My first visit to San Francisco was in November 1972, to attend the Bill Gavin Radio Conference at the St. Francis Hotel, where radio programmers and music industry people met for a few days to attempt some real conversations and listen to music. That conference was my literal introduction to Bill Gavin, and the one and only moment I was in the same room with R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller was there to give a talk and everyone else was there to listen. He was many things: architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor, futurist, and the second World President of Mensa. He was not, however, the best public speaker. Most of us in the audience were reasonably adept at recognizing musical talent, but very few of the hundreds of people there could follow Fuller’s every phrase. Some left during his remarks but I sat there through the entire 40-minute presentation.
A few years earlier, in 1968, Fuller published a book titled “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.” In that book he stated, “The most important fact about Spaceship Earth: an instruction manual didn’t come with it.”
Music is somewhat like that. There are no scientific rules about what the public will like and won’t like. There may be consensus after the fact, but that’s not the same as “do this or do that” for a guaranteed outcome. And there is nothing in the gene pool in the Bay area that gives a musician there an advantage when seeking fame and fortune. However, there is something to environmental factors and San Francisco seemed to have that.
Some of the music I listened to originated in the Bay area, going back to the Beau Brummels’ “Laugh, Laugh”, in 1965. I was a fan of Jefferson Airplane from the pre-Grace Slick album “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off” (1966) through “Volunteers” (1969). Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, Grateful Dead, Pablo Cruise, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana always come to my mind. But the band—the album, actually—that so many of us remember and associate with San Francisco is “Cheap Thrills” by Big Brother & The Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin. Before you even cut through the shrink-wrap, the album spoke to you. The cover art, created by (Robert) R. Crumb, included original drawings of each band member, and an artistic rendering of each track. “Ball and Chain”, for example, pictured a woman (Janis, perhaps) in a striped dress, ball and chain attached to one ankle, walking under a hot sun; “Piece of my Heart” pictured a man at a dinner table getting ready to carve a heart, and “Turtle Blues” had a turtle in a derby hat reading a racing form. The album’s original title was reportedly “Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Thrills”, which the label insisted needed to be changed. Hence, “Cheap Thrills”.
Joplin’s solo career was cut short by, well, Janis. She had come a long way from Port Arthur, Texas to her success with Big Brother and the Holding company, and was poised to embark on a solo career with the release of the album “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama”. Some reviewers have trashed the album but I have always been willing to give it some praise. It was reasonable to assume that the album was a bellwether of things to come. Good things. And the second solo album, “Pearl” fulfilled much of her promise. Released posthumously, it was destined to be a success, but most importantly the album showed she was capable of delivering as a solo performer. “Cry Baby” picks up where Garnet Mimms 1963 recording left off and Joplin makes the song her own. The success of “Me & Bobby McGee”, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster (founder of Monument Records), paid a lot of bills. And the little ditty of a recording “Mercedes Benz” has become a classic.
While I appreciate her solo material, there is something so edgy, raw, and real about the music on Cheap Thrills” that I always go back to that album when I need to hear a little bit of Janis. Her trip to California from Port Arthur changed Janis Joplin’s life. And lot of others. We still have her music. Her voice. And for that we’re all grateful.