A friend of mine told me a story about her daughter and the son of a neighbor playing together when they were 3 or 4 years old. The two mothers went to check on the kids and found them both naked, with the little boy trying to insert a toy car into the little girl in, um, a place he would not have found on another little boy.
My comment to my friend was “whenever you put together a boy, a girl, and a car, you’re going to have trouble.”
That was the theme of movies and songs in the early rock and roll era when I was growing up. Boys and girls have been a dangerous mix throughout music history but the tragic third element that sparks death varies based on genre. In folk and old-time country music, if your sweetheart wants to take you down by the river, don’t go; I’m just sayin’. In blues and jazz music, there’s no escape; your lover will hunt you down with a gun (see “Frankie and Johnny”).
But in rock and roll, scientific studies prove that death comes by motor vehicle 95% of the time. I recently read someone else’s blog entry about sad songs. One commenter said that the saddest song was “Last Kiss” by Pearl Jam. The really sad part was that this person was so young she did not know that was a cover version of the original from the early 60s, the heyday of the teen death rock and roll song.
“Last Kiss” falls into the category of “boy and girl together in the car”. In that scenario, the girl is a passenger and she always dies. “Teen Angel” is the earliest “hit” I could find in this sub-phylum. In that song the boy doesn’t kill the girl through reckless driving; instead, the girl, stupefied by love (as teen girls always are) runs back to the stalled car to get the boy’s class ring and is hit by a train. (Note: The class ring was symbolic of true love, "going steady", in 1960). But we are left to wonder: Why had she taken the ring off? Had they been fighting? Did he kill her, park on the tracks and then make up the story about her running back to the car? Was his last name Peterson?
The ring element makes a nice link between “Teen Angel” and “Tell Laura I love Her”. The difference is that “Tell Laura…” belongs to the sub-phylum “Love-sick boy alone in vehicle ends up dead.” Tommy wants to buy Laura “everything” which is comprised of “flowers, presents (and) a wedding ring.” If only he had had the good sense to get a job. Instead he enters a stock car race to win a prize, but crashes and dies. I know the lyrics sound hokey when you read them, but if you have ever seen Sha Na Na do this song live… for the last verse they form the chapel where Laura prays and the music swells … “alone in the chapel she can hear him cry….” … it still brings chills, just thinking about it. This is my favorite teen death song.
A few years later the Shangri-las recorded a love-sick boy death song, which again involves both a ring and a vehicle, but in this case it’s death on a motorcycle. "Leader of the Pack" is wholly unbelievable in its premise: the girl’s parents tell her has to break up with the boy and she just complies. In real life she would have snuck out to hook up with him and gotten pregnant – possibly later throwing the baby off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Anyway, in this song, he drives off, crashes and dies.
There is much debate among students of teen death music about "Leader.." It states that Jimmy was "from the wrong side of town". Is this a code for inter-racial coupling? (Worse than teen pregnancy in the 1960s). The question stems from the girl's friends asking "whatcha mean when ya say that he came from the wrong side of town?" Some scholars postulate that the friends were just "total ditzes" because they just don't seem to comprehend simple declarative statements, such as, "My dad said, "Find somebody new", to which they respond "whatcha mean when ya say that ya better go find somebody new?" Further support for the ditz theory comes at the beginning of the song when the friends ask each other, "is she really going out with him" when everybody at school knows about the relationship and Jimmy's death.
The "accident" is also controversial; was his vision just clouded by tears or did he deliberately crash? The same question can be asked about Laura’s Tommy. “No one knows what happened that day, how his car overturned in flames.” Numerous literary studies have postulated about this. Was Tommy losing the race and so saddened that he could never afford the flowers or presents, let alone the ring, that he wrecked his car on purpose? Was there an insurance policy naming Laura as his beneficiary? (Evidence: “it was just for Laura he lived and died”) Was he just driving a crappy car that burst into flames and overturned spontaneously? (Evidence: he couldn’t afford flowers so he couldn’t afford a good car). My theory is that he was killed by God for having pre-marital sex with Laura (Evidence: “Laura and Tommy were lovers”). Undoubtedly they had sex in the back seat of that very same car he died in, which is why it burst into flames. She went to the chapel to ask forgiveness for her sin, which is what Tommy should have done instead of giving in to greed (another deadly sin!) There may be a clue about the lyrics in this reenactment.
By the mid-sixties the boy/girl/car death songs were dying out. In the late 60s and 70s drugs became a bigger part of the music and overdose the more favored means of death. Now would be the time for a return of the car death genre, only now it would go something like this:
Laura and Tommy were lovers
That’s what everybody read
“Laura is in a relationship”
That’s what her Facebook status said.
Tommy also declared his love
While driving his car around the street
He had a cell phone and a Twitter account
So here’s what Tommy tried to tweet:
@Laura: I <3 u
@Laura: I need u
@Laura: do not cry, my <3 4 u will never di….
And, of course you would be able to download a “ring” tone of the song.