I remember it well…
“I’d like to do a song of great social and political import!”
A statement of intent if ever you heard one.
“It goes like this…”
And with four handclaps, it began…
Seven or eight years old, impressionable by anyone’s standards. But to hear that voice, accompanied only by her own clapping, left a scar that will never heal. Thank God…
It was on one of those cardboard-covered CDs you used to get in the papers during the so-called Celtic Tiger. I have no other recollections of it. Can’t remember the cover, the other songs, even which track it was. Just that it was some anonymous track in the middle of the disc.
And I hit the repeat button. Over, and over, and over again. Jack White had a similar experience with Son House’s Grinnin’ In Your Face. He talks about it in It Might Get Loud, sitting next to his record player with the sleeve in his hand.
Jack explains that he never knew music could be played this way. Son House drawling over his own out of time clapping. Not even the blues’ weapon of choice, the guitar, accompanying. Just the man, and his soul.
Likewise, this track’s independence struck a chord with this youngster. Over ten years ago. But over thirty years since the song was recorded.
Released posthumouslyon the Pearl album, Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz was indeed a statement of “great social and political import.”
But that statement’s not made in the lyrics, which took two writers besides Janis herself. It’s in the sound.
Or the lack thereof. It doesn’t get much simpler than this: voice, clapping, and soul.
It was 1971 when Mercedes Benz was released. Led Zeppelin and their ilk were the dominant musical forces on the planet. Glam rock was in its prime with T-Rex’s Electric Warrior being released in that pivotal year and Ziggy Stardust just over the glittering horizon.
So loud guitars and fantastical escapism were the pervading tastes of the day. No harm there…
But listening to Joplin’s Mercedes Benz is like reading a Bukowski novel; the rawness of it grabs you by the neck and kicks you in the ass.
The first thing that really hits you is that voice. The grit in it, the passion in the performance, it’s a sucker punch to the gut.
But there’s a deeper level, a subterranean plane just below the surface waiting to be explored.
The music business is notoriously sexist. It’s no exaggeration to say it is male dominated. In all senses of the term: from songwriting, to creative direction, to the actual business aspects of it.
Mercedes Benz is a statement of independence. It’s the sound of this immensely talented young woman bearing her teeth to the world. And showing the skeptics and the cynics what she was capable of.
With the bloody shreds of sexism dripping from her bared canines, Janis let rip with a track of extreme power and significance. By singing this song unaccompanied except for her own clapping, she spoke volumes.
Imagine hearing that track for the first time upon its release nearly fifty years ago, imagine hearing that liberation let loose just as the sixties themselves morphed from a freedom force into flare-bottomed conformity.
Janis, whether this was the intention behind Mercedes Benz or not, displayed incredible freedom in the face of incredible adversity.
Not just for women of the early seventies either, but for everyone.
By standing up and making this declaration of independence, Janis showed us the way. She showed us that you can fly in the face of fashion and make an empowering expression.
An expression of so much more than humble creativity. Joplin, in under two minutes, helped unshackle the chains of sexism from the ankles of women. And, by extension, of everyone.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that women are people. That should go without saying. But, with the inauguration of Donald just last Friday, maybe some of y’all need reminding.
By unchaining women from the creative limits imposed on them by men, Janis helped revolutionise creative expression. And thus, enriched us all.
It goes beyond equality between the sexes. Which unfortunately we still need to strive towards. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to…
But by expanding creative horizons, we learn more of what we mere homo sapiens are capable of. And part of that expansion is granting an equal voice to all people, regardless of race, creed or gender. And sadly, we live in a world where that’s not the case.
Donald’s election is walking, lying proof of that.
Proof that hate and greed is a higher priority than equality and love. Proof that “some animals are more equal than others.”
Which is why Mercedes Benz is even more pertinent today than it was in 1971. Such a demonstration of independence and freedom, if it were to get airplay, would undoubtedly strike a chord with the ever-growing generation of pissed off millennials.
Mercedes Benz, to paraphrase Kristofferson, aches with the feeling of the freedom of the eagle when she flies. It’s a very proud song.
It takes pride in the individual. In who you are as a human being. And why you, and your contributions to this humble blue-green world, matter. Now, if that ain’t empowering then nothing is.
By enhancing the creative abilities of a group of people, you are expanding the horizons of not only that group, but each and every individual within and without that group. And by doing that, you benefit society as a collective whole.
For, when we realise that there are no creative limits, that there are no boundaries, we can as Bill Hicks put it “explore space, both inner and outer, together, forever.”
And it all changed for this individual over a decade ago, when I put that nondescript freebie CD on my first stereo. A chord was struck without any having been played. A chord that has rang true down through the decades.
As Janis slows the pace down during the coda of Mercedes Benz, you can hear her smile as she says “That’s it!”
Indeed, that is it. It’s as simple as that.
- James Fleming
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