Friday, 17 June 2011

Janis Joplin "Pearl" (1971) (Revised Review 2015; Originally Part Of News, Views and Music 102)

You can read more in 'Little Girl Blue - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Janis Joplin' available to buy now in e-book form by clicking here!

Janis Joplin “Pearl” (1971)

Move Over/Cry Baby/A Woman Left Lonely/Half Moon/Buried Alive In The Blues//My Baby/Me and Bobby McGee/Mercedes Benz/Trust Me/Get It While You Can

 ‘Pearl’ is the album that has gone down in rock and roll history as Janis Joplin’s defining moment, containing arguably her two best known tracks and dominating the charts for most of 1971. Even today most fans regard it as the best of the four albums recorded between her debut with Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966 and her sad death in October 1970. And yet, if you’d stopped the average music-loving hippie in the streets of America earlier that year then he’d have told you that Janis’ career was on the wane, her bright star already fizzling out after two turbulent years that saw her leaving or sacking two different bands. When Janis entered the studio to record ‘Pearl’ she’d only just recorded the poorly received but badly under-rated ‘Kozmik Blues’ album and suffered the indignity of seeing her performance edited out of the famous ‘Woodstock’ film (even though her performance of ‘Work Me Lord’, restored to the director’s cut edition of the movie, is quite possibly the greatest moment in the whole four hours). Janis was deeply out of fashion in other words – the hippies who’d loved her ballsy approach were appalled at the slightly softer side of her music that was being heard in interviews and sporadically across albums; intense fans hadn’t really forgiven her for leaving Big Brother in the lurch in an attempt to find solo fame and the casual music listener found her music so new, loud and unlike anything else they’d ever heard before that they never really ‘got’ Janis Joplin anyway. In fact it’s interesting that until her death and the posthumous release of this album Janis only ever scored one hit (with the scatterbrained but scrumptious ‘Piece Of My Heart’) and only ‘Cheap Thrills’ had set the album charts alight. So was Janis really so important to the music world?

The answer is an overwhelming emphatic yes. Nobody did what Janis did before her and a whole host of people have tried and failed miserably to do the same after her. More than one fan has scratched their head over the many low-fi recordings of a teenage Janis preparing for her career by singing folky songs in a sweet if loud soprano which have come out since her death – and yet that’s what girl singers did back then. Females that had been linked to rock circles invariably came from a folk background or very occasionally pop. Only Janis, Grace Slick and at a pinch Lulu could be classified as rock and roll singers because, well, it just wasn’t ladylike to do that sort of thing as a female back then (even Lulu, after an astonishing start, was quickly toned down by her management and producers a few singles into her career). Janis didn’t just re-write the rulebook on what female singers could do back then, she practically invented it. However  the trouble with forging your own hard-fought path is that it's so much easier for other people to follow you down the same path - and often on quicker, nimbler, younger legs to boot. By 1970 the world was full of mini-Janises from Madeleine Bell to Sandy Denny to Tina Turner and had all but been confined to yesteryear already.
Read the newspaper reports and obits after her sad and unexpected death at the age of 27 and it’s clear that the world at large did love Janis and that they fully expected to see her return to her career high year of 1968 (in the wake of her startling set at the Monterey Festival) sometime in the future. 

