Michael Lydon - published in Eye Magazine, Vol. 1 Num. 4, June 1968
© Michael Lydon, 1968
Janis Joplin and Grace Slick are opposites. If Big Brother's Janis is fire; Grace, the Jefferson Airplane's girl, is ice. They are such opposites that it is a Dickensian coincidence that they exist in the same milieu at the same time in the same city.
It's all an accident, of course. Grace was singing at rock dances almost a year before Janis ever saw one; Janis had been singing the blues before Grace even knew she had a voice. Either could have gotten along perfectly well if the other had never happened along. But there are opposites and there are opposites; Janis and Grace are the kind forever linked. They are more alike in being different than they could ever have been had they been alike.
They are the two queen bees of the San Francisco hive. Myth, if not biology, would have them in a duel to the death, but it isn't that way. They occupy separate pinnacles of the same peak. Like day and night, they each have their own place, but both know they impinge on each other. Being the best women rock singers in the country and living twenty odd blocks apart isn't always easy. Each has a wary awareness of the other. Curious one about the other, they are acquaintances--neither friends nor enemies. The scene is big enough for each to have her own turf, and they have been around long enough to know their own high grounds. Grace has the advantage of the Airplane's success, plus a certain psychological ease and ladylike mystery. Janis has her own success, plus a very physical, down-home toughness and soul. But to mention rivalry so bluntly is to overstate it; it's just a question of being women, being different, and knowing it.
Were they more similar, comparing them would be a drag. They represent rock's separate strands: Janis the rock out of blues and soul; Grace the rock out of abstract and electronic sound. For the fan who wants resonating metaphors for his heroes, they become far more. Janis descended from Mae West and Harlow with strains of Sylvana Mangano, Ethel Merman, and Billie Holiday, can look like an exotic hash-house waitress. Her mystery and lure are those of blackness, and she sings Southern realism; one feels heat and sees red sundowns. Grace sings like science fiction, evoking the chilI of some half-life distillations of Dietrich, Garbo and Grace Kelly. Grace, with her near-ubiquitous headband, could be an astronaut's wife.
Both are extraordinary singers. Janis sings with her body-rough,gutsy, possessed. Her control seems nonexistent, but her excesses are so right for the moment, so emotionally intuitive, that they're genius, not error. Grace sings with her voice--Ralph Gleason calls it "one of the finest musical instruments being played today" --and it has a control that keeps it just on the beautiful side of stridency. Her voice is no theremin, however pure and crystalline; it has a rich vibrato that denies sterility. One thinks of Grace as static, dressed in a long, plae blue robe striped with velvet and standing onstage, gripping the mike before her firm mouth, her eyes piercing the crowd before her, her back slightly arched, one arm half extended while her voice, in measured ecstasy, screams the last words of "White Rabbit": "Feed your head/Feed your head." She is like a priestess whose magic is an inner passion communicated across the distance of a forbidding reserve. Onstage, Janis belongs to everyone; she seems to want to touch the crowd, to hug them. She's the one who is doing the song, but her rapport with all listeners is so strong as to be almost physical union. She is all movement. She sings jumping and dancing, her fists alternatelv clenching and breaking open to clap; the corners of her marvelous mouth turning. down in defiant anguish, her long hair covering one eye then being swept back with a meaty hand. Her beads swing and glisten.
As people, they have few points of convergence. Janis, twenty four, looks older than Grace who is twenty-eight. Though both middle-class, Janis (Capricorn) is the daughter of a Texaco engineer in the Gulf town of Port Arthur, Texas; while Grace (Scorpio) is the daughter of an investment banker who commutes to San Francisco from the plusher reaches of Palo Alto. Grace, one feels, could make it back to the respectability scene if she had to (not that she would), but Janis has cut all ties and could never find her way back. Both are unusual people who could well make some underground digest's Most Unforgettable list. Old friends might not think so, but to one who meets them now thev seem larger-than-life, to have to some degree that quality of enhanced being which many-times spotlighted and many-times-photographed faces seem inevitably to acquire. But again in opposite ways. Grace is abrupt, to the point, often opaque. She has a sharp, moment-to-moment honesty that brooks no sentimentality. Often impersonal, she dislikes going into detail about herself. "I am not specific," she said, "because things aren't specific for me." Janis . . . as she says, "Earnest is my favorite word." Her honesty has a broad largesse, and in a way both vain and innocent she likes to talk and hear about herself. She keeps a scrapbook of her clippings and the walls of her apartment are covered with large, dramatic photographs of herself. Feeling and acting out what she feels is all important. "I've followed my insides," she says. "You should never compromise yourself because that's all you've got."
