Source Material: Janis Joplin, Pearl
by Justin Farrar | May 1, 2012
In 1970, Janis Joplin was 27 going on 57. Catapulted to rock stardom just two years earlier, she was quickly buckling under intensely deleterious drug abuse. Moreover, her once-preternatural howl had devolved into a ragged, shredded cry: still expressive, mind you, but the damage was apparent. As detailed in Myra Friedman's 1973 biography Buried Alive, alcohol and drugs were Joplin's way of coping with the insecurity and anxiety lurking just beneath her got-it-covered swagger and persona as the groovy, party-hard Queen of Psychedelic Soul.
She was also at a crossroads artistically. Though Cheap Thrills (recorded with Big Brother & The Holding Co. in '68) was both a critical and commercial success, there were many in the rock scene who believed Joplin had yet to release a studio album that captured her fiery genius as a live performer. I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, her first record post-Big Brother, exemplified this. The performances are rather stiff, the horn-based arrangements decadent and unnatural-feeling. Part of the issue was Joplin herself -- or, more to the point, the inconsistent and erratic behavior that inevitably accompanies substance abuse.
But equally problematic was the fact that she was, as an artist, an extreme proposition in the late '60s. The Texas-born powerhouse was a radically new mutation in rock 'n' roll's evolution: a woman with the banshee wail of Tina Turner specializing in heavy-ass groove music soaked in post-garage feedback and distortion. When you really think about it, Joplin was (along with Jim Morrison) the prototype for the blues-soaked, hard-rock screaming frontmen of the '70s: Robert Plant, Paul Rodgers, Bon Scott, Rusty Day, etc. She just arrived a couple years too soon. As a result, Columbia Records, and in particular label boss Clive Davis, had trouble capitalizing on her singular talent.
Despite this mountain of obstacles, Joplin entered the studio one last time in the fall of '70 (a month before her death on October 4) and recorded what would be her finest album, the posthumously released Pearl. Influenced by the back-to-roots movement The Band and The Rolling Stones helped spark a couple years prior, the singer assembled The Full Tilt Boogie Band in an attempt to reconnect with her love of earthy rock, soul, blues and even country. No psychedelic excesses, no overbearing brass charts, just her and a fantastic rock band that could swing electric ("Move Over") just as adroitly as they could strum acoustic (the timeless rendition of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee").
What's obvious throughout is the tattered state of Joplin's voice. But as the classic "Cry Baby" demonstrates (as do "My Baby" and her cover of Howard Tate's "Get It While You Can"), she knew how to transform her diminished capabilities into a vocal art that was raw and gut-wrenching, but also slyly graceful. She still blows hard, much in the vein of longtime heroes Otis Redding, Bessie Smith, Bobby "Blue" Bland and the aforementioned Tina Turner. Yet she displays a heightened sense of restraint by allowing more space to creep in between the notes, an approach no doubt influenced by such master stylists as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.
However great, Pearl is indeed something of a sad listen. It's damn near impossible to see it as anything other than a gravestone for a young and troubled artist who should have and could have been so much more than she was.
So here are the records that might've influenced her. Note: In addition to the original version of the album, check out the Pearl Sessions, a box set that contains revealing demos and outtakes.