Take another little piece of my heart now, baby

Did you know someone in middle school or high school who was relentlessly bullied, picked on, or humiliated by other students?  Of course you did.  It’s pretty much a universal thing and, sad to say, it’s been going on for many decades, and only recently is it being more seriously addressed by school authorities.

It happened in the late 1950s at Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, Texas.  Kids there taunted and tormented one particular girl they felt was an ugly freak, a shy outlier who had severe acne problems and weight fluctuations.  Try as she might, she never fully got over the persecution, and suffered self-esteem problems the rest of her life.  But she survived by befriending other outcasts, listening to blues records by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Nina Simone and Odetta, and developing her own singing voice by mimicking theirs.  It was a strategy that worked well for her…for a while.

That girl was Janis Joplin.

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Fifty years ago this Sunday, Joplin died in Room 105 of the Hollywood Landmark Hotel (now the Highland Gardens), a short walk from the Hollywood Bowl where she had thrilled a sold-out crowd a year earlier.

She had been an intermittent heroin user, and the dose she injected that night was allegedly cut with something else, which killed her.  She was 27.

Her death was a punch to the solar plexus of rock music lovers everywhere, particularly because it came only 16 days after the passing of the wondrous but troubled Jimi Hendrix, who died in similar fashion in England.

Friends, family members, business managers, armchair therapists and countless others have written books and granted interviews in an attempt to analyze Joplin, a moody, hugely talented, self-destructive, fun-loving young woman whose star shone so brightly for only three years before being extinguished far too early.

images-302Joplin’s influence was enormous and far reaching.  Hundreds of female vocalists and blues musicians in the five decades since her death have lavishly praised her electrifying live performances and her surprisingly polished studio recordings.  Critics sometimes took exception to the way she  overworked her material to the extreme, but most adored her “devastatingly original voice,” her “overpowering and deeply vulnerable artistry” and her “Elvis Presley-like ability to captivate an audience.”

British singer Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine, who wasn’t born until 17 years after Joplin’s death, had this to say:  “She was so vulnerable, self-conscious and full of suffering.  She tore herself apart, yet on stage, she was totally different.  She was so unrestrained, so free, so raw.  It seems to me her suffering and the intensity of her performance went hand in hand.  There was always a sense of longing, of searching for something.  I think she really sums up the idea that soul is about putting your pain into something beautiful.”

Unknown-576Despite her small-town upbringing, Janis was a free spirit from an early age, rejecting Port Arthur’s narrow thinking regarding sex, segregation and a woman’s place in the world.  She attended college in Beaumont and in Austin, playing coffee house gigs as a solo acoustic act, honing her chops on folk and blues tunes.  At the first opportunity she left Texas for California, hitchhiking there with her friend Chet Helms, who later became manager of the San Francisco band Big Brother and The Holding Company.

Eventually, Joplin became that band’s lead singer, and by 1966, Bay Area people were buzzing about the gypsy-like girl who could belt out blues tunes with unparalleled passion and energy.  She dove head first into the

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no-rules milieu of the counterculture, experimenting with psychedelic drugs , wearing outré boutique clothes, and enjoying sexual relationships with men and women alike.  She considered herself “one of the boys,” sleeping with whomever she pleased and resisting the double standard that said men could do that but women could not.

Even before they had released their first LP, Joplin and Big Brother won a slot at the legendary Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, and her mindblowing performance there was so spectacular that it forever secured her place in the rock pantheon.  It also won her a recording contract with Columbia Records.  Despite all this attention (which she adored and craved), Joplin confided that she was plagued by self-doubt, always fearing she wasn’t really good enough.

