The Complete 1978 Sam Andrew and James Gurley Interview, 1

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    In its earliest incarnation, Big Brother and the Holding Company specialized in emotionally charged, anything-goes instrumentals. After Janis Joplin joined the band, they hit their commercial peak with 1968’s Cheap Thrills album. Janis went solo later that year, but Big Brother continued to make albums and tour until 1972.

    My interview with Sam Andrew and James Gurley took place on September 30, 1978, in San Rafael, California. Both guitarists had come to town to participate in Big Brother and the Holding Company’s first reunion since disbanding. Earlier that day, I’d done a solo interview with James Gurley, which he occasionally references in our conversation. [Here’s the link to that interview: http://jasobrecht.com/big-brother-holding-company-1978-james-gurley-interview/.]

    The day after this interview, Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring vocalist Kathi McDonald performed at the Tribal Stomp concert at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California, where they shared the bill with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Country Joe and The Fish, and other bands from the 1960s and early 1970s. It would be another nine years before they’d perform together again.

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    When you started playing together, how did you work out parts?

    Sam Andrew: Spontaneously.

    James Gurley: Yeah. Our first method would be to just play the thing any way we could. We’d have a general idea of what we wanted to do, and we’d try it each man for himself. Just figure out what you want to do and jam it all together. We’d see what we had, and then we’d sort of take it apart and see what didn’t fit. Throw that out. Isn’t that the way it worked, Sam, or am I making this up?

    Sam: [Laughs.] No. We played just like we’re doing now – through the changes.

    James: The main thing was to approach it from a feeling standpoint, an emotional standpoint of what we were trying to do, and not get too involved with the nuts and bolts right at first. Get sort of an idea of what is there, and then you can shape it. Clean it up after you get a general mold of what’s there. Bring it in to focus by leaving one chord out or putting another chord in, or whatever it was that was needed to make the song flow along.

    What was the difference when Janis came into the band? How did it change the inner-workings?

    Sam: Naturally it became more organized around vocals, whereas before we were really trying to do more instrumentals.

    James: We did a mostly instrumental thing. And we started doing more organized songs. We used to get up and just jam on anything – you know, total spontaneous kind of stuff.

    Sam: Even though Peter would sing, it was more with Janis’ vocals – because she was so powerful – that the breaks had to be more organized. Like James said, before it was more, “There’s two breaks and a verse long,” and we’d decide who’d take the first one or the second one.

    Why is there such a wide difference between the Mainstream and Cheap Thrills albums?

    James: Because she had just joined the band when Mainstream was made. We hadn’t been with her more than about two months. When she first joined, we went to Chicago to play Mother Blues right away. She’d been in the band about a month.

    Sam: Wide difference from what point of view? Because there are two answers. One is production – obviously Columbia is miles away from Mainstream.

    The presentation too. The material itself became a lot heavier all of a sudden.

    James: Oh, yeah. It wasn’t all of a sudden. Cheap Thrills was a year later from Mainstream. Mainstream was actually recorded about ’66.

    Sam: And then there was the time spent. I think we did Mainstream overnight – literally.

    James: Yeah. It was on a four-track.

    Sam: Columbia was over a period of six months.

    James: Yeah. But we were traveling too, on the road, so we had to do it wherever we could get studio time.

    Was there a lot of overdubbing on Cheap Thrills?

    James: Yeah, a lot of overdubbing, and we used studios in New York and L.A.

    Sam: But mostly it was live, even though there would be overdubbing. But still we would have to choose songs on the road that we could play, say, 20 nights. Some of them wouldn’t be good, and other ones would be recorded.

    Did either of you play more lead than the other, or was it pretty evenly divided?

    James: Well, it was. I don’t know what it would be now.

    Sam: We might have been like 60-40, with James being the 60, something like that.

    James: But it was always pretty close.

    Sam: And Peter did some lead too.

    James: Yeah. Peter plays guitar.

    Did Peter play the acoustic guitar on “Turtle Blues”?

    James: Yeah, that’s Peter playing that. That was my mahogany Martin, the one that got stolen and thrown out the window and got the neck broke.

    Were you living together in the Haight?

    James: No, but we were all very close to each other, just a few blocks apart. Janis was living on Lyon. I lived in Clayton, you lived on Fell.

    It’s estimated that there were 1500 bands in the San Francisco Bay Area at that time. When did you first realize that Big Brother was starting to happen?