Despite her wild ways – well, wild for a girl from a privileged part of America in the 1960s anyway – Janis’ death was unexpected (unlike, say, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten who were all arguably living on borrowed time for much of the 1960s and each died between 1969 and 1971). People genuinely expected her to be around forever – well, for as long as rock and roll itself lasted at least which was going to fade any minute now, oh yes it was – and there was a real feeling of a career unfulfilled when she died (in contrast, nobody thought Jim’s or Jones’ or Danny’s best work was still in front of them when they died at more or less the same time). Janis after all had turned her life around. She was staying away from the more excessive side of her personality, living as healthily as anyone like Janis ever could and was even taking singing lessons at producer Paul Rothschild's suggestion (as he was afraid she would have no voice left in a few years at her current rate).‘Pearl’ was one of the most eagerly anticipated albums of all time, as people clamoured to pay their last respects, and unlike many ‘posthumous’ albums Pearl was genuinely 90% of the way to being finished before Joplin’s death, with just one vocal left to record when she died of an accidental overdose, paying for a chance meeting with an old pusher she used to fancy on the steps of the hotel where she was staying whilst making 'Pearl' with her life (the heroin offered her that night was thought to be much stronger than Janis had been told or her recently cleansed system would have been able to take; two dozen other drug users in the area died the same week, a massive tragedy indeed that in its own way was the drug world's 'Altamont' when it went from being fun to the stakes being way too high). In this climate 'Pearl' - an album Janis was working on up to the very day she died - has taken on a new legacy as Janis' last will and testament, an almost complete overview of her life that contains all the answers (although that said with a running time of just 33 minutes, it’s tempting to suppose that Janis would have added something else to 'Pearl' if she'd been given the chance - recording sessions were going so smoothly she'd surely have booked more 'just in case' her new band hadn't quite got it together in time). Janis might not have fulfilled that long career she seemed to be destined to have but at least she left us a goodbye note to pay our respects with. Sensitively handled by her Columbia label (who waited a decent amount of time after her death and resisted the temptation to rush the much-discussed record out for the Christmas market) and well handled by Paul Rothschild (who had to do quite a bit of work to get this album ready, using 'guide' vocals in many cases and leaving 'Buried Alive In The Blues' - the song Janis was meant to be singing the very day she died - as a ghostly backing track; only 'Half Moon' was 100% finished). Of course 'Pearl' was a huge success - how could it not be?  

But, zoom forward 41 years, and ‘Pearl’ has lost most of its shine, for me at least. It’s not that it’s a bad album, but it’s such a contrast to the three albums before it that it takes some digesting and sounds unfinished even when it was if you follow me - a stepping stone towards a new sound rather than a new sound in and of itself (had I been around and Janis lived I'd have been looking forward to the next album after this one and probably rarely played 'Pearl' again when that one came out). For me 'Pearl' doesn’t have the naive charm of ‘Big Brother and the Holding Company’, the sheer exuberance and talent of ‘Cheap Thrills’ or the adult wisdom of ‘Kozmik Blues’. Instead Janis is reduced to being 'just' an interpretive singer - a good singer naturally, one who inhabits all of these songs much better than most other vocalists could, but there's very little on this album that other singers couldn't do. Whereas every cover version of 'Piece Of My Heart' and 'Ball and Chain' now sound 'wrong' (even though Janis wasn't the first to sing either song) you can imagine other singers doing this album. In fact take Janis' vocals away and the slightly faux backing and lyrical pop with space for a huffing puffing lead singer larger than life sounds more like a TOm Jones record - only on 'Mercedes Benz' and 'Bobby McGee' is there that cosy informality that Janis did so well, modifying her screaming style without diluting it. By contrast there's no emotion here for her to get her teeth into at all - even her own songs fall into the 'rocker' category and the 'comedy' category, worthy in their own right but no substitute for the depth and wisdom of 'I Need A Man To Love' 'One Good Man' and 'Kozmik Blues'. I still like this 'new' Janis - but I wanted to hear more of the 'old' Janis, the one who had something to say to go along with her beautiful voice.

 Many fans say it’s because there’s only actually nine songs on this album with a Joplin vocal that this record sounds slightly unfinished, but that’s not unusual for Janis – ‘Thrills’ only has seven tracks in total, ‘Kozmik Blues’ eight (and one of those, too, is a near-instrumental). It's not Janis who sounds unfinished either (if most of these vocals are mere 'guide' vocals while the band played then, blimey, she's good - trust Janis to never give less than her all) but the backing men. The Full Tilt Boogie Band are poorly named because they’re nothing like as full tilt as Big Brother was (after all, they were about as full tilt as rock has ever heard) but they aren't as bluesy and emotionally intense as the Kozmik Blues Band either. Instead they just tootle along treating Janis as any other good interpretative singer - they don't live and breathe when she does and it speaks volumes to me that the best performance on the album by far is a capella ('Mercedes Benz' again). Janis’ third band are built for slow, burning epics that don't suit their singer and only really rock out twice across this album (which is a shame because it's tracks like 'Move Over' and 'Half Moon; where they're most convincing). In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they’re the least suitable band that Janis had, with a sterile, passionless sound quite the opposite of Janis’ own – although to be fair they did sound better live (see the three existing Dick Cavett shows where they finally 'get' what they're supposed to do and rock, to Janis' obvious delight). This was arguably the first time really that Janis had a band that put the emphasis on her singing instead of a wall of noise – and while that’s not a bad thing, Janis doesn’t sound comfortable here, to these ears at least, as if she’s still seeking out the strengths and weakness of her new band, her first not to include close friend Sam Andrew in there somewhere.

