David Getz: EARTh Beat n’ Roll
David Getz was born and raised in Brooklyn N.Y. As a child he showed an exceptional talent in both music and art. His first passions, starting somewhere in early adolescence, were drawing and copying comic book art and studying Native American culture, particularly the tribes of the Great Plains. Through high school and college Dave played in dozens of jazz and dance bands; in the summers he played at the ‘borscht belt’ resorts in upstate NY. During this time Dave was asked to tour Europe with a traditional jazz sextet Rick Lundy and the Saints. After graduating he won a scholarship to the Skowhegan Art school in Maine where he met someone from San Francisco who sold him on the idea of coming out to California and finishing his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute. At the time (1960) SFAI was the center of contemporary painting on the west coast with a faculty comprised of artists like Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bishoff, Gregory Bateson and Clifford Still.
Photo by Roger Minkow
Dave received his M.F.A degree from the San Francisco Art Institute and shortly after was the recipient of a Fullbright fellowship in painting from the U.S. government. He spent the next year living in Krakow, Poland, painting, exhibiting his work and also playing drums with some of finest jazz musicians in Europe. Upon his return to San Francisco he was offered and accepted a position on the faculty of the Art Institute as an instructor of painting. In 1965 and 1966 Dave was very much a member of the S.F art scene, one of his paintings was accepted into the SF Museum of Modern Arts annual shows. He was painting, showing his work and teaching; it appeared he was well on his way to a successful career in the world of modern art, but then life took an unexpected turn. In the winter of 1965-66 in a café downstairs from his loft while taking a break from painting, Dave met Peter Albin. Dave told Peter that he played the drums and had heard of the group that Peter played with, Big Brother and the Holding Co. One month later Dave became the new drummer for the group. Three months later Janis Joplin joined the band and, as the expression goes, ‘the rest is history’.
At the end of 1968 when Janis left Big Brother and the band broke up Dave became a member of Country Joe and the Fish, touring Europe twice and recording two albums , (Here I Go Again, Paris Sessions) with different ‘Country Joe’ bands. During this time, from 1969 to 1974 Dave lived in Marin County CA and played drums with a number of other great bands: The Nuboogaloo Express (members of the Sons of Champlain), Pendergrass (with Kathi Mcdonald and Ronnie Montrose), Banana and the Bunch (the Youngbloods) as well as the re-born Big Brother. Big Brother’s post-Janis reunion only lasted two years but in that time between 1970 and 1972 the band produced two albums for Columbia Records “Be A Brother” and the masterpiece “How Hard It Is”: possibly the best recorded example of Dave’s creativity as a drummer and songwriter. In 1975 Dave moved to Los Angeles where he met his wife, singer and actress, Joan Payne.
Interview by Michael Limnios – Transcription by Efthimia Kofotzouli
What do you most miss nowadays from the feeling and the music of the past?
That’s a long question probably, but I don’t listen to too much pop music. I just don’t find it meaningful for myself. But I listen to a lot of music, a lot of different kinds of music. I ‘m not living in the past, so I don’t listen to a lot of 60s music either though once in a while I’ll put on a Beatles LP. I just listen to whatever I want to listen to…You know, I think probably one of the things about the music of the 60s or the 70s, the generation that I came up, at least for me as a person, with my own background, it was definitely more accessible to understand the meaning of what the lyrics were about.. It’ not that I like simple lyrics, I like lyrics that are poetic, I like the Shins who are a contemporary band but is has to be in some way accessible to me and a lot of pop music now, when I do see some of the lyrics written out, I don’t find them that meaningful. I find that most of the lyrics now are written about what I think of as more trivial things.
