One dictionary defines “pearl” as an object both “hard” and “lustrous,” synonymous with “gem” or “jewel.” Couldn’t all of those words also describe Janis Joplin? Pearl was, of course, the name bestowed upon the singer by her final group, The Kozmic Blues Band, and the title of her final, posthumously released album from 1971. Pearl has arrived on CD once more from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings under the title The Pearl Sessions (88697 84224 2), expanding the original 10-track album with a clutch of mono singles, two live tracks, and nearly a disc’s worth of alternate takes and studio banter. (A vinyl Sessions highlights album and a 180-gram pressing of the original LP will also be available on Record Store Day.) So is this the last word on Pearl?
The answer would have to be “yes” and “no,” which is altogether appropriate for an artist of many contradictions. Joplin was both larger-than-life and shy, supremely confident but pained. She was a songwriter of no small talent but best known for her interpretation of others’ songs. Pearl captured all of these contradictions, and more, better than any of the artist’s albums before it. Some of the most forceful repertoire of her all-too-short career can be found on the album, produced by Paul Rothchild, best known for his work with The Doors. Joplin pleads, wails, shrieks, and otherwise gives herself in to the music with abandon and fervor. A sense of drama permeates the original album which wasn’t always apparent in her earlier, more free-form recordings; indeed, this is as tight a group of songs as she ever recorded. Only “Me and Bobby McGee” exceeds the four-minute mark. Sessions is the second 2-CD set devoted to the album. The first (2005’s Legacy Edition on Columbia/Legacy C2K 90282) supplemented it with a live performance from 1970’s Festival Express tour. Sessions drops those tracks and replaces them with a behind-the-scenes look. Both approaches are valid but neither could be called “definitive.” However, Sessions confirms there’s still much, much more to explore when it comes to Janis Joplin.
We’ll meet you after the jump!
Though it’s doubtful Joplin knew she was racing against time, the original album never lets up, from the opening drum beat of “Move On” to the final crescendo of “Get It While You Can.” Recording commenced in July 1970; sessions were still taking place when Joplin died on the evening of October 4, and her vocal of “Mercedes Benz” was recorded just days earlier on October 1. All of the singer’s disparate styles were employed on Pearl. She invented Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns’ “Cry Baby,” a 1963 hit for Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters, as a psychedelic blues with deep soul. Ragovoy, a favored songwriter of Joplin’s who had already provided her with “Piece of My Heart,” is also represented with “My Baby” and “Get It While You Can,” both co-written with Mort Shuman, one-time partner of Doc Pomus and devotee/English lyricist of Jacques Brel. Shuman’s lyric for “Get It While You Can” made for an eerily fitting epitaph: “Don’t you know when you’re loving anybody, baby/You’re taking a gamble on a little sorrow/But then who cares, baby/’Cause we may not be here tomorrow, no.” Joplin’s delivery is raw, pained, personal and above all else, honest.
Just as riveting is “A Woman Left Lonely,” written to order by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. Its churchy gospel chords accentuate the sad story being told: “The fevers of the night, they burn an unloved woman/Yeah, those red-hot flames try to push old love aside/A woman left lonely, she’s the victim of her man, yes she is!” But it’s hard to see Joplin as a victim, except perhaps of the excesses that took her life all too soon. Its lyrics echo the insistent “You know I need a man” on Joplin’s self-penned “Move Over,” and both songs feature scorching, soul-deep vocals that may have drawn on her time singing in church as a child.
Joplin didn’t go it alone, though. Rothchild sensed the camaraderie between singer and band. The Full Tilt Boogie Band (succeeding Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Kozmic Blues Band) got its own chance to shine on Nick Gravenites’ “Buried Alive in the Blues,” on which a fierce yet joyful instrumental noise comes from combined assault of Ken Pearson’s organ, John Till’s guitar, Brad Campbell’s bass, Richard Bell’s piano and Clark Pierson’s drums. All make a distinct impression, though Pearson’s organ plays a particularly big role in the album’s overall sound.
On both Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” (the second posthumous No. 1 of the rock era in Joplin’s recording, after Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”) and Bobby Womack’s “Trust Me,” Joplin deploys her gifts as a storyteller, her voice oozing grit and fire even as it rasps. Both songs refuse to depict love and relationships with rose-colored glasses, and Joplin contrasts her vocal explosions with passages that are almost sweet. The unvarnished, a cappella “Mercedes Benz,” co-written by Janis herself and directed to the Lord, was perhaps the last full vocal she ever recorded. Again, it’s somewhat eerily appropriate.