The songs are also quite weak by her own standards. Now, Janis could sing the telephone directory and still invest it with honesty and depth, but she’s made her work by harder by ignoring the sorts of songs that had been her staple trade before now: the intense dramas like 'Ball and Chain' or the teary honesty of 'Work Me, Lord'. In fact, the covers of Kris Kristoffersen’s ‘Bobby McGee’ and Bobby Womack’s ‘Trust Me’ are the only songs in Janis’ career that are also known for recordings by other people (the recent wimpy version of ‘Piece of My Heart’, a hit for some awful girl band I never did get the name of, excepted). All too often on ‘Pearl’ Janis sounds like she’s struggling uphill with material that really doesn’t suit her. Of the 10 tracks on this album, no less than seven of them break new ground in some way (alas we don’t know what the unfinished ‘Buried Alive In The Blues’ would have sounded like) and while the comedy of ‘Mercedes Benz’ and acoustic fragility of ‘Bobby McGee’ are arguably good decisions, there are far too many torch ballads like ‘Cry Baby’ and ‘My Baby’ that see Janis straining to milk average songs for far more emotion than they deserve (again I have awful images of Tom Jones in my head listening to this album, another worthy singer who too often sang undeserving material). I like to think that, had Janis lived and re-established herself slightly with this album, she’d have had enough confidence to dump songs like these and get back to the depths and subtleties of songs like ‘Ball and Chain’, the raw emotion of ‘Work Me, Lord’ and the sheer energy of ‘Combination Of The Two’ while finding a way mould this new band around her. However it's not so much a case of smoothing away the rough edges as adding some of them back in: Janis deserves a band as gritty and powerful as she is.

Yet there’s one factor overwhelmingly in this album’s favour. Janis is much more involved with ‘Pearl’ than she is with her other three records, where she had to listen to band members, managers or record company men, and this is arguably the closest we get to hearing an album the way Janis wanted it, even if ironically she wasn’t around to see the finished track listing or cover art. The name ‘Pearl’ is the alter ego Janis used when she was on-stage, living up to her boozing, drug-taking carefree hippie image and away from the rather more fragile Janis that lived in private (it started as a band joke, a 'call girl' name that Janis was going to use when her voice gave out and she retired to run a bar with her savings). It wouldn’t have fitted any earlier Joplin album and yet it fits this one nicely – this album isn’t as rough or as wild as before, but more elegant, like a string of pearls. Remember, though, that pearls are born out of grit and pressure - a neat summary of Janis' career up to 1970 as any. Janis was much more involved in choosing material for this album, mainly using songs by her old friends Nick Gravenites and Jerry Ragavoy, and even plays a musical instrument on record for the only time in her short career (the acoustic guitar on ‘Bobby McGee’). Above all, we have that voice, if not at its best then at its near best, effortlessly channelling the frustration, pain, hurt and anger that – apart from the blues – were the prerogative of male singers in 1970. If she’d lived Janis would have surely re-done her wobbly vocal on ‘A Woman Left Lonely’, unfortunately one of the few songs here suitable to her honest delivery, and there are some questionable moments in ‘Cry Baby’ and ‘Get It While You Can’ too, songs where Janis sounds a little out of her depth.  But no, for the most part, Janis is on wonderful form, delivering the wit of her own ‘Mercedes Benz’, the subtlety of ‘Bobby McGee’ and the wild rock of ‘Half Moon’ and ‘Move Over’ with tremdous conviction. It’s a double shame that Janis had to leave us just as she was getting to grips with her own voice and it was hardening up after years of booze and drugs into such an expressive vehicle for sadness, hardship and desperation. Oh and the production on this album is excellent too – you can hear everything in the mix, Janis’ voice is loud enough to dominate but still sounds like it’s interweaving with the backing and even on tracks like ‘Mercedes Benz’ where there’s little else but Janis’ voice to go on, she’s never sounded better. Full marks to Paul Rothschild, the Doors’ producer whose just seen Jim Morrison go the same way just three months before Janis, who really gets a feel for the singer across this album. 