    James: I think Monterey Pop was the breaking point.

    What were your impressions of Monterey?

    James: To tell the truth, Jimi Hendrix, man. I’m still . . .

    Sam: Doing acid like chewing gum. But that’s trivial.

    In our interview a couple of months ago, Country Joe mentioned that he was over-psychedelicizing. He said he was trying to be like the Grateful Dead, but he was doing much more acid than they ever did.

    Sam: He has a funny attitude about that whole period. I’ve read a few interviews with him. I felt that subsequently he put himself on the outside, but then he seemed really in it. He’s made many comments like that. He felt like they were over in Berkeley kind of being a string band while all this crazy stuff was going on in San Francisco, so they over-compensated or something. But at the time, it didn’t feel like that. That first single was beautiful.

    James: The Country Joe single. [Here they are referring to Country Joe and The Fish’s “Bass Strings”/“Section 43,” the San Francisco Bay Area’s first commercially released psychedelic music.]

    How did you get on the program in Monterey?

    James: I forget. I think they contacted all the bands.

    Was this before the album?

    James: We had Mainstream, but Mainstream hadn’t been released. It had been recorded, and we got to the point where we couldn’t work with them. And then Monterey broke, and we totally wanted out of our contract. And they said, “Well, we’re gonna go and release those tapes we do have.” Because we said, “These tapes are no good. We want to do them over again and do them right,” because they were just made overnight.

    Sam: We met [manager] Albert Grossman at the same time as Monterey, and that’s when we made the break. There was some kind of clause in the contract that if we’re not making so much money a year, this is broken. It was so much more than we’d thought of.

    Grossman signed you, right?

    Sam: Uh-huh. At that time.

    James: It was not at Monterey, but that’s where we first made contact.

    Sam: It was a couple of weeks before, but it feels like we almost signed the contract backstage at Monterey.

    How did the first initial rush of success strike you?

    Sam: It was wonderful, naturally. It was something we loved to do and had been doing for years.

    James: And looking forward to. And then it was happening, so it was a thrill of a lifetime, the whole experience.

    Sam: The thing you love to do, and being paid a lot of money for it.

    How’d you find being on the road?

    James: That was hard. It’s hard being on the road.

    When did you reach your highest point as a band? What was your best moment in terms of the music or overall experience?

    James: ’68.

    Sam: Yeah, for a time.

    James: I think after Janis announced to us that she was gonna split. [Sam laughs.] I think that really reduced the tensions a lot. There was a lot of tensions between her and us, because she wanted to go more soul and have more horns.

    Sam: We’d come back East, and people were filling her with back-East stuff.

    James: Back-East stuff. They wanted to make her Barbra Streisand or something.

    Sam: Right. Exactly.

    She was starting to become influenced by them?

    James: Yeah, yeah.

    Did she think you were the wrong backup band?

    James: Right, right. That’s the trouble: It was a backup band. See, we were not a backup band. We were a band before she joined the band, we were a band after she left the band, and would still be a band if we wanted to.

    Sam: I think really objectively – and I have to say I love Janis a lot, obviously, and we were all really great friends – but I think we did some of our best stuff, that sounds the best to me listening to it right now, either before or after. What I can remember before and what I can hear on the records after. It’s funny it worked out that way. But I have to agree that once she’d announced that she was leaving the band, it was a release.

    James: We were relieved, and I think we played a lot better for the last six months we were together there. Well, it wasn’t that long – it was maybe three months. It was in the summertime. We were in New York, in August of ’68, I think it was, when she said she wanted to split and was gonna stay with it for a few more months. I think we played up until about November of ’68. So between that time, those three or four months there, was real nice because the tension was off, and we played really well, I thought.

    Sam: How come you haven’t asked us what picks or strings we use?

    James: [Laughs.]

    I’m gonna. This is more important.

    Sam: It is.

    James: Speaking of contracts, which we mentioned just a second ago, I think the magazine [Guitar Player] ought to have a column or series of articles on contracts. “The Musical Law School” is one title I thought of.

    Sam: I don’t mean to be jive, because it’s nowhere near as good as yours, but have you seen the magazine Songwriter? They have good stuff on contracts in there, real good for songwriters. They even have a monthly running column. But Guitar Player was always like the musical magazine.

