Patti Smith made her way from Jersey to New York with a dream in her pocket and working at Scribner’s Book Store to facilitate the lifestyle she moonlit as on an evening. From there, Smith started to rub shoulders with, and Janis Joplin was more than just an acquaintance, even going on to help her write the final ever song she ever recorded.
Smith once eulogised, “Janis laid the foundations for all of us. She redefined what it meant to be a woman in rock.” Their friendship was only during the final 12 months of Joplin’s life, and it was Bobby Neuwirth who showed Smith what life was like in this exotic bohemia.
When he introduced ‘The Godmother of Punk’ to Joplin, Neuwirth reportedly said: “This is the poet Patti Smith,” and ever since to that moment, the singer referred to Smith solely as ‘The Poet’. Whenever Joplin was in town, she’d hang around with the circle that Smith was involved in, and their friendship paid dividends in a creative sense.
Just three days before her death in 1970, Joplin laid down the astounding vocals on ‘Mercedes Benz’, and little did she know then that it would be her last time in a recording studio. It’s a reimaging of San Francisco beat poet Michael McClure’s piece, ‘C’mon, God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz’ which, with the help of Smith, Joplin transformed it into something even more masterful.
The idea to record a version of it came during an afternoon spent drinking written at Vahsen’s, a Port Chester, New York bar, an impromptu poetry jam between Joplin, Smith and Neuwirth. Shortly after, Joplin decided to thrust the half-baked idea into her set Port Chester’s Capitol Theater that evening and recorded it shortly afterwards.
In Smith’s memoir Just Kids, she talked about the famous trip to Vahsen’s and revealed that the esteemed group were also joined on the drinking session by Rip Torn and Geraldine Page. Smith recalled that Joplin started reciting, “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.”
Joplin was a free spirit, and her creative process for ‘Mercedes Benz’ epitomises the maverick way that she worked. There was no clear plan, she just followed her heart, and a playful joke with friends in a bar somehow ended up leading to a stone-cold classic.