RNR Globe revisits Janis Joplin’s oft-forgotten first post-Big Brother album
I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! is something of a red-headed stepchild as far as Janis Joplin’s three main albums are concerned (the fourth, Big Brother & the Holding Company, the first band she recorded with, generally isn’t even considered in the running).
The 50th anniversary of Big Brother’s second album, Cheap Thrills, was celebrated with the release of an expanded 2-CD edition, Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills (the album’s original title) in 2018. Pearl, posthumously released in 1971 after Joplin’s death the previous year, has been reissued twice with bonus tracks, and as part of the 2012 set The Pearl Sessions, which featured more previously unreleased material. In comparison, Kozmic Blues was reissued once with bonus tracks in 1999, and then as a bonus disc in the 2009 The Woodstock Experience set. But the 50th anniversary of the album’s release has passed unacknowledged.
Another reason for the album’s being overlooked is likely because this was the band that wasn’t considered to be very good for Joplin. She’d left Big Brother at the end of 1968, wanting to pursue new musical directions. But her first show with her new musicians was less than a month after her final date with Big Brother, and during 1969, the lineup was in a constant state of flux, making it hard for the group to really jell. When the group first played on Joplin’s home turf of San Francisco in March 1969, Ralph Gleason, in the San Francisco Chronicle, called her new band a “drag,” and suggested she go back to Big Brother, “if they’ll have her.” Joplin’s new group never even had a name while they were together, only belatedly dubbed the “Kozmic Blues Band” after they’d disbanded.
The recording sessions for the album were also somewhat fraught. As described in Janis: Her Life and Music, a new biography by Holly George-Warren set to be published in October, producer Gabriel Mekler regarded the album as “Janis’s debut solo effort, and her musicians as mediocre sidemen, nothing more. They clashed in the studio when he tried to direct them.” It was a scenario that didn’t auger well as far as producing a first-rate work.
And yet — listen to the album again, without those preconceptions. This was Joplin in the process of charting a new course for herself. She’d been quite taken by groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears who made use of a horn section, and she couldn’t wait to use one herself. On record, she adds horns to put a soulful spin on the girl group classic “Maybe” (originally by the Chantels), and the Bee Gees “To Love Somebody” (just compare it with Bee Gees’ version). The slinky “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” was a live favorite, an insinuating number about the importance of making that extra effort to get what you want (in concert, Joplin introduced the song with a long rap about discovering why the woman downstairs got more “action” than she did; the other woman got up earlier). Here, it makes a perfect opening track, with its foot-tapping, steady groove.
In some cases, the album isn’t the best showcase for these songs. Take the gospel-flavored “As Good As You’ve Been to This World,” for example, which has an extended instrumental opening that runs almost two and a half minutes before Joplin starts singing; you know that live half the fun would’ve been watching her dance around the stage in delight. It was one of two songs by Nick Gravenites on the album, whom Joplin had met when she first moved to San Francisco in 1963, and was eking out a living singing country blues in coffee houses. The other, “Work Me, Lord,” is a plea for salvation from the unendurable torment of loneliness. The standard perception of Janis Joplin is of a woman who belts out the blues, but a song like “Work Me, Lord” spotlights a more restrained, nuanced voice, before building up to the big finish.
This is even more true of the album’s most extraordinary moment: “Little Girl Blue.” This Lorenz Hart/Richard Rodgers song (from the musical Jumbo) might not seem an obvious choice for a singer like Joplin. But she grew up listening to show tunes as much as Leadbelly; as George-Warren puts it, on “Little Girl Blue,” “She almost used the voice her mother loved so much,” the voice people heard when Joplin sang in the school choir as a girl. It’s a delicate, moving performance, her empathy almost palpable; it’s a song meant to offer comfort to someone else in pain, but Joplin takes on that pain as her own.
And then there’s “Kozmic Blues” itself, co-written by Joplin and her producer. It’s a searing self-portrait, alternating between rage, despair, and defiance, and is at least as remarkable as Joplin’s “Ball and Chain” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” Coming after the whirlwind rush of fame in 1968, Joplin sings of the changing circumstances (“Friends they turn away/I keep moving on”) and the disappointments life brings (“Don’t expect any answers, dear/For I know they don’t come with age”). And still, she remains unbowed, determined to let that fire inside all of us burn until the very end — “until the day I die.” It’s a bravura performance, one that encapsulates Joplin’s potent mix of anguish and exaltation.
In a sad postscript, the album was dedicated to “Nancy G,” Nancy Gurley, the wife of Big Brother guitarist James Gurley, who died of a heroin overdose shortly after the album was completed, on July 6, 1969. One year and three months later, that was to be Joplin’s fate, when she died of a heroin overdose while recording her next album, Pearl, in the early morning hours of October 4, 1970. Her image — some would say caricature — is that of a hard livin’ blues mama, brought down by her penchant for excess. But shut your eyes, and listen to her music. “Janis Joplin’s distinctive voice sounds as powerful today as it did when introduced on the radio in 1967,” George-Warren writes. “More so than any of her peers, it cuts through the digital din, the noise of our age, and lands exactly where Janis wanted, deep inside the heart.” This is music that you take to heart — and hold onto, as tightly as you can.
AUDIO: Janis Joplin I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama! (Full Album)