    James: Yeah, right. But that’s one area I think you’ve overlooked so far. So many of these kids are growing up, and you read the ads – get this guitar and you’re gonna become a big star. Everybody’s hoping it’s true and all, but what they don’t realize is it ain’t how much you make, it’s how much you get to keep! And they got ways – listen, this has happened to us, see? – of making you think that you’re making a lot of money, and you are, but you ain’t getting any of it because they got you signing away here, signing away there. And there are so many tricks in the book.

    Do you feel you got burned?

    James: Yes! In one word, yes.

    Sam: In some deep ways, too.

    James: By the managers – the people who managed us – by the lawyers that we were paying to do our business.

    Sam: We had some real cuties along the way.

    Did you see a lot of money from Cheap Thrills?

    James: Not to what we could have.

    Sam: Not what you would think.

    James: Not what you would think. You would think that we’d all be rich, but we’re not. Barely middle class – in those days, lower middle class.

    In those days, people didn’t make as much money.

    James: Right.

    Sam: True, but that same thing is still going on. That will always be there. If there’s a guy who loved to play music, right away you’ve got him at a disadvantage because he wants to do what he’s been paid for.

    What can you do to avoid it?

    James: Know what some of the tricks are. Education.

    Sam: Run that column in your magazine.

    James: Yeah. “Musical Law School.” Until you’ve been burned and gone through all these things, you don’t know. We didn’t know. They serve you all these papers that got so much all this legalize in it that you can’t figure out. And you go, “Well, I’m paying these guys to work for me – I’ll just trust their judgment.” That’s one thing they gotta learn: You can’t trust ’em.

    At the very least, you should have your own attorney and not use the company’s lawyers.

    James: Right.

    Sam: Oh, that definitely! But even our own stuck it to us worse . . .

    James: Our own lawyer, we feel, was working in collusion with Columbia Records. The lawyer for the band. If you read our contract and said, “Who wrote this for whose benefit?” you would say, “Columbia Records wrote this for their own benefit.” It’s obvious in every paragraph. Recording costs was one thing – we had to pay all recording costs, plus all production costs. Plus we had to pay for the records to be pressed, the labels to be printed, the photographer to shoot the picture. Out of the royalties!

    Sam: Advance and royalties.

    James: So that’s $100,000-$200,000 right there. So they’ve got a free business, right? We pay for everything – they pay for nothing. We have to pay for it all, we give them the tape – we don’t even own it – and they go out and sell it and just reap all the profits.

    Sam: That’s standard business.

    That album made a lot of money.

    James: Yeah! It was gold. It was #1 for six weeks when it first came out.

    Sam: The thing is, even besides that . . .

    James: You can’t even hardly trust the guys you got working for you. You’ve got to watch them like a hawk. You can’t assume that just because you’re paying them to do the job for you that he’s actually going to be doing it for you. He’s gonna be doing it for himself. You need to have lawyers to watch your lawyers.

    Sam: The lawyer we had, and it probably happens a lot, was in collusion with the people he was supposed to be litigating against, whether it be record companies or the manager. The manager’s lawyer was out lawyer, so . . .

    James: He’s representing everybody in the pie. He represented Columbia in a lot of things. The whole thing was just . . . And we paid him to do it! At $100 an hour, we paid him to give us the shaft.

    What did you have to do with the live material that was released? The two songs with Big Brother that came out on the two-record Janis Joplin album?

    Sam: Greatest Hits or whatever it was?

    James: Not much. All we had to do was say yeah.

    Sam: Because it was already done. That’s dredging in the basement after someone’s died, like with Jimi Hendrix.

    James: I bought five Jimi Hendrix albums that were early stuff.

    Sam: Horrible stuff. Alan Douglas . . .

    James: Alan Douglas, right. Horrible stuff.

    Sam: And that’s what happened here with that. Those are things we had shelved. We knew all about them and we’d done them, some of them for Cheap Thrills.

    Are there other unreleased Big Brother tracks out there?

    James: Oh, yeah.

    Sam: There could be. In fact, I’m sure – and I’ve never talked to these guys about it – that a couple of these songs on Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits were stuff that . . . I’d taken a tape down one day to a record exec here in San Francisco, and it had a lot of those songs on it that came out later. It was a good tape, like a studio tape. I left it there at the office and came back the next day, and it had been “lost” or something. And a couple of those were on the album. Those things all come under the heading of “burned,” in so many ways.

    James: Yeah, burned again, burned again, burned again.

    In retrospect, was the experience of being in the band more positive than negative? Did the good outweigh the bad?

    Sam: Yeah.