People have discussed for many years now why Janis died. Whether it was an unfortunate accident, a calculated cry for help that went wrong or simply the last weary act by a singer who knew she was repeating herself. There’ll always be disagreements but for the record I think this one was a tragic accident. Janis isn’t just on good form during the weeks before her death, as can be seen on various interviews and live shows down the years, she’s positively glowing and ‘Pearl’ is in many ways a re-birth for her after the troubled year of 1969 and the badly received ‘Kozmik Blues’. Whatever I think of the material she clearly loves it - and she trusts her producer Paul Rothschild's demands that she slow down and start thinking about tomorrow for a change - she clearly has a long-term plan in this era, after stumbling largely in the dark in 1969. Janis is visibly eager to show off both band and songs during the Dick Cavett shows (where no less than six songs – though interestingly not ‘Mercedes Benz’ – were performed from this album in the works, rather than her old hits). The only question mark is Janis’ mention in her last show that she planned to go to an old school reunion and meet up with all the old girls who used to bully her for her wayward lifestyle and refusal to conform. According to her younger sister Laura’s excellent book ‘Love, Janis’ the elder Joplin did go – and it broke her heart that after such success (she was arguably the best known and richest person in the school) still hadn’t been accepted by her peers, who still looked down on her and laughed at her for making such 'dumb' records, even if they had made her money. Janis had been looking forward to everyone wanting to know her and crow about how they used to know her despite the fact they'd made her life so miserable - but she found to her horror that back in her nice conservative Port Arthur childhood town all her rule-breaking, abilities, her voice and her hippie cult following counted for nothing after all. Is ‘Pearl’, the most mainstream of the four albums Janis made, an attempt to reach out to that sort of fanbase who didn’t ‘get’ her wilder, rawer material? Was 'Pearl' Janis' last throw of the dice to becoming a tamer creature that could get the respect and praise she craved? Was that final rejection after years of looking forward to rubbing your enemies’ faces in it - realising that all that struggle had been for naught - the factor that pushed her over the edge?

I doubt it actually – Janis was much more fragile than her image suggests, but perhaps not quite that fragile and while honestly stung for a little while, no doubt the joke against herself would simply have been recycled as part of her act - something to joke about before the band kicked into 'Try' (her traditional spot for jokey pre-ambles to songs) or something to laugh over on the Dick Cavett show (a rare person from the establishment who 'got' Janis - she was his favourite and most regular guest; Janis in turn loved how erudite she was allowed to be on those shows rather than being expected to be just a performing monkey).  Sadly though we'll never know - although it could be that the rejection was just enough to make her reach out for her old crutches of drug abuse at just the wrong time when the drugs were strong and after so many months of being clean her body wasn't. Compared to the last Doors album ‘Morrison Hotel’, the last Stones album with Brian Jones on board ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ and the sole Crazy Horse album with Danny Whitten in charge (erm, 'Crazy Horse'), ‘Pearl’ is notably free from guilt-ridden songs, references to death or depression or some kind of grand scheme ending in suicide being laid out before our ears (as there arguably is with most of the Doors material). She sounds the happiest we've ever heard her, bouncy in a way she never was even with Big Brother (where its power that propels her onwards, not joy). What's more it sounds quite genuine and not just wish fulfilment: Janis was, after a singer, who wore her heart on her sleeve at either extreme (had her death occurred in 1969, after the sad guilt-ridden songs on 'Kozmik Blues', I might have reached a different conclusion). However there's one exception to Pearl's songs of hope and contentment. Listen out for the way Janis sings the end of the first verse of ‘A Woman Left Lonely’ where the narrator admits she could do ‘crazy things on lonely occasions’ – this from a singer whose most famous quote was ‘when I’m on stage I make love to 200,000 people – and then have to go home alone’. Is this is a clue? Or just the reason Janis identified with Penn and Oldham’s song and chose to record it? This one song apart, however, ‘Pearl’ is an upbeat, punchy album made by an unrepentant upbeat, punchy singer determined to get her career back on track and prove everyone. I don’t like this new Janis anything like as much as the old one, but who am I to speak out against an upbeat, punchy album that in the end did everything Janis wanted it to. The loss of Janis just before this album’s release has undoubtedly coloured its reputation down the years, distorting it beyond it’s real worth, but there is merit here - if only for what ‘Pearl’ is best remembered for, Janis’ sterling vocal performances across this album, even if the backing and a lot of the songs are a little too pearly-white for the world's greatest 'real'est vocalist of her times.

