Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Mercedes Benz" by Janis Joplin (1971)



I have to admit it: I just don't get Janis Joplin. I mean I don't see what the big deal is. I know she died at 27, and there's a great mythologising to those who died young, but 'an early death' doesn't show up in the recorded output of any of those musicians, so what you're left with is the recorded output made during their lifetime (excepting 2Pac, of course, who has been much more prolific in death than he ever was in life). In many cases, this is pretty scant.

Here's where I'll go with Janis Joplin: she does a good job on Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee". What do I like about it? Well, for starters, it's understated. Which Janis Joplin otherwise never is. Most of her most 'classic' perfomances strike me as oversinging of the highest order, a person mistaking screeching for soul.

And then there's this: in a sense Pearl is Janis Joplin's only really realised album, since her discography is otherwise two albums with Big Brother and the Holding Company and her generally ignored solo début. Even at that, though, Pearl is famously not fully realised, because she died before she could finish it. The present track, for instance, was recorded only three days before her death. Spooky, I guess, if you go for that sort of thing, but perhaps if she'd survived, she'd have pointed out that this a capella nightmare is little more than a silly joke sung in an annoying voice.

Perhaps not - I don't know. The mythology that surrounds Janis Joplin, that tends to glorify every grunt that came from her mouth, would have you believe that this song was intended as a satire on commercialism, and thus a 'major statement' - worthy of placement immediately after "Me and Bobby McGee". But the fact that she died three days after recording it and never had a chance to decide what her album should look like means that ultimately it was record producers who decided to put it on the album. Since they didn't have enough material to make a proper album... a knock-off, years before CD rereleases made such album-filling knock-offs the norm. One of her greatest hits? Well, that'd be an embarrassment if it were any other recording career. In the present case..., I guess it is one of her greatest hits.

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