If you’re going to San Francisco

Poster from the Fillmore circa 1966

On Sunday we were invited to the Geary Theatre in downtown San Francisco to see A Night With Janis Joplin.  Had it been any other play we probably would have said no. You see, over a million people were expected to descend on downtown San Francisco on that same day for one of the largest Pride Parades in the world.  If you’ve ever been to downtown SF you know it’s a densely populated area, particularly down Market Street (the parade route).  An extra million people during the middle of the day would definitely impact our ability to get to the theater, even on mass transit. But Janis Joplin is San Francisco. And so we went.

We arose from the bowels of the Powell Street station into the heart of the parade which we were unable to see but heard. It was so disorienting to be in the churn of revelers that I had to pause and check the iPhone to get our bearings.  But finally we shuffled through the glitter, the rainbow balloons and the confetti and made to our destination.

The “play” got off to a raucous start with the actress playing Joplin belting out Piece of My Heart with such ferocity that I began to wonder how the poor gal was going to make it through the next 90 minutes without doing irreparable damage her throat.  But luckily the playwright had a plan.  “Joplin” pauses every now and then to tell her audience about her life and each of the jazz and blues legends who inspired her, then summons their ghosts to take over the stage while she rests her vocal chords. Later she  returns to demonstrate how she took their songs and interpreted them for the rock genre. One of the songs was Summertime from Porgy and Bess.

Here’s Joplin’s interpretation:

Another was Odetta’s Down on Me, an old Spiritual or Freedom Song:

For this song, Joplin actually changed the lyrics, deleting the Bible references.

Our friends were split as to which versions they preferred but I loved them all.  Books can inspire movies, plays and even other books but in the end they always belong to the writer, whereas a song always belongs to the heart of a singer.

Do you have favorite interpretations of songs that veer wildly from first renditions? If so, I’d love to hear about them.  It’s kind of an obsession of mine.

34 thoughts on “If you’re going to San Francisco

  1. Hope you had fun in the City. I worked in City Hall many years ago and returned to local govt after working in the private sector to work in a bldg known as City Hall Annex off of Market St. behind the bldg that Twitter resides at (they so much money on that lease that the new landlord kicked us out). Moved into a bldg across from UN Plaza n had front row window seats at the 4th floor along the parade routes but I decided to retire over 4 yrs ago after 5 months in my big new office.

  2. Kudos for braving the throng. It was obviously very much worth the effort.

    As for favorite interpretations of songs that veer wildly from first renditions: mine doesn’t fit the pop music genre, but I will share anyway.

    It’s a classical piece and leaves me weak in the knees: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. on GUITAR by Kazuhito Yamashita. Exquisite transcription – just about impossible to imagine, but he pulls it off and the finale? Oh yeah, raptures. Man!

  3. I’m thinking a lot about your last question, stretching it further than you asked, thinking about preferences, and how heavily dependent I am on dialogue. I prefer books, then plays, then movies. Music is a completely different thing to me, but I’m probably more often into lyrics than the tune itself, and that says a lot, cause music is hours of my day.
    Initially I thought of how I often hate remakes of songs, especially when taken into another genre. Like when country gals remade a Janis Joplin song, or that terrible cover of Joni Mitchell that tortured me in the drugstore. But then, rarely, I’ll like the spin of a remake — new You Don’t Own Me is good… I can say from that same album, no one has any business remaking Bohemian Rhapsody, I don’t care who they are, or how much I like their other songs.
    I think I’ll chew on this question for a while. Throw it into discussion.

  4. You’re so brave – I briefly thought about going and the Gay Pride parade, but my fear of crowds squelched that. (I went 30 yrs ago when it was fun, enlightening and you could still stand on the curb and wave.) Thank you for finding all the photos and music to go with this great post.
    This is the 50th anniversary of the parade AND the Summer of Love in SF.
    https://www.facebook.com/CindaCrabbeMackinnon

  5. I really enjoy both versions of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” I used to use it in the creative writing class I taught to drive home how the words can be the same, but the tone in which they are said/sung/interpreted completely different.

  6. Oh Jan, I so enjoyed this Blues fest. I am a huge JJ fan, have even found the place where she lived in SF (122 Lyon St.). But what a crazy scene on Pride Day to go through for this show. I’ve been to over a dozen pride parades in SF, even marched in the parade twice, and it is always so much craziness — lots of love, freedom, tolerance, pride, and joy. But you’re right, Janis Joplin was once part of that, and she still is. Thanks for the crackin’ music. I of course loved all the renditions of JJ, and also found Odetta’s voice deep and rich.

    • Powell and Market is not the place to try to see any parade. We couldn’t see a thing! I’m just happy we hopped a BART before the end of the festivities.

      My older sister was a huge Odetta fan. We used to listen to her all the time while we were studying. Her voice brings back a lot of memories. The play brought home to me how Janis was more than just a rock singer – she helped bring attention to the several jazz and blues greats.

      • Whenever I listen to JJ’s songs, like in this post, I am so moved by the raw emotion she released. She emptied out her soul. I liked hearing about your Odetta experience, too, Jan.

  7. You were brave and a dedicated fan. I enjoy SF on a day not quite so jammed with folks. What a great post, though. You had just the right mix of your experiences to make it real. Your knowledge and love of music raise the levels of your viewers/listeners. I am not a music connoisseur, but a couple of weeks ago went with friends to an interactive Sing-Along viewing of the Sound of Music at the Hollywood Bowl. That was one of my favorite movies of all times, and singing along with 40,000 of my closest friends was amazing! 🙂

  8. I am fascinated by the way different singers interpret songs but overall I’m not that knowledgeable about music, I’m afraid. That goodness for Youtube. 40,000 close friends – wow! I’m impressed.

  9. Huge grin. 😀 Janis is my… she is me before my time. 🙂 When I belt, I belt out her. Me and Bobby McGee, specifically. I learned it off a tape with what I presumed were the correct words since it was pre-internet. “Windshield wipers slappin’ time” was the hardest nut. Now I belt it out on special occasions. People tend to look at me funny after I do.

    For your collection of covers, something completely different. This is Slovenian band “Elvis Jackson” with their take on “Losing my Religion” by R.E.M. The drummer is my once-removed cousin. (I don’t know if this is the correct expression. Our fathers are cousins.) It’s one of my most-loved covers. They found something in the song even Michael didn’t know was in there.

    Thank you for this happy-making post. ❤

  10. I cannot believe you didn’t take a long shot photo of the party atmosphere of the Pride Parade, Jan. 🌈
    I loved the new version of Sounds of Silence, even though I truly grew up loving S & G!
    Some rocker who is rather gruff sounding and raises his voice in parts just emphasizes to me: the true meaning of society looking at their phones “and not really talking.” I’ll add his name after I look him up. My son Jamie, who is 35, really liked it, plus my brother, Randy (muralist and sculptor liked it, too.) 🎶🎵 ~Robin

    • Trust me. It was impossible to get a shot of the parade through the wall of people lining the streets. I’m not a fan of crowds. I’ve heard a couple of rendition of Sound of Silence that I’ve liked as well as S&G but right now, the names of the artists escape me.

  11. I always liked Janis Joplin’s voice. I would have loved this theatre and musical experience!
    The group who sings a new rough version of The sound of silence is Disturbed. He or they won an award for it.
    My favorite version of “Both Sides Now” isn’t the first Joni Mitchell or the first Judy Collins. It is the older but wiser, world weary, gravelly or smoky voiced “recent” version by Joni Mitchell. She sang it on her own CD and “Love Actually” movie included it in a touching scene where Emma Thompson is crying.

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