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Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz

| January 19, 2014 | 27 Comments

Writers: Janis Joplin, Michael McClure and Bob Neuwirth

Recorded: 1970

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

From Performing Songwriter Issue 116
March/April 2009

Category: Behind The Song

Comments (27)

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  1. Tweets that mention Mercedes Benz -- Topsy.com | October 5, 2010
  1. George Michals says:

    She was one of my favorites, and it was because of her I drive a Benz today.

  2. Bob H. says:

    At exactly 13:15 (turn up the volume because she’s speaking) you can hear Janis say I just wrote this at the bar on the corner. It was still called Vahsens after the owner Charlie Vahsen before it was renamed Little Dicks a few years later.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRWZudjlm5k

  3. Joe Sbomnbo says:

    She was-is a giant in my emotions, heart, head, brain. I was 18 at the time.

  4. Hugh Yonn says:

    She used heroin to replace too much drinking?
    Hot dang…that’s hard core…

    The Young Lady left behind some great songs…
    I wish her the very best…wherever she may be…

  5. Brian says:

    She wrote the song in a bar called “Little Dick’s” which was behind the stage door of The Capitol Theatre in Portchester, NY on Aug. 8, 1970 in between the matinee and evening shows. She was with Rip Torn. You can hear her explain this here at 13:10 of this recording:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRWZudjlm5k

  6. Anthony Day says:

    This is all too sad for me and I wont comment any further

  7. Phyllis Wetsel says:

    She is still one of the most fascinating women of all time. I never saw her but my memory is of being at a dinner party in 1968 or ’69 and trying to explain to a group of probably 40 somethings why she was so good, and, “No, she was not ‘just screaming’”. People laughed at me…maybe that’s why I never saw most of them after that!

  8. Bobbye Bissette says:

    I still have that album.

  9. patty says:

    Is there a picture of her Porsche

  10. marie balanda says:

    Love janis, did see her at her best at woodstock, fav song little piece of my heart, has great meanings for me

  11. kevin says:

    hold on! hold on! just gimmie, another little piece of my heart now baby.~~~playing in my head~~ she was is unforgettable. I was 13 yo.

  12. WildeGurl says:

    Bobby Womack, who wrote the next song on the album (“Trust Me”) claimed the song was written about his Benz limo. It does not seem so unusual now, but there were few cars with a full bar, TV, full sound system, phone, chauffeur, etc.

  13. ed ronalds says:

    As far as a ‘song’…..well, that’s a stretch….
    As for it being important, that’s another story…
    When one has achieved notoriety, like Janis,
    pretty much anything and everything becomes
    important, so this Mercedes ‘ditty’ falls into
    that category!

  14. ed ronalds says:

    ‘MB’ is NOT a song……..’Song’, is a stretch…..
    Its one of those impromptu things that ‘happens’
    when a bunch of folks get together with a couple
    of 6-packs, and maybe a couple more, and some
    other ‘stuff’…makes me think of ’50 Bottles Of Beer
    On The Wall’
    Why are we glorifying crap like MB?
    I don’t think she’d want that!

  15. Albert Mead says:

    I confirmed it with the Capitol Theater folks last week when I was in NYC. My sister and former boyfriend also confirmed that she was at that bar and walked right past both of them while they stood in line waiting to get into the show. They knew it was Janis instantly because they had seen her a year earlier at Madison Square Garden. They remarked how incredibly short she was. My sister remembers her walking briskly to avoid being detected and tried to put her hair in front of her face. Most of the kid were facing toward the street and away from the bar. Fortunately, Janis managed to slip into the backstage door without getting mobbed by the kids. Hilarious!

  16. Alex says:

    Bob, thank you for getting back to me!

  17. Bob says:

    Alex however that was for a fact the bar right next to the performers entrance/exit.

  18. Bob says:

    Alex I have no way to verify it.

  19. Alex says:

    Albert and Bob, do you know for a fact it was Vauhson’s? I’m really curious to get verification on which exact bar it was.

  20. Bob says:

    Albert Mead you are absolutely correct re: The Capitol Theater/Vauhson’s Bar!

  21. Albert Mead says:

    We know that Janis sang Mercedes Benz for the first time in front of an audience on August 8th 1970 in Port Chester NY. The band did not even know how to follow her when she pumped it out. She ended up singing it twice as a singalong and the band finally joined in with a fast pace hootenanny style.

    But there seems to be some discrepancy in terms of who takes credit where and when this song originated. In the tape recordings of that show, Janis claims she as was at the corner bar there in Port Chester earlier that afternoon working out the song between her and friends. She said that the louder they sang it there in the bar, the more the bartender cranked up the volume of the jukebox which was playing “Let is Be.”

    I personally know two people who saw Janis walking from that bar to the theater. So that part of the story is verified. They claimed they were waiting in line for the show when they recognized her even as she tried to keep a low profile. She walked pass everyone on the side of the building toward the side stage entrance.

    Perhaps Mercedes Benz had already been written but I what Janis had told the audience. This is evident when you listen to the recordings of that evening performance.

  22. Mike Hatch says:

    Very detailed article behind the origin of “Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin. Thank you.

  23. Bob says:

    I was blessed to have seen and talk with Janis many times. (even drank beer and smoked a little “grass” with her)I probably saw her perform 20 times… The most amazing was Summer Of Love. Stupidly I did not go to Woodstock with my friends. Janis was the best ever! No one can compare… NO ONE!!! I love and miss her everyday. Thanks to my good friend KATYA http://www.katyamusic.com I get to travel back to the great days of rock and remember Janis. JANIS LIVES! ROCK LIVES!

  24. Pete Jackson says:

    In the early hours of this morning I nominated ‘Mercedes Benz’ to be entered into the BBC Radio 5 Live top 100 ‘virtual jukebox’ and this was loved by the presenters, voted for by their listeners, and won against stiff opposition I am so pleased to say ! Forever . . . . . . .

  25. I loved Janis and forever changed my expectation of female singers. Few compare. Her raw energy was captivating and over whelming. It was a great pleasure of mine to be young during this period of time and raised the bar on what I consider good music. Much love to all.
    Peace.

  26. Vincent Lucas says:

    Here’s a link to Janis Joplin’s Porsche. Note the butterfly on the hood. Janis loved butterflies. The photo of her sitting on her Porsche was even made into a stamp for one of the foreign countries — Tanzania I think.

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