    James: For sure.

    What do you think is the place of Big Brother in music?

    Sam: Right now? Or at the time?

    Both.

    Sam: It was a seminal thing for all of those bands at that point in San Francisco. As to Big Brother in particular, I don’t know.

    James: It’s hard to assess. Collectively, the whole thing was a movement, if you will.

    Would you go so far as to say that period produced a Renaissance of the arts?

    Sam: To put it a little differently, it was like a cycle that will come around again and again in human history. A lot of people have talked about Hegel and things coming in cycles. It was the height of a particular cycle. If that can be called a Renaissance, yeah.

    James: More like a Renaissance of spirit. A spirit of goodwill, of good vibes, if you will [laughs].

    Sam: And it was realized too. People were conscious of it. It wasn’t like we were just living good. Everyone felt that people could relax and admit things and express things that they couldn’t have a few years before.

    What were you trying to convey to your audience? Because people changed very fast during that period, and you were helping to lead that change.

    James: Yeah.

    Sam: But at the same time – and I don’t know if it’s comprehensible – but I felt like I was one of the audience who had gotten up onstage. I felt like I was expressing them as much as me. I felt like the whole thing was completely together, that it was really that separate. It wasn’t like relating to an audience – in other words, that those were the record buyers out there. It was more like, “We’re all in this together and we’re really doing something that the world needs.”

    James: A mutual purpose.

    Was there really a “Summer of Love”?

    James: Oh, yeah! There was. Yeah. It was real.

    Sam: With all hindsight possible and analytical faculties, it really was.

    Do you feel like you still have the spirit?

    James: Yeah. Yeah. It’s been modified a bit.

    Sam: Which is necessary.

    James: Subsequently, the world has changed a lot since then.

    Sam: There were excesses of the period.

    James: Yeah. There were a lot of excesses. We did a lot of things then that we wouldn’t do now.

    Sam: We were slammed down by ’em, but still there’s a main thing that was there that was good and is good right now. It’d be nice to see it happen again, with knowledge of those excesses and with the ability to avoid that and maybe make a better time.

    A lot of critics are now calling Janis Joplin the best female white blues singer.

    Sam Andrew: Mm hmm. Yeah, yeah.

    James Gurley: In retrospect, I feel too much importance was given to Janis. It also was like the back-East mentality of the record companies and executives there who want you to be slick and commercial, you know.

    Sam: They can only think in terms of things that have happened.

    James: That have happened. They can’t think of what’s going to happen or making something happen. We’re talking about creation. As much as she made us as a band, we made her as a singer. She had to sing the way that she did in order to sing with us. She had to sing that way.

    Sam: As she said many times.

    James: She just didn’t have any choice. If she was gonna sing with us, she had to sing that way. We didn’t say, “You have to sing like this,” but we said, “This is the way we’re gonna play. How are you gonna sing?” And she went, “Whoa! Okay. Here’s this. [imitates Janis] Whaaaa!” It went on from there.

    What was Janis’ role with the other members?

    Sam: She always said, “I’m one of the boys.” One of the big statements that stands out was “At last I get to be one of the boys.” I was true too – not to be chauvinistic about it, but she was one of the people or something. She was a first among equals.

    Is that in fact what she was?

    James: Oh, yeah! We had a very close relationship. I think success probably spoiled the relationship. I’m sure of it.

    Sam: That phrase “the greatest white blues singer alive” – I found it very hard to relate to, even though maybe thought processes would say it was so. It’s hard to explain, but that’s one of those superlatives that’s always kind of . . .

    James: I did say that at one time.

    Sam: Who’s the greatest white blues guitar player alive – Bloomfield or whatever? But I’d never think of them that way. You what I mean? I mean, I love his playing – it’s not that.

    Are you too close to it, or do you think it’s just not the right term for it?

    Sam: I don’t think it’s the right term for it. First of all, how many classic 12-bar blues did she actually do? There weren’t that many. She was definitely of the psychedelic age – it wasn’t a blues age in the first place. Who were other white blues singer, though? It’s not really like there’s a school of it. There was Sophie Tucker, and I’m not sure I’ve even heard her that much. Who’s from now – is there a female white blues singer around? There aren’t many. She was definitely one of the greatest white female singers, period.

    Did you watch her develop once she joined Big Brother?

    Sam: Yeah, but that’s kind of misleading. Yeah, I watched her develop, but she could always sing. She was an excellent singer.