The Songs:

The album begins with one of its two rockers, [58]  ‘Move Over’, a rare Joplin writing credit that sounds like a spoof on the typical male-centred lyrics of the day telling girls to get lost. Even this seemingly simple song is odd, though – Janis is being followed, not by a lover who won’t leave, but by the person who dumped her and yet refuses to leave her alone. ‘Move Over’ is less of a song, more of a swampy blues lick with lyrics attached on top, but it’s an excellent mix of words and music: the tricky melody line and the tight playing of the band makes it sound exactly like everyone involved is trying to throw the singer off her pursuit. For the most part it’s a fun, almost comical song, but there’s a real edge to the instrumental break which stops playing cat-and-mouse with the riff and simply sticks to the same rigid beat, refusing to let go, which is actually quite scary before the riff starts up again. I’ve been critical about the Full Tilt Boogie Band above – and I will be again below I’m sure – but they’re at their best here, with guitarist John Till’s solo a particular high point (it can’t have been easy to do after Janis’ work with the great Sam Andrew in her other bands). Give that group a cigar! (or a mercedes benz, anyway).  It’s unfortunate that, after a repeat, the song simply fades out over a half-repeat the old tune rather than a repeat of this insistent chord but, no matter, it’s still an excellently thought out piece of arrangement. ‘Move Over’ isn’t as deep as most of Janis’ other songs – I’m especially fond of her ‘I Need A Man To Love’ from ‘Cheap Thrills’ and the bluesy ‘One Good Man’ from ‘Kozmik’ – but in many ways it’s her best, with a simple but fitting lyric that’s perfect for the quirky setting. All in all, ‘Pearl’ is off to a good start.

Alas [59] ‘Cry Baby’ is a rather drab ballad that even Janis can’t rescue. While there’s nothing greatly wrong with it, it does sound awfully insincere compared to the others here and is a big chock, quite frankly, after composer Jerry Ragavoy’s ‘Piece of My Heart’. The song is yet another of those ‘when you’re in trouble, call me’ type songs we’ve heard dozens of times before, and unlike, say, ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ or ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ there are no stand-out lines to make us think that the conversation taking place is real. Janis also chooses to start this subtle and coaxing-out-of-your-shell type song with a bawled ‘CRY BABY!!!!’ chorus which rather undermines all the subtlety to come (the listener, in fact, is simply looking forward to the short chorus kicking in again). The problem isn’t just with the song either, but with the band – to me it sounds like this recording was made on about take 70, with the band all swelling their dynamics just so at all the right times by rote, rather than because the song demands it. With all this going on behind her, Janis tried hard to put her passion across but even she struggles with a melody that gives her just one note to work with and turns her usual ragged rock glory into something resembling a bad gospel choir singer. Not one of Janis’ finest moments and quite possibly the weakest on the album (although I reserve judgement if anyone ever does record ‘Buried Alive In The Blues’ so we know how it’s meant to go).

By contrast, the next two tracks are my favourites on the album. [60] ‘A Woman Left Lonely’ is the best of this album’s many ballads by a country mile, a subtle, sultry song with just enough depth to let Janis get the most out of this song about loneliness that sounds like a close cousin of the material on the ‘Kozmik Blues’. This song differs from the usual Joplin material, though, because it leaves so many spaces for the listener to fill in the gaps. On the surface, this is a neutral song about people being left lonely everywhere, sung in the third person, and on the lyric sheet looks more like a manual to the socially inept man to work out how to cheer up his woman (thanks, Janis, I could probably do with one of those). But the way Janis sings this song, especially the quiet first verse, it’s clear this song is about her character, sat at home on her home again trying to come to terms with what’s going on. Full marks, too, that two male writers in Dan Penn and Neil Young’s sometime pianist Spooner Oldham could come up with such an actively woman’s lib song in 1970. The fact that this song is written in a detached style, as if a psychological study of a partnership gone wrong, and yet sung with such guts is a perfect juxtaposition and Janis has rarely been in better vocal form. The Full Tilt Boogie Band are, not for the first or last time, not up to her standard and risk sounding clinical once again, but pianist Richard Bell does have just the right amount of pathos in his opening lick and organist Ken Pearson turns in a fine solo (unusual not to have a guitar one for this period).  Alas, for my taste, the song builds too quick – by the second verse Janis is already spitting fireballs over how being lonely means she’s very very angry and has nowhere left to go except Shrilltown by the final verse, which is a shame, but no matter – music has rarely sounded more vulnerable or believable than it does when Janis sings about a woman being ‘the victim of her man’.

