Sometimes a sound you hear in a piece of music triggers a faint memory of a past experience. You know you’ve heard that sound before, but you can’t remember where or under what circumstances. That feeling kept coming up as I listened to Cheap Thrills, and the mystery didn’t clear itself up until a friend in the States texted me a picture of her new puppy: a pug.
“Of course! Dinner at Aunt Pug’s house!” I cried.
Let me tell you about my Aunt Pug.
After college, I moved back to San Francisco and lived in one of my dad’s fixer-uppers that he hadn’t gotten around to fixing up yet. I found a job I could do in my sleep, engaged in intensive erotic arts training and waited for something to turn up.
What turned up was an unsolicited offer to work in the international marketing department for the company I work for today. The good news/bad news was that the job was in Seattle. I knew Seattle had a great music scene and acceptably liberal social norms; I also knew that it rained all the time and the people were kind of standoffish. I didn’t like moving away from my parents, who are my best friends to this day, but I was consoled by the fact that it was still on the same coast and that I had an aunt who lived in the area. Having a family connection close by made my decision much easier, because family is very important to me.
Don’t let anyone try to tell you that bisexual sadomasochistic perverts don’t have family values!
It also helped that my aunt is a hoot! She’s my dad’s sister, the lone daughter in a brood of four. She’s also the youngest, and while her three older brothers were prepped for greater things in life, my aunt was assigned the life role assigned to girls in any traditional Irish Catholic family: be a good girl, find a good Catholic to marry, make lots of babies.
“Fuck that shit,” she decided early in life.
She was expelled from an all-girls Catholic high school at the age of fifteen when she got caught giving a guy a blow job in a janitor’s closet during a school mixer (a weekend dance open to both genders). My grandparents threatened to send her to a convent, so she split. She moved in with the older sister of a friend from high school who was looking for a roommate, got a fake ID and a job at a clothing store to pay the rent, and received semi-covert support from my mom and dad in the form of free meals. She eventually got her GED, went to college, graduated with a business degree and found herself moving up the ladder at the same retailer who illegally hired her in her early teens. My dad served as intermediary between my grandparents and their wild daughter for years, but all was forgiven when my aunt got engaged to a guy she met on a business trip to Seattle who had made a ton of money by virtue of having gone to work for a small company called Microsoft in the early 1980’s. He wasn’t a Catholic, but they consoled themselves with the fact that he hadn’t knocked her up and so she could safely travel down the aisle dressed in virgin white to preserve appearances and dying myths.
Reconciliation aside, my aunt had no intention of staying in San Francisco and moved into her husband’s 4000 square-foot house in a tony neighborhood within an upscale burb on the other side of the lake from Seattle. Having learned that self-reliance had brought her a long way in the world, she imposed a series of conditions on her hapless fiancé prior to marriage, including non-interference in her career, an equal share of his pre-marital property and a vasectomy. By the time I moved up there, she had completed her MBA and had several years as a top executive under her belt.
She got her nickname when she was a little girl and her oldest brother came home from college with an enlarged vocabulary and told her she was “pugnacious.” Everyone started calling her Pug, and she embraced the nickname as if it were a badge of honor. My aunt felt like she had to fight for everything in life: for attention as the “afterthought” child; for survival after she left home; for a career without having the proper pedigree. The toughness in her personality is reflected in her appearance: she’s short, stacked like a brick shithouse, and dresses for maximum power with flawless precision and taste. She walks into any room like she owns the place or that she’s ready to kick some ass. She smokes, swears like a sailor, tells bawdy jokes that leave you in tears and can drink any man under the table.
I moved to Seattle one rainy October and during my first year there I drove over the bridge once or twice a month to have dinner with her and her husband. I invited them to my place for dinner, but Aunt Pug declined because, as she said, “I’ve got the better-stocked bar.” He did the cooking, we did the drinking and the smoking. We always had a blast.
