Whom the Gods love dies young
For someone who had such a short career, there can probably never truly be what could be described as a definitive best of. Box of Pearls, which contains all of her original studio albums, with bonus tracks, is far more authoritative, but perhaps way too exhaustive and comprehensive for the average listener. That’s where Greatest Hits comes in. A concise and succinct compendium compiled in 1974, a few years after the singer’s tragic death from a heroin overdose just a day or two away from completing her next album, the posthumously titled Pearl.
However it has to be said that Janis can be something of an acquired taste, like home made wine, or those hand-knitted jumpers my grandmother used to make for me as a child. She is certainly not for everyone, that’s for sure, whose rough and always emotional vocal delivery was as open as it was honest. In other words what you heard was what you got. A woman who sang the way she lived, who bared her soul and put her heart into every performance she made. And speaking of hearts, first up is the song which Janis is no doubt most famous for, the emotionally infused “Piece of My Heart”, recorded for her second LP Cheap Thrills in 1968 with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Now no offence to the band, but here they sound as rough as bags, as if they’d spent a whole twenty minutes learning their instruments, not to mention the arrangement. But as soon as you hear Janis sing, one is immediately in her world, a world where pain and truth are all that matter.
Next is the classic Gershwin and Heyward “Summertime”, where Joplin either transforms the song or completely demolishes it, depending on your view. My own verdict is that for all its faults, it remains a truthful and gutsy interpretation, regardless of whether Joplin sings like some feral alley cat being strangled.
Janis gets all down and funky with the Kosmic Blues Band on “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”, while on “Cry Baby” she screams and wails like a banshee on heat. The country flavoured “Me and Bobby McGee” closes what would have been side one. Now whether you’re a fan of her style of voice or not, one thing which stands out always is the directness and earnestness of her vocals, something sorely lacking in many female singers nowadays.
We go back to 1968, to the Grande Ballroom, Detroit, Michigan, where Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company perform an exciting version of “Down on Me”. “Get It While You Can” has some of Joplin’s finest vocals, proving that while she may have been idiosyncratic, she really could sing. “Bye, Bye Baby” is off her first album, and is pure Janis. Establishing from day one she had all the ingredients of a great singer. “Move Over” is from Pearl, what would be her last studio LP she recorded with the Full Tilt Boogie Band before her death. It’s ironic that it would turn out to be her most professional sounding album yet, although she would not live to see it.
The album appropriately ends with a live version of “Ball and Chain”, arguably Janis’s signature number, recorded 4th July 1970 while on the Canadian Festival Express, where Joplin not only roars it out, but also waxes philosophical all the way to the end, something which has to be heard to be believed. And while it may seem sloppy by today’s standards, I’d rather be in the audience hearing this than in some stadium watching the Foo Fighters shout some Anglo Saxon adjectives in between their boring and repetitive riffs.
The remastered version of the album has two bonus tracks, the horn dominated and heart-felt “Maybe”, off I Got Dem Ol’ Kosmic Blues Again, Mama!, and “Mercedes Benz”, where Joplin’s vocals are ragged and inspired at the same time. Reminding the listener just what a loss she really was.
It’s a well worn cliché I know, but Janis was truly larger than life, and the real deal as well, whose image is in complete contrast to today, where the idea of strong female role models belongs to the Madonna’s and Beyonce’s of this world, whose plastic, fabricated approach to music is the complete antithesis to what Janis herself was doing. One thing’s sure and that is I couldn’t imagine Joplin whoring herself to soft drink companies and junk food restaurants. Which I guess is what separates her from everyone else. Janis may not have been the greatest of singers, technically speaking, but she sang from the heart, and that is just about right for me.