This article originally appeared in Issue 18 of
on Sept. 1, 1968.
One, two, and one, the men come out on the stage, pick up instruments. The drummer has his hair in a ponytail. Scapula-length blond hair on the lead and rhythm guitarists. They are all terribly thin, ethereal. They tune up, and the notes that fall into the audience are harsh, fuzz-heavy. Tune-up takes an awfully long time, but in their emaciated way, they are four of the most beautiful people I’ve ever watched. And there’s this frumpy little chick in elephant pants and black lace sweatshirt standing by one of the amplifiers—the audience knows who she is and gasps as she ambles into the light, takes a sip from the glass nearby, runs her hands down her hair, just a little longer than the boys’, but rough like dark hemp.
There is nothing at all glamorous about her; what figure she has is all lost in the loose clothing. But everybody watches her. The drummer comes in from somewhere, and the first song defines itself from the tonal hash of instruments tuning. The guys step toward their vocal mikes. She is moving now, and moving forward. The sound has reached an incredible intensity in no time. She begins to fight her way out from under all that hair, gets hold of her mike stand. The up beat catches her down in the shins and shakes her out to her fingers. She and the beat come down together, and that voice, a cross between Sophie Tucker and a Harley-Davidson, leaps—
You’ve had it. You can’t watch anything else. Each note from the other musicians strikes her body like light striking a concaved mirror. She throws it at you. Hard. And aimed six inches below the navel. You climb up the back of your seat if you’re sitting. If you’re standing, you double over and shake. They might as well turn on the light show for all you can see of it while she’s onstage. There’s just her, at the apex of a sonic pyramid that pulses, that beats, that explodes. Her head bobs like a hazy piston. She conducts the guys with her knees, twists the notes from the other players with palsied fists and hurls them at the audience with all the passion of—
Cut. Stop the action. Because this is primarily a discussion of Cheap Thrills, the second album by Big Brother and the Holding Company. So some flat statements: Big Brother and the Holding Co. are the most exciting theatrical gestalt in the blues/rock area I have ever, ever seen. They are unpretentious, natural, terribly alive; nor do I see how a singer could possibly project a greater sense of gusto and engagement than the lady in the baggy pants; the guys complement her so obliquely well—someone hollers up from the dance floor, “Hey, which one of you is Big Brother?” And she steps forward and growls into the mike, “l am, baby!,” perfect Mae West vintage—most people are completely unaware of the process; so it’s that much more effective.
Still, a live performance is a theatrical gestalt. A record is something else.
On the positive side, this record is such an improvement over the first, it’s not funny. The first was incomplete at its release, and I gather the group itself was not too happy about the business.
A fair percentage of the material on Cheap Thrills is from live appearances at the Fillmore, and the whole album is steeped in the flavor of Flock Ballroom. Even as one of the Holding Co.’s most avid fans, through half a dozen concerts I’d always assumed their instrumental arrangements were practically simple-minded. Far from it; on this record you get a chance to hear just how intelligent and complex the instrumental textures are. Considering the group has limited itself to an extremely harsh tonal fabric to appropriately support the lady, there is much variety inside that harshness.
But there are problems.
One with the lady herself: you come away from a concert thinking her voice is huge. A little common sense and any knowledge of the vocal machine, however, and you realize she’d be stone mute in six months if that sound were made full throat. In person, you get to watch each note start somewhere around her ankles, work its way up behind the veils, and break on loose. Well, you can’t put that on a record nohow. For all the involvement the voice still has here, it somehow lacks well, body. The other side of the problem is that, all by itself, the voice has a quality like electronic distortion. Works great live to accent all those fine and lovely things going on, around, and through the lyrics. On the cruel disk, it comes out like electronic distortion, blurring and blunting those same things it underlined.
So many of the problems with this record spring from the inchoate nature of the medium. One has to approach a tape thoroughly aware that one is translating from one medium to another. By now even most laymen are articulately aware of some of the particular aesthetic problems that arise while turning a play into a movie. A little less aware, but aware nonetheless, when it’s turning a book into a play, a short story into a ballet. Creating an exciting record from music conceived for live performance poses exactly the same sort of problems.
The power in a live performance comes from one person supporting another, two people underlining a third, three people preparing a sonic hole into which a fourth can throw a single note, or four people creating a pyramid for a fifth to shout from.
Excitement on a record invariably arises from tensions: textures, melodic lines, rhythmic patterns pulling against each other, volumes set in sudden contrast, stretching the formal framework to hold more, and still more.
