Monday 18 May 2015

Janis Joplin "I Got Dem Ol' Kozmik Blues Again Mama!" (1969) (Revised Review)

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!

"Sometimes you have to wait for it, sometimes you have to beg for it, sometimes you can't get it no matter what you do or say, but Janis Joplin gives it to you - and that's all...indescribably delicious!"

(from a radio promo for the album that's arguably more accurate than whoever put it together would have guessed...)

Which of us, waiting in line to buy Janis' third album back in 1969 would have guessed that we'd already be passing into the second half of her career? More than ever before, Janis sounded as if she was here to stay, a recording artist who was already surprising us by changing her sound as early as her third album and who clearly had so much more to tell us than could possibly be covered across four albums. Although all of Janis' albums makes me long to have heard of this great voice and even greater personality, 'Kozmik Blues' is the one that makes me mourn her passing the most, an album that might not be as consistent as her best work but has so much untapped potential just sitting there waiting to be explored across the next few years and decades. Tiring of Big Brother's sloppiness (arguably the thing that made them great, but difficult if you're the one trying to front a band that's always on the verge of falling apart) and with too many people whispering in her ear post-Monterey that Janis was 'the star' of the band and they'd be 'nothing' without her, it was inevitable than Janis would go solo sooner or later. Sadly it was sooner (Big Brother had at least one more great album left in them judging by the outtakes and discarded ideas across 1968).

For 'Kozmik Blues' Janis formed a whole new band, one that sounded more like the R and B 'groove' bands from the record she loved and which also conveniently dropped the 'psychedelia' fringe from her work which by 1969 was now rather out of fashion (though other bands could re-model themselves and start over, Big Brother's sound was just so intrinsically linked to the era it would have been harder for them to do this - although the complexity of 'Summertime' and the bluesiness of some of their post-Janis albums suggests that they could still have re-styled themselves quite successfully had all the band been in agreement; 'Cheap Thrills', released in August 1968, is in many ways the last great psychedelic album, although 1969's 'Live/Dead' by the Gratefuls is another candidate). Janis had much more freedom than she ever had with Big Brother, picking most of the musicians, most of the songs and adopting a sound that was closest to what she'd always heard in her head before ending up almost accidentally fronting an all-male rock band. Sensibly, she stuck to friends - Big Brother's Sam Andrew is along for the ride and if he resents the fact that his one-time employee has just split up 'his' band, he hides it well with some characteristically blunt guitar solos still audibly psychically tuned to Janis' wave-length. Other musicians were 'borrowed' from the bands of the sorts of stars Janis wanted to emulate: Woody Herman and Ray Charles (this album is a pretty next mixture of the two!) Mike Bloomfield, of fellow Monterey break-out stars The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Electric Flag, also guests on guitar - his 'natural' sound is another influence that lasts a lot longer than his sole credited parts on 'One Good Man' 'Work Me Lord' and 'Maybe'). Three members of the then-new band Steppenwolf also helped out, un-credited, when the band wasn't up to scratch on the early sessions: guitarist Michael Monarch, keyboardist Goldy McJohn and drummer Jerry Edmonton. However the most significant addition to the band was a sort of in-house composer, Nick Gravenites (once also a member of Electric Flag) who writes two of the better songs here and will go on to become Janis' most sympathetic collaborator and is in many ways responsible for 'creating' the new-look more vulnerable Janis persona. Though not all of this record reaches the heights of the past, you only need to hear Gravenites' 'Work Me, Lord' to hear how extraordinarily spot-on the resonance between writer and singer could be. At first the new Kozmik band (rejected first names 'The Joplinaires' and 'Janis Joplin's Pleasure Principle' before being  re-christened after a song Janis wrote for this record - it's  a neat fit for their intriguing mesh of rooted and ethereal music) were coolly received. Early performances were mired by a lack of rehearsal, the fact that the band had come together artificially (a room of strangers will always find it harder to play than a room of friends - strangers are just too polite and rock and roll doesn't do polite!) and a slight resentment that Janis had axed Big Brother before their natural end, in effect stealing their guitar player (though Andrew made it clear he would work both jobs and did indeed end up back with Big Brother in early 1970).

