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Janis and Jimi Jamming at the Singer Bowl

In 1966 a little-known singer out of Texas named Janis Joplin joined forces with a successful psychedelic-rock group from San Francisco. Their 1967 performance at the Monterey Pop Festival left Village Voice jazz critic Nat Hentoff in awe: “Her singing is a celebration — her voice and body hurled with larruping power that leaves her limp. And this member of the audience feels that he has been in contact with an overwhelming life force.”

Now it’s August of 1968 and Big Brother and the Holding Company are coming to the Fillmore East on Second Avenue at 6th Street. An ad in the Voice depicts the band in all their San Francisco finery of stripes, beads, boots, and sandals — plus one big dog. (Many years later, guitarist/founding member Sam Andrew told an interviewer where the compound name had come from: “Big Brother courtesy of George Orwell, and the Holding Company courtesy of a silly hippy pun. ‘Holding’ meant ‘possessing illicit drugs.’ We decided to put the names together, although some of the more forward thinking among us worried about whether such a lengthy name would fit on a record label or a marquee.” With their major-label debut coming out later that month, they’d have to find room to fit Joplin’s name up there, too.)

The following week, in the August 8, 1968, issue, the Voice sent music critic Annie Fisher to the Fillmore to cover the performance. Page 1 has a photo of Joplin belting out a song, a stark graphic created with Kodalith film, which bent all midtones to either black or white, imbuing the image with the dynamic of a strobing light show. Fisher conveys something that, for those who weren’t around to witness Joplin in concert, rings true. In recordings you hear a performer who doesn’t merely sing songs, but inhabits them, experiencing them over and over. “Janis Joplin is Janis Joplin, and there’s nothing to do but listen to her,” Fisher writes. “She lives more in one song than a lot of people do in one lifetime. I hope she doesn’t kill herself doing it. No amount of money or adulation can repay or replenish what she gives in each performance. Saturday at the Fillmore East: one more show to go, the first show full house on its feet, chanting for a second encore, MORE MORE MORE. The band had come back onstage, and I looked into the wings for her. It was a moment frozen in time. She stood back there, pulling herself together for one more time, and her evident exhaustion was raw and frightening. I’d like to forget that look, but I won’t for a long time.”

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Fisher goes on to add that the band itself provided “variety in texture and tempo” to the songs. Joplin and Big Brother did a number of cover versions and made over such songs as Erma (older sister of Aretha) Franklin’s “Piece of My Heart” with their signature brand of throbbing psychedelia. Andrew said that the band “Big Brotherized” the song: “We didn’t have a choice. Given our talents and capabilities that was the only thing we could do. Erma’s ‘Piece of My Heart’ had a delicacy and a sense of mystery that was just beyond us.” Instead, Joplin reached inside herself to give the song a slashing, desperate, deeply personal edge that was completely her own.

But the tiny singer couldn’t do this every night. In that same issue another ad alerts the freaks, heads, and kids that an even bigger bill was rolling into the Singer Bowl, a remnant of the 1964 World’s Fair built by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. (The venue would also host boxing matches and become a tennis stadium named for longtime Corona resident Louis Armstrong. It was demolished in 2016.)

Fisher gets the plum assignment again. After some trouble finding the Singer Bowl in the wilds of Flushing Meadows Park — “an unmarked Moses maze of intersecting circles and crossroads” — she and her companion arrive at their seats and discover that the outdoor sound system is pretty bad; Fisher searches for improved acoustics amid the bleachers. The bands play on a sort of lazy Susan — a revolving stage — and after the Chambers Brothers finish their set with the huge hit “Time Has Come Today,” Big Brother and Janis come on. “ ‘Did you SEE what just happened?’ laughs Janis, off balance at the first turn of the bandstand. She’s swilling it down up there from a pint bottle. I wonder idly if the bottle contains weak tea, a stage set. These days, even the best have a shuck, right?…Something missing — the fire. Despite a perfectly respectable response, it’s not her night, not her house.”

Instead it’s Jimi Hendrix’s house. The guitar genius sets the tone by wiping his nose with a Confederate flag. Fisher hears something besides the music: “I didn’t know till tonight he was ‘discovered’ at the Cafe Wha?, which justifies just about everything that has gone down on MacDougal Street. He’s getting better than $500 a minute for this show, one hour, and that’s not an inflated price. He’s worth it. But he shouldn’t be playing this date. Rock outdoors is a gas, but stadium concerts should be left to groups like the Rascals or the Four Seasons, not anyone who has original musical ideas.”