That’s not the best track on the album though – for my money that accolade goes to [61] ‘Half Moon’, the second all-out rock song on the album, a whimsical surreal wordy song quite unlike any other in Joplin’s canon but tied together with a mesmerising power-riff that’s among the best in my collection. In fact, has there ever been another song like this one? Lyrically, we’re in Moody Blues and Pink Floyd territory, with lots of clipped haiku-like sentences about half moons and stormy seas, symbolic for the ups and downs of loves which Janis’ narrator and partner sail serenely over, hardly noticing as they gaze into each other’s eyes. It would have been easy for this song to get soppy – an unthinkable trait on a Joplin album – but my goodness that ba-di-dah ba-ba-ba-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-dah-bang-WALLOP riff makes the whole thing sound as real and honest, as, ooh punk soul and the blues rolled into one. (One point about the lyrics though – what on earth is happening in the second verse, with the arms of the lover ‘set alight’ as God burns their names ‘into the ground’; with material like this I reckon Janis would have been covering ‘I Am The Walrus’ on her next album had she lived!)  Janis is the perfect singer for this song, really going for it in the verses and seductively coaxing the song along just before the finale, sounding not unlike a female Pigpen as she does so (in fact I’m amazed the Dead didn’t cover this song – they did lots of other Janis material including the forthcoming ‘Bobby McGee’). The Full Tilt Boogie Band sound so much happier on this rocker it’s hard to believe it’s the same band that messed up ‘Cry Baby’ so badly, with some fluid quicksilver guitar runs set against a stable organ part giving this recording a mix of rock and gospel. By far the best evidence on the album that Janis was heading in a great new direction, it’s such an awful shame that Janis died before recording more material like this – I mean, how can she possibly be dead so soon after recording this song where she’s never felt more alive?

[62] ‘Buried Alive In The Blues’, a song by old collaborator Nick Gravenites better known for his work with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, sounds deeply out of place on the album. Now, a good part of that must be because Janis died the week before she was meant to be recording her vocal for this song and so as an instrumental it sits uncomfortably against the other work here (though, having said that, there are a surprising number of instrumental or near-instrumental songs on other Janis albums). But even as a backing track this song sounds different to anything else here. It’s heavy and rocky but not like ‘Move Over’ or even ‘Half Moon’; instead it’s a churning, swampy soul number more like Otis Redding’s material than Joplin’s and it’s hard to work out where Janis’ vocal would have slotted in over the top. In fact, ironically, this may be the least blues-like song of Janis’ whole canon, upbeat and fiery rather than melancholy or bitter. Without the lyrics to go on there’s not really much more to say, except that there’s one section here – the middle eight – where the harder edges of the song fall away and ‘move over’ in favour of a quite lovely reflective passage in the minor key, one where I can just imagine Janis excelling before the band’s heavy riff comes in again. In fact, the ‘buried alive’ part of the title fits quite well; this is the sound of suffocation, of something unexpected and unmoveable trapping you just as you’re getting ready to soar. I’m intrigued to know if the lyrics reflect this musical feeling, or whether I’ve just been on the wine gums again...

It’s rather a relief to get back to Janis’ singing on side two. [63] ‘My Baby’, another by Ragavoy, is only a syllable in title away from his ‘Cry Baby’ and musically it’s an identical twin, but the band sound a bit more competent here than before and the lyrics are slightly better and more believable. ‘My Baby’ is yet another of this album’s songs based on a riff that places the emphasis on the off-beat of the song, leaving large ‘gaps’ in the music’ that should be born for a singer like Janis to control. And yet, she doesn’t, unusually for her. Janis tried hard with the words, which are yet more generic lines about the only person in her life who can cheer her up (‘my baby’ is of course the answer) but for the most part she struggles thanks to a curious mix that places her underneath the piano, drums and ad hoc choir (the only time this happens on the album) and a lack of conviction. The only times Janis impresses is with her attempt to personalise the song, making out that the things going wrong are ‘hurting Janis’ and the song’s false start where she reaches into the stony silence and plucks the next few words out of the air in true ‘Ball and Chain’ Mama Thornton style. Alas, hearing the full coda – with a third straight repeat of the dull bang-bang-thump ‘My Baby’ chorus – is one of the most boring experiences you can have with your stereo on (unless you’re listening to the Spice Girls of course, the sterile empty record company-created antithesis of Janis Joplin!)