You know, just relationships basically, just relationships between people, love stories, lust stories, relationships gone bad or whatever. Not that love is trivial, in some ways it is everything. But I find that the subject matter and the content of music-earlier music- at least in rock and roll music was more accessible and more about different subjects. Different ideas were presented, different kind of poetic ideas, different ideas about the world. “Turn, Turn” by the Byrds would be a good example. So that’s one of the things I miss. Also I just find a lot of pop music now very technical, very studio based. It doesn’t seem-to me at least- to have a kind of roots that I understand, kind of more accessible to me, blues roots for example, folk roots, jazz roots, thing like that…I don’t find that so much. I find most of the music I hear, pop music, hip hop music, that it seems like a lot of it based in sort of studio techniques and very simple kind of musical ideas. There is a lot of rhythm, a lot of rhythm going on, which I like and I think that’s interesting but…It is a complicated question this one. Music is such a big thing and I listen to so many different kinds of music, I don’t have any limitations, like I said before, I am not such a guy who just goes back and listens to the music of the 60s. I am not that at all.
I listen to classical music, jazz. I listen to African music, I listen to ethnic music, sometimes even opera. I listen a lot, sometimes it’s just what’s playing at the moment…right now, nowadays, I’ve been listening to a lot of modern music, because it’s become interesting to me but these things change all the time.
You have received your M.F.A. degree from the San Francisco Art Institute. What are the lines that connect the arts, from music to visual art, poetry and beyond?
Well, a lot of it has to do with my own looking, at my own visual art, in my own musical art, what interests me now as a musician. Rhythm is probably a big connecting factor. I have a natural feeling for rhythm, even without consciously pursuing it and it seems to show up in all of my work, so I think that carrys over to a lot of my visual art. I’m not doing too much art these days but I tend to go back and forth with it in my life. A few years ago I was just doing art again and right now I’m not, so I kind of see it like a back and forth thing; not something that’s always happening. When I do get into my visual art these days I just can’t seem to do anything unless it is just something for myself and I suspect on some level it’s probably not a great approach. I do believe that art has to communicate in some way; I hope that could happen but the way my life has evolved now when I find myself wanting to make something, the incentive to make it is just for me to want to make it. There is no other reason. I don’t have any galleries showing my work and I’m not motivated anymore to try to go out and put my stuff out there and try to sell it , put it online and photograph it, all the steps that it takes to communicate and be successful as an artist. I’ve lost all of my desire for that and it’s probably a function of my age. When I do art, it is just for myself, for something that I want to see: it isn’t there yet and I have to make it in order for it to be there.
I do not know if it’s exactly the same process with music but there is something similar. Music is something that just comes out. I feel that with drumming and also with song writing. You hear something in your head and just try to play it and make it happen. So that’s what it’s like for me; it’s a game that has been happening for years…I play the piano and I write on the piano. And in terms of my musical interests it is again something that comes out, it’s not even a desire! I just hear a thing sometimes and I just have to play it, make it manifest, compose something out of what’s going on in my head. My whole life has been split between the two things and I noticed over the years that when I look at my art and look at the music I’ve done there is definitely a lot of connections both in how they come about and what they are about, but other than that I am not quite sure of the answer to that question…
Photo by Alan Dep
Too much experience in your life, too much experience of the music industry… What have you learnt about yourself from your experience?
That’s another of those philosophic and intellectual questions that one can ponder for a long time…Here is probably what I would say to this question: I am not a religious person, I do not subscribe to any religion like Judaism or Christianity, I do not consider myself a Buddhist though maybe that’s the closest thing to what I believe. I think of myself as a spiritual person and I think of my art and my music as my spiritual connection to whatever it is in the universe, in life; that life force and rhythm is definitely something I have explored in that way. When I play the drums or when I am practicing I feel it is a way for me to connect to some kind of life force, an energy. I really feel that. Music for me has been the connection to something that it is inside myself and also outside myself and something that I believe is everywhere, permeates things. And the more one can connect to that the better. You will be saner, healthier, and more conscious. I feel that’s a great thing, a positive thing. The more you are connected to these things through whatever it is that connects you to them it gives you life meaning. Does that answer your question? Probably not. What I’ve learned about myself from my experience in the Music industry is that I’m a survivor, that I’ve been lucky, that not everyone who has great talent makes it and that some part of me is like a zietgiest weather vane.
