“A Tremendous Ride”: Sam Andrew on Playing with Janis Joplin [Q&A 1998]

Sam Andrew of Big Brother & the Holding Company

Sam Andrew of Big Brother & the Holding Company (Photo: Courtesy of PBS)

In retrospect, Sam Andrews is the perfect example of a musician who made a name for himself in the heyday of the San Francisco psychedelic music scene. As one of the guitarists and main songwriters in Big Brother and the Holding Company and later, Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues Band, Andrews went from being a passionate amateur to playing with one of the most popular singers in the nation to being fired and addicted to drugs. But for all his ups and downs, Andrews never gave up playing music, playing with reincarnations of Big Brother until his death in 2015.

In this interview transcript conducted by Ben Manilla Productions in 1998, Andrews opens up about how inexperienced the group was when it started, the changes in the San Francisco scene and his troubles with drugs.

What was life like for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968?

It was a tremendous ride, it was a lot of fun, it was very beautiful, exciting time full of a lot of possibility actually if you zero in right on ’68. If you would have said ’65 to ’67 it would have been a little different that’s when everything was unknown and there was a feeling of tremendous possibility by 1968 the entire scene had become a little professional and a little specialized. Some of the holiness and innocence was lost but we all knew what we were about.

We learned how to tune our guitars, Janis had learned what it was to sing with a band and to really step out. The entire thing become more professional but lost a little innocence a little sense of possibility by 1968.

Say more about that sense of possibility, what does that mean to you? What did it feel like? What was the energy behind that?

It was incredibly exciting, it was one of those times that come along, there was one in the 1920s and there was one in San Francisco when Mark Twain and Bret Harte were here. At that time when you really feel like there is a real chance that your generation and your time is going to make the world a better place, just for a spit second, it seems like if we were going to continue that way that things were really going to change for the better and all of the problems were going to be magically solved, it looked like there was going to be tolerance of gays, it looked like the whole racial civil rights movements that had begun earlier later in the ’50s and earlier in ’60s was going to take off.

These problems were going to be solved in two three years. The women’s movement begun in the ’60s just as a lot of the environmental movement started, andthere was just a real sense of, “This is it, we’ve got it made.” We thought that probably by 1975 it would be all over with, everything solved, and then hard drugs hit the scene.

Where did that possibility come from, that it could well up in the whole community and whole scene? There’s a mystery to it do you have a sense of what that is?

As I say it came up in Christianity, it came up in Buddhism, it probably comes up every several generations and there is probably one due any minute now that I would like to see. More specifically than that the Beatnik era had just happened in the late ’50s and the early ’60s and everyone wore solid black and there were poems of eve of destruction and hell. It was a very down … It felt like the entire world was in black and white and the Hippies who were too young to know any better … Hippies was diminutive term that the Beats called us because we were hanging around with them but we were too young to be contributing to their scene.

It was derogatory terms for which begun as hipsters and hippies as a diminutive of that. We were hanging around watching that cynicism and desperate and it seemed to go nowhere, there was a lot of use of alcohol, a lot of drugs. Just to have that lifted of that generation passed and it was our turn. There was this riot of color, they were all many colors even on television, it’s a trivial thing but the peacock for CBS or whatever.

All over sudden there were all these colors and it’s tails weren’t there before. It seemed like the whole world all over sudden this color knob had been pushed and it started. Why that happened, I don’t maybe it was reaction to the Beats or the whole Eisenhower ’50s thing was over with. Who knows? I don’t know. Even going to the moon was part of that, there was just a sense of hope and to really pinpoint why it begun though it’s hard to say.

You talked about what happened in the ’65 to ’67 and then, then the professionalism of the music industry came up, and you’ve mentioned drugs what about that? What’s your sense of how that changed the scene and what did you see, what was your personal experience of what went on around you?

When that scene begun here in San Francisco and New York, Los Angeles probably to put it on a drug level for a second, probably most people were doing things like taking Peyote or LSD or smoking pot. They’re psychotropic drugs — they open the mind or they can make you spaced out. As a negative way of looking at it, they can distract you.

It really opens your mind and that had been happening for a while and people started using harder drugs, harder drugs came in to the community and like heroin and cocaine and those drugs close your mind. If there is something ugly you would … That’s a drug that would alleviate the pain of that, whereas something like Peyote or marijuana will open you up to that. You don’t want to be opening up if something like that’s around.

