There are so many singularly spectacular moments during the five-minute-45-second-long performance—Janis Joplin singing “Ball and Chain” with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival—that you can basically jump to any random point during playback and marvel at what’s going on.
Here are three:
1. At exactly 1:59 in, documentarian D.A. Pennebaker’s cameras switch from a tight view of Joplin’s face to her shoes. He lingers there for about five seconds, focusing on Janis stomping in time to the pronounced acid-blues rhythm the band is generating. It’s only then that you realize—if you have any blood circulating inside your own body—that you’ve been stomping your own feet as well. You can’t help it. It’s that riveting.
2. At 3:28, the camera again leaves Joplin and focuses on a woman wearing sunglasses in the audience. Her mouth is agape, a big round O. She is staring straight ahead in disbelief. She has never seen nor heard anything like this before and knows she likely never will again. She’s watching a phenomenon unfolding in front of her. The camera lingers on her frozen expression for a full 20 seconds. She is Mama Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas.
3. At 4:42, as the performance begins to wind down, we see Joplin in closeup again. She’s been riding the song’s dynamic shifts as if she’d been doing this her entire life, not just the year or so. She’s already gotten carried away a few times, sliding from a sensual purr to a guttural roar seamlessly, so wrapped up in the music that you wonder if she’s even in control anymore. The band has just ratcheted up the tension again after a lull and now Janis is coiled, ready to spring like a Jack-in-the Box. She lifts her left leg, stomps it back down, tears into a volley of “n-n-nah-nah”s, waves her arms frantically, pulls back the mic stand and returns to the nominal “And I said oh-whoa-whoa, oh honey this just can’t be” chorus. Then she lets it out: a stuttering, face-contorting “b-b-b-b-baby” that, for a split second, makes you fear that she is about to explode, taking you with her.
Related: Janis’ “Me and Bobby McGee” hits #1
There are several other such moments in this single tune alone. We who weren’t there can only imagine the impact that her entire performance must have had on the crowd, most witnessing for the first time this dynamo barely known outside of the Bay Area’s psychedelic ballrooms.
The most amazing thing of all is that it nearly didn’t happen at all.
Big Brother and the Holding Company, one of the new breed of San Francisco bands being featured at the festival, had actually performed once already at the fest, the day before, on June 17. Their new manager, Albert Grossman, had only met most of the group for the first time at the festival and had refused to grant the filmmakers the right to film the band’s set. When the audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive, he was convinced to have the group perform the following day as well—the only act to play two sets at Monterey.
This time the cameras were rolling. Joplin’s segment is one of the highlights of the Monterey Pop doc, an essential rock film that—keep in mind—also features for-the-ages performances by The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar and Otis Redding.
Related: Albert Grossman dies, 1986
From the opening moment—a blast of the twin psychedelic guitars of James Gurley and Sam Andrew, heard but not seen—we know this is going to be electrifying. The first face we see is the smiling countenance of drummer Dave Getz, followed by a closeup of bassist Peter Albin’s hands and then his face. The guitarists materialize, Gurley’s searing solo burning a hole in the listener’s cranium and then, finally, at nearly a minute into the jam, we see her.
“Sitting down by my window, just lookin’ out at the rain,” she croons softly, with just a hint of fragility. We have a side view of her face, more hair than features, the microphone practically attached to her lips. The camera pulls back and we get a bit of a blissful smile as she repeats the opening phrase. She’s dressed in an apricot-colored mini-tunic and matching bell bottoms and in less than a minute she’s got us hooked for life.
Janis Joplin is pure exhilaration throughout, and Mama Cass’ expression tells a truth: there had never been a frontwoman as fiery, as fearless, vulnerable but unstoppable. At the conclusion of the performance, after the chaotic denouement, as Janis sprints offstage bearing an expression of pure childlike glee at her reception, we see Cass’ face again. We can’t hear her, but we can see what she is saying: “Wow!”
Steeped in the blues, but knowing she’s something different than her own idols, Janis Joplin was an exposed nerve at Monterey, living every nanosecond of that lyric in every moment. She won’t stay with Big Brother very long. She won’t stay on this Earth very long. She was as much a shooting star as she was a superstar. And everything that she had to give this planet was laid out on that Monterey stage.
Watch the video…