Some musical questions now. Really what is the story behind the name of the band “Big Brother and the Holding Company“?
It was named before I was in the band. I heard the band early on, when it was just starting and it already had the name “Big Brother and the Holding Company“. So I have to tell you the story as a person who heard it secondhand. I wasn’t there in the moment but I know from talking to Peter and Sam; they told me that basically they had a whole bunch of names They made a list of different things and some of the things that were on the list was “Big Brother” from the novel, the G. Orwell’s book “1984” that was very popular then and also the “Holding Company” which was a reference to corporate business. A Holding Company is something like a company that owns other companies, like SONY for example, who have many other companies, different companies, or Standard Oil, that owns a hundred of other companies, or Google which has also aquired many other companies. So then it’s a ‘holding company’. It also had the drug reference, because at that time “holding” was a sort of a euphemism for having pot, you know, having some drugs, but particularly grass, marijuana. “Are you holding’? that was an expression that was used sometimes, its’ not used anymore but it was kind of popular in the 60s or in the early 60s, so somehow they just combined those two and they said “Wow! The Big Brother and the Holding Company“.
And in the beginning the “Big Brother” part was not any particular person in the band, though some people thought that the ‘Big Brother’ was Chet Helms. Chet was an entrepreneur, who was running the dances of the Family Dog and the Avalon Ball Room and he was also the manager of the band “Big Brother and the Holding Company” and he had been totally instrumental in forming the band and getting it started. He was also the person who brought Janis to the band. He wasn’t a musician in the band but he was very much a part of it and in the beginning I think a lot of people thought that Big Brother was Chet and the Holding Company was the band. Later on we fired Chet but it was still Big Brother and the Holding Company and of course Janis being a woman couldn’t be Big Brother, so it was just a name and by that time that’s how we were known.
What are the connections between the legacies of American music from jazz to blues, psychedelic, classical rock and the rest?
Yeah, there are so many connections but I think the question answers itself, what you just said. When the 60s came along, I mean the original rock and roll was probably very early rock and roll. It was influenced a little bit by jazz and a little bit by Rhythm and Blues. Those were the main influences. In Rhythm and Blues you had Louis Jordan, but some of the early rock and roll, Louis Prima, rockabilly, Elvis, things like that. The Rhythm and Blues was very influenced by blues and some way it was blues that was made more popular, like when you had Baker. In the early 50’s when rock and roll had its first names, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, people like that, it was mostly blues based music that was a little bit influenced by country but mostly blues and it was influenced by technology, like electrifying the blues, of taking that and making it more modern. What happened in the 60s when rock and roll came along and The Stones and the bands in San Francisco and all of that, those guys -a lot of them- were like playing jazz. I was playing traditional jazz, Janis was playing jug band music and she was playing traditional jazz, she was singing with some traditional jazz bands, like the ones we call Dixieland bands, stuff like that, the New Orleans’s stuff. She was singing a lot like spiritual stuff, she was listening to Odetta and people like that. So those influences started to come in, there was blues, there was country, there was folk music and there was jazz. As it got more sophisticated and the Beatles got more sophisticated you started to get these other influences coming, like electronic music and you had things like “White Album” and “Revolution No. 9“. You are already getting into stuff like John Cage and modern composers and electronic music. Those influences started to come in, becoming more and more eclectics as time was going by. Going back to your first question, you asked me about what I miss, that’s probably right in the heart of it, that the music of the 60s got more and more eclectic, more and more influences coming in and it seems now like really narrowing down and it’s not open to a lot of different things… In the 60s and into the 70s you had all kind of things happening. Just today I read in the news that Walter Becker from Steely Dan died. Steely Dan was an example of really modern jazz ideas being brought into rock music and really they are not a jazz group and they kept saying that ” we are rock and roll” but their influences extended to some really interesting harmonies, things that had not been at rock and roll at the beginning. So all these stuff the guys in the 60s, we were listening to all kinds of music, we were listening to Bulgarian women choirs, incredible stuff, India music, all kinds of things and we were trying to bring them into the area of rock and roll, absorb it into rock and roll. And that is missing now, it has become very narrow, stylistically…
Photo: Big Brother & The Holding Co. with Nick Gravenites
You were born in New York. How important was the Beat Generation in your life?
