LIVING WITH THE MYTH OF JANIS JOPLIN: THE HISTORY OF BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING CO. 1965-2005
By Michael Spoerke (English translation by Sam Andrew)
Book Review By Netta Gilboa
Like almost everyone else I fell in love with her the first time I ever heard her voice. I was 12 years old and WNEW-FM in NYC obtained an advance copy of “Mercedes Benz” which they played multiple times per day shortly before Janis’ death, often featuring another song or two of hers as well. On the day the media learned she had died I vividly recall the DJ announcing it and then playing a dozen or more of her songs and it was then that I first learned about Big Brother, the Cheap Thrills record album, etc. and became a diehard fan. I bought everything I could find, from posters to T-shirts, and tried to research her life which was once much harder to do before the existence of the Internet.
Quite a few people wrote about Janis, including Robert Hunter whose “Bird Song” lyrics are still played by Grateful Dead members in concert today, and Country Joe McDonald (interviewed in this book) who wrote “Janis” after dating her which he still performs as well. The early books included Buried Alive by Myra Friedman (Myra is also interviewed in this book), Goin’ Down With Janis, David Dalton’s Janis (which came out in 1972 with a record including rare, unreleased, tunes) and there was a Rolling Stone magazine special about her life and death and eventually an awesome out-of-print movie (which so needs to be on DVD and Blu-ray!) called Janis: The Way She Was and Laura Joplin’s Love, Janis book and play. But in all that was written very little was said about the members of Big Brother, and if they were mentioned at all it was often in passing or outright negative criticisms indicating she was far more talented than they were.
Not until Michael Spoerke’s book came along in 2003 (with the English translation, reviewed here, in 2005) were Big Brother given their due and given the chance to really speak out about the history of the band, their work after she left the band and their careers, individually and together, in the 39 years since she has passed.
Spoerke’s approach was to interview people who had known both Janis and the members of Big Brother, and to let them speak about their earliest memories, set the framework for events in the Haight and of the 1960s in general. Some of the people he interviewed are no longer with us either like Chet Helms, and others rarely speak and do interviews at all and/or have never gone on record before about knowing her. Included in the book are interviews with Barry Melton, Country Joe McDonald, Wavy Gravy, Stanley Mouse, Baron Wolman, Taj Mahal, Dan Hicks, Lisa Law, Bob Seidemann, Peter Coyote, and Greg Shaw as well as many others. The members of BBHC also were interviewed extensively, and it’s a testament to the credibility of the book and Spoerke’s research that guitarist Sam Andrew agreed to translate the book from German to English himself. Andrew was the musician who played with Janis the longest so there is no better source. While Spoerke was born in 1972 after Janis died, he has a Ph.D. in Political Science and he brings so much love and respect to his subjects that this is both an easy read as well as a major contribution to both the history of the 1960s and a book about the hardships of rock ‘n’ roll.
Almost all of the information and material in this book is both new and original, not simply a rehash of other articles like so many such books. The average reader well versed in the history of the Haight, the Monterey Pop festival, and/or who has read other books about Janis will learn things reading this that have never appeared in print before. There is a wealth of material as well about post-Janis recordings and performances, and honest, no holds barred discussions of the challenges Big Brother faced both in getting paid for their early work and in getting hired in later years.
Big Brother continue to perform, recently touring in 2009 on the Heroes Of Woodstock tour. I drove 11 hours each way to see them where they played an electrifying set containing some of their old hits. It was, certainly, the highlight of my musical year. There is no question they are talented in their own right, and that they deliver great licks in concert no matter which female vocalist they are on tour with. The injustice done to them over the years by music journalists is akin to saying that the only member of The Rolling Stones who has any talent is Mick Jagger, or that when Bob Dylan toured with The Band, The Grateful Dead and Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers none of those musicians had any talent either except for Dylan.
Over the years, Sam Andrew and Dave Getz have also been involved in painting, which is discussed in the book, and they frequently share some of their artwork with fans on Facebook (www.facebook.com). They are also masters of social networks and quite active on Twitter (www.twitter.com) and MySpace (www.myspace.com), plus they run a web site (www.bbhc.com) where they answer weekly questions from fans and actively post. Michael Spoerke is also on Facebook and also very active there. In addition, several of the female vocalists who have toured with Big Brother in recent years including Cathy Richardson (also interviewed in the book) and Sophia Ramos are on Facebook as are quite a number of the other people interviewed such as Country Joe, Baron Wolman, etc.
The book is available from lulu.com and amazon.com and is highly recommended to fans of the 60s, fans of Janis, struggling musicians and artists, and anyone interested in music history.