The Kozmik Blues Band had to not just be good but be great to convince over Janis' old listeners and help gain here a few more - alas, while promising and occasionally Janis at her best, 'Kozmik Blues Mama' has a lot less going for contemporary listeners in 1969 than 'Cheap Thrills'. There are no real hits, less hummable melodies and a seemingly casual disregard for what fans might think about the whole exercise ('As Good As You've Been...' starts off with a two minute instrumental that doesn't feature Janis at all, whilst at only eight songs and thirty-seven minutes this album is at least two songs too short). The partly-finished mock 'jigsaw puzzle' on the back cover accidentally sums up exactly what's wrong with this album: too many pieces missing, with the album a couple of songs and a few weeks' extra rehearsal times away from being a 'classic'. Even what's here doesn't particularly sound as if it 'belongs' together - some songs overlap, leaving Janis repeating herself a few times over while others simply don't sit right together - by the end of the second side you almost know just when the horn parts are about to come in again by osmosis, even on a first playing. The result is an album that sounds like Janis' beloved Bessie Smith on steroids and a record that, unlike its two predecessors, has been dividing fans and critics ever since. Only after several playings and an awful lot of expectation adjustments does this album sound closer to 'pearl' and less like grit.

However once I got to know this album properly I have always considered 'Kozmik Blues' - the last record to be completed in Janis' heart-breakingly short life time - to be in many ways the best. Janis is always at her best when her nerve endings are raw and showing and at times 'Kozmik Blues' is a staggeringly revealing, confessional work even if Janis writes a mere quarter of the album's songs (still a bigger percentage than her three other records). While the horns often sound at odds, an additional bit of colour in oil-paints by a singer whose already learnt to work in subtler watercolour, at times the union is breathtaking. The dichotomy of this album is particular impressive: Andrew's screaming guitar tries it's hardest to break down every closed door blocked by the obstinate horns on nearly every track here an when it works this is a blisteringly exciting sound. 'Work Me Lord' is a song right up there with 'Ball and Chain' and quite possibly beyond, a testament to Janis' abilities as a singer whose nerve endings must have been the rawest in the business and still gives me the shivers every time I hear it, as 'real' as music ever gets. Some of the other songs aren't far behind either: 'Try' has a cracking beat and allows Janis just enough room to try on different personas for size as each verses pass before discarding them all and screaming from the top of her lungs like the days of old. Janis' take on the over-covered 'To Love Somebody' breathes new life into a great song, The Bee Gees' later suggesting to one interviewer than Janis' cover was their 'favourite' of all the many that were done. 'One Good Man' is one of the best of Janis' own songs, a witty blues number that's probably closer to the 'truth' of Janis' life than fans often recognise. 'Little Girl Blue' proves what a subtle and disciplined singer Janis could be when the occasion demanded, although there's nothing 'light' about this tearjerker that points to so much unspoken misery and heartbreak beneath that seemingly invulnerable exterior. In truth the rest of the album is pretty awful, 'As Good As You've Been To This Whole World' being the most ill-fitting song since 'Turtle Blues'. However for an album so short on material to begin with, this is still pretty decent odds, with several breath-taking performances to admire, with most of the band getting it on for most of the songs most of the time.

While 'Cheap Thrills' was a great 'band' album, with Big Brother and the Holding Company the perfect foil for Janis' Big Sister, 'Kozmik Blues' is where Janis is at the peak of her own special powers and this is clearly a much more 'personal' work. Powers that, on the evidence of this LP, sounded invincible, unbeatable, unstoppable. Not withstanding the fact that half her career is behind her already, this is the sound of Janis  While 'Cheap Thrills' had some truly astonishing individual moments, it's 'Kozmik Blues' that was Janis' first album as a solo act and is already quite unlike any other record being made at the time. Ignoring the tried and tested path of female singers before her, Janis gets rid of the folk and psychedelia, adds in some funk and maximises the blues that have long been a mainstay of her repertoire. Janis is still backed by a rocking band (albeit one that have barely had time to say 'hello' to each other, in contrast to the years Big Brother were on the road) that can out-whallop every band up to and including The Stones and The Who, but this time the sound is even bigger, louder, angrier, with horns giving Janis whole new textures of agony and ecstasy to ride with as she sings (for the best contrast just compare the 'original' spooky Joplin version of 'Summertime' with the horn drenched version played live and included as a bonus cut on the 'Kozmik' CD, which really is as suffocating as a full-on Summer's Day). The effect is strangely most unlike the quiet intimacy of what came before  - the daft pop songs of early Big Brother or the subtlety with which the band performed even the harsher aggressive songs like 'Piece Of My Heart' and 'Ball and Chain'. Big Brother were hands down the best thing that ever happened to Janis, but 'Kozmik Blues' is the album Janis had always longed to make given the right circumstances - the first time she had a band as big and as loud as she is.

One the one hand it's Joplin at her most sure: no other female singer of the day, not even close compadre Grace Slick, was being given quite such free reign to 'rock out' with the boys. Janis is sure enough of her talents to write two songs (sadly the most credits she'll get on any LP in her lifetime) and she has the gall to re-arrange and re-interpret songs already regarded as modern classics not just of the Gershwin songbook but the modern rock age (The Bee Gees' 'To Love Somebody'), almost unrecognisable in comparison to the original. Even with the astonishing successes of 1967 and 1968 safely behind her, it takes guts to make a record quite as out of kilter with everything else around you as this album (1969 was a year of 'outer' songs, as students got radical and bands started singing about politics, usually in an intimate cosy acoustic fashion; whilst intimate in the extreme there's nothing cozy about this album all about emotions, love and hurt which doesn't care a dang for the outside world). Janis was always an extrovert - on stage at least - but her fire and flair here know no bounds, with her heart on full display across this record, no longer held in check by the accompanying guttural stomp and comedy backing vocals of Big Brother.

However, even whilst Janis remains an extrovert and her band rock away at full tempo behind her, this record doesn't have the name 'blues' in the title for nothing. For this is the album that creates Janis persona number two, right under our very eyes: Janis is no longer 'one of the boys' who can party harder than they can and don't need no man in her life to feel fulfilled - this Janis is lonelier, sadder, still a party animal but a party animal that keeps waking up in one too many hovels kissing one too many ugly frogs in search of her prince. There's always been a slight vulnerability to Janis' work which I just adore and here is where it comes to the fore, adding whole new layers to the Joplin back story. After all, you wouldn't catch Grace Slick singing a song that made her sound as vulnerable as 'Maybe' or 'Work Me, Lord' and Blondie would have sneered those pouting lips had anyone offered her this album's original song 'One Good Man'. Yet all three - and the rest of the album - sound very much like Janis Joplin songs, whether she's writing them or re-interpreting them. Of course, that switch in sound - which adds a completely new texture to Janis' repertoire in one move, with the material by far the biggest change notwithstanding the changes to the rhythm section and addition of horns - isn't to every fans' taste. There are less songs here to boogie to, no real hits or firm fan favourites to enjoy (whereas 'Cheap Thrills' contained at least two) and Janis is far less of a feminist icon here; far from being as tough as any boy and able to drink him under the table, 'this' Janis sounds lost, vulnerable, unsure of herself in anything other than drinking the men around her under the table, which no longer seems as important to her as it once did. This is the era of Janis admitting to interviewers that 'every night I make love on stage to 200,000 people - and then go home alone'; if the last two records were born for the stage and Janis' stage personality (which she nicknamed 'Pearl', a beauty cut from the rough - more on that on our review of her next album...) then 'Kozmik Blues' is more about what happens when the audience have gone home and Janis is left alone, the lioness turning back into a pussycat. Ever since Janis stepped up to the microphone at Monterey to announce like a lost little girl that she'd 'like to sing Ball and Chain' before launching into the most astonishing gut-wrenching vocal, light years before it's time, this juxtaposition has been running - but only on this neglected third record is it given free reign.  Whilst 'Cheap Thrills' is easily the best Janis album, this one is many ways the most engaging for just that reason, adding layers and layers to the Janis Joplin persona that had hitherto only ever been hinted at, most of them about emptiness and loneliness.

For example, the album starts with Janis desperately urging herself, us and the world to 'try just a little bit harder' because we haven't quite got there yet - not the sort of song most supposed divas would use to kick-start a solo album. 'Maybe' too is an insecure song, willing an old lover to come back home because life has never been the same since 'and I'm all alone and needing you'. Janis' own 'One Good Man' sounds like a hangover from one party too many and another crazy one-night stand, but the narrator doesn't want that anymore - she wants commitment, security, somebody there for her all the time come what may. It's the inversion of the jokey 'Mercedes Benz' from the next LP, dismissing all the fun and frivolity and fame of the last few years because none of it has offered for the life partner and soulmate that Janis longs for ('One good man ain't much' she sneers in her old way, before sighing 'oh but it's just everything!')  'To Love Somebody' is one of the most heart-breaking songs ever written, an unequal partnership that far from making Janis out to be the 'star' has her as the 'victim' - and a victim that's all too openly suffering in this version of the song. Janis' second song, the title track, may sound like any old blues song melodically but lyrically is astonishing: Janis agonises over the fact that as rich and successful as she is, she just isn't happy - and she doesn't even have the old friends beside her she used to have when she was poor. According to the lyrics she's had 'just one night' of bliss for her twenty-five years (side note: was it with the Grateful Dead's Pigpen? That's long been the rumour and the two were very close - and very similar, 'too real' for a world as artificial as our modern one, even at it's softest in the 1960s; side side note: presumably she wrote this song before turning 26 in January 1969) - far from her 'image' as the rock star hippie chick with a different boy every night. 'Little Girl Blue' may be an old Rodgers and Hart show tune, the 'Summertime' of the album, but it sounds pretty scarily close to the truth as Janis speaks in the third person about a girl devastatingly lonely and convinced she'll never ever find happiness. If you aren't crying by the end of this song you're either a robot or David Cameron. Finally 'Work Me Lord' pleads, begs, cajoles and bargains with God with every last ounce of soul in Janis' body to help her find her soulmate and right the lonely world she lives in. It seems ridiculous to say that such a bitter song is Janis most beautiful, but here when the horns really work their magic this is special indeed, the song trying several times to right itself across nearly seven agonising minutes before finally collapsing in a soggy heap on the carpet. Hardly the ending to the album those who wowed to 'Ball and Chain' or got fired up to 'Piece Of My Heart' would have been expecting and yet in many ways this is the most fitting sound that Janis ever invented for herself. Anyone who dismissed Janis as such another 'screechy singer' has clearly never heard this album, which in a vocal equivalent to Keith Moon's drumming is indeed wild and loud and extrovert and often messy - but only between the notes that have to be played spot on without letting the music fall apart; these are all played spot on too, delivered as well as any other singer/drummer out there.

