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.
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.