[64] ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ is one of ‘Pearl’s more famous moments, a simple Kris Kristofferson cover that did much to make the album a success when released first as a posthumous single and, like the final Otis Redding record ‘Dock Of The Bay’, saw the singer ending her career by going in an entirely unexpected direction. ‘Bobby McGee’ is the only truly acoustic song in Janis’ oeuvre, a travelogue-romance song about two young lovers falling in love and having a fun time. The words, in fact, are among the best Janis sang, a fragmented conversational-style that mirrors Simon and Garfunkel’s earlier ‘America’ with its very visual tale of what’s happening in front of the narrator’s eyes an easily understandable metaphor for something deeper.  It’s also the only Joplin song with country overtones and makes for an interesting first trial for what her next album might have been like – it would have been nice, too, on this evidence. Indeed, Janis sounds right at home here, with a croak in her throat that gives the song an edge but with impressive control of the dynamics in the song and an obvious delight in her voice at times. Alas, it’s the backing band who again let the recording down, with some plodding piano and organ and drum work and a quite irritating finale where the band are playing against each other in a race towards the finish rather than as a fully integrated group. In fact, had Janis lived she would have been in the right to insist on another take, but for all its faults it is easy to see why this recording captured the general public’s imagination in the weeks after her death: nowhere else does Janis sound quite so in control of her emotions and willing to go for accomplishment over raw power. Many fans rate it her best recording for those reasons – me, I’ll always prefer Janis raw and ragged and real, but as experiments go this is a highly successful one that surely would have been repeated many times across the 1970s had circumstances played out in a different way.

[65] ‘Mercedes Benz’ is the other famous song here, the joker in the pack sung a capella by a raw Janis and accompanied by her own hands slapping her thighs. It remains the most known and best loved of all the eight compositions she wrote during her career, with clever lyrics that somehow manage to spoof Janis’ usual downtrodden bluesy style whilst sounding wholly believable. The idea of this short, simple song is whether the humans on Earth deserve to have the intervention of some higher power for what must seem to deities very small matters – and yet they seem huge to those on Earth suffering without what they need. In three verses Janis’ narrators prays that she’ll get a Mercedes Benz to drive, a colour TV to watch and a ‘night on the town’ , partly to rectify the fact that she gets no luck in life, partly to keep up with the Joneses and partly because it will justify her faith in something bigger. This song should make the narrator sound pathetic, crying out for what she doesn’t really need but can’t be bothered to get herself and moaning about past injustices. But who can’t identify with this universal song and the sentiment that because other people less deserving are always getting things we want then they must know something we don’t about how to live their lives. Janis’ cackle at the end of the song and her edgy opening sarcasm (‘I’d like to a song of no significant social political import’) show that Joplin herself refused to take it seriously, and yet there is an edge and weight to ‘Mercedes Benz’, a blues song about the have-nots envying the haves. Janis’ sing-songy tune, which sounds like some half-forgotten nursery rhyme, adds to the feeling that there’s some half-forgotten rule to life that will deliver us happiness, prestige and success if only we can remember what it is. I wonder if Janis ever got to found out when she passed on that October and if she is, even now, running through clouds in the Mercedes Benz she never got to buy on Earth.

After its two most famous moments, there’s nowhere for ‘Pearl’ to go except downhill, with two more plodding songs that, had I been Janis’ manager, would have had me on the phone to Big Brother about a reunion at once. [66] ‘Trust Me’ is a song by our old friend Bobby Womack, a man who has worked with no less than three other AAA favourites: The Rolling Stones (‘he wrote ‘It’s All Over Now’, 1965), Nils Lofgren (for his ‘Wonderland’ album in 1983) and Lulu (for her ‘Duets’ album in 2002). Bobby himself appears on this recording, playing an acoustic guitar part which is sadly buried alive in the mix beneath yet more clumsy organ, piano and drum work, but it’s not one of his better songs, without the clear message of most of his other work. The whole song, in fact, is based around the rather boring ideas that the narrator needs more time without pressure from his lover whether to agree to a wedding or not – and, in the chorus, that her love is ‘like the sea’, alternating in size even though his is like the ‘mountains’. It would have made for a good poem, perhaps, but with an equally dirge-like tune doesn’t offer much for the listener here. In fact, this recording just passes you by without really going anywhere, with Janis alternating between uncharacteristic cutesy pie romantic and shrill caterwauler in a mix that really isn’t as endearing as it should be. Another song that deserves either a re-recording or to be replaced altogether had ‘Pearl’ been fully completed.