Six mono single versions round out Disc One, including one mix that never actually made it to a single and makes its first appearance (“A Woman Left Lonely”) plus a hidden track. I won’t spoil it for you, but it has been previously released and is a welcome addition here. Good as these radio-friendly mono mixes are, though, the real attraction here is the studio material on Disc Two that gives the new collection its title. Best of all might be the studio chatter, with salty language a-plenty, as well as false starts and aborted takes. When a guitar pops out of one channel unexpectedly as the musicians noodle, you can close your eyes and imagine you are there in the control room.
Like most session-themed releases, it’s not the most cohesive of listens. “Move Over” is repeated three times in a row. But this sequencing actually allows for the comparison of each take to become a bit easier. Handclaps and wordless vocalizing kick off the song on one take, rather than that iconic opening drum beat. Ad libs and shouts punctuate these three takes, and the third of them (Take 17) has a breakneck tempo that was ultimately slowed. Two takes of “Get It While You Can” recorded a couple of months before the issued version show Joplin and the band experimenting with phrasing. The last shred of her voice seems at stake in Take 3! The September 5 “Cry Baby,” with Joplin’s piercing voice even more siren-like, has a different, more coarse mid-song rap is different, and runs roughly one minute longer than the final version. The overall impression is that the singer was unlikely to perform a song the exact same way twice, which gave producer Rothchild plenty to choose from when assembling the final album.
The studio dialogue shows Joplin alternately goofy and determined, although a decidedly loose vibe prevails: “Hey, Janis, man, I think you should forget about it! And when you get there, do what you gotta do!” She was told in the plainest of terms by Rothchild, “Sing what you feel” and she intuitively did just that, with better intuition than most! Joplin also had some choice words about President Nixon, which I won’t reprint here!
The affecting guitar-and-voice demo version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” with the singer affecting a near-whisper at points, proves that she already possessed an innate understanding of the song a couple of months before she committed the issued version to tape. “Bobby” is also heard in its Take 5, with some differences in the arrangement and instrumental performances. Kristofferson didn’t know he was writing a song for Joplin but that’s exactly what he did. The emotional temperature just might be a slight bit lower than the eventual take, but it’s rewarding to visit this step in the song’s evolution.
As always, one’s enjoyment of alternate takes depends on how well the original album is known. For longtime fans of Pearl, these “roads not taken” are illuminating, although each confirms the decisions of producer Paul Rothchild as to which versions would make the final cut. Two more live bonus tracks don’t quite keep the mood otherwise established by the session material, but it’s hard to argue with more Joplin. “Tell Mama” is heard in a Toronto performance previously released on the Farewell Song posthumous collection while “Half Moon” from The Dick Cavett Show, on which Joplin appeared with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, makes its first CD appearance.
What remains from previous editions? It doesn’t appear that the September 5 “Move Over” first issued on the Legacy Edition has been retained, although three previously unissued takes of the song do appear, one from July 27 and two from July 28. The “Bobby” demo, the September 5 alternate of “Cry Baby,” the September 24 “My Baby” and the instrumental-only track “Pearl” have all previously seen release, some on the 2005 Legacy Edition of Pearl and others on Legacy’s Janis box set (C3K 48845). (Other than that September 5 “Move Over,” all of the unreleased studio content from the Legacy Edition has been carried over.) The band’s elegiac “Pearl” was cut down from a 12-14 minute jam according to reissue producer Bob Irwin in the liner notes, but only the 4-1/2 minute version is included.
The Pearl Sessions includes a 22-page booklet with numerous photographs and a reprint of Columbia Records’ Billboard memorial ad for the singer. Holly George-Warren’s essay goes into the detail about the period that led up to Pearl and the recording sessions, and comments from Paul Rothchild as told to Laura Joplin in 1992 also are included. Vic Anesini mixed the session material, and remastered both discs to fine effect. (He also remastered the 2005 Legacy Edition.) Crank up the dials and play this music loud.
It’s difficult to listen to Pearl and not ponder what direction Joplin’s career would have taken, whether in rock, soul or even jazz. The Pearl Sessions offers a timely reminder of that titanic talent. Get it while you can.