Thursday, January 06, 2011

I Got Dem Ol' Kozmik Blues Again Mama, Janis Joplin

by Dick Mac

I met a girl in 1972.

I was a relatively new kid in the neighborhood and I had found drugs. She was two years older than me and she liked drugs and I liked drugs. She lived with her grandmother, about a block from my family. Her grandmother worked all the time, and her uncle, who also lived in the house, would come and go as he chose. He was a handsome young man about three years older than her. He was funny and a bit immature and it was always fun when he would hang around with us.

Usually, though, it would be just me and her, sitting in her bedroom, with the regular lights turned off and the black light turned on and the stereo playing a record. And at least once a day, it would play Janis Joplin's I Got Dem Ol' Kozmik Blues Again Mama. Usually Side Two.

Side One, however, starts with Try (Just A Little Bit Harder), a Philly Soul song with a very blues-y edge. Try was one of Joplin's radio songs and remains a popular radio track today.

Maybe is Janis' take on girl groups. Originally performed by The Chantels, Janis does it as a more straight-ahead blues song. It is soulful and her vocals benefit from the high production standards Gabriel Mekler and his engineers brought to the recording. Janis and the Kozmik Blues Band were a more sophisticated group than Big Brother & The Holding Company; but her gritty approach was made to sound much more accessible on this album.

One Good Man is an original composition that Janis performs without as many vocal flourishes as she adds to her cover versions. Perhaps because it is her song and only she know how it's supposed to sound, she doesn't feel the need to dress it up as much.

Side One ends with As Good As You've Been To This World, written by San Francisco stalwart Nicholas Gravenites who worked with/for Janis throughout this project. With his origins in the Chicago blues scene, this cut has an almost big-band sound to it, and Janis sings with a seeming reverence, almost as if she is reading the lyrics as she sings. It seems a little flat because she doesn't flutter around the words as much as expected. It's a good song and there is nothing wrong with this recording, it just seems a bit "standard" for this band, as if they were just going through the motions as professionals.

Side Two starts with To Love Somebody which has become a soul standard and was written by Barry & Robin Gibb (a/k/a The Bee Gees), ostensibly for Otis Redding, but recorded by many others including Nina Simone, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, The Animals, Billy Corgan, Ace Of Base, Jimmy Somerville, Tom Jones, and others. Janis Joplin's version is my favorite. She takes liberties with the music, but her vocal style turns the song into a much more soulful experience than any other version. Janis' version is even more soulful than Nina Simone's!

This is classic Janis, and even those who dislike Joplin need to give her her due on this cut. She sings from her soul, heart and gut simultaneously, at times almost sounding as if the tears would flow at any moment. She nearly raps some of the lines and her spirit is very much alive in this recording. If you have never heard it, it is worth the listen.

Kozmic Blues was written by Joplin and producer/band mate Gabriel Mekler and the opening piano sounds exactly like Big Brother's rendition of Summertime. The title of the song gives no indication that buried inside the blues-y singing lies a great pop chorus:

But it don't make no difference, baby no no,
And I know that I could always try.
It don't make no difference, baby yeah,
I better hold it now, I better need it yeah,
I better use it till the day I die, whoa.

Perhaps Lady Gaga or Pink should do a modern-day cover of this cut. I think it's screaming for a remake!

Little Girl Blue became, and remains, one of my all-time favorite songs. I own many versions of it, and it is classic Rodgers & Hart. The music can change from version to version, but Joplin's electric blues sound and her vocal styling bring Lorenz Hart's lyrics to a whole new level. I have been singing the song (with lyrics slightly modified) as a lullaby to my daughter since the day she was born.

Joplin famously covered Gershwin's Summertime on her previous record Cheap Thrills and that rendition of the standard blues song is considered to be a classic; but I argue that her rendition of Little Girl Blue is more dramatic, more technically impressive, and better sung.

Joplin sings only the chorus of the song, and makes it last almost four minutes. It is an amazing interpretation of a wonderful song, and if you have not heard it, you must.

Sit there, hmm, count your fingers.
What else, what else is there to do?
Oh and I know how you feel,
I know you feel that you’re through.
Oh wah wah wah sit there, hmm, count,
Ah, count your little fingers,
My unhappy oh little girl, little girl blue, yeah.

Oh sit there, oh count those raindrops
Oh, feel ’em falling down, oh honey all around you.
Honey don’t you know it’s time,
I feel it’s time,
Somebody told you 'cause you got to know
That all you ever gonna have to count on
Or gonna wanna lean on
It’s gonna feel just like those raindrops do
When they’re falling down, honey, all around you.
Oh, I know you’re unhappy.

Oh sit there, ah go on, go on
And count your fingers.
I don’t know what else, what else
Honey have you got to do.
And I know how you feel,
And I know you ain’t got no reason to go on
And I know you feel that you must be through.
Oh honey, go on and sit right back down,
I want you to count, oh count your fingers,
Ah my unhappy, my unlucky
And my little, oh, girl blue.
I know you’re unhappy,
Ooh ah, honey I know,
Baby I know just how you feel.

It's an absolutely amazing recording.

Work Me Lord is another Nick Gravenites song. Performed in an almost-free-form style in the manner of a Claifornia jam band, each instrument has its moment in the spotlight. Janis' vocals are not as domineering as usual, a sign that she has matured professionally and can perform as a member of a band, not just a singer with a back-up. Although I am not a fan of this jam session style of white blues, Janis' vocals raise it a few rungs higher.

For four decades after hanging around in that room with black lights and rock posters, the smell of weed and incense permeating everything, and the pursuit of higher highs the only pursuit worth pursuing, I continue to be mesmerized by Janis Joplin's performance on this record and the collection of songs it proffers.

Track List:

"Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)" (Jerry Ragovoy, Chip Taylor) - 3:57
"Maybe" (Richard Barrett) - 3:41
"One Good Man" (Janis Joplin) - 4:12
"As Good As You've Been To This World" (Nick Gravenites) - 5:27
"To Love Somebody" (Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb) - 5:14
"Kozmic Blues" (Janis Joplin, Gabriel Mekler) - 4:24
"Little Girl Blue" (Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers) - 3:50
"Work Me Lord" (Nick Gravenites) - 6:46

Total Playing Time: 37:31

Produced by Gabriel Mekler

Released: September 11, 1969

Label: Columbia Records


Janis Joplin - lead vocals, guitar
Sam Andrew - guitar, vocals
Michael Monarch - guitar (uncredited)
Brad Campbell - bass, brass instrumentation
Richard Kermode - electronic organ, keyboards
Gabriel Mekler - electronic organ, keyboards
Goldy McJohn - electronic organ, keyboards (uncredited)
Maury Baker - drums
Lonnie Castille - drums
Jerry Edmonton - drums (uncredited)
Terry Clements - tenor saxophone
Cornelius Flowers - baritone saxophone
Luis Gasca - trumpet

Dick Mac Recommends:

No comments: