Sunday, April 3, 2011

Throwing you a curve

By Al Tays

SSS contributor Al Tays is a native
Bostonian currently sampling the
Left Coast lifestyle. The highlights
so far: Discovering L.A. street dogs,
listening to Junior Brown's "Surf
Medley" while driving his Chrysler
Sebring convertible down the Pacific
Coast Highway, and taking his wife
to Vegas so they could get re-married
by Elvis. Meanwhile, Pumpkin the
cockatiel digs Charlie Parker.
 When you're new to a place as famous as L.A., there are lots of L.A. things to do. Which is how Mrs. Assistant Music Blogger and I found ourselves one day cruising the Sunset Strip, heading west and looking for Dead Man's Curve.

I bring this up because today would have been Jan Berry's 70th birthday. Unfortunately the "Jan" of Jan and Dean died in 2004 at age 62. He had been in poor health for years, the result of brain damage suffered in a 1966 car crash near -- but not at -- Dead Man's Curve.

Jan Berry and Dean Torrence were the guys who sounded a lot like the Beach Boys, doing songs that celebrated surfing and cars. They went to No. 1 with "Surf City" (written by Beach Boy Brian Wilson) in 1963, No. 3 with "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena" in 1964 and No. 8 that same year with "Dead Man's Curve."

Not gonna lie -- I wasn't a big fan of "Dead Man's Curve." As a car song, I never thought it stood up to "Little GTO," "Little Deuce Coupe," "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena" (what was with all the "littles"?) or "Hot Rod Lincoln."

But you'd be hard pressed to find a song with more lore. Berry crashed his Corvette (the two cars in the song were a Corvette Stingray and a Jaguar XKE) into a parked truck on Whittier Drive, a street that intersects Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills.

It's accepted that Dead Man's Curve is on Sunset -- in the song, the race starts at Sunset and Vine -- but exactly where is it? Sunset turns almost 90 degrees just west of Whittier, but is that Dead Man's Curve? When my wife and I drove Sunset all the way to the Pacific Coast Highway, we counted 11 different bends where we said, "This HAS to be it."

In researching this subject I found some support for Dead Man's Curve being just north of the UCLA campus, about a mile west of where Berry crashed.

Another part of the Dead Man's Curve story is its link to Bugs Bunny. (No, I haven't gone around the bend -- pun intended. Work with me here.)

On Jan. 24, 1961, Mel Blanc, the voice actor most famous for his cartoon characters, was involved in a head-on crash on Sunset. Blanc suffered a skull fracture and was in a coma for three weeks. According to his autobiography, some of the thousands of get-well cards he received were addressed simply to "Bugs Bunny, Hollywood, USA."

Some reports say the song was inspired by Blanc's crash, but I'm not buying it. Stories of tragic ends to drag races are as old as cars themselves, and I've yet to come across a definitive reference to Berry or the songwriter he worked with, Roger Christian, verifying a Blanc connection.

One last word about the song. Apparently Christian wanted the race to end in a tie, but Berry insisted on a crash. Spooky.

So let's end things here on a happier note. What do you think are the 10 best car songs of all time? Got plenty to choose from. Here's my list:

1. Mustang Sally, Wilson Pickett (love The Commitments' version, too)
2. Little GTO, Ronny & the Daytonas
3. Fun, Fun, Fun, Beach Boys
4. Little Old Lady From Pasadena, Jan and Dean
5. Cadillac Ranch, Bruce Springsteen
6. Maybelline, Chuck Berry
7. Low Rider, War
8. Hot Rod Lincoln, Commander Cody
9. Little Deuce Coupe, Beach Boys
10. Mercury Blues, David Lindley

Now show me yours. C ya next week.


  1. I know you said ten, Strumbum. But I’m adding a no. 11 because it would seem derelict to leave it off. My contribution:

    1. Long White Cadillac - Dwight Yoakam
    2. Low Rider – War
    3. Route 66 - Asleep at the Wheel
    4. Long May You Run - Neil Young
    5. Mercedes Benz - Janis Joplin
    6. Radar Love - Golden Earring
    7. Leader of the Pack - Shangri-Las
    8. Rambling Man - Allman Brothers
    9. Take It Easy - The Eagles
    10. Plastic Jesus - Paul Newman and everbody else
    11. Wheels on the Bus Go ‘Round – Most mothers

  2. Still working on my list but if you want pedal to the metal there's no need to apologize for Sammy Hagar's I Can't Drive 55. Here's a video from the 1985 Farm Aid:

    Drive on...

  3. The greatest thing Jan and Dean ever did was host the TAMI show.

    car songs:
    Baby You Can Drive My Car

  4. I just finished a 230-mile road trip, plenty of time to think about car songs. My daddy was a trucking man so you have to give me the best gear jamming song ever at No. 1 (also love Flying Burrito Bros. and home boy Dave Dudley versions.) Some of these aren't obvious unless you consult the lyrics.

    1. Six Days on the Road, Taj Mahal
    2. Radar Love, Golden Earring
    3. Sweet Little 66, Steve Earle
    4. Long White Cadillac, Dave Alvin
    5. Windfall, Son Volt
    6. State Trooper, Bruce Springsteen
    7. No Particular Place to Go, Chuck Berry
    8. L.A. Woman, Doors
    9. Do-Wacka-Do, Roger Miller
    10. Tampa to Tulsa, Jayhawks

  5. For pure lyrical genius, it's tough to beat "$1,000 Car" by the Bottle Rockets:

    Thousand dollar car it ain't worth nothin'
    Thousand dollar car it ain't worth shit.
    Might as well take your $1000,
    and set fire to it.
    $1000 car ain't worth a dime,
    You lose your $1000 every time.
    Oh why did I ever buy, a $1000 car.
    $1000 car is gonna let you down,
    More than it's ever gonna get you around.
    Replace your gaskets and paint over your rust,
    You'll still end up with something that you'll never trust.
    $1000 car's life was through,
    'bought 50,000 miles 'fore it got to you.
    Oh why did I ever buy, a $1000 car.
    A $1000 car ain't even gonna roll,
    til you throw at least another thousand in the hole.
    Sink your money in it, and there you are
    the owner of a 2,000 dollar 1,000 dollar car.
    If you've only got a $1000,
    You ought to just buy a good guitar.
    Learn how to play it it'll take you farther,
    than any old $1000 car.
    If a $1000 car was truly worth a damn,
    then why would anybody ever spend ten grand.
    Oh why did I ever buy,
    a thousand dollar car.

  6. Just noticed strum's list. Speaking of Son Volt, my all-time favorite "driving" song is "Too Early" off "Trace." Unless it's "Ten Second News" five tracks earlier ("Driving down sunny 44 highway, there's a beach there known cancer ...") I've spent close to an hour on road trips playing nothing but those two songs.

  7. How could you miss this:

    Well you gassed her up
    Behind the wheel
    With your arm around your sweet one
    In your Oldsmobile
    Barrelin' down the boulevard
    You're looking for the heart of Saturday night

    1. (Lookin' For) The Heart of Saturday Night, Tom Waits