Along with the Electric Flag musicians who guested on this album, the record's biggest influence to me sounds as if it was our old AAA friend Otis Redding. The 'other' big discovery of the Monterey Pop Festival, Otis had died tragically young in December 1967 when the singer was running late for a gig and against advice his plane took off in snowy weather and crashed soon after. Janis doesn't appear to have spent much time with soul's gentle giant', but she must have been struck by the similarities between their careers: the years spent struggling out on the road while being told 'you're no good' back at home and held back from their full potential because of shortsighted 'you can't do that just because...' arguments (though others' blind-spot for her was gender and for him was race) before discovering overnight success at the same festival, simply for doing what they'd always done but this time to the 'right' crowd (read the 'love crowd' as Otis termed the Monterey audience). Otis' cruel ending just six months after his great victory must have struck Janis, leaving her the biggest name bequeathed with the legacy of the event and one that was on everyone's lips even more after 'Woodstock' in 1969 (another gig at which Janis played - and the differences between the two are profound, especially the 'moody' way the Director's Cut'  remixes the footage so that it's low-key and eerie). It may just be the sort of spooky retrospective curse that happens when someone dies young and yet spoke a lot in their short life, but both singers seem to have been propelled by a similar inner instinct that they didn't have long for this world and had to get on with things, fast, oblivious of obstacles (the same applies to John Lennon and Dennis Wilson to some extent). It's perhaps going too far to say that 'Kozmik Blues' is where Otis would have ended up had he lived (chances are he'd have gone over to the low-key folk of the charming 'Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay', his last recording released after his death), but there are definite similarities: the cat-and-mouse game that's played with the audience, the use of the horns to say everything that the narrator just can't and the emotional edginess of the material. On the album outtake 'Dear Landlord' she even sounds suspiciously like Otis, singing with the same sort of growl and register as the horns play the sort of swampy uptempo part everyone associates with his backing act Booker T and the MGs.

Personally I think this style rather suits Janis, who offers up more of herself than ever before across this album. Other people disagree though: compared to 'Cheap Thrills' the peak American position of #5 and the complete flop of  the title track when released as a single and the low-key reception to the band out on the road (except in Europe, funnily enough, where crowds had never seen Big Brother in action and didn't have the same expectations) meant that the experiment was never repeated again. Fans have long assumed that the more famous album that Janis did next (the posthumous 'Pearl') was closer to the 'real' Janis anyway - folk, like her early days and with a slick and polished band, with this record dismissed as being a stepping stone to that sound from Big Brother that was never going to work. However 'Kozmik Blues' strikes me as much closer to the 'real' spirit of Janis than 'Pearl' - it sounds like she has invested far more emotion into this record and for all the teething problems this new Kozmik Blues Band has, they sound much more sympathetic to Janis; core sound than the less ragged yet less intense studio musicians of that later record. Had Janis lived I reckon that 'Pearl' would have come to be seen as the 'odd one out' in her catalogue, as more and more fans slowly 'understood' what 'Kozmik Blues' was all about and realised that Janis was a soul rock singer at heart, despite getting sidetracked into psychedelic rock and ending up (mainly through a life of Kris Kristoffersen) into folk rock. Although all that said - and for all the power with which Janis sings on this LP, as we said in our introduction an immovable, in-your-face performer whose far too alive to ever be truly dead - it's 'Kozmik Blues' that sounds like a singer who doesn't long left to give to this whole world, not 'Pearl'. A fascinating and perennially under-rated album.