The feeling that there is no need to choose between them says something about rock music today. If the stories are right, you had to take sides when Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were disputing ownership of the tenor saxophone. And even a few years ago many folkies had to boo the electric Bob Dylan, while the rhythm 'n' blues freaks had to knock the Beatles. So some might prefer Janis to Grace or Grace to Janis-no doubt each offers special pleasures for special moods and seasons-but most can dig their oppositeness, knowing that one listener is no more one's self than these two singers are only two selves. "I have at least a thousand people inside of me and I don't know which is the real me," says Janis; and Grace wrote, without Janis's plaintive note, "Got two heads on your body, and you've got two mirrors in your hand." Does she see an infinity of selves?
Perhaps there is no compulsion to take sides because one feels instinctivelv that Grace and Janis are both precisely where they are as people and there is simply nothing to put down. They each do their thing, not in the limited meaning of the phrase. (i.e., "I just do the best I can"), but in the way that means full exploration of all their selves. For Janis that means full living of every moment, every note, every emotion; for Grace, moving from option to option, keeping each step articulated and distinct, testing and experimenting with more direction, but no less passion, than Janis. (Yet, curiously, one sees how their opposites, like all opposites, re verse themselves: "wild" Janis has the steady ambition to be a famous singer; "controlled" Grace professes no ambition and says, "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't enjoy it. I never decided what I wanted to be.") Being so much themselves, they must be considered separately. But keep the mirrors in your hand. Just as one might watch Janis and think of Grace or listen to Grace and conjure up Janis, they can, apart, in negative and even reverse negative, reveal one another.
"She takes just like a woman,
Yes she does,
She makes love just like a woman,
Yes she does,
She aches just like a woman
But she breaks just Iike a little girl."
Janis is one sexy babe, and like sex itself, she is a curious mixture of the elusive and the earthy. She is not pretty. Her hair has a touch of gold, but is basically a nondescript light brown; it falls in slightly kinky waves down her back. Her face is square and pudgy, her nose a bit pug. But her eyes are wild, direct, and mysterious all at the same time; her mouth speaks good spirits, anger, scorn, sensual invitation and a sly knowledge beyond cynicism. Her body can seem both big and small; dressed in bizarre clothes-knits, satins, velvets, laces, brocades, plus stoles, fur hats, and feather boas-she has a Big Mamma, smooth, hip-swinging way of moving, as if just sprung from a Toulouse-Lautrec. Is that Janis? Country Joe McDonald of the Fish caught another side in his song "Janis":
Into my life on waves of electrical sound and flashing lights
Into my life with the twist of a dial, the wave of her hand, the
warmth of her smile,
And even though I know that you and I could never find the
kind of love we wanted together,
Alone I found myself missing you and I, you and I, you.
"I was a pretty normal person until I was fifteen or sixteen, then I got weird," Janis said recently in her small Haight-Ashbury apartment, while making herself a hat out of a strip of fox fur. "Everybody thought I was a beatnik. Port Arthur didn't take too kindly to beatniks. I read, I painted, I thought, I didn't hate 'niggers'-there wasn't anybody like me in Port Arthur. Until I was seventeen, I thought I was the only person like that in the world. It was lonely, all those feelings welling up and no one to talk to. I was just 'silly crazy Janis.' Man, those people hurt me. It makes me happy to know that I'm making it and that they're back there, plumbers just like they were."
She stopped painting when a high school friend turned her on to Leadbelly and she started to sing herself. A trip to Los Angeles followed by six months in Venice showed her she wasn't the only beatnik in the world, and for the next five years she drifted in and out of that world in Austin, San Francisco, and New York. She got to San Francisco first, hitchhiking with fellow Texan Chet Helms. "He needed a girl to get rides, and I needed a guy so I wouldn't get raped." She managed to spend six semesters in two colleges in Texas, learned to play pool in New York ("For a week I was block champion of 6th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A"), held dozens of odd jobs and picked up a lot of unemployment checks, kept singing the blues, almost got married, and ended up very strung-out. A year back in Austin straightened her head ("After that I wasn't a street hippie anymore"), and in summer of 1966, some San Francisco friends, including Helms, by then head of the Family Dog, asked her back to join Big Brother and the Holding Company, a freak-rock band which needed something to get its sound together.