    Did Janis have that power all along?

    Sam: No. It was like she switched a channel that brought that out. It was latent – from the first minute it was there.

    James: She had a lot of power.

    Sam:  See, the volume at that time – you have to remember it in context. You see these surfer movies or old TV serials where there’s a rock and roll band in the background. And if you remember how quiet it was, the guitars almost sound like rubber bands. The volume increase [during the psychedelic era] was incredible at that time. You probably remember some of the early concerts – you could go out and hear the riffs ringing in your ears for hours. So the volume increase was incredible, but the minute she heard that, she had it. It was there. But I saw her develop, and Otis Redding too – it seemed like both of them before they died were just right around the corner from a whole change of style, a whole new thing. More substance, maybe. The same with Jimi Hendrix too. He was going through heavy changes before he died. He got into wearing all black and just standing in one place because he didn’t want to be a clown anymore. To me, he had a wrong perception of what that role was. He did a beautiful thing, and he was into clothing and all that. But I can understand from his point of view: “I don’t want to be psychedelic anymore.” He’d been talking to some people who were jazz players and said, “Get hip. You’re black. Play black music.” But that quieting down thing is something they all went through, like Otis just before he died with “Dock of the Bay.” It was a real quiet song on acoustic guitar. The whole opposite.

    Was Janis heading for that?

    Sam: I think so. I think it was in the whole culture.

    James: “Mercedes Benz.” Yeah, I think she would have got back to her country blues kind of thing. Eventually she would have recorded some, like her early stuff.

    Sam: Or even softer things like ballads and that, but really done well with that ’60s knowledge in back of it, those insights. That’s why I was sad all three of them had to go, because I felt they were just getting ready to make a real good change.

    How about Jim Morrison?

    Sam: You’ll have to answer that. I could never relate to him. I realize he’s great and people who I admire and feel were intellectual and intelligent at the time really admired him, but it just didn’t get to me. I couldn’t get it.

    What did you think when you saw Jimi Hendrix at Monterey?

    James: [With awe] Oh, I was blown away. Just totally blown away. I was just . . . Oh, my brains were dribbling out my ears. I kid you not, man. I was right in the front row – we were in the performers’ section, right up close, and I was just [shakes head].

    Had you expected anything like it?

    James: No. I had no expectations of anything like that.

    Sam: Yeah, even with hearing the record. I’d heard Are You Experienced about a week before. But still, seeing him in person, the level of musicianship was taking place on a whole other level.

    James: Yeah. The whole sheer flamboyance.

    Sam: We were used to “This is a C chord and this is a G7 chord, and after that you play an E7.” It was a whole other level of playing. He was playing those things, if you wanted to think about it that way, but the level that it was on was almost like poetic compared to a conversation about music, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t like a sequence of events. It’s really hard to express about Jimi Hendrix, what he was.

    James: It was almost like a flow from the subconscious mind.

    Sam: Yeah, yeah. Totally apart from the chords or “We stop here. This is the way the song is arranged.” But still it was doing those things.

    James: But those things were somehow secondary to the flow. He used to come in – remember that time in New York when he played that club there with B.B. King?

    Sam: Yeah, Generations. Right after Martin Luther King.

    James: Yeah. The same week we were there with B.B. King, and Martin Luther King got shot. B.B. King really played his set to him, just really played beautifully. B.B. King played so beautifully and delicately that night for Martin Luther King. He was fantastic. But anyways, Hendrix came in every night that week and jammed. They stayed open all night. After the regular scheduled acts were over, they stayed open all night for jam sessions. And Hendrix came in every night, and he played everything under the sun! He played all the Beatles stuff, he played Bach, Beethoven – on the electric guitar. And not only that, he could play the guitar right-handed and left-handed. Either handed!

    You saw him do this?

    James: Yeah! Upside-down.

    Sam: That’s a fact.

    James: He played his guitar [points to Sam].

    Did he flip it over to play it?

    James: Either way!

    Sam: He would flip it over. He could play it both ways, or restrung so it’d be right for a left-hander.

    James: Right. He could play right-handed guitar left-handed, left-handed guitar right handed, right-handed guitar right handed, and left-handed guitar left handed.

    Sam: And it wasn’t like he was compromising because it’s a harder position. It was all the same level of musicianship.

    James: Yeah. I could not tell any difference when I was listening to him play – we sat there all night for a whole week, every night, with him playing. And he played all night long.