The months went by and eventually the two glorious months of Seattle summer arrived. I drove over to Aunt Pug’s place early one summer evening, music blasting away in the car as usual. I parked in my usual spot, turned off the engine, opened the car door and heard the most horrible squawking and screeching I’d ever heard in my life. The sounds were obviously caused by some unseen birds—lots of them—and for a moment I felt like Tippi Hedren. I ran like hell to my aunt’s front door and flung myself in the hallway just as Aunt Pug was coming down the stairs, martini in hand.
“What the fuck is that?” I greeted her.
She looked puzzled for a minute, then frowned. “Fuckin’ crows,” she said.
“That’s a hell of a lot of crows!” I responded.
She took a gulp and said, “Yeah, there’s fuckin’ hundreds of ’em. You know that patch of woods down the street at the end of the cul-de-sac? Every fuckin’ summer they show up there and start squawking and fighting over broads. Then they come pecking on the roof like they’re trying to get in the fuckin’ house.”
“They don’t get in, do they?” I asked, still channeling Tippi Hedren.
“No, no, but they poke those shakes so hard we have to replace a ton of them every year.” She paused and slammed down the rest of her martini. “I’d like to get a fuckin’ Uzi and blow every one of those fuckin’ crows to smithereens. Fuck ’em. Let’s go have a drink.”
After an excellent dinner with plenty of fine wines, we went out the deck to enjoy the rare warm, dry evening. Her husband brought a tray of properly pulled espresso and Aunt Pug offered me a cigarette. I was just about to take it when a huge black bird flew down and perched on the railing, about a dozen feet from me. I immediately leapt into the air and backed myself up against the wall of the house.
Aunt Pug looked at me and laughed. “That’s one of them fuckin’ crows!”
“That’s not a crow! It’s too big to be a crow!”
“They grow ’em big up here, like the flowers. Yeah, the first time I saw one I had the same reaction. Best leave it be—fucker’ll go away in a minute—sit down and have a smoke.”
I tiptoed back to my seat, trying not to make any noise that would disturb the crow and cause him to come after me and gouge out my eyeballs. I sat down and kept a wary eye on him. He stared right back. He looked like a thug: big, muscular, cold, cocky. Then without any warning he spread his big black wings and made a terrifying, bone-chilling sound.
“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”
And that’s the sound I kept hearing over and over on Cheap Thrills. SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH! The sound was coming from Janis Joplin, The Queen of Psychedelic Soul, noted devotee of Southern Comfort, the woman ranked the 28th greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone.
I do not share that opinion. What I hear is an undisciplined vocalist who had no concept of empty space, who had to fill every spare minute of air time with her crude vocalizations. What I hear is a scenery-chewing drama queen desperately trying to draw attention to herself. As her mother noted, this need to be the center of the universe was a lifelong pattern: “She was unhappy and unsatisfied without [receiving a lot of attention]. The normal rapport wasn’t adequate.”
No, I wasn’t at the Monterey Pop Festival, or at Woodstock or at any of the other venues where she allegedly gave performances that “electrified” the crowd. I was born eleven years after she croaked off from a heroin overdose. So it goes. Cheap Thrills has several live performances (most of which are studio-enhanced), and after listening to every one of them three times, all I could think about is that fucking crow on my aunt’s deck.
“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”
I will give her credit for one thing: she was the best singer in the band. Sam Andrew sounded like a drunken Neanderthal.
The funny thing is that after my first pass through the album, I said to myself, “Hey! This isn’t too bad.” I cringed a few times when Janis drilled holes into my eardrums, but my impression was not entirely unfavorable. That nascent opinion is even more remarkable when you remember that my marijuana stash had been completely consumed during my experience with The Incredible String Band. I listened to Cheap Thrills absolutely straight, no chasers. But there’s a reason why I listen to an album three times, and by the third time I felt myself going through cannabis withdrawal.