Then she sees “some guy [who] has one of those long 2×8 or 2×10 crossbars of a police barricade up in the air. It’s an exquisite instant, the point of balance before the point of no return. I’ve never been in a riot. Shaken, I am suddenly aware of a weak, watery physical sensation that tells me a story of cowardice. I wouldn’t be any good. I’m not going to Chicago anyway” — she is referring to the Democratic National Convention starting that week in the City of the Big Shoulders, where everyone was expecting violence — “nothing in Chicago that a monkey woman can do. As suddenly as it started it’s all over, a phalanx of uniforms hustling out the musicians’ entrance, the kid apparently in the middle, the barricade apparently back in place.”

Politics, police, and violence were everywhere that summer.

Janis may have had an off night at the Singer Bowl, but, just a bit more than two years before she would die of a heroin overdose at age 27, she was becoming a headliner of her own. That month of August 1968, Big Brother released Cheap Thrills, with cover art by another rising star of the counterculture, the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. The copy in a full-page ad for the album in the September 5 Village Voice reads truthfully: “Janis Joplin. Big Brother and The Holding Company. They’re going to wipe you out.” But the boys in the band are nowhere to be seen. Just Janis in elephantine bell-bottoms and a world-conquering smile.

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Wide Awake: Song of Summer

I was born the summer Nixon resigned. I know this because in my family it was always spoken of as if the two events were somehow related. My ex-hippie mother used to say, “Thatbastard Nixon” (he was always Thatbastard in our house, never Richard)… “Thatbastard Nixon got what was coming to him. And we got you.”

I always took a kind of pride in this. Not so much because I thought he resigned because of me, but because we were both the results of one long, hot summer when everything changed.

For Nixon, the summer of 1974 was an ending. For me, a beginning.

It was a heady time for music, a summer when new genres were just taking form and competing for national attention. In the cities, disco was rearing its head for the first time, at the same moment the Ramones were making their CBGB debut. Outside the cities, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver dominated jukeboxes and car radios.

Classic rock, folk, disco, and punk were all facing endings and beginnings that summer.

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Ironically, the song that dominated the pop charts that year was the treacly Barbra Streisand ballad “The Way We Were.” No matter your opinions on Streisand, the song was huge and the movie of the same name — a love story about a Marxist Jew (Streisand) and her WASP-y writer boyfriend-then-husband (Robert Redford) attempting to find love in the face of idealism, betrayal, and McCarthyism — inspired one perfect line that applies as much to the summer of 2018 as to the summer of 1974, as we once again find ourselves caught in the brouhaha of presidential scandal:

Streisand: Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated, the way it was when we were young.

Redford: Katie, it was never uncomplicated.

I like to imagine those words reverberating quietly behind the public longing for simpler times, an echo of past sins mocking the idea that a once-slave-owning country longs to be “Great Again.” It’s just the kind of willful ignorance at which America excels.

The song that was everywhere in the summer of 1989 had no such rheumy-eyed notions of the past. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was as angry, sweaty, and claustrophobic as the Spike Lee movie (Do the Right Thing) that made it famous.

I had just finished ninth grade at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, where I would hide out in my Morrissey T-shirts and twelve-hole Docs in hallways dominated by Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”), De La Soul (“Me Myself and I”), and the few white kids belting out “Love Shack” by the B-52’s.

“Fight the Power” was a revelation, a glimpse into something forceful. With one righteously pissed-off line after another, the song inspired phrases that survive to this day in the modern lexicon of resistance. To wit: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

The heroes in question — Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver — found themselves brought by the song into the American mainstream 25 years after their heyday. Tragically, that same summer, Huey Newton was gunned down in cold blood, a victim of a drug crime as much as the white racism he spent a lifetime fighting. 

This was also the summer of the Bensonhurst riots in which Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy was killed by a white mob because the mob (mistakenly) believed he was dating a local white girl. (The Public Enemy song “Welcome to the Terrordome” includes a dedication to Hawkins.) The race riot came just two months after the release of Do the Right Thing, which itself featured a race riot in Brooklyn in response to the killing of an innocent black man. 

So here’s Chuck D and Flava Flav broadcast into the bedrooms of the American suburb (in a video directed by Spike Lee), angrily pointing out the history of “nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check,” as the white kids raised their skinny white fists, timidly placing a toe into the raging waters of American racial anger while quoting Spike Lee’s powerful lines: “Hey, Sal, how come you got no brothers up on the wall here?”

It was a long, hot summer when everything changed. It was never uncomplicated.

