The Story Behind Janis Joplin’s ‘Mercedes Benz’
Janis Joplin in 1968 Photo: Elliott Landy/Corbis
July 7, 2015 11:29 a.m. ET
Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” was an accident. The song’s lyrics were written at a Port Chester, N.Y., bar in August 1970 during an impromptu poetry jam between Joplin and songwriter-friend Bob Neuwirth. The lyrics—a sardonic prayer for a sports car, a color TV and a night on the town—were inspired by the first line of a song written by San Francisco beat poet Michael McClure.
About an hour after the song was completed in Port Chester, Joplin performed it a cappella on a whim when she took the stage at the town’s Capitol Theatre. Then on Oct. 1, when she was in Los Angeles recording her album “Pearl,” she sang “Mercedes Benz” in the studio for fun. After she died of a drug overdose three days later on Oct. 4, the song was added to the album.
Issued as a single in 1971 on the B-side of Joplin’s hit “Cry Baby,” “Mercedes Benz” has since been covered by more than 30 artists and used by Mercedes-Benz in its car ads. In advance of the 45th anniversary of Joplin’s death in October, road manager John Byrne Cooke, Mr. Neuwirth, Mr. McClure, and Clark Pierson and Brad Campbell of Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band talked about the song’s evolution. Edited from interviews.
John Byrne Cooke: Back in the summer of 1970, Janis was on tour with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, arriving in New York at the start of August. On Saturday, Aug. 8, Janis and the band performed at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., and then appeared at Harvard Stadium on Aug. 12. Three days later, she attended her high-school reunion in Port Arthur, Texas, and traveled to Los Angeles in September to record “Pearl” at Sunset Sound. She was happy and knew she was hitting a new level in her singing career.
Bob Neuwirth: I first met Janis before she was famous. We both played the same small clubs in San Francisco in 1965. In early August 1970, I was living in New York when Janis came to town for a series of performances. She was staying at the Hotel Chelsea. On Aug. 8, she wasn’t exactly thrilled about having to travel an hour north to perform in Port Chester. She felt the opening acts—Seatrain and Runt—would attract a crowd that didn’t understand her music.
Janis had spoken often about how much she admired actress Geraldine Page. I knew Geraldine’s husband, Rip Torn, and since they both were in town, I invited them to come with us late that afternoon in the limo. While Janis was still upstairs getting ready, Rip and Geraldine came over for a drink at El Quijote, a Spanish restaurant in the hotel. I didn’t tell Janis they were coming. I wanted it to be a surprise. When she came down and saw Geraldine, she lit up. A few margaritas later, they were old pals, and we were ready to go. We rode up in one car and the band traveled in another.
Around 7 p.m., after the Capitol sound check, we had a couple of hours to kill before Seatrain and Runt finished their sets. So the four of us walked to a bar about three minutes away called Vahsen’s [at 30 Broad St.]. At the table, Janis and Geraldine bonded, and all of us were getting into it. At some point, Janis sang out, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Earlier, in San Francisco, Janis had heard Michael McClure’s song and it stuck with her. But she couldn’t remember the rest of it.
Michael McClure: Allen Ginsberg introduced me to Bob Dylan when Bob was in San Francisco in December 1965. After we met and hung out, Bob gave me an autoharp— a stringed Appalachian folk instrument. Bob knew I wanted to write songs. I kept the instrument on my mantle for three months before learning to play it. In 1966, while I was writing “Freewheelin’ Frank” with Hells Angel Frank Reynolds, [musician] George Montana came over in the evenings with strange instruments, and we’d add music to the songs I was writing and singing.
Bob Neuwirth in 1970 Photo: Getty Images
One of my songs started, “Come on, God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz.” The song would get longer and shorter each time I sang it. One day I got a call from [actor-singer] Emmett Grogan. He had heard me sing the song at my house and began singing it with his friends at a local pool hall. On the phone, he said he was shooting pool with Janis and that she was singing it, too. I told him I had nothing against that.
Mr. Neuwirth: At the Port Chester bar, Janis sang the line a few times. Then Rip and Geraldine began banging their beer glasses on the table to keep time. It was like a sea shanty. Janis came up with words for the first verse. I was in charge of writing them down on bar napkins with a ballpoint pen. She came up with the second verse, too, about a color TV. I suggested words here and there, and came up with the third verse—about asking the Lord to buy us a night on the town and another round.
Janis and I were giggling and showing off a bit in front of Rip and Geraldine. The alcohol wasn’t meant to do anything except keep us laughing in that bar, but it assumed control, and the result was “Mercedes Benz.” I figured that what we were doing there was just an exercise to impress Rip and Geraldine and pass the time. Nothing more.
