Tuesday, June 2, 2015

a note on why I never liked Janis Joplin's singing.

I don't deny Janis Joplin's real emotion and the pulverizing power of her performances, but I have almost always found nearly  unlistenable."Piece of My Heart" with Brother and the Holding Company was at the time (and remains) an explosive declaration of a person willing to degrade themselves to satisfy the man (or woman) she loves, a gargoyle's grate of yearning, and "Move Over", with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, was a classic riff rock that matched an intemperate vocalist to an one dimensional expression of need. On too many other of her recordings, her singing, at best, makes me think of an abused chew toy nearing the last squeaks and squeals that could be squeezed from it. Granted, her singing was explosive, but that does not suffice as an aesthetic, nor does it provide context that makes what Joplin was doing more comprehensible. It was clear enough: she never truly learned how to sing. Explosions do better than evoke emotions, they create them, and crying two years olds past their nap time are giving those around them a demonstration of powerful tsunami lie tantrums can be, but neither is art, nor are the experiences one cares to have again if they can help it. Joplin mode of operation was the 60s counterculture anti-aesthetic to "let it all hang out", because, after all, refinement, style, a knowledge of technique was for squares.

First thought, best thought, no restraint, it is forbidden to forbid, all the convenient bromides that made the dismissal of forms and structure a revolutionary act, something much more than a gesture that would have some sweeping Butterfly Effect and transform the culture and steer history towards a Higher Synthesis of meaning. Underlying that thinking was a larger critique against the post-war culture of 50s America, with brilliant, poetic, not so brilliant and less poetic arguments made by Marcuse, Theodore Roszak, Allen Ginsberg among other notables in favor of abandoning the enslaving tonnage of dead culture that had brought to the precipice of the Sixties. But with regards to Joplin and her approach to the blues, a musical form that is, in my view, the foundation of every note of musical genius America has produced, hers is a misconception that the melismatic, gospel-informed style of black American singers was about being primal, loud, raspy, unrestrained.

She let it all go in emulation of the singers she loved and became, in her eagerness to express her need to find love and be strong, came perilously close to being an outright parody of the real thing. Her vocals do nothing for me except to remind me that a singer constantly pitched at the edge of hysteria stops being exciting very quickly and becomes monotonous. As a vocal artist, a would be blues singer, she existed in a state of streaming melodrama, seeming impervious to vocal nuance , incapable, I imagine, of realizing that Bessie Smith , Big Mama Thorton , Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Billie Holiday , Otis Redding , even the every dramatic and hyperactive geniuses of Little Walter and James Brown took time to learn their craft, to take lessons and understand through an acquisition of techniques that they could sing longer, find meanings in words and the spaces between the notes of the songs they sang, that they could tell stories that drew from the entire range of human experience. I remember the youthful rush to be a genius when I was first learning to play the harmonica--lessons, patience and the practicing of scales and the songs they belonged to be damned, I was going off on improvisational sojourns like Butterfield and John Coltrane. I was lucky enough to survive my own foolishness and became teachable to a greater degree, discovering that those big moments I wanted to create, either in my writing or in my playing, were made up smaller things, technical ideas and brief instances in daily life. What I learned was that small things matter.

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