In fact, had social media existed in the summer of 1989, there no doubt would have been a series of righteous hashtags (#myheroesdontappearonnostamps) followed by an inevitable backlash (#Elviswasntracist) followed by the backlash to the backlash (#FuckJohnWayne), in which we would organize ourselves into the neat camps of allies and adversaries that are the trademark of modern political discourse. 

When I posed this question to my Twitter feed, with just these ideas in mind: “What is the all-time best Song of the Summer?” I was surprised to find an inclination toward, well, sunnier songs.

People tended to view the question in one of three ways: Any song that has the word “summer” in the title; a song that dominated the charts and airplay for a summer; or a song that simply evokes the feeling of summer.

“Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was the most popular answer, and it was probably because it checked all three boxes. As one commenter put it, the song puts the listener mentally and emotionally into “a perfect summer day.”

Other songs that fulfilled all three requirements: “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone and “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. These songs share the idea of summertime as holiday — both literal and figurative — from the existential grind of the fall and winter.

“Cruel Summer,” the 1984 hit from the all-woman pop band Bananarama, was a popular choice, an angsty take on heartache amid the heat of summer. (For my money, the summer of 1984 belongs to “When Doves Cry” by Prince, when His Purpleness blessed us with the best bathtub vocal performance until “Stay” by Rihanna).

“Smooth” by Santana/Rob Thomas and “Summertime” by Janis Joplin seem to share a spiritual connection to “Fight the Power,” a kind of slinky, sweaty feeling about summer that eschews the explosiveness of explicit politics but embraces the anxiety of heat in close quarters.

It’s hard to talk about these songs outside the events, both personal and political, which surrounded them. There’s a necessary nostalgia to such things. Where were you when you first heard “Brown-Eyed Girl”? And who was the brown-eyed girl that loved you for loving it? Were you dancing at your cousin’s wedding to “Crazy in Love?” in the summer of 2003? Do you remember your date? The smell of the spilled champagne on your tux, the mud you noticed on the heel of your shoe from dancing in the grass because your brown-eyed girl was too shy to go to the dance floor?

Were you belting out “Free Fallin’” in the front seat of your best friend’s tattered old Plymouth as you made your way to another lazy summer day at the beach, the park, the river, the lake, the shore, the parking lot of the Dairy Queen one shoeless summer before Everything Changed?

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I like to think of the talk I would have with my past self if I could. I like to imagine just what I’d tell me about the future. “It’s totally different than you think it’s going to be. You turn out all right, man. But you don’t get jetpacks, and there are no flying cars.”

Instead we get this. We get social media and computer screens. We get a worldwide metaphor in which we pose these questions to each other, the ones we, as humans, really care about: Who am I and Who are you and What do I like and What do you like and Do you like me and Do I like you and Are we on the same team? Like the beak of a hummingbird, our adaptation to the world is this networked computer metaphor in which we’ve all agreed to participate, an extension of our freakish brains that we use to pose and solve the social questions we really care about.

So instead of flying cars, we got social media. Instead of jetpacks, streaming pornography. How disappointing.

But maybe there is hope in this because at least, perhaps finally, we see ourselves clearly for the cloying, needy, angry, imperfect things we are. Nixon resigned. He resigned because he broke the law and got caught and still people forgot, choosing instead to wrap themselves in American flags, to long for an American innocence that never existed. And despite the utter morass of immorality, the racist, thieving, lying shitshow that is the long, hot summer of 2018 — the disappointment with American promise, with American discourse, with American tribalism, with America — the effect of all this daily conflict is that we no longer have to carry the burden of a past innocence betrayed.

Perhaps this is why the song that best defines this particular fucked-up summer — the one we’ll remember forty years from now — is likely the viral phenomenon “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, which is as violent, tragic, contradictory, and angry as the country at which it takes aim.

Maybe it’s the summer we finally realize it was never uncomplicated. We were just young.

 

“Wide Awake” is a new column from Mikel Jollett, who you should be following on Twitter.

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Piece of His Heart: Bert Berns Is a Name You Need to Know

“I want to be known,” says the magnetic young actor Zak Resnick, playing the part of songwriter Bert Berns. Bert who? Berns, the subject of this biographical jukebox musical, penned several of the best-known hits of the 1960s, including “Twist and Shout,” “Hang On Sloopy,” and the eponymous Janis Joplin signature tune. As a contract writer with Atlantic Records at the Brill Building, Berns somehow failed to achieve the fame of comparable songwriters of his era. His children have dedicated much of their energy to boosting his legend, including co-producing this show.

Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story severely boils down many of the fascinating incidents of Berns’s life — interracial affairs, self-imposed exile to Cuba just before the revolution, shady business deals, and a heart condition that killed him at age 38. But Berns’s songs (many co-written), are either intriguingly quirky or gorgeous, even the unfamiliar ones, showing off a stunning emotional range, and here they’re affectingly embedded into his biography. The dialogue might inspire some groans, but the singing is uniformly outstanding, and the arrangements leap into relevance the schmaltzier the tune. I could watch Linda Hart’s Stritch-like portrayal of Berns’s scheming widow all day, and as for Resnick, with his casual brilliance, dreamy voice, and idol looks, it seems a foregone conclusion that he will be known.

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The Warmhearted Supermensch Explores How One Manager Made People Famous

Legend has it that after not cutting it as a probation officer, Shep Gordon dropped some acid and stumbled into Hollywood, whereupon Janis Joplin punched him in the face and Jimi Hendrix said to him, “Are you Jewish? You should be a manager,” and then Gordon showed them a drawer full of weed and then he was a manager.

Later, Gordon got a chicken killed by Alice Cooper in Toronto and put him in a python-intensive London stunt that one newscaster supposed might become “a landmark in the decline of the British Empire.” But don’t get the wrong idea. Gordon’s actually the nicest guy, says Mike Myers, who has framed a documentary around that premise with improbably absorbing results.

Playfully re-enacting some bits of the legend, Myers reveals the lasting effects of Gordon’s gift for making people famous — it was he who gave us the phenomenon of the celebrity chef. “I’ve met more famous people through Shep Gordon than through all my other friends combined,” says Sammy Hagar, in what seems like the definitive Supermensch sound bite.

But, as Gordon himself says, “Fame has no intrinsic value.” Consider that he also has been famously successful with the ladies — unless you count success as finding one to have a baby with, as he says he wants to do. The time Gordon woke up in the hospital, the holder of his hand was his personal assistant, who now tearfully recalls how sad that made her feel for him. Meanwhile, his romance with Sharon Stone didn’t last, but at least it led to him meeting the Dalai Lama.

Spry, if sprawling, Supermensch warmheartedly affirms the Gordonian style of karmic contemplation.

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THE STYLISH ’60S

Fashion underwent a huge makeover in the ’60s thanks to the likes of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin. The mod scene out of London and the Flower Power movement in San Francisco put the youth in the driver’s seat of innovative fashion trends with mass marketers following close behind. Youthquake! The 1960s Fashion Revolution, a new exhibit at FIT, follows these two cultural uprisings from their inception and the young consumers who flocked to innovative boutiques to buy clothes by new designers such as Betsey Johnson. More than 30 garments, accessories, videos, and other related media are featured, including fashions by Yves Saint Laurent, André Courrèges, and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: March 6. Continues through April 7, 2012

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THE THRILL AIN’T GONE

“Go ahead and play the blues if it’ll make you happy,” spake the philosopher Homer Simpson, and so it was done. His irony, of course, is clear—the hardscrabble poetry of rough living and cruel women may not lead to an Oprah-level endorphine rush—but it has sure lent a long and beautiful career to blues harmonica virtuoso James Cotton. The prolific 74-year-old singer/songwriter/bandleader of some 20-plus albums is also the veteran of various illustrious outfits—he replaced the genius Little Walter in Muddy Waters’ band, and also sat with Howling Wolf and Janis Joplin—and tonight will stir things up with Blues Summit: James Cotton & Friends at Lincoln Center. The “friends” in question are the venerable Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland, and more—and they’ll put a smile on anyone’s face.

Thu., June 24, 8 p.m., 2010

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Diane Birch

This local soul-pop youngster loves Carole King, Janis Joplin, and Laura Nyro. Last year, she released a buzzed-about debut, Bible Belt, that made it clear how completely she’s absorbed those ladies’ stylistic lessons. Unfortunately, she forgot to absorb their songwriting abilities as well, which means you might fall asleep before you can admire her. With AM.

Tue., June 1, 9 p.m., 2010

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HIGH TIMES

In the ’60s and ’70s, New York native Joshua White created some of the most visceral imagery in rock music—although it was mostly appreciated by people too zonked to remember. The Joshua Light Show squirted out all those goopy, liquidy, bleary, tripped-out, acid-engorged light projections that backed the bands at the Fillmore East—Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and maybe some other people you might have heard of. He returns for four days at the Abrons Art Center to help create an enveloping, synethasiac world with eight modern psych misfits. Tonight is a bad trip and fever dream where White backs creeptacular horror-disco wildman Steve Moore and local drone-drifters itsnotyouitsme. Tomorrow scrapes the soil of new weird America with local psych-jammers Woods and stoned-to-the-bone reverb-folkies MV + EE. Saturday will be awash with White’s purples and pinks, as it transcendently matches ex-dreampoppers Dean & Britta with ex-spacepopper Spectrum. But Friday night’s lineup is probably the most true to the acid-eaters of yore, as ’60s-era groove-‘n’-chug electro-psych pioneers Silver Apples are joined by their most loyal offspring, Brooklyn’s endless jammers in Oneida.