While we were lost in all this blather and laughter, John Cooke, her road manager, came blasting in close to 9 p.m. to tell Janis she was on in 15 minutes. The next thing I knew we were back up the block at the Capitol. Janis came on stage, and after singing “Tell Mama” and “Half Moon,” she surprised everyone by announcing she wanted to sing a new song.
On the bootleg recording from the concert, she says from the stage: “I’d like to do a song of some significance, now. I just wrote it at the bar on the corner, so I don’t know all the words yet. I’m going to do it Acapulco,” which had been my funny way of saying “a cappella.” I think she decided to sing it to further impress Geraldine and Rip.
Janis stomped off the beat and began belting out the lyrics, the way she had done at the bar. The band soon tried to fit in as best they could, and then they reprised the last verse. What’s interesting is that the second verse doesn’t include the “Dialing for Dollars” line. She must have added it later before recording in the studio in L.A., since it’s not on the Harvard Stadium bootleg either.
When Janis finished, she said to the audience: “Thank you, thank you, thank you. That’s not even a song, you know. They turned the jukebox up, and we kept singing it anyway. They turned up ‘Hey Jude’ so loud we had to order another drink.”
Clark Pierson (drummer): The band was pretty surprised she sang “Mercedes Benz” that night. We didn’t have a key for the song and didn’t know how to put it. We also didn’t realize she was going to sing it alone. We just all looked at each other and then tried to follow along. Janis could remember lyrics stone-cold flawlessly, so that wasn’t a surprise to me. The audience was just staring at first, like, what’s going on? Then they had smiles and were clapping along in time. Several nights later she sang it again at Harvard Stadium, which turned out to be her last concert.
Brad Campbell (bassist): On “Mercedes Benz,” Janis wanted to accompany herself on guitar. She took out her Gibson Sunburst and whispered to us, “Watch me boys.” But instead of playing it, she just sang. We eventually played a few notes here and there and sang where we could, figuring she wanted us to follow her.
Mr. McClure: At some point in August 1970, Janis called. She said she was performing the “Mercedes Benz” song but that hers was different than mine. She sang it over the phone. When she was done, I said it was OK. Then I went for my autoharp and sat on the stairs and sang her mine over the phone. Janis’s version was sweet and wry and had the grace of a riddle. Mine was much more outspoken, funny and ironic. Janis laughed and said she liked hers better. I said, “That’s OK, you can sing yours.” And that’s the last I heard of it until “Pearl” came out and I saw my name with Janis’s on the song credit. [Mr. Neuwirth’s name was added later].
Mr. Pierson: On Oct. 1, Full Tilt and Janis were at Sunset Sound in L.A. recording “Pearl” when something happened to the tape recorder that caused everything to come to a halt. As producer Paul Rothchild tried to fix it, we started getting antsy, especially Janis, who didn’t like sitting around. She was still in the vocal booth and could see through the glass that our energy was fading. To kill time and keep us amused, she started to sing “Mercedes Benz” in there.
Mr. Campbell: I could see Janis in the booth. She beat off time by stomping her feet on the floor with her sandals. The bracelets jangling on her arm and the stomping of her feet provided the rhythmic sound you hear on the record. Her eyes were open as she sang, but they seemed closed, as if she were far away. When the song was done, she said, “That’s it,” followed by her famous cackle. She always surprised herself.
Mr. Neuwirth: Paul Rothchild told me later the problem was with his 2-inch tape recorder. The heads shifted or something and needed to be readjusted. Paul had a ¼-inch safety reel going that ran all the time as a backup in case there was an idea he missed in between takes when the 2-inch main recorder was off. While Paul worked to fix the 2-inch tape recorder, Janis sang “Mercedes Benz” on a whim. Fortunately, the safety tape caught it.
Mr. Cooke: “Mercedes Benz” was the last song Janis recorded. Three days later I found her body in her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel. She had overdosed on heroin that was way stronger than street heroin had any right to be. For the next few days, everyone was in shock. That Thursday, Paul Rothchild played for us everything he had on tape. It was almost an album. Paul and the band worked for another 10 days to create the best instrumental tracks to go with the existing vocals. Although she had sung “Mercedes Benz” a cappella, Paul knew we had to use it as is.
Mr. Neuwirth: About 20 years ago, I had a guitar case overflowing with stuff. It was so full I couldn’t close the lid with the instrument inside. I went through all the junk in there and found four square napkins on which I had jotted down the “Mercedes Benz” lyrics in 1970. I have no idea where those napkins are today. I’d love to find them. I put them someplace in my house, but I can’t remember where.