Unknown-532Ah, but she most certainly was.  Joplin and Big Brother recorded a stellar set of blues and rock songs which comprised the compelling LP “Cheap Thrills,” the #1 album in the country for eight weeks in late 1968.  Joplin and producers chose to add manufactured audience sounds to make it appear to be live, but in fact only the final track, the explosive “Ball and Chain,” was recorded in concert.  The Top 20 single “Piece of My Heart,” “Combination of the Two,” a cover of the Gershwin classic “Summertime” and the Joplin original “Turtle Blues” combined to make a well-rounded blues album for the ages.

images-342Big Brother wasn’t the most precise band around, and Joplin grew weary of their sloppiness.  At the same time, the band grew resentful of her “star trip” eclipsing the band, and by year’s end, they went their separate ways.  Janis had become enamored with soul and R&B and rounded up musicians who shared that bent.  They became The Kosmic Blues Band, with prominent horns and a much funkier beat than Big Brother’s psychedelic blues.

It was at this time that I personally became aware of Joplin.  I was 14 and buying up as many hip rock albums (Zeppelin, Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Cream) as I could afford.   I admit I bought “Cheap Thrills” partly because I was captivated by R. Crumb’s fantastic comic book art on the cover, but when I took it home, I was so taken by the music, especially “Ball and Chain,” that I played it incessantly.

images-304I was first in line at the record store when she and her new group released “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama!” in September 1969.  I was pleasantly surprised by the R&B punch of “Try,” “To Love Somebody” and “Maybe” with their dominant horns and keyboards, but she was still true to her blues on “One Good Man” and the riveting title track.  What a fine album!

Joplin had solidified her cachet by appearing at Woodstock that summer, even though she felt it was a sub-par performance and refused to allow it in the documentary film or its soundtrack.  She broadened her fame by making several memorable appearances on national TV on the quasi-hip “Dick Cavett Show,” having a blast chatting and giggling about everything from her regrettable high school days to her left-leaning political views.

As it turned out, Janis and the Kosmic Blues Band musicians never really gelled, so she left them as well.  She made it known that, despite her ability to pack arenas like Madison Square Garden, she actually preferred playing much smaller venues and clubs — another example of her inner conflict between self-loathing and a need for adulation.

images-300She took time off in 1970 to travel with a new paramour to Brazil, taking time to give herself a little distance from the drugs and the craziness of her rock star life.  When she returned a month later, though, her heroin use resumed.  She assembled a third group, The Full-Tilt Boogie Band, which featured organ but no horns.  They did a train tour of Canada and added some U.S. dates at the end, which met with mixed reviews.  Some praised the band’s tightness while others felt Joplin appeared exhausted and uninspired.

In an interview that summer, Janis confirmed what others have said about her conflict between the inner woman and the outer performer:  “I’m a victim of my own insides.  There was a time when I wanted to know everything.  It used to make me very unhappy, all that feeling.  I just didn’t know what to do with it.  But now I’ve learned to make that feeling work for me.  I’m full of emotion and I want a release, and if you’re on stage, and if it’s really working and you’ve got the audience with you, it’s so sublime.”

In August and September of that year, she and the band recorded several songs in Los Angeles with producer Paul Rothschild at the helm.  Vibrant tracks like “Move Over,” “Half Moon” and “Get It While You Can” showed a renewed vigor, while Joplin’s reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” showed the full range of her unmatched vocal talent.

images-303The band laid down the instrumental tracks for “Buried Alive in the Blues,” and Joplin planned to record her vocals the following day, but it was not to be.  In tribute to Janis, the track was left as is, leaving listeners to imagine her vocal part on their own.

Just as with Hendrix, Jim Morrison and others who died young, her tragic death only served to raise never-resolved questions like, “I wonder what kind of music she would’ve been making in her 30s, 40s or 50s?”

Unknown-531The final songs were compiled onto her final LP, the posthumously released “Pearl,” which rocketed to #1 in early 1971, as did the single of “Bobby McGee.”

At age 20, Stevie Nicks was performing with Lindsay Buckingham in a Bay Area band called Fritz, often serving as a warmup act for legends like Joplin and Hendrix.  She recalled watching her from the wings during her performances.  “When Janis got up on that stage with her band, this woman became my new hero.  She was not what anyone would call a great beauty, but she became beautiful to me because she made such a powerful and deep emotional connection with the audience.  I didn’t care much for the feather boas and the bell-bottom pants, but she didn’t dress like anyone else, and she definitely didn’t sing like anyone else.