The sultry shuffle-beat of [ ] 'Try (Just A Little Bit Harder) is immediately quite unlike anything Big Brother gave us. The song opens layer by layer, with a shaken percussion part that's a world away from 'Cheap Thrills', before a thudding bass, heavy drums, a spiky guitar and a pulsing organ part all join in one by one. So are the lyrics: though Janis often treated this song in concert as if it was a song about overcoming obstacles and picking yourself up, it's actually a song about pulling your weight in a relationship because you're in danger of losing someone you love. As a result this isn't a 'natural' song for even the new-look Janis to sing, a passive-aggressive tune that leaves Janis with nowhere to go when she breaks out into full-on power, although that doesn't stop her having fun trying. However the way that the song builds is very much in keeping with what she does best, as he plays cat-and-mouse with the listener, purring before pouncing and hitting a stunning final chorus that's awfully high - in total Janis must cover an awful lot of notes from top to bottom. However it's the music you remember most - whilst slightly leaden, like all the Kozmik Blues recordings (the band were just too big and covered a few too many styles), the instrumental breaks are all spot-on, especially the first when the horns suddenly sweep in and take regimented control of the song with a 'duhn dur-dee-dee-durrrr' riff that sounds like the end of the world, before they too get swept along with the joy of the song as Janis sings about the chance to start over again. The song was a one-off collaboration between two notable AAA outsider writers: Jerry Ragavoy, who'd written Janis' big hit 'Piece Of My Heart' (although that breathless immediate song is very different to this layered piece) and Chip Taylor who wrote some of The Hollies' best songs such as 'I Can't Let Go' and 'The Baby'.

The soft blues of 'Maybe' is a better fit all round and perhaps the most 'Otis' song on the album - that gentle opening organ lick, the bubbling guitar part and those strong yet gentle horns prodding and poking at the narrator's guilty conscience. Janis' second George Gershwin cover after 'Summertime', it's clear that she's keen on using old friends in her style but it sounds very different to the more famous covers of the song, unrecognisable in fact, (Bing Crosby et al) without being quite as outrageously re-invented or as 'Janisified' as its predecessor. Both singer and band are on good form though - Janis has plenty of room to improvise and do what she does best, investing her own personality into the song, while the Kozmik Blues Band seem quite 'into' this song, attacking it for all it's worth and getting the blend of rock and soul just right. Once again it see Janis trying out a new avenue - one of guilt. Her narrator can't understand why what she once thought was the love of her life hasn't worked out but as he's so perfect she sadly sighs that it must be something wrong with her - 'I guess I might have done something wrong, honey I'd be glad to admit it!' If this was an Otis Redding album we'd be calling him 'Mr Pitiful' right about now, but Janis' aggressive delivery puts a whole new spin on the words - fearing that they might have parted because she wasn't passionate enough she pours her heart and soul into the recording, begging pleading cajoling arguing fighting and doing everyt5hing in her power to get her soulmate to come back to her. However that part seems to have been played musically by the horns, who spend the whole song sounding cold and distant, giving her the cold shoulder and shrugging that cold shoulder at her as if to say 'so what?', with a saxophone solo best described as 'laidback'. One thing stops this very good song/recording from being great however: Janis needs a punchy chorus to prove herself, but all she can muster if a feeble 'Maybe!...Maybe maybe baby!', which after such an epic build-up just seems limp.

Janis' own 'One Good Man' ought to be similarly unprepossessing: a chugging 12-bar-blues played at a slow tempo of the sort we've heard so many times before (think Janis' own Turtle Blues, hardly the greatest moment in her back catalogue). However three things make the song one of the best on the album: a terrific Sam Andrew guitar part that's as eccentric as any he played with Big Brother but with a bluesier flavour (full kudos to him and Janis for being able to work together this well after such a sudden switch in employee and employer), an eccentric drumming part from Maury Baker whose clearly much more fond of slower songs like this and some fascinating Joplin lyrics. Janis is back home from another late night party, but what good was enjoying herself for a few hours if she comes home alone? This is clearly much more than just a hangover she's suffering - it's a whole shift in personality as she comes to realize that there's more to life than parties. Unlike 'Mercedes Benz' to come, Janis swears against material comforts because they aren't what's important - 'I never wanted a mansion in the sun'. What's more she isn't even interested in the conquest of relationships anymore, sneering against other women who wear their feminism lightly and then 'collect their men to wear like notched on a gun'. What Janis needs is just one good man who can love her for who she is. After a career of singing about 'searching' she still seems no closer to finding one and sighs in a very personal aside that finding 'one good man ain't much - oh but it's everything!' We've never heard Janis like this before: either she's been the one doing the chasing or she's wickedly seeking revenge when love goes wrong, in relationships or out - but this is the start of her 'second' persona, one built on loneliness. Despite the change, Andrew instantly 'gets' where Janis is going and the pair kind of swap roles - she's now the subtle melodic creature singing at a shade less intensity than normal while he just goes for it in his no-holds barred solo, hinting at all that inner turmoil and desperation (in another neat trick he seems to get 'further away' from Janis as the track carries on, sounding as if he's wailing from down the end of a very long road by the time of the final solo). A highly revealing song that for once on this album is exceptionally well played - if only all 12 bar blues could be this good.