I think that was what probably brought a lot of us to the West Coast. I was probably 17 maybe and I started to become aware of Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gary Snyder. I read On the Road and I read The Dharma Bums and I was painting then, I was going to Art School and there was a movement in San Francisco called West Coast Figurative School, people like Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and David Park and that also something that was happening on the West Coast, it was all connected to the San Francisco Arts Culture of the time.. It was a very exciting thing for me and I think it had a lot of influence, although I think the overall vision of the world really changed when people started to take LSD, it really changed the vision of the Beat counterculture to a different kind of counterculture, which was more colorful, more hopeful and in some ways more spiritually adventurous. For a while, anyway there was this belief that we were going to change the world and bring about a change in consciousness, more like a universal kind of consciousness, beyond nationalism and those kind of geographical and historical limitations. The Beat’s world view was more existential, it was darker and more cynical, though they were the first to discover Zen and Eastern Mysticism. I don’t want to pigeonhole these things but the Beat culture was the counterculture of San Francisco when I arrived. I came to San Francisco in 1960, I got in a car and I was literally on the road. I wanted to do that, I drove like a madman; I took a lot of pills, I drove nonstop from N. York to San Francisco, like 70 hours, 3.000 miles. I wanted to go to the Art School, I wanted to be part of the underground counterculture of San Francisco. The early 60s in San Francisco was pretty much influenced by that. It changed around 1964-1965. There was the Free Speech Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti War movement and LSD and the music that came out of all of it. Those things were the most important things that happened around that time and they really changed the look, the style and the whole tone of the counterculture, which seemed for a few years to become more hopeful, more idealistic, more utopian.
Which is the best advice anyone ever gave you and what advice would you give to the new generation?
I don’t give advice!
Well…this is advice also!
I would not give advice, although I have a daughter, I have sometimes to think about it. I would say the only advice I can give to people who want to do music or art is that you have to really want to do it because there is no guarantee of anything and In some way there’s no practical reason..It can be very hard to make a living and to survive as an artist in the world, so you have to really want to do it or have some inner need to do it. You need to do it in order to feel whole, in order to feel healthy and alive as a person. If you don’t have to do it, it’s ok, it’s really ok. Just live your life and enjoy things and do things, try to find what it is that you love. That’s probably the best advice I could give to someone, try as much as possible to do what you love and if you can make a living out of it, great! You are really fortunate, you are in the 1%. I’ve been very lucky in my life in that way. Most of the time-not all, but most of the last 50 years I’ve been able to make a living doing music. I survive from my music even if there have been moments when I had to go out and take jobs, other jobs that I didn’t love, but if I had to that it’s ok, it’s part of my experience in this life and if you can look at it in a certain way, it all can be used in your growth as a human being, which is important too.
It’s important to keep growing, keep learning for as long as you can. Try not to shut down your own mind and think “now I’ve got it”. You can continue learning until you are very old and if you do so, if you keep your mind growing, your body somehow lives, you are going to live longer and better I would say. That’s my only advice. Other than that try to live by the Golden Rule; live as part of humanity, part of the earth, part of the spirit of all life.
Which are your hopes or fears about the future music?
