#338: Big Brother & the Holding Company, "Cheap Thrills" (1968)

// She knows this goddamn life too well so we best listen up. But what’s a rasp really good for? Can a breathtaking break in a woman's voice cast glass, shatter spells, shake off sadness? Let me stop myself right there, save us from overanalysis, let me just say this: yes.

The kind of person who doesn't like a little mess in their magic is the same kind of person who, beaten down by their sterile-voiced dentist, insists on drinking Sunkist orange soda through a bendy straw. If you listen to Janis at a certain time of before-morning with the right amount of sugar in your tea you will be transformed, transmogrified from distracted to superlative; you'll become one of those stubborn numbers you always envied—the ones greater than or equal to something else. Well, here are four gentlemen and one broad, as the emcee calls her, who'll make you feel like a story problem that is finally solvable. Close your eyes and clench your throat. Feel her warble wiggle in your toes. Each little vocal catch a catechism, every breath and every cataclysm whistling past the bones of your own nose. She says she needs a man to love and maybe you're not feeling man enough right this minute, or maybe you're no man at all, but still, don't you think you could be what she's moaning over? Don't you want to screech this little blues rock thing and be a man to love, just now, just for a moment this morning? Let her make and re-make you over again, into a sleek and elegant thing, into a chapter in a charming adventure novel, a refined equation that is more than the sum of your paltry, mismatched parts.


\\ Janis isn't making anyone, no one's making Janis. The scream queen. What we dug “rasp” up for in the first place. What we hear on entering heaven, on spelunking deeper into hell. She is both, the dichotomy materialized, a freshman year college course on duality. Which is to say: human. She is human. A gut-feel for the blues and the strange insistent blackout of the turn of the decade, the terror and love and anger and love and war and peace and love and love of the upside-down America of the sixties. Not without the hat-tip to Tina Turner, to the girl groups, to the stage show semi-freakouts of Elvis and Little Richard and the incomparable Mr. Dynamite. She says living’s easy in the summertime and we’ve heard it a thousand and one times before and we’re hearing it for the very first time: that’s how sublime, how twisted she’s got tradition, and history, and this goddamn broken broken-record decade. You can say it again, it’d stay the same: if she ain’t the voice of the generation, she’s no doubt one of them.

No. Bullshit. She’s the voice of the whole generation. Stationed out satelliting in an orbit around the romance and the distrust. No one’s making Janis. How could they? How’d that work? You think she’s susceptible? You think she’s a product? Sure we’re all products, but you think she’s a product? You think she’s from Earth? Serious questions, all with answers, no good ones.

There is a tortoiseshell shorthair your little brother’s leashed with your father’s old belt and set on fire for the hell of it. Watching it squirm is beautiful and awful and nothing you’d ever want to see again. It makes you sick. It makes you mad. It ignites. Janis isn’t making anyone.


// Let's not dress her up too pretty, then. (She favored grubby men's shirts and tights.) Let's not fancy her a posthumous god, as gods don't generally overdose when they're twenty-seven. Seems like we need our “voices of generations” to be so hungry they falter, overdo it, fuck up a little more and sooner than anybody meant them to.

But let's get one thing clear: the effect her sound has on us is not just because she didn't live long enough to lose the gut-fire and cut a lifeless 80s record. If you crack open some stuffy biography you can bet your ass it says despite her untimely death, Janis….and in another book that same sentence begins with because of. Yes, she was drenched in duality, heavens and devils swallowed down like medicine and fired back up gleaming and twisted as one. But let's call her singular, too. Janis didn't die because she sounded so good and she didn't sound like that because she was bound to die. She wasn't startling just because she was the antithesis of Judy Collins. Listen—she'd have startled anyone in any age throughout space and time. She was just a regular young human who could sing, in some ways; yes, we can hold off on the hagiography.

Maybe make is the wrong word, but Janis was capable of causing things: causing a mosh pit, causing a car wreck, causing a punk kid to pause in the middle of a subway tunnel and cry. She had duality but also singularity. Singularity, as in a distinctiveness so distressing as to be beautiful. And also as in the spacetime kind, when the quantities used to measure a body's gravitational pull become infinite in a way that does not depend on a single goddamn thing.


\\ How smart is it by the way to frame this thing as live? The people lost it at Monterey watching Janis and her Holding Co. tear through tunes like a wet chainsaw, so much so that it was infamous that day, that minute, even quicker. Some groups, when they hit the stage, they just don’t got it. No heat, no noise, no soul. Not so with Janis, not so with the whole Holding Co. We got the Internet. The whole thing’s down on tape.

“Combination of the Two”’s got the whole band sharing vocals, woo-woo-ing down there all together, Janis howling an octave above the boys, taking the rightful spotlight every time she opens her mouth. “Ball and Chain” they even ripped live for the record, that’s how magnetizing. That’s how possessed that voice, that spirit. And look: I just clicked the wrong thing, got sent to the clip of the band reunited, sans Janis, at Monterey in ‘07. That’s 2007. It is not good. It is old-blood bar-band covers of the blues. The new Janis has the rasp, but she is not Janis. Obviously. Without the hunger that comes with being 24 years old, being strung out, being raised in the Texas high desert, being one with the time, the people, the black magic incantation the wizard recited to give it all to you, to take it all away: what even are you?

Shit. I fell again into the sermon. Look: listen. The music, it speaks for itself. All the rest is feedback echoing the vibes that were good enoughno, betterthe first time around.

—Eric Thompson & Brad Efford