“She put herself out there completely,” said Nicks, “and her voice was not only strong and soulful, it was painfully and beautifully real.  She sang in the great tradition of the rhythm & blues singers that were her heroes, but she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock & roll edge to every single song.  She really gave you a piece of her heart, and that inspired me to find my own voice and my own style.”

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God love ya, Janis.  Your legacy is in your performances on the records, and I’ll cue them up and dig ’em whenever I need a dose of “dem ol’ kosmic blues, mama!”

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Shall I tell you about my life?

I’ve found that many, possibly a majority, of American fans of Fleetwood Mac are unfamiliar with the name Peter Green.  And that’s a shame, even an outrage, and I hope this post this week helps open a few eyes to his importance to the band’s history, and to rock and blues music in general.

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Green, who passed away July 25 at the age of 73, was the brilliant, influential guitarist and founder of the British blues band that he chose to call Fleetwood Mac, named after the rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John (Mac) McVie.

He was an enormously crucial figure in England during his tenure with the band, which ran for only three years from 1967-1970.  In 1969, Fleetwood Mac was the biggest group in England, selling more records there than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  In the U.S., though, Green and his band were known only to blues aficionados and rock music

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L-R: Fleetwood, Green, Spencer, McVie

geeks.  The first three albums — “Fleetwood Mac” (1968), “Mr. Wonderful” (1968) and “Then Play On” (1969) — were all Top Ten hits in Britain, but they barely made the Top 200 here.

Same was true for their singles, “Albatross” (#1), “Man of the World” (#2), “The Green Manalishi” (#10) and “Oh Well” (#2) — huge hits in England that failed to chart in the U.S. (except “Oh Well,” which stalled at #55).   It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, after another incarnation of Fleetwood Mac became international superstars, that Green started earning more recognition here, even though relatively few of the band’s new fans took the time to go back and listen to Green’s pivotal contributions on those early LPs and singles.

His time in the limelight was relatively brief because of inner demons that haunted him almost daily and got worse as time moved on.  He had low self-esteem and suffered from mental illnesses that were made far worse from experimentation with drugs, especially LSD.  Green didn’t like the idea of being paid for his talent, choosing instead to withdraw from the public eye and society in general.  Just as Pink Floyd had Syd Barrett, Fleetwood Mac had Peter Green, two creative leaders who went mad under the pressure and left before their bands ended up going mega-platinum.

Still, Green’s legacy is in his recorded works, which has become far more widely images-244appreciated in recent years.  I certainly knew the highlights of his work in the Sixties, but I confess to missing out on many of the deep tracks and live recordings in his catalog, which I’ve immersed myself in all week.  The guy had such a marvelous economy of style with his Gibson Les Paul, and I urge you to treat yourself to a focused listen to the playlist I’ve assembled below.

A measure of his reputation today is the number of top flight media outlets that have prominently featured obituaries this week about Green’s life.  It was not just Rolling Stone, NME and Guitar Player that ran articles in recent days; Green was also lauded in lengthy tributes by NPR, CNN, the BBC, Bloomberg, The Atlantic and The New York Times.  Even The Economist ran a piece that dares to call him “Britain’s greatest blues guitarist.”

Green was in that generation of young post-war Brits who were energized by the American rock and roll records they heard on “pirate radio” because the BBC wouldn’t play them.  “I was passionate about my love for American music, for rock and roll, and somehow it went from that to the blues,” Green said years later.  “The music drove me to learn guitar.  I really wanted to spread the word about this music.”

He met Fleetwood in 1964 when he joined a local London band called Peter B and The Loons.  “When Greenie (as his friends and admirers called him) settled in and trusted us to back him, his playing became a voice no one could ignore,” Fleetwood wrote in his “Play On” autobiography.  “He could be running through a blues progression we’d heard a thousand times, but when Greenie played it the old notes sounded new.  His tone was wailing, high and lingering.  It gave me shivers every night.  Still does when I hear the records.”