‘Pearl’ then ends on an unusually jazzy, happy note on [67] ‘Get It While You Can’, a final Ragavoy song that sounds like a close cousin of Stephen Stills’ ‘Love The One You’re With’ without the cracking tune. Janis is back in her familiar bluesy setting and does a good job with below-parr material, but the Full Tilt Boogie Band again sound uncomfortable, as if they’re still learning the song and don’t yet know when to pounce and when to soar. It makes for a curiously understated finale to Janis’ career (barring posthumous live tracks, outtakes and pre-success tapes) but I can see why the compilers decided to programme the album this way – there’s a real air of finality about something, as if this song about wanting peace and enjoying yourself is Janis’ last message to the world now that her lifetime is getting short. There are some good lines here – the best of all the Ragavoy songs on the album in fact – that are quite eerie in retrospect (we’d better enjoy ourselves ‘because we may not be here tomorrow’) and it’s nice to see Janis end on her tried and tested theme of loneliness, but heard without the context this is another plodding excuse for a recording with only Janis and guitarist John Till on good form.

Is ‘Pearl’ a classic album then, the best that Janis ever made (as votes in by Rolling Stone Magazine readers who put it at #122 in a list of the world’s greatest albums)? No. In fact it’s probably the weakest of the four albums she made, with the wrong songs and the wrong band which sounds adequate on it’s own but woefully limp played back to back with, say ‘Ball and Chain’. But is ‘Pearl’ a complete unlistenable mess? No to that as well. Janis is on great form for much of the album – and there’s reason to think she would have sounded better on the whole of it had she lived to take a few more re-takes – and there is some strong material here, notably the rockers of ‘Move Over’ and ‘Half-Moon’, the ballad of ‘A Woman Left Lonely’ and the twin hits of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ and ‘Mercedes Benz’. The problem is that leaves five other tracks – one a lumpy backing track, the others undistinguished generic pop that are simply undeserving of Janis’ time and attention. As a stepping stone to a better, more consistent album, with a band better used to working together (as I said earlier, they sounded vastly superior live on the Dick Cavett show – which is odd given that they must have known the material less well back then before they'd recorded it, with sessions going on right up until the end), ‘Pearl’ could have been an important album, not least because it presented several new sides to Joplin’s talent that the public hadn’t heard before, for the most part successfully. But alas we’ll never know and, away from the hype, 40 years on from Janis’ sad death, it’s hard to know what to make of Pearl. There’s a part of me that thinks that the dilution of her talent here for public consumption is, if you pardon the pun, casting pearls before swine, taking away what made Janis unique and re-casting her as an every-girl singer and in many ways I’d rather her career had ended with the tortured last track on ‘Kozmik Blues’, a vocal performance that no one else could ever have competed with. But there’s a part of me that’s pleased Janis got to show another part of her personality off before she died, so that other people could be enticed into her world of misery, hurt, despair and sheer raw honesty. ‘Pearl’ isn’t a great album, arguably it’s not even a good one, but even a bad Janis Joplin performance is better than most performers’ peaks and makes for a semi-successful last farewell before Pearl went up before the Pearly Gates. Of all the artists I’ve covered who’ve now since sadly gone (Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, John Lennon, George Harrison, Jerry Garcia, Alan Hull, Rick Wright, Syd Barrett, Brian Jones, Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane, Keith Moon, John Entwistle, etc) Janis’ is the cloud I’ll head to first if I ever make it to the same place, as she’s the talent we got to know least well in her 27 years and I’m fascinated to know what else she could have given to the world.


'Big Brother And The Holding Company' (1967)

'Cheap Thrills' (1968)

'I Got Dem Ol' Kozmik Blues Again Mama!' (1969)

'Pearl' (1970)
Non-Album Songs 1963-1970
Surviving TV Clips 1967-1970
Live/Compilation/Outtakes Sets 1965-1970

Essay: Little Pearl Blue – Who Was The Real Janis?

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