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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Big Brother And The Holding Company - Be A Brother / How Hard It Is (1970-71 us, superb psych blues rock, 2008 acadia reissue)

By 1970 Big Brother had evolved a very distinct sound which is nonetheless a bit difficult to describe. James Gurtey had moved over to the bass and Peter and I were playing guitars, along with David Schallock who had come to the band from The Sons of Champlin, Mr. Schallock was a fine guitar player and a sterling human being, and it was a real pleasure to have him in the band. 

Thus, with James, a guitar player, on the bass and then three other guitar players, the sound was very much in the treble range. Dave was a good guitar player and he mellowed out all that high end by playing very melodically in thirds with us on most of the tunes. Dave Getz was playing very cleanly at this point and he was taking risks too, propelling the band and having the courage and energy to get off into some new areas. Of course, this is my interpretation of the Big Brother sound of 1970, What the audience heard was something else. 

Here are some adjectives they used to describe what we were doing: energetic, rambunctious, raucous, reckless, rowdy, rebellious, brash, confident, viscera! and aggressive. We had a cleaner sound, our technique was better, we were trying some things that we hadn't tried before, so it was a good direction for the band. The cover of the "Be A Brother" album is revealing. 

All primary colors and there is that madman, limned by Bob Seideman who did that Blind Faith album cover with the girl and the hood ornament, and the madman is giving us the peace sign and grinning inanely. This is anti-Art and beyond technique, or below technique. The background is a sort of insane map of California, "Be A Brother" was the first album we did after Janis. We had learned to tune the guitars by this time and what we played in tune was more developed. 

There were some complaints, even in the band, that we weren't sticking to our roots, and that we were being a little too adventurous in our songwriting/ composing, I think it is a real shame that we didn't continue on after "How Hard it Is, the next album, and do several more along just this same experimental tack. "Keep On" is the first song on the "Be A Brother album," which is fitting because the feeling in the band at the time was that we were going to persist no matter what. "Through the valley of tears, child," we were going to go on and improve and do something worthwhile. 

We wanted to work with Nick Gravenites because he wrote songs of real meaning. I also had had the good fortune to meet Kathi MacDonald a year or so earlier when I had been volunteered to be her birthday present one fine sunny afternoon. We wrote a song together and I was astonished at how talented she was. Kathi knew more songs than anyone ! had ever worked with, but it was her voice, that razor sharp instrument, that made me want to get her into Big Brother. 

Kathi and Nick were quite a combination. Nick was a burly man who looked like a Chicago truck driver as drawn by R, Crumb in Zap Comix and Kathi was so slender she hid behind the microphone stand. We had Mike Finnegan in the band too. He had played with The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood and he also had his own band. Mike is now one of the main keyboard players in the Los Angeles recording scene and he plays with all the big guns down there but I always thought his singing was the best. 

Let's see, we had other side people on this album. We had Richard Green from Seatrain who played some marvelous violin. We had Janis Joplin. As far as I know, we were the first rock band to use Tower of Power as a horn section and it was an education to see them planning out the head arrangements for the tunes. They came into the studio with no charts or written music of any kind, sat over in a corner talked for a while about who was going to take a third or a fifth and then played their parts beautifully. 

The tune "Home On The Strange" features Peter Albin playing a lovely melody that reminds me a bit of his work on "Cuckoo/Sweet Mary" in the early Big Brother days. The melody is "I Wonder As 1 Wander," an ancient tune that long predated the John Jacob Niles version of it from the 1930s. I like the feel of this tune. In some ways it reminds me of "All Is Loneliness, a Moondog tune that we did on our first album. James is doing some interesting basswork and David Schailock is making everything musical. "Someday" is another song of hope. 

Another song that looks forward and tries to describe a better future. Another song that begins with a pattern in the guitars, echoed in thirds, and reechoed in the bass. "Sunshine Baby" is one of those dreams of unachievement of interruption, one of those dreams where you just can't quite slip free of the bonds that are holding you to earth, where you just can't quite make it to the stage. 

There's a feeling of desperation there, of being at the end of one's tether. "I've searched away the night time, Sunshine, just trying to get back to you." In April of 1970 we played at The Filtmore in San Francisco and Janis came onstage to sing a couple of numbers with us. She and Nick did a tune that became "Ego Rock. We asked Janis if she would come and sing a bit on our new album...noth ing elaborate, just some backup vocals and she came and celebrated a bit with us. She did some funny vocal work on "Mr, Natural." That's her cackling voice you hear back in the mix. Janis was amazed when I brought "Mr. Natural" into the rehearsal room, our living room, at Lagunitas, because the tune was much more worked out than the usual Big Brother tune.

 I worked out the two guitar tracks for "Mr. Natural" at the Chelsea Hotel in New York on one of the new Sony tape recorders while Danny Rifkin was talking to me nonstop about the prospects for his band The Grateful Dead. I was thinking that the Dead were fortunate to have someone like Danny on their side, because he never stopped thinking about how to get them to the next step. I think he and Rock Scully had a lot more to do with the Dead's success than people realize. in May of 1970 we played at The Bermuda Palms in San Rafael, California, and Janis was there with The Full Tilt Boogie Band. 