The album opens with budding impresario Bill Graham introducing the band: “Four gentlemen and one great, great broad.” Whatever you say, Bill. We then hear “A Combination of the Two,” sort of a warm-up-the-crowd number with few words and many vocalizations. The piece features one of their better grooves, and though Sam Andrew’s vocal is absolutely atrocious—a sort of white-guy-tries-to-sing-funk that comes out as inane mumbling—the unstructured call-and response has the effect of limiting Janis Joplin’s exposure. She’s a bit easier to take in small doses. Unfortunately, what follows is a full dose of Janis on “I Need a Man to Love,” a song she co-wrote with Sam Andrew.
“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”
Next comes “Summertime,” the worst cover of any song in the history of music. Janis chews the scenery, spits it out, gobbles it up and spits it out again. Any connection to the spiritual foundation of Gershwin’s original is blasted away in the noise of a singer who never heard of the concept that less is often more.
“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”
The album’s hit, “Piece of My Heart” follows, and this is where the band’s flaws become clearer. They simply weren’t very good, and the fact James Gurley would whine in later years that they were “the most maligned band ever” and that their innovations had been cruelly ignored links him forever with the lady who doth protest too much. Sam Andrew, who plays the three guitar parts on this track, had an extraordinarily limited fretboard range for someone who was “classically-trained” and his solos show little in the way of creative flair. While the band could sometimes play with a certain energy, they were rather sloppy with the groove and nowhere near as tight as they could have been. For some unfathomable reason, they were extremely protective of the “Big Brother Sound,” resisting Janis’ suggestions for more sonic diversity through horns and keyboards.
On this song, their support for Janis is piss-poor and fails to complement one of her more restrained vocals. I’ll take Erma Franklin’s original over this cover, but I despise the lyrics, which define a woman’s toughness as her ability to take whatever shit a guy feels like giving her. I would have changed the chorus to something like “Pull that shit again and I’ll cut your fucking nuts off, asshole.”
“Turtle Blues” is a Janis Joplin original, if a standard three-chord 12-bar blues can be called “original.” I guess the lyrics are hers, but the use of Southern black vernacular lacks credibility when it’s sung by a white girl who went to college: “I just treats ’em like I wants to/I never treats ’em, honey like I should.” Still, this is Janis’ best vocal on the album because she actually tries to sing . . . at least through most of it. After she hits the emotional peak with the brilliantly delivered line “I know this goddamn life too well,” she falls back into her bad habits.
“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”
Out of the blue, as if someone in the band remembered, “Hey, aren’t we supposed to do something, uh, psychedelic?” we get “Oh, Sweet Mary,” to which I respond, “Oh, sweet fucking Jesus.” This is a classic psychedelic mish-mash of elaborate but poorly thought-out chord transitions, badly arranged cross-vocalizations and the usual drooling babble:
Oh, sweet Mary, child of confusion, she runs the hills to cry
Past the willows or an illusion, Lord, tell me the reason why.
Tell me why, why is it all so hard ?
Breathing in the air
Anyone to care.
Big Brother’s #1 charting album ends mercilessly with Janis Joplin’s remake of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.” Big Mama blessed Janis’ version, saying “That girl feels like I do.” I think that shows a lot of class on Big Mama’s part, and it’s a nice way for Big Mama to thank Janis for the additional income she received from the royalty checks. There are two key differences between the original and the cover. The first is that Big Brother changed the song to a minor-key blues. The second is that Big Mama actually sang her version while Janis decided to take another approach.
“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”
I expect I will draw the condemnation of Baby Boomers and others who remember Janis Joplin with feelings ranging from fondness to reverence. I also realize that I am in the critical minority as far as Janis Joplin and Cheap Thrills are concerned. However, I am still obliged to call ’em as I see ’em, and I now await your slings, arrows and whatever else you’ve got. Flail away! Chain me to a fence under a broiling desert sun! Take another little piece of my heart, now baby!
But please, please, please . . . don’t sic those birds on me.
This review is the result of diligent preparation, people! I deserve your full attention!