I don’t have any hopes or fears about the future music. In fact, I feel somewhat hopeful. I see good things happening with young musicians. Music is such a universal thing and there are always geniuses being produced. It is just part of the nature of human civilization. Every generation will produce musical geniuses at a very early age. Usually we call them “prodigies” and it’s been happening since before Mozart . Even now in jazz there is a kid named Joy Alexander who is maybe14 years old and can play the piano like Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and any Jazz master, he’s was that level already at 12. That’s musical intellegence; it happens in science and math and also in sports. Musical intelligence is like a separate kind of intelligence and it comes with every human generation and every part of the world produces these musical geniuses and they find ways to express music in new and exciting ways.
I think pop music is kind of boring; that’s just my opinion, but I think music will always produce geniuses. They will find ways to express music. Last night I was watching a program on television, there was a vocal group called “Roomful of Teeth” and they were just incredible. And then there was something about the guy who plays the drums in the band Wilco, -his name is Gelnn Kotche- he is a brilliant drummer, he is doing all kinds of experimental percussion things. Not many people know about it but he is incredibly creative. So there is a whole new generation that’s always going to be creative. It may not be popular to a huge audience but exciting things are always going to happen. I worry sometimes when I see all these kids on their cell phones all the time that they are losing touch and they are not looking at the world; you can say that’s a problem but I think there is going to be people to find ways out of that.
I think the millennium generation has great potential. I have a daughter who is 30. Dezi Paige She is an incredible song writer. Her lyrics are brilliant and meaningful. her understanding of things, of what’s going on, is way beyond what I could see when I was 30 years old. I know she is just one of many in her generation; I know there are more out there and I think it’s going to be ok.
Photo: Big Brother & Holding Co. with Janis Joplin
I know that as a kid you made comic books and of course later [you had the idea of giving the] cover album to Robert Crumb. Tell me a few things about your contact with the comic culture.
I was the person who suggested that he would be asked to do the cover, because I had a friend at that time, a guy who was a doctor actually, and he was a friend of mine, he was going out with a girlfriend of a person I knew, a girl that I knew. This guy was going out with her and I knew he could come from Cleveland with Crumb, they knew each other. All of the people I knew we loved his cartoons, they were appearing in the underground newspapers in San Francisco in early 60s, maybe the spring of 1968 but even in 1967 I think his first cartoons and pictures started to appear, so we were all fans of his, but I knew him, I knew a guy who was his friend and I said who don’t we try to call him and Janis said “I want to be the one to call him. So I got his number from that friend of mine, Shelly Rosen and I gave it to Janis and Janis called him and we got him to do the cover. What happened after that is a long story; I am going to write about the making of Cheap Thrills but one of the things that happened with the cover was that after it was done, there was a different front cover and what became the front was originally the back. One of the panels on the back was a guy with a turban on and that was supposed to be for the first track on side two of the album. A piece called Hurry that I had written, but Clive Davis who was the President of Columbia didn’t want to start the second side of the record with that song, so he insisted that we remove it, which was a big mistake but we caved in and we let him remove it, so then the art department at Columbia had to do something with that particular box. They put his, Crumb’s name in there and it says “art by R. Crumb” and he, Robert was outraged by that and he said he will never do another album cover again because no one had ever changed his artwork or done anything without him doing it himself. They altered his work without even asking. There is another important part to this story. The artwork itself later disappeared. Crumb didn’t want it back and it was left in the art offices at CBS. After Janis died we called Columbia to see of we could get it back but it was stolen from their Art Department; this was in the early 70s, Then, about ten years later it appeared in an auction at Sotheby’s in New York. It was sold. Then again in another auction after another ten years. The second time it was sold for a lot of money and now the original artwork is in the offices of the CEO of Nike, who’ s name is Nick Parker. What he proudly owns and displays in his office is a piece of stolen art. Most people don’t know about that, they don’t recognize it. The only people who know its stolen are the people in the Big Brother and the Holding Company and Robert Crumb who lives in the Southern France.
You speak a lot about your daughter. Really what is happiness to you?
