Writers: Janis Joplin, Michael McClure and Bob Neuwirth
It’s Thursday, Oct. 1, at the Sunset Sound recording studio in Los Angeles. Janis Joplin asks producer Paul Rothchild to roll tape. She has a song she’d like to sing.
The services of backing band Full Tilt Boogie, present and ready for action, will not be necessary. Joplin steps to the microphone and makes a declaration. “I’d like to do a song of great social and political import,” she says, a twinkle in her eye. “It goes like this.” Then she begins to sing, exercising soulful control over her enormous, whiskey-soaked voice: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz? / My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends …”
“Mercedes Benz” is a lonely blues tune about the illusory happiness promised (but rarely delivered) by the pursuit of worldly goods, a hippie-era rejection of the consumerist ideals that Joplin saw growing up as a self-described “middle-class white chick” in Port Arthur, Texas. She had come to California in the early ’60s and quickly earned a place as one of the leading musical lights in a generation that shared her utopian anti-materialism. When Joplin sang, in the second and third verses of “Mercedes Benz,” for “a color TV” and “a night on the town,” she knew all too well that neither would bring her peace. “It’s the want of something that gives you the blues,” she once said. “It’s not what isn’t, it’s what you wish was that makes unhappiness.”
She began finding the words to express that complex impulse while on tour on the opposite side of the country: in New York City, during a game of pool with friends Rip Torn and Emmett Grogan. The two were singing a memory-mangled version of a song by poet Michael McClure. Mostly what they remembered was the first line: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?” Joplin loved it and began singing along herself.
Once back in California, Joplin and friend Bob Neuwirth took the fragment of McClure’s lyric and fleshed it out into a full song. Joplin called McClure at his home in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, seeking his approval. “Would you sing me your version?” he said. She did. “Well, I prefer my version,” he responded, and proceeded to sing his original through the telephone line (accompanying himself on autoharp). “I prefer my version!” she informed him with a cackle. It was settled: The two renditions would coexist in peace.
When Joplin set about preparing to record a new album in late summer 1970, the stakes were high. She had made her name as the firebrand frontwoman of San Francisco’s Big Brother and the Holding Company from 1966 through late 1968, but her subsequent solo career had not been as well received. She now entrusted her fate to Doors producer Rothchild, who began by insisting that she record at Sunset Sound—not at her record label CBS’s own studio, as was required of its artists at the time. CBS president Clive Davis reluctantly allowed the rule to be transgressed.
In the following weeks, Joplin and Full Tilt Boogie powered through the recording of strong new songs like her own “Move Over” and Kris Kristofferson’s country-flavored “Me and Bobby McGee.” By Oct. 1, 1970, the album was practically in the bag—in addition to “Mercedes Benz,” the only other recording Joplin bothered with that day was an ersatz-cocktail rendition of “Happy Trails” intended as a present for John Lennon’s 30th birthday eight days later.
“It wasn’t a sad and tragic time,” Rothchild recalled in 1992 (three years before his death). “Fun was the underlying thing.” But the jovial atmosphere in the studio hid a secret: After a period of abstinence, Joplin had resumed the heroin habit that had dogged her throughout much of 1969. She explained to a friend that she was only using it to keep from drinking so much during the making of the album; alcohol hangovers hindered her performance in the studio.
On Oct. 3, Full Tilt Boogie laid down a backing track for the Nick Gravenites tune “Buried Alive in the Blues”; Joplin was set to lay down her vocal the following day. Work finished at around 11 p.m., and the star returned to her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel. There she passed away from a heroin overdose during the night. She was 27. Rothchild and company fought through their shock and grief to spend the next two weeks applying the remaining overdubs needed to complete the album. The result was dubbed Pearl, after a nickname she had lately adopted.
Outside the hotel on the night of her death sat Joplin’s car: not a Mercedes, but a Porsche she had bought in 1968 and paid friend Dave Richards $500 to paint in psychedelic colors. The hippie icon who sang, “My friends all drive Porsches,” was herself well aware of the real—if fleeting—pleasures to be found behind the wheel.
“She’d go against traffic on blind curves, with the top down,” Rothchild recalled, “laughing, ‘Nothing can knock me down!’
By Chris Neal