February 6, 2010

NT's greatest hits, no 24 (of 34)

It'll take the rest of my life, but it'll happen…

"Dead Man's Curve" by Jan and Dean

I am continually in amazement of this song; it is one of the weirdest tunes to ever break through to mass consciousness.

In the 1960s, Jan Berry and Dean Torrence were a couple of pot-smoking California beach bums, party buddies of the Beach Boys who just happened to possess a fair amount of musical genius. They racked up a series of fun, immaculately written pop hits in the mid-'60s: "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena," "Surf City" ("Two girls for every boy!!!"), "Drag City." In 1966, they recorded an entire album called Jan and Dean Meet Batman, which was clearly the result of doing bong hits while watching Adam West beat up Cesar Romero. A compilation album they released in the '70s featured a chart in the gatefold, listing every song and documenting who Jan and Dean were dating and what car they were driving while recording each song. On top of being the clown princes of surf rock, Jan developed a reputation as an ace West Coast record producer. They were smart and obnoxious, legendary defiers of record-biz bullshit, and a clear influence on the eventual development of punk rock.

"Dead Man's Curve" (1964) is a majestic, almost operatic story song about a drag race in Hollywood, whose destination was a famously dangerous bend in the street. The narrator is a kid recounting the incident, ticking of the names of real-life landmarks: Sunset and Vine, Schwab's Drugstore, LaBrea. The sense of impending doom is palpable, punctuated by the harmonized chant in the chorus: "Won't come back from Dead Man's Curve!" (I used to think this was "Walk on back from Dead Man's Curve!," which made me wonder why they built the street that way in the first place.)

The whole teen-tragedy genre of the '50s and '60s was weird to begin with, but this song ups the factor, with a harp-laden dissolve right in the middle of the second chorus into a spoken interlude. The narrator is now in the hospital, telling the doctor (this is worth quoting in full):

"Well, the last thing I remember, Doc, I started to swerve (minor chord)
And then I saw the Jag slide into the curve (minor chord)
I know I'll never forget that horrible sight (minor chord)
I guess I found out for myself that everyone was right (single bass drum beat)
WON'T COME BACK FROM DEAD MAN'S CUUUUURVE!!!" (sounds of cars screeching)

The big story about this song, of course, is that two years latter, Jan Berry smashed his Corvette not far from the theoretical location of Dead Man's Curve, smashing his head right through the windshield and sustaining serious brain damage. It effectively put an end to J&D's glory days, though he would recover, and the duo would tour the nostalgia circuit up until Berry died in 2004.

This song rocks, it's fun, it's interesting, it's dramatic, and it sounds amazing. Enjoy, and make sure you use your blinker.

More of NT's greatest hits: "Message in a Bottle," "Emily Kane," "Born to Run," "Shake Some Action," "Chips Ahoy!," "Radio, Radio," "Could You Be the One?," "Summer in the City," "Teenage Kicks," "Strawberry Fields Forever, " "Tunnel of Love," "I Get Around," "Local Girls," "Don't Let's Start," "Suffragette City," "See-Saw," "My Name Is Jonas," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Reelin' in the Years," "Objects of My Affection" and "Crimson and Clover," "OK Apartment" and "Just What I Needed"


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