In the summer of 1966, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (the premier blues band at the time) suffered a mighty blow when virtuoso guitarist Eric Clapton left to form the power blues images-247trio Cream.  Mayall, having heard Green at blues festivals, invited him to fill the void many naysayers thought couldn’t be filled.  Imagine their surprise when they heard Green’s beautifully crafted guitar parts on the group’s 1967 LP, “A Hard Road,” or the stunning solos he served up in concert.  Green actually added value to the band because he also played a mean harmonica, and more important, he contributed original blues songs and sang them, something Clapton wasn’t doing yet.

When Green was given free studio time one day to record demos of five originals, he invited Fleetwood and McVie to play behind him.  Recalls Fleetwood, “One instrumental number was a dirty bit of Chicago-style electric blues, and it came out fucking hot.  ‘I’ve got a name for that one,” Greenie said with a knowing grin.  ‘I’m calling it Fleetwood Mac.’  I said, ‘You mean, as in John and me?  Why would you call it that?’  He answered, ‘Easy.  Fleetwood Mac is the name of my favorite rhythm section.'”

images-249Green had said he always wanted to play his own music in his own band, and so it was only about eight months later that he broke away from Mayall, coercing Fleetwood to follow him.  Bassist McVie had been with Mayall longer and chose to remain, but he was soon convinced to join Green, who was so thrilled to have both men in the lineup that he named the band after them, just as he did with the demo.  Jeremy Spencer, a slide guitarist and singer who also did spot-on imitations of several of the early rock and roll pioneers, rounded out the original lineup, and Fleetwood Mac was born.

The foursome became known for their exhilarating concerts, full of Green’s both fast- and slow-tempo blues, uncanny Elvis takes by Spencer, and a dose of naughty images-255vaudevillian humor from Fleetwood to spice things up.  They toured relentlessly around England and Europe, and Green’s reputation as a real boy wonder (he was 21) on guitar only grew.  In early 1968, they released their debut LP, “Fleetwood Mac,” which came along at just the right time on blues music’s arc of popularity in Britain, reaching #4 and remaining high on the charts through the end of the year.

The band’s first single, “Black Magic Woman,” didn’t fare as well, stalling at #37 (although a little more than two years later, Santana took Green’s unnamed-8song to #4 in the US where it remains a staple of classic rock).   Fleetwood Mac’s second LP, “Mr. Wonderful,” came out only seven months after the first, and although it did well, peaking at #10, it suffered from muffled production and a sameness to the tracks.  Still, with two albums in the Top 30, Fleetwood Mac was one of the hottest bands going.

It was right around this time that Green started telling Fleetwood that he had grown uncomfortable with the fame the band was now getting.  “Peter didn’t want to be a star, but he did need to express himself,” wrote Fleetwood.  “He had a real presence, off-stage and on, that made people take notice of him.  He didn’t want to be king of the castle, although by shining so brightly, he couldn’t avoid it.”

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Kirwan and Green

Green’s strategy was to bring in a third guitarist, someone with a style that would mesh well with his, someone who could also write great songs and sing, therefore taking some of the pressure and spotlight off Green.  They found that person in 18-year-old Danny Kirwan, who joined the band just in time to participate in their first #1 single, a beautiful instrumental called “Albatross,” which was a radical left turn from the strict blues/rock repertoire.

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Spencer, McVie, Fleetwood, Kirwan and Green in 1969

“Peter was the type of creative person who needed to evolve,” said Fleetwood.  “Once he became comfortable doing a chosen form, his nature was to mutate.  The truly talented players did that, and did it well.  Look at The Beatles.

“So we added Danny, and he and Peter found a natural fit, with Danny’s sense of melody on rhythm guitar really drawing Peter out, allowing him to write songs in a different style than he’d been able to previously.  Rock songs just poured out of him.”

images-256The third LP, “Then Play On,” the last to include Green, was dominated by Kirwan and his songs, vocals and subtle guitar playing, with Green happy to play a secondary role.  The songs he started writing seemed incrementally darker; the next hit single, Green’s “Man of the World,” had lyrics that offered plenty of red flags about his deteriorating mental condition:  “Shall I tell you about my life?/ They say I’m a man of the world/ I guess I’ve got everything I need/ I wouldn’t ask for more/ And there’s no one I’d rather be/ But I just wish that I’d never been born…”

It was a classic psychological battle he was fighting in his head:  He was eager to get his blues music out there, to play guitar and sing his own songs, but he was uncomfortable with all the attention and, eventually, even the money their success brought in.  Like with many bands of that era, dabbling in recreational drugs was all the rage, and Green turned out to be fond of LSD, despite the deleterious effect it was having on his fragile psyche.