I arranged last month’s trip to Europe so that my flight home would land in San Francisco instead of Seattle. This allowed me to spend some time with my parents, experience a nurturing environment to help me through my jet lag and actualize a scheme I’d cooked up during my travels. The night before my departure, I called mom and dad to finalize arrangements.
“What are you going to want to do? Anything special? Do you want us to make dinner reservations?” my mother asked, in French, since she knew I was on my game with the language.
“Let’s just wing it for dinner, if that’s okay,” I replied. “But I do have one request. Is dad on the other phone?”
“Je suis ici,” he replied. His French is really lousy, so I switched back to English.
“Dad, I want to sit with you and mom and immerse ourselves in the San Francisco Sound. Pull them all out: The Dead, The Fish, Big Brother, Quicksilver, The Airplane, Beau Brummels, the works.”
“Don’t tell me you want The Sons of Champlin, too,” he answered with a sigh.
“Yep, the whole shebang. I want to hear it all and hear what you two remember about those times.”
“Since we were stoned most of the time, I’m not sure how helpful we can be.” My father’s such a wit.
“Don’t worry, we’ll light some incense, turn on a black light and it’ll be like a flashback!”
That afternoon and evening turned out to be a blast! My mom even wore an old hippie headband and beads for the occasion, lit some cone incense and my dad pulled out his impressive psychedelic poster collection! We started with Sal Valentino’s Beau Brummels and listened to everything from It’s a Beautiful Day to early Santana to Cold Blood. Somewhere along the way we called for a pizza from Marcello’s and sat around drinking wine while I listened to the music and my parents shared their memories (and occasionally covered their faces in embarrassment). They described the excitement of the scene, how they’d often hitchhike to get to a concert (my mom was great bait in her youth), lectured me on the integration of music and “consciousness-raising,” and admitted that they did indeed fuck on one of the sofas at the back of the original Fillmore Auditorium during a set by Procul Harum. I heard about various be-ins, sit-ins and love-ins (they fucked at one of those, too). They also talked about Vietnam and the peace movement, but interestingly enough, the music we were hearing rarely dealt with the war at all, with Country Joe’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” a noticeable exception. The San Francisco Sound seemed a world unto itself.
We ended the extravaganza appropriately with “Colors for Susan,” a very long opus from Country Joe & The Fish that consists of nothing but chords to trip out on. When my father had carefully tucked that piece of vinyl into the sleeve, I sighed and said, “These bands weren’t very good, were they?”
My mom laughed, my dad tried to argue, but I have learned that it is impossible to have a rational discussion about music with someone when the music you’re talking about is the music they cherished in their youth. There are certain generational preferences that are simply inexplicable to other generations. My evaluation of what I heard was that Carlos Santana, Jerry Garcia and Jorma Kaukonen were the best pure musicians of the bunch by a comfortable margin; that Janis Joplin is the most overrated singer in history (and that her band flat out sucked); and that most of the music defined as the San Francisco Sound was era-specific and fails to pass the test of timelessness that characterizes truly great music, whether it’s Kind of Blue, Revolver or “Waterloo Sunset.”
The experience also confirmed my original hunch that the strongest album from the Summer of Love album was Surrealistic Pillow, the second effort from the Jefferson Airplane. I loved this album so much as a kid that it was one of the five vinyl recordings I selected from my father’s collection when I vacated the parental nest. Since returning from my trip (not that kind of trip, my trip to France!), I’ve listened to it the requisite three times and it still delights this Gen Y girl in the Year of Our Lord 2013. Although it does contain a couple of hopelessly dated passages, most of the songs demonstrate more life, more cohesion and way more talent than anything else that came out of San Francisco in the acid bath of the mid-60’s.
One of the band’s special talents is beautifully demonstrated in the opening number, “She Has Funny Cars.” This is the melding of Marty Balin’s and Grace Slick’s voices. The two alternative verses (not really a middle, not really a bridge) are completely enthralling, with Marty taking the lead and Grace delivering a counterpoint vocal that blends beautifully with his. It’s really a shame that these two would soon grow to loathe each other, depriving Jefferson Airplane of a unique advantage that few bands have ever had. At least Surrealistic Pillow provides us with several examples of the pairing of these two voices, both made more appealing when working together.
