Janis Joplin was known for living her life in the fast lane and, during her short but remarkable career, she made herself an unstoppable force that was undoubtedly the voice of her generation. Her free spirit and rebellious streak would tragically lead to the singer losing her battle with addiction when she was only 27-years-old. Just three days before her death, Joplin recorded vocals on the track ‘Mercedes Benz’, an iconic number that is even more breathtaking when you realise that is was the very last time she would step foot in a recording studio.
The song is based on a track called ‘C’mon, God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz’ by the legendary San Francisco beat poet Michael McClure. Joplin saw McClure perform was spellbound and, with her new-found inspiration, decided to transform it into her own song on August 8th, 1970 and performed it that evening after working on ideas on how to change it during the day. The lyrics were written at Vahsen’s, a Port Chester, New York bar, on August 8, 1970, during an impromptu poetry jam between Joplin and Bob Neuwirth. Shortly after, Joplin couldn’t resist the urge to perform the new material live at her headline show at Port Chester’s Capitol Theater that evening.
Bobby Womack remarkably later claimed credit for inspiring this song, even though it was clearly a spin on McClure’s poetry. According to Womack, Joplin got the idea for the song after riding in his new Mercedes 600. His career had started to bubble thanks to his imperial songwriting which led to Joplin commissioning him to write a song for her Pearl album, an effort that later turned out to be ‘Trust Me’. Following the success of that track, Joplin then asked Womack to write another.
The late soul singer wrote about this in his book Midnight Mover. Womack stated that he took her for a ride, and she was impressed with the new car that he had picked her up in. After a few blocks, she apparently started singing, “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedez Benz…” and Joplin immediately put down the vocal track when she arrived in the studio on October 1st.
The true origin of the track is recounted in Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, where she talked about the afternoon trip to Vahsen’s, with her friend Bob Neuwirth, as well as the actor’s Rip Torn and Geraldine Page who joined them.
Smith recalled that Joplin started reciting the line, “Oh, Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” – the first line of McClure’s song. The four others then started banging beer mugs on the table to form a rhythm, and Neuwirth wrote down lyrics he and Joplin came up with on a napkin. Janis later introduced the song at her show that evening by saying, “I just wrote this at the bar on the corner. I’m going to do it Acapulco.”
Listen to the jaw-dropping isolated vocals provided by Joplin, below.