Oh… the happiest thing when one gets older really becomes family, you know. See your children, grandchildren, things like that. It’s corny to say but it’s true. As one gets older and you get into the last years of your life, I don’t find total satisfaction in just playing music but I still love to do it and feel I have something to say. I played two nights ago, with my own quartet outdoors near where I live, it is called the Marin Country Mart and they have a free jazz concert series on Friday night and I’ve done that about three times with my own jazz quartet. I really enjoy that and I really enjoy playing with the Big Brother too. We just came back in August from an East Coast tour, we played in a few different theatres. I love playing music and I love passing on what I know as a musician as a teacher. I like teaching but not always. I did a lot of teaching in the last four years, but I felt I had to stop for a while. I was working with a school and sometimes I enjoyed being able to pass on what I knew to young people but it can also be frustrating; probably one out of twenty people that you teach really get it or really care about it. I decided I was not going to teach for a while. I have to love the things I do. I am lucky I’ve been able to make a living and make money from things that I love to do.. My daughter in Los Angeles sent me a song that she just recorded, I think its incredible, I listen to it and makes me very happy. I would love her to be famous and make a lot of money but just even knowing that she is that creative and that she created something I consider to be real art makes me happy. Makes me know that in some way my work as a father had some reverberation…She has a song in an animated movie called ” Ballerina” . I think it played in Greece…It’s kind of ‘pop’ and she doesn’t think it that great because it’s more pop and not as deep as the other stuff she writes, but it makes me happy to see my children succeed on some level…My older daughter is 48 and my grandson is 24 and he is an artist, an illustrator. He and a group of artists just put out a ‘zine’ called “Cake House’ and he is another artist and his mom my older daughter is also a very unique singer and songwriter. I like that my genetic makeup has something in it that keeps producing creative individuals It has meaning for me and there’s a certain satisfaction though I also realize that in some way it has nothing to do with me and what I have to do in my own work.
Of course, you’ve met many great personalities, musicians and persons like your wife Joan Payne, Janis Joplin, Nick Gravenites, Peter Albin, Country Joe, Banana, and others. Which acquaintances and meetings have been the most important experiences for you?
God, I just can’t say one… I think almost everyone I’ve known or you’ve mentioned are like a teacher. If I try to sit down and say what did I learn from that person, it is not something specific, I haven’t written it down to find it, but everybody in your life that’s important is kind of a teacher and there have been so many for me, so many…and I do not know if any person is most important. I mean, certainly Janis. I think of her like one of my teachers. I do not know what the lesson was but i learnt a lot of different things from her. A lot of my teachers have been women, it’s a funny thing. When I look at my life, the people that have influenced me the most have been really great women. One of them that comes to mind was Jay DeFeo. She was a painter, she is still a well known painter in the United states. she died in 1990, she was only 60 years old but when I first came to San Francisco in the early 60s I lived next door to her and this other guy, in fact she was married to him, who was also an artist, Wally Hedrick, and during the time we lived next door to each other she was a big influence as a person. I didn’t even think of it then but I think of her all the time now just as one of the essential artists of my life. A person who dedicated, committed herself to that idea of doing something really great. She did a painting called The Rose. You can Google it, her name is Jay De Feo. If you look at the Rose, she spent I think about 12 or 13 years on this painting and she would work on it all day long, all the time, it was like her life, she committed her life to it but at the same time, when she was not painting, she was the most fun, incredible, great person to be around. She was the first person I knew who played the Beatles, way before “Rubber Soul”, way before the Beatles were considered like artists. She loved the Beatles in the beginning, the early Beatles and in her studio all day long she would play at the Beatles, early Beatles, 1963-64, “Meet the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” up to that point. And she was great. She understood life in a way and that was important. She was a very alive person. Anyway, she was one person. I lived with another woman for a long time who was a writer, a very brilliant person called Susan Lydon, we wrote a lot together, we did a lot of things together and I learnt a lot from her, so there’ve been probably more women than men.
