Living With The Myth of Janis Joplin: The Story of Big Brother & The Holding Company 1965-2005

JanisJoplinJanisJoplinAs Stephen Davis put together a biography entitled “Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend” with less of an emphasis on The Doors, Author Michael Spöerke has written a much-needed book on Big Brother & The Holding Company with an attempt to focus on the band itself: bassist Peter Albin, drummer David Getz with Sam Andrew and James Gurley creating an awesome guitar duo.

That this is the 40th anniversary of the passing of Janis Joplin means that more people will be looking for information on the innovative and highly creative band that backed her up. This book fits the bill. Don’t let the 106 pages make you think it is a small book…on large paper with double-spaced text, there is a lot of history here worthy of review and deserving of a place in your bookcase

However the word “myth” is a bit strong, and can be taken a number of ways. As Grace Slick’s live tapes from Great Society were titled “Conspicuous Only In Its Absence” – the four faces of the bandmembers are the only photos on the book’s cover, yet the name of the magical tornado that changed rock & roll forever is the only person named on the front cover (outside of the author, of course). And what is conspicuous in its absence – so glaringly obvious by the fact of not being there – is a photograph of Janis Joplin. Janis was – and still is – the real deal. Her superb rendition of “Trust Me” on the Pearl album is a thing of sublime beauty that few would try to copy. Janis Joplin gave Big Brother a platform…and to those of us who purchased “How Hard It Is” and “Be A Brother” and supported the group post-Janis, it was a significant and sincere hope that Big Brother would reinvent itself instead of merely performing today the songs that Janis helped them make famous.

See my review of the How Hard It Is album on for an equally clear perspective on the bands of San Francisco – Big Brother in particular. Al Campbell’s review of the group’s debut without Janis, Be A Brother”, accurately says “This is a decent blues-based session similar to early Butterfield Blues Band records, which isn’t a bad thing at all.”

And therein lies the problem for BBHC, a dynamic and creative force had an opportunity – on Columbia Records – to do what the post-Diana Ross Supremes got to do on Motown (seemingly without Berry Gordy’s blessing)…they racked up 8 Top 40 hits against the wind, with the tide against them, breathing new life into their group after their lead singer left. This wasn’t Bon Scott replacing Dave Evans until his death in 1980 …and the Scott family giving its blessing to Brian Johnson joining AC/DC. This was about a group – Big Brother and The Holding Company – that was highly experimental, creating a cosmic wind for Janis Joplin to howl in, and the book documents how the group itself played the same songs into the ground while Janis wanted to not be so “trapped”.

Sporke notes towards the end of this study that the critics felt “that success was due only to Janis.” The truth is what that it was a “Combination of the Two”, to quote their own song title. The combination was explosive and had Big Brother gone into a highly creative and experimental post-Janis career – as experimental as they were before she joined the group, history would be different. That the post-Diana Ross Supremes members were actually one of the greatest experiments in pop is the anomaly.

Given an option of guessing in 1970 who would jump out of the starting gate – the band that the public felt backed up Janis Joplin or the singers the public thought backed up Diana Ross – one would say Big Brother had a chance to move into that Grateful Dead arena, finding gigs opening for the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Steve Miller, blasting a new approach. But alas, as I noted in a review of the cd Do What You Love from the super-talented journeymen on “The band, after all, began pre-Janis by creating unorthodox sounds. Here they have abandoned what made them so special, and appear to be imitating their past.”

With the tragic passing of James Gurley in December of 2009, a key component of that original experimental sound, there’s less time for Big Brother to prove to the world that its members aren’t standing in the shadows of Motown…or Janis…or Columbia records..but that the instinct is still there.

Michael Spörke has done an excellent job of documenting the band’s past and the hurt feelings that go along with being in any rock band, not just one that soared to dizzying heights. Janis Joplin’s legend is what helped establish Big Brother; that legend shouldn’t be reduced to “myth”, it should be appreciated. And the band should put together a solid effort that proves they still have the magic that helped catapult Janis Joplin’s talent to worldwide fame that still generates YouTube covers and positive press forty years after her passing. Her legend is only going to grow because her records educate and entertain.

Big Brother still has a chance to prove to the world they were more than a launching pad for one of the greatest vocalists in the history of popular music.

Joe Viglione

Author: Michael Spöerke

English Translation by Sam Andrew