Writings about Music

Janis Joplin and the Houseguest

Janis Joplin

photo by Herb Greene

Honestly, I've never listened to her music much outside of a relatively brief flirtation while a teenager, but Janis Joplin mined the ubiquitous song "Summertime" by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward more deeply than anyone else on the incendiary, apocalyptic Cheap Thrills album by Big Brother and the Holding Company. Recalling this, I'm now motivated to go back and listen to her music some more. She had already been on my mind before reading this after meeting one of her managers, Bennett Glotzer, while shopping at Bristol Farms. Rather than merely interpreting "Summertime," Janis shapeshifts into a goddess of the season, magically transporting us to some mysterious, sacred place in her mind.

John Simon, who produced Cheap Thrills, offered the following thoughts when I asked him about the stunning arrangement of "Summertime."

"The diminished chord on the downbeat of the 2nd bar was Sam Andrew's invention -- which I think is the most brilliant thing about the chart. The baroque-ish intro was the idea of the band members but when I first heard it, they had no idea that their eighth note lines had to HARMONIZE with each other. So we'd start each session woodshedding that intro and I got them to land on the downbeats with any note of the same chord and then the same for the 3rd beat, etc. Until we were close enough to roll tape."

Another of Joplin's phenomenal utterances is "One Good Man" from an album by the Kozmic Blues Band, including a ravishingly lethal lead guitarist who turned out to be Mike Bloomfield.

 

I feel fortunate that I'm able to enjoy and appreciate diverse musical genres, and how they provide complimentary insights into each other. A while back, I was communicating with a gifted jazz journalist of my generation, and was astonished to learn that he had never heard "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by the Beatles, just one of many rock compositions and performances I find indispensable in my life. I absolutely believe that just as jazz superseded Western classical music at one time, so did rock and folk supersede jazz some years later for a period, and currently we are in the middle of something else probably too close for appraisal.

Recordings allow us to time travel backwards while listening to timeless music from different times. Throwing ordinary moments beyond the reach of time is something musicians and composers yearn for, being part of the basic human need for transcendence.

Another time Janis Joplin's name was evoked was when I was at Ray Manzarek's house in Beverly Hills, and the subject of her death along with the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison came up. Perhaps insensitively, I voiced the unlikely theory sometimes postulated about how those three were assassinated during the time of the Nixon administration for the supposed false reason that they were harmful influences on American youth. Ray's face filled with rage, scaring me momentarily - Ray was an intense cat - and I thought he was going to go off on me, but instead he got up and left the room. After ten minutes or so he returned, and the subject was never broached again as if we had never discussed it.

Have to go now, there's a houseguest to entertain. At least, it feels like a houseguest! What I mean is, there's this book that arrived in the mail a few days ago, and its so remarkably capturing of its subject matter, including its sheer coffee table book size, with never before seen photographs, I actually feel the presence of its subject matter, Paul Desmond, visiting my home, if ethereally. What I'm referring to is Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond by the author of this blog.

I'd go so far to say that this is likely the finest music biography I've ever encountered irrespective of genre, and already, after only a few days, the music of Paul Desmond (and the Dave Brubeck Quartet) makes more sense to me than ever, and will probably inspire a revision of my essay about Desmond in the near future.

 

Rajasthani Spring reflects the Paul Desmond influence on Michael Robinson

One thing Janis Joplin (is she related to fellow Texan, Scott Joplin?) and Paul Desmond shared is love for a city they spent decisive years in, San Francisco. One feels those breezes, hills and vistas dancing on their aural palm prints. It's true; most everyone (autumn) leaves there what might be individually termed a piece of my heart.

And now that I've found a way to link Joplin and Desmond (not to mention finishing a new composition yesterday), I'm going to treat myself to a walk on the beach.

- Michael Robinson, September 2015, Los Angeles

 

© 2015 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

 

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).