Wed., May 12, 8 p.m., 2010

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The Retro Rebellion of She & Him

Peter Newman, whose CV includes The Squid and the Whale and a 1996 Dennis Hopper movie called Space Truckers, once told Variety that one of the biggest problems in producing Penelope Spheeris’s postponed Janis Joplin biopic was finding either an actress who could sing or a singer who could act. First, they had Pink, who later left the project because of “scheduling conflicts,” adding, “They’re trying to turn it into some circus pop contest—’who’s the ‘it’ girl who wants to play Janis?’ “

They settled on Zooey Deschanel, a 30-year-old actress who sings. In movies, she often plays spacey, desirable girls oblivious to everyone else’s rules of attraction (which, by some logic, only makes her characters more attractive). In the Times last year, A.O. Scott described her romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer as having a “very mild sexual vibe,” wisely sidestepping a discussion about the appeal of tights and ruffled dresses. (Of all the American Girl dolls, Deschanel looks most like Emily, “Molly’s English Friend,” who wears a cherry-blossom-print dress and “opens up a whole world of play with authentic styles from the World War II era.”) A few years back, she started sharing her homemade demos with the indie-folk singer M. Ward, who convinced her to collaborate on a record: She & Him’s Volume One. Success. Now, Volume Two.

She & Him’s music is ostensibly the sonic incarnation of Deschanel’s look—Phil Spector, ’50s and ’60s country, white-washed doo-wop, light musical theater. Tympani and la-la-la. “I love Gigi, Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, and The Sound of Music,” Deschanel told BlackBook recently. “That’s kind of how I like to make people feel with music. It’s the way the Beach Boys make you feel. They share sweet optimism that makes me excited to be alive.”

This all sounds like a vacation for M. Ward—a chance to be creative in an environment where his ego isn’t as prominently displayed as on his solo records. For Deschanel, though, it seems like a matter of personal expression, a way for her to write her own lines and make her own sets—things she can’t do when she’s acting. I don’t begrudge either party their fantasies or “sweet optimism,” nor do I much mind Volume Two. It’s more faithful to their influences and more self-conscious about projecting an image than its predecessor; the arrangements are more elaborate without losing that grainy, homespun feel. Deschanel’s voice isn’t as cute as I thought it’d be, which saves some of her lyrics: “I had some brand-new shoes/They were all red, but they gave me the blues” is an old-timey turn that lacks old-timey wit, while the chronology of “Well, all right, it’s OK, we all get the slip sometimes every day” is Stevie Wonder–level nonsense.

The interesting thing, if you care about “retro culture,” is that She & Him are taking what was once mass-market pop music and repackaging it as something “indie” or alternative. Their statement of rebellion is to reject everything made after the early ’70s. But lots of bands have done this, and done it with more creativity—Belle & Sebastian, say, or the Magnetic Fields.

I also find it weird that Deschanel and Ward talk about how comfortably they got along, because there’s something essentially cold about Volume Two. The happy songs aren’t happy, and the sad songs aren’t sad: When they cover Skeeter Davis, they leave out the sass; when they copy the Ronettes or the Crystals, they leave out the teenage throb; when they reach for the Beach Boys, their professionalism eclipses their innocence. What’s left is a debate about the nature and definition of the human soul, how many more albums they’ll put out, and how weird it would’ve been to see Zooey Deschanel playing Janis Joplin.

She & Him play Bowery BallroomMarch 29 and 30

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LONG LIVE HIPPIE ROCK

Whether intent on proving their post-acid trip relevance or just mourning Jerry Garcia, the bands performing at The Heroes of Woodstock: Celebrating the 40th Anniversary will make you wonder whether all the nostalgia we feel for hippies has dried up. It’s a historically significant event: These acts appeared at the original Woodstock and pioneered the psych-blues rock sound now aped by everyone from the Dandy Warhols to the Black Keys. Janis Joplin’s underrated back-up band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, will perform, as will Jefferson Starship, playing songs such as “Somebody to Love” without Grace Slick. Bring your mother; she’ll get a kick out of knowing blues rockers Ten Years After and Canned Heat are still alive.

Wed., Aug. 12, 8 p.m., 2009