Write Away Magazine - June Issue


The Lyric writers magazine

Janis Joplin

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 ersatzcocktail

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


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


“She’d go against traffic on blind curves, with

the top down,” Rothchild recalled, “laughing,

‘Nothing can knock me down!’

By Chris Neal

Published with permission

From Performing Songwriter

Issue 116

March/April 2009

Category: Behind The Song




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