sound. James had this instrumental mystique, like Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead, and that was the direction he was heading when Janis arrived. And people really liked him. He, and his fans, didn’t really want to see a singer come in with all that meant and all the changes it would mean in the near-future. I was delighted, although I kept it to myself.”
Sam and Janis started writing songs together, many of which never made it to any disc. The seeds of discontent were planted. National attention was focused on the fiery lead singer. Big Brother became, in effect, Janis’ back-up band. The party lasted three years, ’65, ’66 and ’67. In late ’68, tensions mounted to the point of breaking up the band … but not before a landmark gig at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
“Serious Technicolor,” Andrew recalls. “Between Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar and Otis Redding, oh man, those three really kind of stood out for me. And I was right there with them! It was amazing to see Otis pull up, get out of the car and look at the expression on his face. They were my heroes, those three. We were forever changed in many ways by that one gig. Sure, we got signed, but over and above that, I mean, it was one of the events where, yeah, we were fully aware that it would change everything. We went on and played that first afternoon and weren’t filmed. Only after everyone realized what was happening with Janis and what a powerful talent she was, were we asked to perform again the next night, because they wanted to film her. It was so much more dramatic at night. We also ran into Albert Grossman there. It was our first exposure to him, and he became our manager.”
After Monterey Pop, Big Brother & The Holding Company became one of the hottest bands in the country. Yet Gurley seethed with resentment. You can hear him playing his heart out on “Carousel,” recorded one year after Monterey. His solos on “Ball and Chain,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Summertime” and so many others are slashing knife wounds drawing figurative blood. Yet it’s still not enough to overpower the tempestuous sexual energy of the lead singer. Joplin’s vocals on “Down On Me,” “Flower In The Sun” and especially, “Catch Me Daddy” are the stuff of legends.
“Big Brother took a fall when Janis left,” Andrew says. “I regret following her out of the band. That’s one thing I wish I had the chance to do over. I should have stayed with Big Brother & The Holding Company. I just was really curious to see what would happen with Janis. God knows she was so talented. Whatever her next chapter would be, I wanted to be there with her, seeing it close up. That’s why I left with her. Big Brother should have stayed intact. We should have held a big press conference to say we need a new singer and 500 singers would’ve been on our doorstep. We would have listened to all of them, found another great one and gone on without that big lapse in our career. But, of course, that’s not what happened.”
What did happen was that Albin and Gurley joined Country Joe & The Fish. Janis and Sam started The Kozmic Blues Band. Within a year, Kozmic was on the rocks. Janis fired Sam. Freed from the responsibilities of band pressure, he and Janis finally became lovers, but it was all too much.
Road manager John Byrne Cooke, who started with Big Brother early on and remained with Janis until the end, recounts that era.
“The most difficult time for me was in 1969, when Janis was unhappy because she had left Big Brother to form her own back-up band with horns and a keyboard to create a different kind of sound behind her. The band wasn’t working out as she hoped it would. There were some good times when the music and Janis came together, especially on our one and only European tour that April, but as the year went on and it became obvious that the band was a failure, drinking and drugs started affecting her performance, and it just wasn’t fun anymore.”
It got so bad that Cooke temporarily quit with two months to go on a tour.
Yet before the 1970s even started, Andrew went home to the friendly environs of Big Brother & The Holding Company, alternating lead vocals with Kathi McDonald and Nick Gravenites. Janis, unhappy and alone, became a superstar. Sam plays with Big Brother & The Holding Company to this day.