Grace brought two songs with her from The Great Society, and both turned out to be the band’s biggest hits. In “Somebody to Love” she is in total command, belting out the vocal with high-powered intensity, holding those notes in lengthy, glorious streams of pure kinetic energy. Jorma Kaukonen gets to display his fingerboard talents with a sizzling lead, another unique talent that separated the band from their less-talented competitors on the scene.
“My Best Friend” follows, an orgy of harmony and counterpoint vocal that is one of the great feel-good tunes of all time. Jorma’s counterpoint guitar is often missed because of the exhilarating vocals, but deserves attention here for its ability to ground the sweetness with solid guitar riffs. Marty Balin’s gorgeous love song, “Today” follows, and though he can sound a bit over the top at times, the loveliness of the melody tempers his occasional departures into the maudlin, as does the sweet guitar counterpoint provided by Jerry Garcia. The even softer “Comin’ Back to Me” follows, with light acoustic guitars providing the background along with the organic sounds of a recorder (played by Grace Slick). This is a period piece of the best kind, a dreamy, reflective number that calls up images of long-haired ladies blowing on dandelions to scatter their seeds to the wind:
One begins to read between the pages of a look
The shape of sleepy music and suddenly you’re hooked
Through the rain upon the trees, the kisses on the run
I saw you, I saw you comin’ back to me.
“3/5ths of a Mile in 10 Seconds” is a cheeky little hippie rock number, complete with references to “blowing my mind,” freaks and inflation in the illicit drug market. The energy of the performance and the tightness of the band (particularly Paul Kantner’s steady rhythm guitar) save it from being relegated to the flower power heap. “D. C. B. A.-25” is an odd little song that demonstrates clearly that Paul Kantner and Grace Slick were not as strong a pairing as Marty and Grace (though Paul and Grace would wind up fucking each other). This segment of the album is rescued by the lush harmonies of “How Do You Feel?” another dreamy and thoroughly delightful display of joyful vocal interplay.
Jorma Kaukonen’s signature guitar piece, “Embryonic Journey” comes next, as fresh today as it must have sounded in the spring of 1967. This is a piece I could listen to again and again, marveling at Jorma’s ability to maintain the groove as his hands dance over keyboard and soundboard. I love the occasional forays into rough, rhythmic loudness, which help this sweet piece of music rise above the period’s passion for dreaminess.
“White Rabbit” is so iconic that it’s a wonder that, after all these years, it still manages to grab your attention through its steadily rising drama. Grace Slick never wrote a better song or delivered a stronger vocal. The bolero form certainly advances the sense of drama, as it did for Ravel and for Roy Orbison in “Distant Drums,” but the absolute command and confidence of Grace’s vocal as it slowly gathers strength until reaching its peak at the end provides more than enough drama all by itself.
Surrealistic Pillow closes with the sassy “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” the song on the album that I feel is most closely aligned with the times. That’s not to say it’s a throwaway; again, the energy and enthusiasm of the band make this one a keeper. But the lyrics . . . well, I guess you had to be there:
Her neon mouth with the blinkers-off smile
Nothing but an electric sign
You could say she has an individual style
She’s part of a colorful time
Secrecy of lady-chrome-covered clothes
You wear cause you have no other
But I suppose no one knows
You’re my plastic fantastic lover
Surrealistic Pillow remains my favorite window to a world I wish I’d experienced first-hand. Although much of that period may seem silly and muddled, it also loosened restrictions and expectations concerning what you wore, how you spoke, what you did and who you could become. For a brief time in our history, there were a significant number of people who believed in love over hate, peace over war, sexuality over prudishness and exploration over acceptance of the status quo. I’d take 1967 over 2013 any time, primarily because one quality that characterized 1967 was hope . . . something that is pretty much absent from the world today.