In a day and age (the 1970s) when it was okay to use brand names in lyrics (and not get sued), the late, great Janis Joplin sang about her yearning for a Mercedes Benz. ‘Won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz,’ she beseeches God. The reason behind the request for a Merc, expressed in the song’s second line, is because, “my friends all have Porsches, I must make amends”.
She is not merely asking for her wish to be granted; she’s actually saying, “buy me one. Go on, open your wallet. Do the needful. Satisfy this materialistic desire”.
Doubtless, many readers would have heard the song and even sung along. What some may not know is that there’s an irony of sorts here because Janis actually owned a Porsche 356C. It was white and apparently too bland a colour for the times (keep in mind that this was the age of psychedelia.)
To shoot off at a minor tangent, the word psychedelic is erroneously thought to have originated with the hippies. More reliable sources maintain that it predated the hippie era by nearly a decade, having been first suggested in 1956 by the British-born Canadian psychiatrist Humphry Osmond (no relative to Donny, I’m willing to bet) in a letter to the famous writer Aldous Huxley. No doubt, the reference was to drugs that effected the ‘psyche’, the ‘delic’ referring to a revelation of sorts.)
Anyhow, Janis’s white Porsche was too mild a hue so she had it painted red with a psychedelic mural that included butterflies and jellyfish, and her band of the time. At the time of her ‘untimely’ death from a drug overdose, the car, it is said, was parked outside the studio where she’d been busy putting the finishing touches to the album that included the song Mercedes Benz.
The car (the Porsche, not the Benz), at an auction in 2015, fetched $2.5 million (Dh9.19 million). One is not sure if the Beach Boys made millions off their ‘brand name’ song, but Little Honda (which glorifies the ease of operation of this motorcycle) predated Mercedes Benz by nearly seven years.
My mate Barney is of a different opinion. He thinks that brand makers, in most cases, get quite chuffed when a well-known band chooses to include their product in the lyrics. Joplin wasn’t the only one to sing about a car brand, he informs me. “Oh, no, no, no, Kevin,” he intones, with a sad shake of his head implying that, for all my love of music, my long-term memory appears to be failing me. There’s one car that’s been mentioned a lot more frequently: Bon Jovi, he says, in their song ’99 in the shade’ sings of a Chevrolet. Elton John abbreviates the same car in Crocodile Rock (Dreaming of my Chevy and my old blue jeans); and the other late great, Leonard Cohen mentions the name Chevrolet in his grand song Democracy (is coming to the USA), although with Cohen’s poetic lyrics it’s hard to tell if he’s referring to a car or a town/city. Barney, who is an unstoppable fount of information, plies me with more info: Deep Purple mention two cars — an Austin and a Bentley — in Knocking At Your Back Door.
As regular readers will know, Barney my friend is a likeable but highly competitive person. Almost the entire material for this column emerged from a casual, idle chat about how tricky it is for writers these days when everything they write or say is subject to sharper scrutiny, discussion and debate. And Barney took it upon himself to research all the material herein and, unwittingly, present it to me on a platter over a cup of coffee. I may just have found a way of turning his competitive nature to my advantage. The thing is not to let him twig on. As has been said, art lies in concealing art. I don’t know who this famous quote is attributable to, but I might just ask Barney. Watch this space.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.