Her first gig with Big Brother was a dance at the Avalon Ballroom where they were the unofficial house-band. "It was the most thrilling time in my life," she says, "It was the first 'hippie' dance I had ever seen. I couldn't believe it-all this pulsating rhythm. I exploded. It made me stoned, like the best dope in the world. It was so sensual, so violent. I had never danced before, but with all that going on, I couldn't stay still. Man, it was so loud up there. To try and hear, I sang louder and louder and by the end I was wild."
That abandonment to sensuality has never stopped for Janis. It IS what her singing is. She comes on, and maybe a flash of worldliness comes out first-as at the Monterey Jazz Festival, when, just feeling good, she hitched up her black velvet pants and said a husky, smiling, "Sheeet, man," into the mike. Then she is just one of the band, like the kind of girl for whom girls were always too damn dull. She sings with the boys, letting out the occasional, good-natured scream-just like the joke about the Janis doll: You wind it up, it stomps its foot, and goes "Waaaah."
But when she does "Love Is Like a Ball and Chain," her official showstopper, a song created by Big Mamma Willa Mae Thornton, the band steps back to let her take center stage. "Sometimes I don't want to do it, sometimes it's just too hard. I always get into that song. Sometimes I can just sing the others, but 'Ball and Chain' is too much for me, it always gets me. It's my song and I have to make it." It starts slow, almost hushed, a song about a woman imprisoned and broken by love. It takes Janis over and her face breaks up, her voice reaches impossible range~ of hair-tearing anguish; she becomes demonized by song. The audience goes through it all. It is an incredible experience to hear Janis sing "Ball and Chain." Janis finds it pretty hard to talk about. It is not an emotion easily recollected in tranquillity. "I can't talk about my singing. When I'm singing I'm inside of it. Can you describe something you're inside of? I can't know what I'm doing; if I knew it, I'd have lost it. I can't know it. When I sing, I feel, oh, like, I feel like when you're first in love, when you're first touching someone. That's what I feel-chills, things slipping all over me. When I'm onstage I get real stoned, real sensual. A lot of times when I get off I want to--make love. I dig it, it's a natural."
Sitting with a glass mug of Ranier Ale in her hand, wearing a blue and red striped jersey dress that reached to her ankles ("I don't like little thing dresses," she says), she tried to think what to say. "Singing, it's !ike, it's like loving somebody, it's a supreme emotional and physical experience. There's so much energy, so much spirit, you dig? There's music, lights, noise, people looking at you, dancing--it's fantastic. I guess I don't think about my singing very much. I don't believe in thinking. If I sing as I feel, that'll work."
Big Brother is primarily a performing band and that's what Janis really digs. It's also the reason why their bum contract and consequent bum LP with Mainstream Records was not the disaster it might have been for another band. Big Brother is now managed by Albert Grossman--Dylan's manager--and is recording for Columbia. No record, no matter how good, could capture the excitement Janis generates at a live show. Her likes and influences--the late Otis Redding was her idol; Tina Turner is second--are determined as much visually as musica}ly. "If you hear a record, you don't get the electricity of seeing and feeling. That's what a good singer has to do: turn on a stage, turn on an audience."
Janis has a star's ego which makes for a certain tension between her and the other members of the group. It bugs them all to be referred to as "Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company," but it doesn't bug her quite as much as it does the rest. However, they know that, though all contribute, without Janis some thing is missing. "Country Joe's song was right about 'electrical sound,' " says bassist/guitarist Peter Albin. "She's like a lightning bolt. Musically we may have a long way to go, but with Janis, excitementwise, we've got it down pat."
"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound."
Asked to tell something about how she grew up, Grace answered with a list of places and years: "Born in Chicago, 1939, to L.A. when three, then San Francisco for seven-eight years, Palo Alto seven-eight years. New York one year, Europe, San Francisco. L.A. and now San Francisco." Asked about her voice. she said. "It used to be soprano. Now it's whatever you'd call a voice like that--bass, I guess."