After three mixed attempts to break the old formula altogether, 'As Much As You've Been To This Whole World' sounds like a last attempt to try the 'old' carousing partying Janis with the 'new' sound. Offering up a full two minute opening solo to her backing band, who get locked in a tight groove but still struggle to fit round each other, was either a brave move or a stupid one - this section is clearly here to show off what the Kozmik Blues Band can do, but they just don't know each other that well yet and the result just sounds like a bad modern jazz band. A sudden full stop 2:16 leads to a shorter intro to the song and Janis finally arrives, sounding more like Tom Jones in her garbled vocals and OTT histrionics. While Janis sounds like the hell-raiser we've always known, once again this Nick Gravenites song is actually quite opposed to her usual character when you analyse it. Perhaps this group should have been called the Karma Blues Band because that's what this song is about - the more love you give out, the more it will be returned, although oddly it's Janis doing the 'returning' in this song.  Janis promises that she'll be as good to her man as he is to the world in general - re-acting to him rather than being the aggressor. 'If you pay no attention to your man, you end up his servant' is her rather questionable advice before contradicting the last track with the line that 'there ain't no use in being faithful'. Only near the end of the song, when Janis decides to tell her man where he's gone wrong (I think you got good intentions, they just don't manage to show through' does she sound as if she really believes in this song, which falls flatter than any of the other songs on the album. Ironically the one time on this album they try to make Janis sound like her 'old' self and they mess it up completely - despite being by the same author (and a long-term Janis sympathetic writer at that) the music and lyrics don't go together or with Janis in the past or in the present. While it's not altogether unlistenable - the horns get a good chance to strut once they start backing Janis rather than being the full band - an album made up of only eight songs can't afford for any one of them to be as bad as this.

Side two begins with the Joplinaired 'To Love Somebody'. Easily the greatest Bee Gees song out there, Janis twists the original's muted sadness and shy frustrations right on it's head, hurling herself into the role of aggressor as she accuses mankind for doing her wrong. 'You don't know what it's like!' she stamps her foot in despair, 'to love somebody the way that I love you' - forever doomed to give her all to partners who don't care with anything like the passion that she does. Given how well known the original version is, this is perhaps the best place to hear just what Janis could do to a song when she's on form: there are all sorts of asides casually tossed into this song that sound like the most revealing parts of the track ('You don't know what it's like - no you can't and you never ever, no you never ever, no you never ever never did!...Oh and I've been looking around! Honey I've been trying to talk about holding somebody when you're lonely...and I just wanted you to know that I tried!') Janis was one of the greatest scat singers around and this is one of the greatest examples of that, with every word ringing true as Janis peels off into sighs, mutters and screams, throwing everything she can at this song in her desperation 'because I can't find you anywhere!' The Bee Gees may have been Australian in nationality but their Isle of Mann birth and English parentage meant that they still share the same reserve of many English bands: why be emotional when you can be polite? 'To Love Somebody' sticks out in their early canon because it's a song that sounds as if it was born from the heart, not from their very clever brain-cells that made songs like 'Holiday' and 'When Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You' dazzling displays of atmosphere that don't actually say that much. This song though has everything - guilt, doubt and anger - it just took a singer like Janis to exploit the song to it's logical extreme, sounding petrified, anguished and furious with every twist of the song. The Bee Gees' original 'sounds' true but Janis' version just 'is' true and remains one of her greatest cover versions. Alas the rest of the band aren't quite as on the money just yet - while Brad Campbell's moody bass line does do 'sad' rather well (if not quite as well as Peter Albim would in Big Brother), the rest of the band just come in too heavy and hard, all black and white without the emotional shadings Janis is giving to the song, leaving her competing with an over-noisy horn part for the majority of the song. Even Andrew sounds unusually mis-cast here, struggling to adopt his usual aggressive style to a band where everyone is playing as aggressively as he is. Had the Kozmik Bluesers calmed down slightly and let the singer sing then this could have been one of Janis' greatest recordings ever - instead it's merely another very very good one.