Fleetwood:  “The complicated mental illness that seized him in 1970 had transformed him from the friend and co-pilot I’d loved so dearly to a mystery I still can’t fathom. Unknown-474Since the onset of his condition, he had struggled morally with the fact that his gift — his beautiful, singular guitar playing — was something that could be commodified.  He refused to acknowledge that his playing should be celebrated, let alone rewarded.  Rather than let that happen, he started refusing to play.”

Green, who was born Jewish as Peter Greenbaum, began wearing robes and wanting to have long discussions about Christianity.  He fell in with a manipulative cult in Germany, and soon wanted to sell his guitars and give away all his money, living simply off the land.  He finally left the band for good in May 1970 after the release of Green’s last song, the harrowing acid-rock excursion “The Green Manalishi,” full of extreme guitar and anguished howling.  “Losing Peter was like taking the rudder out of a images-246sailboat,” said Fleetwood.  “As a band, we were still afloat, but we were drifting, with no map and no land in sight.”

Green went through institutionalization and rehabilitation in the 1970s, living reclusively and avoiding his old mates, who had soldiered on with a revolving door of different guitarists, each with their own set of emotional issues.  Even the lineup that recorded the hugely successful “Fleetwood Mac,” “Rumours,” “Tusk,” “Mirage” and “Tango in the Night” albums between 1975-1987 had major relationship problems that were great fodder for songs but detrimental to the band’s emotional well being.

Ironically, Green returned to the business in 1980 and ended up making a half-dozen pretty decent solo albums, the first two (“In the Sky” and “Little Dreamer”) reaching the

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“In the Sky” LP

mid-30s on the UK album charts.  After another decade of obscurity brought on by depression, he resurfaced in 1997 in the form of Peter Green’s Splinter Group, which included musicians like Nigel Watson and Cozy Powell who helped Green rekindle his career once again.  The Spotify playlist below includes healthy servings of the best of both phases of his post-Fleetwood Mac music.

This past February, Fleetwood organized “A Tribute to Greenie” at the London Palladium, with Pete Townshend, Billy Gibbons, David Gilmour, Noel Gallagher, and Kirk Hammett all taking the stage (although Green did not).

As Premier Guitar put it this week:  “If a true sign of a guitarist’s impact on his art are the players who carry the torch of his influence, Green’s acolytes are an impressive lot.  They include former Rolling Stones member Mick Taylor, who replaced him in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers; Clapton himself, who has praised Green as “one of the best”; Aerosmith’s

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Green in 2005

Joe Perry; Genesis’ Steve Hackett; the Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson, and Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell.  Gary Moore, who bought Green’s Les Paul from him shortly after Green left Fleetwood Mac, owned it for 36 years before selling the instrument at auction.  Since then, it was purchased by Hammett, who paid $2 million and has used it in recent live performances.

The late B.B. King once said of Green, “He had the sweetest tone I ever heard.   He was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.”

Stevie Nicks, who joined the band in 1975 as it rocketed to superstardom, had this to say:  “It was, in the beginning, called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.  I thank you for that, Peter.  You changed my life.  When Lindsey and I were invited to join the group, I went out and bought all the albums and listened to them, and I was very taken with Peter’s guitar

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Fleetwood and Green, 2005

playing.  It was one of the reasons I was excited to join the band.  My biggest regret is that I never got to share the stage with him.  I always hoped in my heart of hearts that that would happen.”

Fleetwood added, “No one has ever stepped into the ranks of Fleetwood Mac without a reverence for Peter Green and his talent, and his belief that music should shine bright and always be delivered with uncompromising passion.”

Rest in peace, Peter.  Your legacy is intact.

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