Monday, November 20, 2006

deconstructing "leader of the pack"

I recently listened to the lyrics of “Leader of the Pack” by the girl group the Shangri-Las, a #1 hit of 1964. This song falls into the popular 1960s “teen tragedy” genre wherein teenagers fall in love and then get gruesomely splattered all over the pavement. It always involves a car or a motorcycle, and sometimes rain or otherwise dangerous road conditions.

“Tell Laura I Love Her” and “Dead Man’s Curve” is a disaster of the stock-car race variety where the boy dies in a mangled wreck. In “Teen Angel,” a car stalls on the railroad tracks and the lovers escape the car; unfortunately, the foolish girl goes back to the car to retrieve her beau’s high school ring, and she gets mashed into choo-choo pizza. The finest example, lyrically at least, is “Last Kiss” (covered by Pearl Jam in 1998) where the girl dies after her boyfriend wrecks the car in a sonic shower of “screamin tires” and “bustin glass” and “painful scream that I heard last.”

God, I wish this genre were still popular!

My favorite song, though, is “Leader of the Pack.” It’s filled with so much drama and angst, generational disputes, and archetypal bad-boys. The literal sound-effect of rebel Jimmy revving his motorcycle and crashing is just icing on the cake. The lyrics make sense in a casual listen. But a deep listen yields a curious story. (If you’d like listen along as I hash this out, click here to open up a MySpace page containing the song)


by The Shangri-Las

Betty’s gossiping peers open the song in spoken word under hums and ominous piano chords.

Is she really going out with him?
Well, there she is. Let's ask her.
Betty, is that Jimmy's ring you're wearing?

BETTY: Mm-hmm

Gee, it must be great riding with him
Is he picking you up after school today?

BETTY: Uh-uh

By the way, where'd you meet him?

The song sets itself up as an explanation to our Greek chorus of gossipy girls. Clearly, they don’t know Jimmy bought the farm if they wondering if he’s going to pick up Betty after school. And Betty seems pretty okay in her casual “uh-uh” which is a little strange if this was such a life-shattering incident. I suppose we all handle our tragedies differently. But these gals are opening a can of story-tellin’ whoop ass when Betty kicks into full gear with percussion and guitar support.

I met him at the candy store

Uhhh -- hold on -- what sort of motorcycle rebel is hanging out at a candy store? If it’s to establish Jimmy as a childlike innocent despite his leather-clad (I assume leather) bad-boy streak, I understand. I would sort of like a lyric along the lines of “Jimmy really liked chocolate covered marshmallows la la laaaa” to provide more context. Maybe candy shops were a little more bad-ass in 1964?

He turned around and smiled at me
You get the picture? (girls, spoken: yes, we see)

Ahh, Betty swoons for a smile. Her peers understand all so well. They’re just going to brush the whole “Candy Store” under the rug. I, however, will not.

That's when I fell for (girls, sung: the leader of the pack!)

[sound: motorcycle revs]

Clearly, these girls were just baiting Betty as the jump right into her song. But where are these motorcycle sounds coming from if Jimmy is dead? Are they phantom revs of better times? Spooky.

My folks were always putting him down (girls: down, down)
They said he came from the wrong side of town
(Girls: whatcha mean when ya say that he came from the wrong side of town?)

The girls are onto it. What is unsung here is that Betty’s parents were also concerned that Jimmy is a guy who hangs out at Candy Stores.

They told me he was bad
But I knew he was sad

Why was Jimmy so sad? I can only assume it has something to do with a dead puppy.

That's why I fell for (girls: the leader of the pack)
[sound: motorcycle revs]

Wait wait wait. Betty, darling... You told us you fell for him when he smiled. Which is it? Or is there something more here, something a little more, oh, poetic? Like are you also telling us that in his smile you saw this sadness and that is the why? Deep.

One day my dad said, "Find someone new"
I had to tell my Jimmy we're through
(girls: whatcha mean when ya say that ya better go find somebody new?)

Betty, you fold like a freakin chair! Put up a little fight, will ya? A little “oh, c’mon Dad, stop being an old fashioned “I Like Ike” ass, lots of motorcycle rebels hang out at Candy Shops with little kids!” The chorus girls get it, Betty, why can’t you? Duh.

He stood there and asked me why
But all I could do was cry
I'm sorry I hurt you (the leader of the pack)
[motorcycle revs]

You shoulda stood up to Dad because we’re getting to the center of this teen-tragedy. Betty betrays her heart and it results in the death of her true love. That motorcycle revving is, like, thematic n shit.

He sort of smiled and kissed me goodbye
The tears were beginning to show

Jimmy is such a softie. Turning on the waterworks.

As he drove away on that rainy night
I begged him to go slow
But whether he heard, I'll never know

Oh he heard you all right, Betty. You broke his bad-boy heart in record time and YOU KILLED HIM! Though to be fair, there isn’t evidence of much courtship up to this point. I suppose this leads to the assumption of overreaction in all parties. Regardless, I think Jimmy really needed to motor to get to the Candy Store before it closed. Also, did he just wipe out on the pavement because the road was a little slick? That's sort of lame. This would be a bigger tragedy if he got caught under the wheels of a school bus and the school bus exploded and then rammed into a nursing home, somehow. I'll shut up now because this is everybody's favorite part of the song:

(girls: No No No No NoNoNO)
Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!

My favorite moment in any pop-song, ever. A bold statement, for sure.

I felt so helpless, what could I do?
Remembering all the things we'd been through

It’s not clear at what point this “helplessness” and “remembering” occurs. I assume that was more lyrical than “I called an ambulance and gave my statement to the police.” This narrative event must be implied.

In school they all stop and stare
I can't hide the tears, but I don't care
I'll never forget him (girls: the leader of the pack)

This is evidence that the chorus girls don’t attend Betty’s school. Betty was lucky to find slightly ignorant girls to keep the story moving forward and who also happened to be so musical. We also have to make a big assumption here, that being: the Leader of the Pack is dead. We could also assume he was just severely injured and he never wanted to see Betty ever again because she's a lame lame-o who can't commit. Or he moved to Phoenix or something. But I'm pretty sure Jimmy got greased on the pavement because that's how teen-tragedies have to end.

(Betty and the girls)
The leader of the pack - now he's gone
The leader of the pack - now he's gone
The leader of the pack - now he's gone
The leader of the pack - now he's gone

Notice, we really get no sense of the pack that Jimmy leads. No mention of his biker buddies. He seems a lone wolf, Leader of the Pack in title only. No matter. May we all be so fortunate to spin our tragedies into artistic gold. Rest in peace, Jimmy, you candy-lovin’ Leader of the Pack.