Forty-five years ago today, on October 1st, 1970, Janis Joplin, widely considered the world’s first female superstar of rock, stepped into Studio 1 at Sunset Sound studios in Hollywood to record the song “Mercedes Benz”. Stripped of instruments and using only her vocals, the song would become a hallmark of her career and personal rock star legend.
With a run time of 1 minute and 46 seconds, and recorded in just one take, she starts by stating “I’d like to do a song of great social and political import” before singing the 4 verses a capella, and then ends the song exclaiming “That’s it!”. Little did everyone know that that song really would be “it” for Joplin. There in a quiet recording studio on Sunset Blvd, “Mercedes Benz” would be the last song she ever recorded. Three days later, Janis would be found dead in a Hollywood hotel room from a heroin overdose.
“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”
For the last month, Janis had been staying at what was then the Landmark Motor Hotel (now Highland Gardens Hotel) on Franklin Ave, just one block north of Hollywood Blvd behind the Grauman’s Chinese Theater, while she and her band were laying down tracks for what would become the posthumous album “Pearl”. They were recording at Sunset Sound studios on Sunset Blvd just about a mile south of the hotel.
(Above: pictures of Sunset Sounds recording studio in Los Angeles, including the “Mercedes Benz” Room.)
Sunset Sound has an impressive history. It started out as a recording studio for Disney films like Mary Poppins, but eventually began recording rock bands and became THE studio to record at in Los Angeles in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The Doors recorded their first two albums there; “The Doors” and “Strange Days”. The Rolling Stones “Exile on Mainstreet” was also recorded there, as well as The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” LP, and Prince’s “Purple Rain” soundtrack.
“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV?
Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me.
I wait for delivery each day until three,
So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV?”
While her band, The Full Tilt Boogie, laid down the instrumental tracks for another song on the album, Janis was at the hotel alone making phone calls to pass the time until she was needed in the studio. One phone call was made to the municipal offices in San Francisco seeking information on a marriage license for her and her fiancé. Since it was Saturday, the offices were closed. So she called him at her home in San Francisco where he was staying to let him know and catch up, but could not reach him. He was apparently spending time with other women, which triggered Janis’s deep insecurities, and the strong feelings of loneliness and abandonment that she had battled her entire life surfaced. So she sought to relieve that feeling and fill the void the only way she knew how. Though she had been clean from drugs for 6 months at that point, Janis called a local dealer she knew, but who was not her regular trusted provider, and requested her drug of choice, heroin. He delivered it to her just before she went to join her band in the studio.
She arrived sober at Sunset Sound that evening and listened to the tracks the band had laid down for “Buried Alive in the Blues” in her absence, but did not record her vocals for the track. Her part was planned to be recorded the next day (this song would end up being the only instrumental track on the album). Instead, she and a couple of the band members decided to go out for a drink. They all piled into her custom psychedelic painted Porsche Cabriolet and drove to Barney’s Beanery just below the Sunset Strip.
“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town?
I’m counting on you, Lord, please don’t let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round,
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town?”
Barney’s is a longstanding Hollywood landmark. Nearly 100 years old, built in 1927 and sitting directly on the famous Route 66, it was a popular bar with artists, musicians, and celebrities. Classic Hollywood types like Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth were regulars there in its early years, but as the Sunset Strip became an epicenter for music and counter-culture in the 60s, an edgier, wilder crowd moved in. Jim Morrison was famously thrown out for urinating on the bar, Charles Bukowski was a drunken regular, and it’s rumored that Quentin Tarantino wrote his “Pulp Fiction” screenplay there in the 90’s.Janis once etched her name in a table at Barney’s. They preserved it and it now hangs on the ceiling above her favorite booth there.
And it was here at Barney’s Beanery, that Janis would have a cocktail of vodka and orange juice and raise a glass with her friends for the last time while discussing how close and connected she felt with the new band, and how happy she was with what they recorded that day.
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”
It was nearly 1am. Janis and her friends paid their tab and drove back to the Landmark Motor Hotel to rest before spending the following day in the studio. The band members went to their rooms, and Janis went alone to hers, room #105, just a few feet down from the front lobby. There, she prepared the heroin she bought earlier that evening and injected it.
Before the drug took hold, she made her way to the front desk requesting change for the cigarette machine. It was the last time she was seen alive. Within seconds of returning to her room, Janis’s heart stopped and she collapsed on the floor.
Later that day when Janis failed to show up to Sunset Sound to record vocal tracks, her producer, Paul Rothchild (producer for The Doors), called her road manager, who was staying at the same hotel, and asked him to check on her. He noticed her Porsche was still in the parking lot outside and then knocked on her door. There was no answer. He requested a key at the front desk and gained access to her room. There he found the wild child of rock and roll, who could sing the blues with the depth and understanding of 1,000 lifetimes of hurt and loss, Janis Joplin, wedged between the bed and side table, dead from an overdose of unusually pure heroin. She had been lying there for 18 hours. She was 27 years old.
“Maybe I won’t last as long as other singers, but I think you can destroy your now worrying about tomorrow.”
Janis Joplin: January 19th, 1943 – Oct 4th, 1970
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