The Meaning Behind the Sea Shanty-Turned-“Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin

Very few a cappella songs have ever made an impact on the world of classic rock, but Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” packs more wallop in its way than countless tracks by full bands. The song is one of the classics that made her 1971 album Pearl such a runaway success, albeit a bittersweet one, since Joplin died before she could ever see it released.

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It’s a simple song, but it has a deceptively complex creation story, and its meaning sometimes escapes listeners. What is “Mercedes Benz” all about? Why are there no instruments accompanying her? And why did a poet get a co-writing credit? All those questions and more will be answered, as we explore one of the most memorable moments in Janis Joplin’s short but transcendent career.

Joplin on the Spot

Janis Joplin burst onto the rock scene thanks to a star-making performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her voice was a marvel, one that could blow you away with its grit and break your heart with its soul. She was also a sharp songwriter when she wasn’t interpreting the material of others, which made it seem like a no-brainer that she’d be a big solo star once she left her former band in 1968.

But her first solo album didn’t quite capture her fiery magic, which put pressure on her to get it right for her next record. It didn’t help that her substance abuse problems were becoming more of a hindrance. During the making of her follow-up album in the  summer of 1970, Joplin was hanging out in a Port Chester, New York, bar in between tour dates with a bunch of friends, including Bob Neuwirth, a folk musician and one-time member of Bob Dylan’s entourage, and married actors Rip Torn and Geraldine Page.

She began working up a song based on a song by the noted poet Michael McClure, one which included the line Come on, God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz. Neuwirth remembered what transpired next in an interview with The Wall Street Journal:

“At the Port Chester bar, Janis sang the line a few times. 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.”

She began performing the song not too long after that with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, and eventually called McClure to ask permission to borrow the lyric. Upon hearing the song, McClure wasn’t very impressed and didn’t think anything would come of the songwriting credit that Joplin gifted him (Neuwirth would also be credited). As it turned out, the song would end up earning McClure much more in royalties than any of his well-regarded poems ever would.

It should be noted that Bobby Womack, a legendary soul artist, claimed that the song was written by Joplin in his presence after riding in his Mercedes. (Joplin had a Porsche at the time.) It doesn’t jibe with the remembrances of the others mentioned, but Womack was certainly in Joplin’s circle at the time, as she would record his song “Trust Me” on Pearl.

[RELATED: The 22 Best Janis Joplin Quotes]

Just Janis

Joplin recorded the song during a studio lull on October 1, 1970, introducing it in tongue-in-cheek fashion as “a work of great social and political import.” While everyone present was mesmerized, it wasn’t considered to be much more than a pleasant diversion, considering there was no band present and that it was very short.

On October 4, Joplin was found dead of an overdose when she didn’t show up for that day’s session. Producer Paul Rothchild and the band were tasked with finishing the recording using the vocals Joplin had already recorded. Needing a few minutes of material to fill out the run time, Rothchild turned to “Mercedes Benz,” and put it on the album in all its unadorned magic.

What Is “Mercedes Benz” About?

The key to understanding “Mercedes Benz” is to hear it as a kind of parody of materialism and the endless quest for wealth. As the idealism of the ‘60s gave way to the harsh realities of the new decade, many counterculture artists struggle to grapple with the changes. Although it’s hard to say Joplin had any of those big ideas on her mind as she improvised the lyrics in that bar, there’s no doubt that some cheeky commentary filtered its way into the composition.

The narrator goes on to ask for a color TV and then a fancy night out, but lacks the means to make any of that happen. Thus, she turns to divine intervention for help, or barring that, a game show like Dialing for Dollars. Prove that you love me, and buy the next round, she asks.

This little throwaway of a song gave listeners a glimpse into the unfettered charisma that Joplin possessed. “Mercedes Benz” was just one woman at a microphone singing lyrics she made up on the spot a few months before. Considering that woman was Janis Joplin, that was all that was needed for a stone-cold classic.

Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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