[28 March 2004]
Ever since Janis Joplin declared she was going to show the world that a woman could be tough, she has been ensconced in pop history as an emblem of gutsy girl power that stands unchallenged to this day. All the Betty Friedans and Gloria Steinems of the world could never capture the public’s imagination like the image of this hairy, homely woman shrieking her way to the top of the men-only club that was and continues to be rock music. And while this was a giant leap for womankind, it has had the regrettable effect of obscuring her music behind the distorting lens of feminist sentiment if not rhetoric. In actuality, Joplin never found the right backing band, rarely had exceptional songs to sing, and had yet to harness her potential by the time she died. A few bold critics have advanced the claim that she was a chronic oversinger who flailed and wailed with little regard for the subtlety and restraint of the African-American musical tradition she misappropriated. She may have had a once-in-a-lifetime voice, but she was an immature and frequently grating singer who passed away far before she was able to improve very much on her early blunders.
This view of Joplin is in the minority, but it is not unheard of. The same probably cannot be said for a defense of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the band that gave Joplin her start only to be tossed aside once they had become sufficiently famous to justify a solo spin-off. Since Joplin is a pop saint, the only way most people can view the ugly split between her and her first group is to assume that they were a lousy backing band that couldn’t keep up with Janis on her way to superstardom, but since she is one of the more overrated figures in rock, the critical revision that the documentary Big Brother and the Holding Company: Nine Hundred Nights offers is a welcome and fascinating look into the other side of the story.
History tends to forget that Big Brother and the Holding Company was not a group of musicians that Joplin gathered around her but a fully-formed entity that had built a small but loyal following in San Francisco when they decided they needed to draft a real lead singer. They had made their name playing long jazz-rock freakouts in the psychedelic dens that were that genre’s only suitable home, but they wanted more flexibility to play songs, so they put in a call to Joplin, who had gone back home to Texas after a failed stint on the San Francisco scene. Coaxed into returning, she quickly became the focal point of the group, and after signing a management deal with Albert Grossman and doing their legendary performance at Monterrey, the group’s fate was all but sealed. The band was clumsy and inefficient in the studio, and even if they weren’t, the standard divide-and-conquer routine done so well by folks like Grossman would’ve probably ensured the band’s amputation anyway. Joplin would go onto more fame and fortune, but despite Big Brother’s shortcomings, there was a sense that neither of her two ensuing support bands, the Kozmic Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogie Band, were able to provide a better backdrop for her talents, and she died with a frustrating and inconsistent body of work.
So does Big Brother and the Holding Company deserve a second look? Nine Hundred Nights certainly thinks so, and even if it won’t change many minds that think they were a third-rate Grateful Dead clone, it does tell a fine story. Big Brother, good or bad, were caught in some remarkable crosswinds, and the tension of occupying their position makes compelling drama. They were a mixture of trained and untrained musicians drawing together all the musical strands they knew without much thought for the resulting composite. They were sloppy and raw at just the moment in history when such a style was being steamrolled by Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff Beck. They were alcoholics at a time when acid was ultra-chic (a local wag described them as “alcodelic”), and the addition of a musical personality as wild and fractured as Joplin did nothing to resolve the inner-tensions that were already working against them.
In short, Big Brother and the Holding Company was a very weird band that never quite knew how to present itself. History is littered with such groups, and they usually become the favored curios of oddball collectors like Lenny Kaye, the man behind Nuggets and featured defender of Big Brother on Nine Hundred Nights. He and the documentarians here turn the film into first-rate revisionist history, one that avoids pressing too hard for the band’s prowess and instead analyzes the wake of a superstar that shot through a journeyman band like a cannonball. If Nine Hundred Nights falls short in any department, it’s with its short running time and awkward pacing. Just as you get settled into the story, it abruptly ends, but it’s a good sign if the only complaint you have about a movie is that there’s not enough of it, and considering that such a truncation only echoes Big Brother and the Holding Company’s fate, it can hardly be considered inappropriate.