Janis and keyboardist Gabriel Mekler's collaboration 'Kozmik Blues' isn't up to 'One Good Man' but is another impressive original song with some very personal lyrics and is clearly a dark night of the soul - it's even set in the middle of a sleepless night where 'dawn has come at last' - mirroring a realisation as much as what the sunlight is up to. Like much of the album it's about loneliness, not just from a missed date or an unexpected night in but the gnawing agonising feeling that you've been lonely so long that you're likely to end up lonely for the rest of your life. Janis sounds at the pits of despair here: Time keeps movin' on, friends they turn away I keep movin' on - but I never find out why'. Though a mere twenty-five, Janis keeps returning to her age in shock and horror as if she can't believe that so much time has gone by with so little to show for it ('Just one night!' she snarls at one point, although whether this one night of sex or one night of happiness or merely one date is never made clear). Janis was in an unusual position as rock stars went: she didn't have the level of groupies or the string of boyfriends that traditionally pretty rock chicks like, say, Marianne Faithful and Lulu had. Most men were scared of her and her persona as a man-eater and those that weren't didn't have the rounded personality that Janis was looking for and needed (she needed someone to cry with as much as she needed someone to party with, judging by her lyrics in this period). That left her as, almost uniquely, a rock star everyone assumed was getting it on every night (especially given the sexiness of her act) but was actually living as alone and isolated as she was in her pre-fame life. It's a real shame that the one relationship we know about - with the Grateful Dead's Pigpen - fizzled out soon after the 'Festival Express' tour both bands went on in 1970 (travelling across America by train); both singers had similar backgrounds as 'the odd one out' who never fitted into their upper-class families, both felt that they were born the wrong race and were teased about it endlessly (Pigpen should have been 'black' like the blues singers he admired and the friends he hung out with at a time when hanging out with different races was enough to get you lynched, Janis was always being teased that she both looked like and acted like a 'boy'), both had personas of being hard as nails and yet inwardly both were quite vulnerable and sensitive - at least judging by their songs. Oh and both were about the only people the other new who could match them drink for drink. Pigpen never quite recovered from Janis' death and followed her to the grave just three years later in 1973 from too much booze,  alone in his flat after being told he was no longer well enough to tour - the sort of death Janis seems to be fearing for herself across this album. Janis tells us again and again in this song that she thought getting older would sort her problems out - that the school bullies and lack of relationships would get better in time and even hints that this was why she became a 'star' in the first place. But it's all been for nothing: 'Don't expect any answers, dear, for I know that they don't come with age' she warns the listener. Only by the end of the chorus does she return to her normal self, vowing that this loneliness and outsider quality has given her a 'fire', one she vows to use 'until the day I die' because she knows know that she's destined never ever to be happy. That's quite a song and Janis is spot-on with her delivery, singing in a softer twilight-hours voice for the most part until finally soaring on the thud-thud-thud pause-for-thought riff before the chorus that's in all her best songs of the period. If only Mekler's music had matched the contents - after a strong start with some smoky piano chords, this song just recycles the main theme of 'Try' but played at a slower speed. Ah well, this is still a great song and another album highlight.

The Richards and Hart tune 'Little Girl Blue' was actually written for the forgotten musical 'Jumbo' in 1935 where - believe it or not - the plot involved a circus so strapped for cash that the main performer (Jimmy Durante) took to building up his muscles so an elephant could sit on his head (sample line as a policeman stops the circus clown on top of an elephant 'where are you going with that Jumbo?' 'What jumbo officer? I don't see one!') A film was made in 1962, re-named 'Billy Rose's Jumbo' - and it's as bad as it sounds (the things I sit through for these reviews!) Not the sort of place you'd expect to hear as emotional and deep a song as 'Little Girl Blue', but then the song was clearly meant to be thrown away on a nothing project until Janis could re-discover it. Of all the songs she covered, this is after 'Ball and Chain' the one born for her. The song is soft and understated, in contrast to most of the album, allowing Janis to build layer by layer on this sob story about a girl left behind. Though Janis is technically trying to comfort another close friends or family member (Janis may have been thinking of her sister Laura, her junior by nearly a decade, who while more naturally 'conventional' was then being teased about her sister's wayward ways the same way Janis had once been, something that cut the elder Joplin up terribly; originally this piece was sung by a man) she's clearly doing more than just comforting her - she's lived this song herself and can understand every word. The little girl is bored, counting her fingers, counting the raindrops that fall on the roof outside, dreaming of a happy future - but the older narrator knows that getting older doesn't necessarily change anything. She too is unhappy and bored, with her heart 'feeling just like those raindrops falling down', but she doesn't want her friend/sister/whoever to know that. So she comforts her, tells her that all will be well, that she doesn't need anyone else, that she knows there doesn't seem to be any reason to go on - but inwardly she knows what she says is all lies and if her life follows the same path she's going to be happier and more alone the older she grows. A powerful song that says a lot in a very short space of time, it's born for Janis' voice and she's superb at this sort of a song where she can act layers upon layers. We listeners know that Janis doesn't believe a word she's saying when she offers comfort - and yet we feel better for the lies all the same. Once again it's a shame the rest of the band aren't up to the singer but they're closer than on some other occasions on this album, especially Sam Andrew's guitar part which is very close to 'Summertime'.

