The Story Of 'Mercedes Benz,' Janis Joplin’s Final Recording

Janis Joplin backstage at Woodstock, 1969. Source: Reddit

The soulful classic rock singer Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" is one of her most affecting songs, and it also happens to be the last recording she made before she died. Though it comes out of the gate seeming like a plea for a fancy car -- "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz" is its first line -- the tune is actually an ironic rejection of materialism and the false satisfaction provided by money.

There's plenty to read into Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" -- and it's not inappropriate to do so. The song was recorded on October 1, 1970. That's just over a year after the landmark Woodstock music festival had signaled the high point of '60s hippie optimism and the debacle at Altamont had, in a way, brought the whole party to a screeching halt. So many hippie anthems and ideas -- from "All You Need Is Love" to flower power -- seemed less-than-effective given the barrage of bad news: The Manson Family murders, the massacre at My Lai (and the Vietnam War in general), "Days of Rage" in Chicago, the shooting of student protesters at Kent State University. Maybe "flower power" wasn't really where it was at.

Joplin had always been more of a blues belter than hippie songbird, though she clearly relished the free-wheeling hippie lifestyle. With the massive downers of 1970, including the death of Jimi Hendrix in September, some gallows irony and existential questioning was in order. The free-love generation seemed to be wondering "is this all there is?" and Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" was wondering right along with them. The narrator of the song is a pitiable character, full of emptiness and envy, a hanger-on who is caught between wanting the party to continue and complaining that she never gets invited to good parties anyway.