That was what happened to that scene, that started happening in 1968, it happened to me personally I was a junkie for years and took a long time to get from under that, I had a good time I enjoyed it, it was really a fun time. Janis and I did a lot of that together and it wasn’t a tragedy, we didn’t feel victimized by it, we enjoyed every second of it. It was certainly nice when it got over when we worked our way through that on a personal level and when the whole scene did to.

Which took probably until 1975 or something and she didn’t make it, it was a historical accident she didn’t commit suicide or anything. It’s just a none regulated thing, you don’t know what dosage you’re getting.

What else did you do with Janis when you guys hang out, when you’re on the road, when you’re touring and when you guys were just hanging out in San Francisco, what was it like? What was the day in the life like for you guys?

What everyone who comes in here is going to say about Janis is that they were best friends with her and I’m going to say that to because she was a wonderful person, she was really generous she had really quick reflexes, she was very intelligent, really bright and it’s hard to quantify but maybe an IQ of somewhere in the 160s. Very well read.

Janis was really colorful she had a great sense of humor she was really funny, she was funnier than Joan Rivers but sometimes in the same ways. A lot of her life was a party and a typical day with her would be walking up and down Haight street, dropping into every shop. We knew everybody.

She and I personally wrote a whole lot of music together. It was just fun. Many times it came effortlessly; for example, there is a song called “I Need a Man to Love” that she did that we just came out with. We had a tuning amp backstage and I plugged in to it and I started playing and that song just came out.

For most of it, it’s a very simple song — it’s only one chord. There is a bridge part that’s very complicated and even revolutionary for the time and it all just came out and she sang the words and there it was great. We did a lot of song writing together, on the night Otis Redding died we got together at her apartment on Lyon street and held a little wake for him, talked about how much we loved him, played his records and that kind of thing. There wasn’t a typical day, though a lot of days were just spent cruising Haight Street.

When you guys are on the road, did you drive each other crazy? Did you love each other? What did you eat when you’re on the road? Where did you party?

Big Brother and Holding Company and of course including Janis, is odd in that, a lot of bands when they are together a whole lot it makes them quarrel. But this band gets along the best when it’s on the road and together all the time. That was true with Janis. I don’t know why that would be and when it’s worse for this band when it’s apart from each other and people start entertaining these unreal notions about each other.

We got along the best when we were on the road which was good because very often we played two or three dates in one day and worked together a lot. Her entire career was maybe four, four and a half years and she was with us three and a half, it was a very concentrated and intense period.

You talked about how it was an experiential time, and the sense I get about the Janis experience is that the magic of her was her presence and how she brought all of her to a performance. Did you see that and what was it like?

She brought all of her to everything, anything that she did there was a whole lot and it was real quick and there was an expression an impression of velocity, even when she moved it was almost like a quiver she was vibrating, it was really fast. That what it felt, that was the feeling, that she was moving really quick. I was listening to an introduction she did to a tune the other night, “Catch me Daddy,” and she was singing it and moving through the changes so fast, it was like a bee wing.

Where did you guys live? Did you all live together?

We lived in various places around the Haight and she lived on Lyon Street, right on the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. We did that for a while and we all moved to Marin and lived in Lagunitas, a town in West Marin, which is hard to get to — you go over some hills and it’s over there in the woods. I lived in a little cabin out back with my girlfriend and they lived in the main house and we rehearsed eight hours a day.

That was another time, we were all together and it was really good, and we moved back in the city, communal living wasn’t the way to go for us.

You talked about living in the Haight. What was the scene like? What was San Francisco like as compared to the cities that you toured on the east coast?

New York and Los Angeles were always more professional just as they are today, it was more of a professional take. Going to New York especially the lower east side where we were that’s where we played our first day at the Anderson Theater and the film more. Those were all on the lower east side and there were a lot of Russians and Jews. It was snowing and this feeling like it was … All those colored Easter eggs and the coats they wore, that were woven in the spoken art. There was this impression of color and exoticism. There was very beautiful in New York and we stayed in the Chelsea hotel where Mark Twain had lived.

Everybody, Jean, O’Neal, everyone had gone through there at one time or another and that was very exciting and there was this sense of maybe we are adding a layer on this thing that all these people have created and Los Angeles was sunnier, they were all more professional, to tell you the truth they looked down on San Francisco at first, like we weren’t serious.