    With B.B.?

    James: Well, B.B. maybe sat in – I don’t remember. It was just like a jam session. People would get up, some people would sit down, and then another guy would get up and play.

    Sam: Real good local guys.

    James: Local New Yorkers. You know, New York guys who were really hot. Remember that one bass player who had a white Nehru jacket on? He was really hot. That guy – I can’t remember his name or who he was, but he was really good. Jimi played all the Beatles stuff, all the Stones stuff.  It just seemed to go on and on and on, without ever stopping! And he was very good at directing things, when he felt like a change or something, getting everybody tuned to another thing without breaking the flow. He could go through all these different changes. Play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Three Blind Mice.” I mean, it was just incredible! It just came pouring out, a constant flow, a stream of consciousness of music. It was almost everything that you ever heard in your life. It was amazing.

    How well did you know Jimi Hendrix as an individual?

    James: Not that well. We played a lot of gigs together. 

    What was he like as a person?

    Sam: If you’re asking if there’s any difference between the stage image and the way he lived, no. He was definitely in what he was doing all the time.

    James: Yeah.

    Sam: It wasn’t like a gimmick or whatever you want to call it. It wasn’t a mask that he put on to perform. He was always there.

    The same with Janis?

    Sam: Yeah, definitely. That’s the case.

    James: Yeah, yeah. They both totally lived their identity in what they were.

    Sam: To put it another way, they were that before they were paid for it or before it was capitalized on. I guess everyone knows all about Hendrix’s history, that he had done a lot in New York, just hanging, bumming out in the Village. I knew a lot of people who knew him at that point. He was doing the same things.

    James: He was very sweet and rather more shy and unassuming than you would suppose someone of that flamboyance to be. I mean, offstage you would talk to him, and he was a very gentle cat. Just the sweetest guy. He babysat one of my kids while I went onstage at Winterland one time. There was nobody around, and he said, “Okay, I’ll stay back here and take care of the kid,” just like that.

    Sam: It was there in his music too. On his face when he played, there would be expressions of the most incredible sweetness.

    James: And compassion. He’d sit back there and take care of my kid – you know, what a guy.

    Sam: Another thing in conjunction with that was when he got a movie camera. Remember that?

    James: Oh, right, right.

    Sam: The way he’d take pictures with that movie camera was the way he played guitar. Even with his body and everything.

    James: Yeah, he’d be moving around with that thing.

    Sam: It wasn’t put on – it was just the way he would take pictures with a movie camera.

    James: He was real spontaneous.

    Sam: He was moving all over the room.

    James: Always moving.

    Sam: It would be something to have a film of him filming.

    James: Yeah.

    He was pretty close to Janis for a while, wasn’t he?

    Sam: Mm hmm. We were traveling a lot together.

    James: Yeah. We were traveling and saw each other a lot. We played quite a bit on the same bill.

    Did either of you play Woodstock?

    James: No. Janis did.

    Sam: I didn’t either. That’s when she switched to Full Tilt, so that wasn’t even Kozmic Blues Band. She was already in the last stage.

    Some of the songs of Janis with Big Brother on that live album are dated 1970.

    Sam: Which live record?

    James: The two-record set.

    Sam: Oh, yeah! That’s because she came back to Winterland – no, what’s that one on Market Street?

    James: The Carousel.

    Sam: We’d come back and kind of had a half-way reunion. Nick Gravenites was there.

    James: Yeah, yeah. The Who or one of those English bands couldn’t get into the country at the last minute because of legal passport difficulties. Janis had come in off the road with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, and Sam was in town. We were all just around, and Bill Graham needed a band, so he called us up. We rehearsed that afternoon, went down and played that night.

    How different was Janis?

    James: She was pretty loose.

    This was close to the end for her.

    James: Yeah, it was just a month or two before she died.

    Did you have any indication it was coming?

    Sam: Her death? No more so than anyone else who was doing all the same stuff at the time. It could have been anyone.

    James: Anyone who was doing all those kinds of things.

    Sam: And all that stuff about suicide is. . .

    James: Just baloney.

    Sam: Pure baloney.

    Think so?

    James: Oh, yeah!

    Sam: I know so. I mean, as much as you can know something like that. She was pretty settled at that time, and this guy had proposed marriage to her and all that stuff.

    James: It was an accident.

    Sam: She’s not the kind of person. I mean, there’s no way. It’s not in the style.

    James: Yeah.

