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.