In hindsight, the San Francisco music scene transformed to what we knew as music in a lot of ways.

They transformed it and they followed it later but I think they though here’s the raw material these untutored people are coming up with and we’ll transmit this in to the gold of hit singles and so on and they did. To be fair that’s what happened a lot, and what does happen even today.

When I read the liner notes for the recording Live at Winterland, it said it was a homecoming?

Very much so it was every time we came back that time was … We’d played eight nights in a row without a break or something when that happened, it was always fun to come back and see these crazy friends that we had, some of them were really crazy and they would come out in a body, there was a group of people from Detroit and a group from Austin and a group from new York.

They would come out and little families and see us, that’s was always fun to get together with them. For Janis naturally seeing all Austin people was a treat.

At Winterland, what was it like when you walked in the door? What did it smell like, what did it look like?

It was like a cave. Bill Graham’s place was the Fillmore and that was hung with velvet hangings and you get the impression of being inside this jewel box. Winterland was modern. It was colder, the walls were flat and it was indeed like many of the places we’d play all over the world shortly after that.

You got this feeling of great spaces and it was the first big place that the San Francisco scene had moved in to, certainly.

How did that compare because you started out just like a jam band, just because of hanging out at Chet’s house?

Winterland was part of the thing where the whole scene became more professional. At first it was like the audience and the musicians were in it together. It seemed like anyone could come up and take the mic and sing or start playing the guitar and the band member would go sit in the audience they were the same people we all live next door to each other, we all knew each other and that was a very organic thing.

It became now it’s us and all the lights are on us and you guys are out there be quite, just watch this because we’re going to really lay it on you, here it is … This is the truth right now. That was lamentable in a way, there was a separation between a the performer in the audience.

There was a loss because it went from the communal experience to the …?

The stage is high, we are looking down on them and they’re down there looking up and it just changed it but it was okay everyone went a long with it was all right because it meant the bands got better, they had to better it was more interesting. It’s something you watch as opposed to something you’re participating in with this sort of electric current running through everyone in a big circle.

What was it like being in a band that was always tagged to Janis Joplin? Did it feel like you were in her shadow or was it a good thing for you?

We had a long time to adjust to that because at first she was in our shadow. She came from Austin, Texas and she was this Texas girl, she dressed the way mother dressed — very dowdy and not with it. That lasted for about six months and she grew and grew. It was a real incremental change we were used to it by the time that it happened and really her talent was so huge it was … You say shadow but it was more like being in the face of a title wave, it was just like blowing you over.

Her voice had tremendous range, she exhausted it and she distorted it but she had an incredible range the tragedy of her not living was that she could have gone on and made an album, with Jazz standards that would have totally amazing. What she did with “Little Girl Blue” was this really beautiful thing and “Summer Time” is where she started on that journey. She could have made a whole album of Jazz standards with us and a lot of people would have sat up and taken notice that, who to this day, probably didn’t realize how talented Janis was.

There was some resentment in the band but really not much from me because I was participating, we were writing songs together, I was just like, “I’m so privileged. This is really great I have this person to write songs for and she’s’ this great singer.” I was participating more and when we left big brother which I think was a mistake we both went together in to cosmic blues, I was right there with her it wasn’t so much over shadowed, you could look at it that way but I didn’t.

Did I hear regret for leaving the band?

Yeah it was a mistake just business-wise. She was insane to leave the band and I wish I had a little more power with her, I wish I could have talked the way feel … I know what it is today but even then I said, “Can you wait six month or a year? We’ve got a number one hit record and you’re going to have to start over again and train a band and come back up. Don’t you want to see how this is going to happen?”

There were parts of the band that didn’t want to add any horn and didn’t want any keyboards. It was a very conservative element in the band and that was hard to take at time. As I said we were playing two or three times a day but …

What do you think motivated her to leave? Wanting to grow musically?

Yeah that’s number one. She admired Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin and she wanted a band like they had. The second one is I don’t know how much of a child of the ’60s you were but she was a Capricorn and she kept her bank book balanced and money was important to her. Although I don’t think she could admit that to herself at the time — that was very uncool thing to admit.