    Sam: But in a larger sense, Ralph J. Gleason had written and article about her, making the point that she was murdered by the whole rock scene.

    James: Right. By the pressures and the nature of the game.

    Sam: You could say it that way; that’s about it. It was definitely no “I’m gonna do myself in” number or anything like that.

    James: She sought relief. She was under a lot of strain.

    What happened to Big Brother after Janis?

    James: Sam went with Kozmic Blues.

    Sam: I was there maybe a year.

    Did you play the slide on “One Good Man” on the Kozmic Blues band album?

    Sam: I kind of doubt it. I’m not sure which tune you even mean. Bloomfield worked on one of those anonymously, which I’ll never understand. He didn’t put his name on the album. There’s one that’s obvious Bloomfield, and this might be the one.

    This one is really heavy.

    Sam: No, that was the Steppenwolf guy, one of the guitar players. [Sam is probably referring here to another song, as the guitarist on “One Good Man” is very likely Mike Bloomfield.]

    What did you play on I Got Them Old Kozmic Blues Again?

    Sam: All the rest of the tunes. There was that one that you’re talking about, and then there was the other one that Bloomfield played on. And then I played on all the rest. We were the band, and for one reason or another they had different players, like sax players, come in.

    Then did you go back to Big Brother?

    Sam: Right. Yeah, I came back and started playing again. Got Kathi [McDonald] – talk about one of the greatest white singers alive!  That’s my vote, by far. That’s nothing – that doesn’t mean anything beyond itself. That’s just the way I feel. She has a discipline or something that I think all of us lack. Kathi has a musical memory and – although she would laugh at it – a knowledge of scales. Complete musical knowledge of what’s going on, whereas all of us were more orgiastic.

    James: Yeah. We were learning a song of hers yesterday that has a lot of changes in it, and she’s just leading the whole thing: “Short verse, short verse! [Claps hands.] Long verse, long verse!” Just putting all these things in it, conducting us.

    Sam: It’s an exact thing.

    James: She really knows her business, and she’s good.

    Sam: Not to turn the conversation that way or anything, but it is more like we’re Dionysus and she’s Apollo – that whole duality. Knowing technique or just wow! Maybe it’s a time difference – she’s a little later. I’m not sure.

    James: I hate to make a comparison like that.

    Sam: Yeah, as a matter of fact, it’s not really a comparison.

    James: No, it’s not.

    How did you take to fame when it came to you?

    James: I think it went totally to our heads.

    Sam: In what sense?

    James: Oh, that we became irresponsible in our personal conduct, shall we say.

    Sam: For me, it would be hard to do that because I was already there.

    James: In other words, we drank too much, we used way too many drugs. You know, out too late, partying too much. Too many chicks running around. Which is all great fun – I mean, it was a blast at the time.

    Did your musicianship suffer?

    James: Oh, it certainly did! It certainly did. Yeah.

    Sam: I think at that time – “look down upon” might be too string of a phrase – but one of the whole points about that age is that education and all that kind of went out the window. Studying technique wasn’t favored.

    James: No.

    Sam: Guitar players didn’t talk to each other about “How do you practice?” “Oh, I start out and do scales the first hour, and the next hour I do ear training, and the next hour I study a little theory.” That would have been absolutely forbidden.

    James: Yeah, yeah. It would have been.

    Sam: I could be putting that a little strongly – I hope you don’t take it the wrong way – because it was positive. It wasn’t a negative thing. It was just over-balancing on the other side of whatever technique is. The expression and all that.

    James: In other words, we tried to escape the confines of techniques, because you can become so conditioned that you want to try to break through your conditioning. But the point ]was to break through the conditioning.

    Sam: People would practice. It wasn’t a thing like . . .

    James: It wasn’t like we didn’t practice, but it wasn’t from an intellectual kind of approach.

    Was it more about harnessing energy?

    James: It was more energy, more feeling. “How does it feel?” “It feels good – let’s do it.” “Okay, here we go.”

    Sam: That was a button at the time: “If it feels good, do it.”

    James: So we did it.

    Sam: Except it’s hard to talk about all this without sounding impossibly trite.

    James: Maybe. It sounds like flower-child talk on some levels. But so be it.

    ###

    The interview continues here: Big Brother and the Holding Company: The 1978 Sam Andrew-James Gurley Interview, Part 2

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    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

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      2 comments on “The Complete 1978 Sam Andrew and James Gurley Interview, 1

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