This was a very chaotic affair. Janis had too much to drink and she began a rant on the microphone that sounded like a parody of her usual self. This is the first time I felt scared for her. She seemed flabby and tired and at the end of her rope. Earlier that afternoon, she had told me, "I'm not going to die. I come from good, strong pioneer stock. I'm a survivor." This statement sent a chill down my spine. It seemed as If she were tempting the gods, and her talking like that didn't seem like a good idea at all. In July of 1970, we played at The Sports Arena in San Diego on the same bill with The Electric Flag and Janis and The Full Tilt Boogie Band. That was a strange engagement. 

Janis was very keyed up and she was hanging onto James Gurley for dear life, We all flew home on the same plane and Michael Bloomfield regaled us with an incredible story of how he taped two balloons full of warm water to the bathroom mirror and masturbated to them. Well, maybe you had to be there. One thing about Michael, he never held back! I had the same eerie, unpleasant feeling watching Janis on the plane as I did at the San Rafael engagement with her. She was tense because we were all together and she was obviously indulging too much for her own good. Janis was so full of herself that you could tell she was nervous and insecure about something. 

There was no hope of calming her down, but we tried anyway. This "Be A Brother" album came out in October of 1970, quite a month. I wrote a tune about James Gurley one day. James is from Detroit and he has a Detroit soul, funky, threadbare and a bit country. That funkiness is a strange admixture in the psychedelic zenmaster guru that James also can be, and I was trying to get some of this complexity into the tune that I called "Funky Jim." I brought it into the studio one day and Nick Gravenites completely appropriated it because he liked the idea so much. Nick actually knew James before I did, and he must have thought he had a prior claim, Anyway, the song came out well. Tower of Power added some horn parts, someone changed the spelling to "Funkie Jim" and we had another tune. 

Merle Haggard, who has a face to match his name, and who has a deep grained country soul, wrote a song called "Okie From Muskogee" that was intended to celebrate the downhome virtues and the American cleanliness of that city. Conservative elements on the American political scene fastened onto this song as a sort of anthem which became a kind of "Ballad of the Green Berets" for the home front. Ah, if we could only get back to Muskogee, all would be peace and light again. 

The problem was that in reality Muskogee, Oklahoma, not only had hippies down by the courthouse, it had a lot of them. In fact, people from Oklahoma, such as Mike Finnegan who was playing with us at the time told us that Muskogee was the center for countercultural activity at the time. Nick wrote 'Til Change Your Flat Tire, Merle," as a kind of riposte to the specious patriotism that Okie From Muskogee represented. Big Brother played in London recently and as I was coming off stage someone handed me a CD that had a hiphop/rave version of "I'll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle" on it, so the song lives on as a bow to the opposition. 

I have a tape of Big Brother playing most of the tunes on this album at the Terrace Ballroom in Salt Lake City June 1970 and it's good to hear that we actually did the parts live on stage with Nick, Kathi and Mike Finnegan. I say "actually did the parts" because often with the recording process there are vocal and instrumental overdubs that are impossible to play live. I was not sure if we could do the songs the way we recorded them, but we did do them that way in Salt Lake, Be a brother. Be a sister, Be the one who tries harder, to get it together, Thank you for listening.
by Sam Andrew, May 2002

1971 How Hard It Is
1. How Hard It Is (S. Andrew, D. Getz) - 4:21
2. You've Been Talkin' Bout Me, Baby (R. Rhrera, W. Hirsch, G. Garnet) - 3:25
3. House On Fire (D. Getz, L Rappaport) - 3:55
4. Black Widow Spider (S. Andrew) - 3:32
5. Last Band On Side One (S. Andrew, Roscoe) - 1:56
6. Nu Boogaloo Jam (S. Andrew, D. Nudelman) - 3:23
7. Maui (S. Andrew, Roscoe) - 3:25
8. Shine On (P. Albin, S, Andrew, D. Getz) - 5:24
9. Buried Alive In The Blues (N. Gravenites) - 3:57
10.Promise Her Anything But Give Her Arpeggio (D.Shallock) - 3:55
1970 Be A Brother
11. Keep On (S. Andrew, P. Albin, D. Getz, J. Gurley, D. Shallock) - 4:19
12. Joseph's Coat (N. Gravenites, J. Clpollina) - 3:08
13. Home On The Strange (Arranged/Adapted by P. Albin, S. Andrew) - 2:12
14. Someday (S. Andrew) - 2:15
15. Heartache People (N. Gravenites) - 6:34
16. Sunshine Baby (S.Andrew, P. Albin, D. Getz, J. Gurley, D. Shallock) - 3:28
17. Mr. Natural (S. Andrew) - 3:31
18. Funkie Jim (S. Andrew, P. Albin, D. Getz, J. Gurley) - 3:45
19. I'll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle (N. Gravenites) - 3:11
20. Be A Brother (N. Gravenites) - 3:03

Big Brother and the Holding Company
*Nick Gravenites - Lead Vocals
*Kathi Mcdonald - Lead Vocals (Tracks 1-10)
*Sam Andrew - Guitar, Vocals
*James Gurley - Guitar
*Dave Schallock - Guitar
*Peter Albin - Bass
*Dave Getz - Drums
*Mike Finnegan - Vocals, Keyboards (Tracks 1-10)

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  1. I have 'How Hard It Is' album, but this edition is new to me. Thank you, Marios.

  2. I was familiar with Be A brother, which is very good. Looking forward to hearing How Hard It Is.Nick Gravenities was a great singer! Thanks for this post.