I could mention Nick Gravenites, somebody I don’t see much anymore, I don’t see him much anymore, but at the certain time we hung out together, he would come over to my house in the early 70s and there was something about him and his way of seeing life that I understood, that taught me something. Maybe was a certain kind of thing, like realism and cynicism. He wasn’t like a hippie at all, he was like a guy who understood the logic of the streets and had to survive. Everybody has something to teach and I’ve been lucky in my life in that, I’ve been exposed to and befriended and come across with some people that have been really amazing people. Bruce Langhorne, who just died recently in another person that I learned so much from at a certain time just being around him, working with him in the studio. James Gurley in the early days of Big Brother was another one who’s way of seeing things was a big influence for awhile.
Photo: David Getz & Joan Payne
The puzzle of your life…I see. Well, let us take a trip with a time machine. Where would you go with a time machine and why?
I would want to go into the future I think. I don’t want to go into the past. You know, it’ s funny, like someone asks a black person, an African American “where would you go”…None of them would like to go to the past and it is the same for me. I do not think there is too much before like the 1900 or even before, 1800. I wouldn’t go somewhere I would be subject to possible imprisonment, torture, all kind of tragedies that Jewish people were subject to and we forget now. I mean right up until the WW II would I want to be a Jew in Europe where my family came from? Fuck no! So there is not much in the past that attracts me. Maybe the Renaissance in Italy or the 1600s in Holland. but the future it’s like “WOW…what’s going to happen”?What’s going to happen for example when they find an alternate source of energy to oil and fusil fuels? What impact is that going to have? What’s going to happen when they discover anti-gravity? What’s going to happen when people can travel into space? Back in time? or to other places, other alternate universes? Who knows? We have no idea. It’s like you sort of look at what life was in the Middle Ages and people then try to imagine someone driving a car in a freeway or a jet plane, an airplane…No one could possible imagine in the Middle Ages what living in a future society would be. They couldn’t possible imagine life would be so completely different. Life then was filled with war and pain and torture and hatred and all kind of superstition, things that we don’t even think about now though the last century certainly had it’s share of horror. I believe that right now we are living in a great time of transition. Even in the last 20 years we’ve experienced the age of digital technology and how that changed the world completely. So, what’s going to be a 100 years from now, that’s what interests me more than going back to the past. Of the past I can read, I can imagine all these, I can look at the paintings, I can look all the great art that was done. For me it is better to think of the past than actually being there, because the “be there” was not so much fun for most people, especially, jews, Africans, and people who hated war. The past is filled with a lot of bad things that we forget about. Life was short.
You saw the 60s, you saw the Summer of Love, you saw Flower of Power era… What was the impact of your generation on a racial, political and socio-cultural level?
I think it’s huge, the impact is huge. The post war generation I think it was the big transition from a whole different way of thinking, post nuclear…there have been wars but I think in some ways there is a lot less violence in the world, even now. I know a lot of people don’t think that, but I think there is. People when I was growing up still got into fights all the time, beat their children, husbands beat up their wives and it was still a lot of prejudice, black people couldn’t go to certain places, there was still a lot of anti-Semitism where I lived. I think a lot changed in our generation, there was definitely a raising of consciousness that has permeated things and even though people say the Summer of Love all crashed, it did, it crashed and after it a lot of terrible things happened. But all the seeds were planted. Seeds of greater equality in gender and race. In food a lot changed, what I was eating as a kid growing up, we ate frozen food, white bread that had no substance, it was crappy. Our generation started to discover natural food, growing on food, cooking in different ways, ethnic food, all these things that now are taken for granted over the world. All the great food that is now in the restaurants everywhere. The seed were planted in the 60s.
