By Mike Greenblatt
Maybe it was because producer Paul Rothchild (1935-1995) had fallen in love with her. Maybe it was because she finally found the right band again after the horrible experience of Kozmic Blues. Maybe it was because the songs were written by legendary songwriters. Whatever the reason, “Pearl” is Janis Joplin’s masterpiece.
Released 97 days after Joplin’s Oct. 4, 1970, death, “Pearl” shot to No. 1 and stayed there for nine weeks, selling 8 million copies.
The band was Full Tilt Boogie: guitarist John Till, bassist Brad Campbell, pianist Richard Bell, organist Ken Pearson and drummer Clark Pierson. Canadians all — except Pierson, whom Janis found drumming at The Galaxy, a San Francisco topless bar — they fit Janis like a glove. Till and Campbell were Kozmic Blues holdovers. Bell and Till had played in Ronnie Hawkins’ band.
Long before Full Tilt Boogie laid down its first note in the studio, the band had gelled with Janis on stages, including a Canadian train tour that summer with The Grateful Dead, The Band, Delaney & Bonnie, Buddy Guy, Flying Burrito Brothers, Sha Na Na, Eric Andersen, Tom Rush, Sea Train, Mountain and New Riders of The Purple Sage. As rock ’n’ roll history goes, the partying aboard that train rivaled the performances (and it was all documented in the film “Festival Express”).
By the time Full Tilt Boogie entered Sunset Sound Studios in L.A., where Rothchild had produced the first five Doors albums, the band was properly greased and ready. Joplin’s own “Move Over” started things out. On the new “Janis Joplin: The Pearl Sessions” (Columbia Legacy), there are five different versions of the song.
A cover of soul singer Garnett Mimms’ “Cry Baby” is next. On one of its three versions, Janis improvises a scornful riposte to boyfriend David Niehaus, who had left her to go backpacking through Turkey and Nepal.
“A Woman Left Lonely” was written specifically for Janis by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. When Oldham complimented her on her career, she turned to him and prophetically said, “I think it’s going to end any day.” Indeed, just hours after she completed the vocals to Nick Gravenites’ “Buried Alive In The Blues,” she died.
The song Joplin was to cut next — never used on the original release — has now become the sad instrumental “Pearl.” The four versions of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me And Bobby McGee” are highlighted by her demo, just Janis and her acoustic guitar. Bobby Womack’s “Trust Me” precedes the “Get It While You Can” closer, another song by Jerry Ragavoy (1930-2011) and Mort Shuman (1936-1991) that proved to be prophetic. The five versions here are hypnotic, opening a hole into which you can plainly see and feel the hurt she channeled into art.
Those who knew Joplin in her folk-singing days talk about the power of that voice, its range and expressiveness. The fact that she did what she did on “Pearl” with considerably lessened pipes is amazing unto itself.
Columbia-Legacy’s definitive two-disc release brings it all into perspective, with newly discovered studio outtakes, banter and nine previously unavailable tracks, in which Janis comes vibrantly and heartbreakingly alive.
The back and forth between Janis and Rothchild is priceless. She responds to his direction by saying, “I’ll sing it the way I want to.” In other moments — five in all called “Overheard in the Studio” — she practically co-produces with Rothchild, asking, cajoling, laughing, demanding.
Rothchild was so devastated by Joplin’s death, he refused to go back into the studio to produce the sixth and final Doors album, 1971’s “L.A. Woman.” He had been with Joplin during Kozmic Blues days and was “sorely depressed” by the heavy drug use. When Joplin’s tour manager, John Byrne Cooke, asked Rothchild to produce her album, Rothchild’s initial response was, “Oh, John, I don’t know. Last time I saw her, she was a junkie and couldn’t focus on her art and was abusive to people around her.”
Cooke was nothing if not persuasive. The son of Masterpiece Theater host Alistair Cooke (1908-2004) and the great grand-nephew of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Cooke talked Rothchild into going on the road with Joplin, and the pair became close. Rothchild used to tell the story of how Janis once gave him a stopwatch prior to going onstage, telling the producer, “I’ve only got 35 good minutes in me,” and instructing him to start it the moment she started singing.
“I’ll turn around and look at you,” she told him, “and you flash me how much I got left.”
The other story Rothchild loves to tell is how the onstage Janis has figurative sex with her audiences every night. At one show, the audience just sat there, watching Joplin as if they were at a movie. Three songs in — in the middle of a song — she famously halted the show.
“Hey, wait a minute! Stop, stop, stop, stop! What the f**k is going on out there?” she said. “I’m up here bleeding for you people. I’m dying up here for you people. You don’t have any idea what I’m giving to you. I want to f**k you. Don’t you understand that? But you’ve got to give me some. I’ll give you a lot more back. But you’ve got to participate. This is a two-way street, and if you don’t get on that road, I’m going to have to get off. There’s nothing for me to do. I don’t get up here to rehearse. This is lovemaking. I’m wooing you. Come on!”
The next 40 minutes were pure frenzy between performer and audience.
“She never made a false promise,” says Rothchild. “She delivered.”