If she went out on her own she would split the money one way and we were splitting it five in Big Brother. It just has to be faced as part of life. Those two things mainly. A lot of people come in here will tell you that it was Albert Grossman but I don’t think he had much to do with that. It came from Janis; it was a real thing.

She was pretty smart she could think for herself. It sounds like that you were witness to a transformation or to her coming in to her own in that brief period of time as you guys were developing this?

Yeah we saw here come in to her own very vividly we made a record with main streams records, that sound folk rock, it sounds like the Mamas and the Papas from the time, from then to the record we made called Cheap Thrills that’s when she was transformed as a person she became larger than. She started out with little freely blouses and the little cotton things and blue jeans, and these things that hung down at her wait.

She grew in to this person who was dressing like no one else did by the time, really well and originally. She just became larger than life, that was quite a transformation she knew where she was going it was real clear.

What do you think it was like being a woman in 1968 and what impact do you think that she’s had for women since then?

What I think it was like being a woman in 1968 is hard to say because I wasn’t one but I watched her real close and many other women. Men said, “Baby.” To women a lot in 1968, it’s hard to believe now, when you see an older movie, someone who’s perfectly intelligent person says to a woman says, “Come on baby lets go do.” You wince, “Did I say that then?” Yeah probably.

With Janis — because her music was accepted by a lot of people and because she was so strong, she didn’t have any choice. She wasn’t trying to be like this spokesman for this courageous cadre of women who were going to change things in the ’70s but that’s who she was. It wasn’t a political thing; she didn’t set out with this agenda of making things better for women. Indeed maybe in some ways she made it worse temporarily because she succumbed to drugs.

Why do you think she succumbed to drugs and what impact did it have on you when you guys lost her?

I did it. It’s probably a predisposition also it was what was happening historically. If she would have lived in the 80s and came of age, she wouldn’t have use heroin, she would have been in the gym, working on fitness or something, it’s that tragedy of being in the wrong decade. It was terrible when she died of course, there was a combination of thinking that she would, not being surprised because of what she was doing, what we were doing indeed.

Not believing anyone that we knew was going to die from that, she used to tell me, “This isn’t going to kill me, I come from pioneer stock, my genes are good, I’m strong, I’m a survivor.” That was all true and stuff but it would always make a chill go up my back because it’s like being two … It’s like challenging God if you will, or challenging reality. I just want to say, “Don’t say that, that’s … Come on now take it easy.”

What do you think is the legacy of Janis and of Big Brother?

The legacy of Janis it is more present today. The generation that followed us retrenched; they were frightened by the excesses of that era and they became certified public accountants and Republicans. That took a while for that to get over with. Now this generation is back and I’m afraid for them, sometimes I see them in the street and I can see what they’re doing. I want to go up and shake them and say, “Listen, there are chapters that follow this, take it easy don’t get to carried away on this particular chapter because there are many more to live and they all beautiful. Take it easy.”

Her legacy was … It had a lot to do with making women feel strong and happy and victimized and not led around because that’s one things that Janis was not was a victim ever, she was a strong person. Whatever it was that … Bad that had happened to her came out of her own character it wasn’t something that was put on her from the outside.

What do you think is the legacy of the band, of you guys?

We broke a lot of rules musically and played a lot of cords that shouldn’t follow each other they tell you in harmony one don’t put that chord after that chord and don’t use parallel fists and all of that and we did that because we didn’t know any better. It codified in to a new set of rules that people have to break today, that’s what it was we set up a lot of rules for people to break today.

What did you guys say and what do you still say to the … There was a faction there was a wrath that the band wasn’t tight enough and wasn’t professional enough, what do you say to that?

I say that’s absolutely right but what we had was a sense of directness and spirit and soul that you can’t buy because young people will always have that. Also I’ll say in time we learned in tune and do of that thing and this album represents us learning how to play these tunes more in tune. Perhaps more professionally. That you can go and train, you can go and get that part in school, you can’t have the other part and that’s what we … We had that in spades.

“A Tremendous Ride”: Sam Andrew on Playing with Janis Joplin [Q&A 1998] 3 May,2016Kevin L. Jones

  • Juanita Hernandez

    Why is there no editing of this article? It is borderline unreadable.


Kevin L. Jones

Kevin Jones reports on the Bay Area arts scene for KQED. He loves his wife and two kids, and music today makes him feel old.

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