However the greatest moment on the album, perhaps the greatest Janis Joplin moment ever, is 'Work Me, Lord', another far superior Nick Gravenites composition. Across seven powerful minutes Janis all but breakdowns in front of us. Calling out to God, she wonders why her life has turned into the tragedy, asks why she's been made to suffer and strikes all kinds of bargains about how productive and pious and useful she'll be if only the misery of her life can be taken away from her. Admitting that 'I don't think I'm any special kind of person down here' still she pleads that 'I don't you're going to find anyone who can say that they've tried like I've tried', before complaining that her worst feature is 'that I'm never satisfied' (at least that's the original line, suggesting perfectionism; but Janis sings the line as 'I've never satisfied', taking this song back to sex again). They say that God loves a tryer - but today God ain't listening. Though a sad song Janis and the band try their damnedest to make themselves 'happy', to pick themselves up and start again with a melody that reaches up to the sky - but every time sunlight is in sight the song topples forward on a depressing twirl of horns that sink painfully back to Earth again. 'Every day I try to move forward' she screams, fighting to stay afloat, only for the musicians to fall down a big fat hole as she adds 'but something is holding me, driving me...back, turning my world black!' the key change ever further into the heart of the minor keys literally stopping her in her tracks. Janis is at her best here, using every last ounce of her power, subtlety and scat singing to pour every last drop out of herself. The ending is particularly powerful as the rest of the band finally give up and go home, leaving her a capella still pleasing 'please....won't you leave me?' much interrupted by some inspired scat singing. Her final last power-chord of 'Lord' which trails off to silence before the band kick in one last time and power-boost the song to an uneasy climax, is one of the most goose-pimple-inducing moments in the AAA canon, scarily intense and with every line delivered like it hurts. Even after seven minutes and several attempts to find glory with every avenue explored, nothing has worked and Janis is even more desperate than when she began - how far away from the party animal of 'Cheap Thrills' have we come? Extraordinary. Two different mixes of the song have come to light - the best one features a sort of half-guitar solo from Sam Andrew who doesn't so much soar as usual but wearily peel out a few half-chords, as if worn down by the weight of living - while that might sound like the easier option it's arguably as close as singer and guitarist ever were, perfectly in tune to what's happening in the song, building up to an aggressive staccato rumble before sounding as if it 'collapses' again on the floor, it's energy spent. The 'other' version features an intrusive and far too pretty guitar solo played on top of the other one - it's more what you'd expect and may well be what was planned from the first, but it doesn't 'fit' - it's too balanced, too perfect for a song about being on the edge and the fact that life isn't perfect.

Overall, then, Janis certainly had dem ol' Kozkik Blues again - and how. I've never known an album like this one - while I own plenty of 'sad' records (heck I'm an Otis Redding and a Pink Floyd fan!) this is the only one I own that manages to be quite so aggressive and which features a singer who sounds so like she knows exactly what she's doing singing about how she doesn't. While it's far from perfect, the backing band are more than a little undercooked and a couple of songs could be better, 'Kozmik Blues' gets most things right. And not just a little right but a lot right - this is a brave album, very different to anything Janis had ever delivered before and finds her growing up before our ears, throwing away the shackles of fame and diva-ness that fans would have been expecting post 'Monterey' and 'Cheap Thrills' for an intimate, guilt-ridden album that sounds like a spooky confessional, not just a rock album with horns. Janis deserves full praise for the work, which might not have the consistency of 'Cheap Thrills' or the cuteness of 'Big Brother' but is actually a much more fitting legacy for her memory than her half-return to the cosiness and artificiality of 'Pearl' (an album that uses the horns for colour, not to wrench our heart out from its socket). You can see why the public was so unsure of 'Kozmik Blues' when it came out and the sloppy performances of the era that have been released posthumously show why this period gained such a bad reputation. But separate this album from what came before and what the album sounded like in concert and you get quite a different flavour: a Janis that's brave, revealing and by admitting up to her deepest darkest fears suddenly sounds even more brave than when she was 'being' a 'pop star'. A terribly under-rated album, 'Kozmik Blues' is a special record and while it doesn't sound much like the 'hits' that people know either side of it, it's arguably the most 'Janis' of the four Janis Joplin albums. And as fans know, more of Janis can only be a good thing. 


'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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