The whole idea of rock and roll and the way music changed and even though it’s missing a lot as we said before, innovations happened in recording. All these things started in the 60s with the Beatles and even before the Beatles, with some few other people. There are a lot of things that I think an impact. As we said, the Summer of Love all came crushing down but all the seeds were planted and all slowly grew and were absorbed into the society. Ideas that grew and are part of our culture now, in all kind of things. In fashion…A great example of that is the fact that when Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966, we went to Chicago, this is where we met Nick, We had long hair and people would follow us down the street yelling things like “fagots” or “are you a girl or a boy?” trying to start a fight and throwing stuff to us and now you have people who have long hair and earrings and beard and it’s so permeated in the culture that it means nothing anymore. Anybody can have like long hair, that doesn’t mean anything, because it’s been absorbed as an idea, so it doesn’t even have any social significance, political significance. You can be like a guy with a long hair and beard and tattoos and piercings in all of your body and be a fucking nazi! I mean we see that, I see examples of that all the time. So all of that, I am not saying it’s a good thing, I am just saying all of these fashion ideas, ideas that were radical fashion ideas, really radical, and were laugh at and ridiculed back in the 60s are all absorbed now in our culture and a lot of them are just taken for granted. Fashion, food, sound, music…On the other hand there are still a lot that hasn’t happen. That’s proved by the fact that America elected Donald Tramp as President and what that says. That the general consciousness of literally like 45% of the people who voted is still at a level that’s like they would rather have an authoritarian dictator than somebody, a democrat, they don’t understand democracy, they are not even ready for that. Their heads are still like in the Middle Ages…
One last question now, why do you think that Big Brother and the Holding Company continues to generate such a devoted following?
That’s a fair question, a good question and a question we think about all the time. I think part of it is that the music itself has a kind of like a universal quality, it’s kind of roots music in some way, though it’s not Americana.. It is closer to blues based and it’s definitely rocknroll but it has a universal appeal to it. And it’s entertaining music. Over time the music of Big Brother is still listened to, it is still played on radio and streaming but a tremendous amount on Youtube. One day I went on Youtube and I counted over 200 Big Brother and the Holding Company video and sound pieces. It’s kind of a bummer because we don’t get paid much for most of that and most people nowadays don’t buy records, they just listen to it for free on Youtube. But still, that says something about the efficacy and the timelessness of the music, that it still has people listening to it. The other thing about it as music-Peter and I who are still out there performing have discovered this- is that a lot of musicians, great guitar players and singers want to perform this music. They say that they love to play this music because it is a vehicle; it is very open music and it gives performers and particularly singers some kind of an arena in which they can perform and really display what they can do, their skills and their ideas . A lot of the singers that you see out here doing Janis try to imitate Janis. It’s seems ridiculous and pathetic most of the time. We always try to have singers who don’t try to do imitations of Janis or try to make their voices sound like hers, which is impossible anyway. We want singers who can sing the material but in some way put their own spin on it. The musicians that play with us like that idea. They enjoy playing with this band because it gives them this material to work with that is very open, allows them to do a lot of exploration and to express themselves and show off all of the things that they can do. Playing in another band may have more limitations to it. Big Brother’s material allows for improvisation and expression, personal expression. This idea attracts other musicians and keeps these great players wanting to be a part of Big Brother. But it also carrys over to the audience. When the audience comes to see us, they are not going to see a tribute band doing the songs on the records as they were, note for note; they are going to hear the music that they’ve heard and they still love but they will hear it new, like it’s fresh, like it’s still alive. Like it still has life as a musical vehicle, as a form of expression. I think that keeps the music entertaining for our audience.
We are not huge, playing in stadiums or giant amphitheaters; we go out and most of the times like when we play the East Coast we play in theatres for 3-500 people. And that’s great. It still allows us to do this and allows us to keep playing. And the people who come really get a great show, they get more than what they expected.
Photo: Dinosaurs – Peter Albin, David Getz, David LaFlamme, Jerry Miller and Barry Melton