One of the most amazing things about her is how far and for how long she was out of it. New rock is, according to cliche. a middle-class thing and being from Palo Alto doesn't necessarily make you square: Joan Baez--a year behind Grace in high school--and all of the Grateful Dead are from Palo Alto or nearby, but Grace was still square. She describes herself as "a regular suburban preppy." She graduated from a private girl's school and then was off to Finch College in New York for a year, following that with a year at the University of Miami. ("Yeah, I know, another joke school.") Andre Previn and Ahmad Jamal blew her mind in those days. She started to turn away from all that at Miami, influenced by the few beatnik types who smoked grass openly in an informal student center known as the Snakepit. But it wasn't until she was back in San Francisco in 1960 that the change was at all complete. Not that she puts down the early years; she faces her whole life with the kind of careless confidence her sort of girl can have. "l liked to drink, think, and I had a foul mouth. But I thought I was wrong, that the thousands of them must be right. Then I realized that even though there were thousands of them, that didn't mean they were right."
She spent two years modeling, during which time she re-met and married the boy-next-door-turned-movie-maker, Jerry Slick. In the fall of 1965, with him and some friends, she went to hear a fledgling rock group called the Jefferson Airplane at a San Francisco club called the Matrix. Playing rock looked like fun, and in a trice the Great Society was formed: Grace, Jerry, his brother, and three friends. The GS did well for itself-"White Rabbit" was a song Grace wrote then and "Somebody to Love," one of the Airplane's biggest hits, was another GS song-yet a year later it started to disband in the casual way it began. About the same time the girl singer of the Airplane, Signe Anderson, had a baby. Grace knew the Airplane, was familiar with their material from working the same gigs. and had a roughly similar voice. The job was offered and she took it.
Grace fit into the Airplane, rather than the other way around. "Nobody worries that I'm going to take over," she says. "I couldn't. The Jefferson Airplane is six incredible egos." She is simply part of the group, utterly on an equal footing with the other five. Her femaleness seems unimportant except that it gives her voice a different and musically useful register and adds some glamour for the fans. But says Grace, "It's weird to be a girl in a male band. It definitely makes you more masculine-either that or you go crazy. Female things just don't happen. You can't hold five guys up with your manicure. I get more attention, but, hell, if you had a group of five cows and one pig, you'd look at the pig 'cause he was different." By way of contrast, when asked about the problems of being a girl in a male band, Janis replied, "There aren't any male groupies."
Grace is smaller and thinner than she appears onstage. Viewed straight on, her mouth seems to have a slight. slightly ominous twist, which disappears when she smiles her Kennedy-white smile. Her conversation is choppy, her logic quite arbitrary. She can leap from why she sings, to the war in Vietnam. "You have to do what you can do. If that's something that isn't killing people, it's OK. That's what's terrible about Vietnam. You see these pictures of women with children, frightened, bewildered, hurt by a war they don't know anything about. They're involved and they can't get out. We involve people but we can always leave." She refuses to show ordinary emotion; in fact, prides herself on the reverse. Married to Slick for about eight years, for instance, she mentioned their separation while discussing chaos in music. "If you decide on a complete context, chaos is OK. You don't have to follow forms. Like marriage is supposed to be this sacred thing, you have to live with your old man. But I don't want to be around the same person all the time. It bores me. I don't want to bore him. So we're still married, but we don't live in the same house."
Grace does not call herself a singer, but an entertainer, and she says she sings not to sing, but to communicate. "It could be singing, dancing, throwing up-everything registers on the mind. It can all be communication. Words become interesting if they come with music and body movement. The more interesting you make your talk, the more people will listen. I liked Lenny Bruce as a singer. He once said he did verbal jazz."
Increasingly. Grace's own development as a singer and writer is taking her into the studio. "Do you realize how loud it is onstage? There it's the musician's turn. Only in recording can I really sing. And I like to use electronic things. Nobody, nobody knows the extent of them. Somebody can always play a violin better, but we know pretty much what it can do. Electronics is always new, you could discover a new sound anytime."
She wants to write more songs (three--"White Rahbit," "Two Heads," and "Rejoyce"--have been recorded) but that's hard work for her. And she wouldn't mind making a film or, if it could be done, getting the Grateful Dead, the Doors, and the Airplane together to do a rock symphony. If one takes her at her word, she might do anything anytime, and if she decided to do it, she'd do it fast. "I'm still waiting for what really want to do to hit me in the face," she says. But then a girl like Grace wouldn't like to show when she'd been hit in the face. It looks like Grace has already.