A performer has absolute volume with which to create all sorts of effects. A recording artist—as long as somebody can get up and turn the little knob—only has relative volume to work with.
Because of the way a record focuses our attention, we look for great variety in consecutive textures, as well as overall structure. In performance, the virtuoso can carry us over amazingly long periods during which there is basically no change in content.
Bearing all this in mind, as one listens to Cheap Thrills, one wracks one’s mind for some wacky thing you might do with a twelve-track tape recorder to get down what you want in the proper shape in order to put it together—not to give the same effect as a live performance, which would be impossible, but a comparable one. Off the top of my head, comes the following: take all the instruments directly from the amplifiers on separate tracks, as well as the lead, during a live performance. Back at the studio put in the guys’ supporting vocal tracks where they can have guide tracks to keep them on pitch and they don’t have to worry about instruments. Then mix the whole business note by note. Or something.
As it is, the most initially effective selections are the live ones, which have a sort of archives quality: this was the sound going down at this particular time and here it is. This quality, rather like the Lenny Bruce film, has both good and bad points.
The opening cut on side one, “Combination of the Two,” brings you into the whole flavor; and “Turtle Blues,” which opens side two, is fine documentary: vocal, piano, guitar, audience catcalls, a glass that happened to smash miraculously on the beat; and whoever got the broom and swept it up, while the song was still going on, had obviously caught up the rhythm. The long closing cut, “Ball and Chain,” works nicely as well: it terminates with audience, and Bill Graham wishing everybody a pleasant Sunday, which dwindles away with religious music. “I Need a Man to Love,” also done live, is really the one where the male vocals upset me. Everything was so good, it would have been nice to have it perfect.
My personal favorite on the whole record for repeated listening (and it’s my favorite live) is “Piece of My Heart,” which Irma Franklin did so brilliantly on 45. Several people, though, have given me terribly cogent reasons why they feel “Oh, Sweet Mary” is the best cut: primarily, it comes down to the greatest number of those purely recording tensions.
They do “Summertime” here. It opens with a guitar obbligato, joined by a bass guitar in a fugue. Then the Voice. And if it wasn’t so fucking good, boy, would it be lousy.
Looking over all seven longish selections that make up the album, here’s what it seems the album can do: there’s certainly enough here so that if you’ve seen them, you can close your eyes and begin to remember, begin to recreate what went down…
Those who haven’t seen them will probably enjoy hell out of it anyway. But it only begins to suggest what it’s all about. Over the two days since the record’s been out, I’ve watched five different people at different times sit to listen, and begin to get all down in the mouth with disappointment. But soon they do close their eyes, start to remember. And they smile.
If you’re going to talk about them at all, l guess you have to talk about the whole thing. This, then: in May, in San Francisco, the Hell’s Angels put on a dance at the Carousel Ballroom featuring Big Brother and the Holding Company. Marilyn [Delany’s wife, poet Marilyn Hacker] wrote:
…warmish night, muggy for S.F. After dinner the drag queen downstairs pulled us away from our beer and smokes to have a look at what was going on. We walked down to Market St. where the line, furry and happy, doubled around the block twice. Cycles, black and green and purple, iced with chrome, day-glo helmets slung behind, were parked in glittering twelves and twenties along the curb. It wasn’t long after the Haight St. riot, and Martin Luther King’s assassination, and the cops were all there, waiting with their white helmets, their gas canisters, their super-leather-jacket-hip-boot-and-gauntlet-San-Francisco-cop outfits. (Ernie and I walked four blocks down to Oak St. for chocolate bars, and paddy wagons were lined up that far.) But the Angels were policing the place themselves, marching along, keeping the line moving, yelling up to the boys leaning over the upstairs grillwork, “Don’t spit out the window, bastard!” It had started already, and her voice was tearing up Van Ness Avenue. (I told I how hearing them at the Straight Theatre benefit had cured my sprained thigh, but he didn’t believe me.) When I got home, Link told me the Peace and Freedom party had called off their scheduled Dick Gregory for President benefit that evening—couldn’t stand the competition. (I’m not sure whether the competition was Big Brother or the Angels.)…
Oh yeah; in case you don’t know, Big Brother and the Holding Co. is made up of James Gurley, Peter Albin, and Sam Houston Andrew, who share the electric strings, Dave Getz on drums.
And Janis Joplin.