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The teenager's death song

New CD highlights flipside of young life

By Todd Leopold

"Dead!" features 24 songs about death, teen-oriented and otherwise.


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Eye on Entertainment
Ray Romano

(CNN) -- Teenagers, of course, are immortal: They can rock 'n' roll all night, party every day, and when school's out for summer, watch out: They're born to be wild.

Until they're not immortal, and they die. Sometimes too soon.

And there's nothing like dying young to make a hit -- particularly in the late '50s and early '60s, when the pop charts were suddenly awash in teen death songs.

The trend appeared to start, innocently enough, with Jody Reynolds and the Storms' 1958 million-seller, "Endless Sleep." Two years later, Ray Peterson's maudlin tale of a race-car driver's demise, "Tell Laura I Love Her," hit the Top 10. It was followed by perhaps the sappiest of them all, Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel":

"That fateful night/The car was stalled/Upon the railroad track/I pulled you out and we were saved/But you went running back ..."

The song came complete with mention of a clutched high-school ring, Dinning's mournful vocals and an acoustic guitar lick that attached itself to your brain. Naturally, it went straight to No. 1.

Then the deluge began.

The Everly Brothers, freshly relocated to Warner Bros. Records, hit the Top 10 with "Ebony Eyes," about a plane crash. Roy Orbison -- his voice, as usual, edged with tragedy -- offered "Leah," his tale of a lost love. (Orbison never says whether Leah has died, but given that he's just had a dream about his own death, one assumes the worst.)

Dickey Lee's "Patches" (no relation to Clarence Carter's song of the same title) drowned. J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers hit No. 2 with "Last Kiss," featuring a horrific car accident. Jan and Dean took Sunset Boulevard too fast in 1964's "Dead Man's Curve" -- though, in the song, they were fortunate enough to live to tell the tale (however, a real accident nearly killed Jan Berry two years later).

And then there was the "Leader of the Pack," who speeds off on his motorcycle, gets in a terrible sound-effects-laden accident and leaves the Shangri-Las pining for their tough guy from the wrong side of town.

Perhaps "Leader," with Shadow Morton's over-the-top production, was too much to be taken seriously. Or maybe the trend had just run its course.

Whatever the reason, parodies soon emerged -- the Detergents' "Leader of the Laundromat," Jimmy Cross' sick "I Want My Baby Back" (like the Hoodoo Gurus years later, he wants to dig her up) -- and the teen death song more or less faded away.

(Unfortunately for pop music listeners, adult death songs -- as in "Love Story"-type things -- didn't go away: Witness Bobby Goldsboro's 1968 "Honey," Terry Jacks' 1974 "Seasons in the Sun" and Austin Roberts' 1976 "Rocky," the latter of which was not about the boxer.)

Ace Records has collected 24 of these songs, about teen death and other demises, in "Dead!: The Grim Reaper's Greatest Hits," enough to make even rock 'n' roll aficionados want to put on Up with People.

Eye on Entertainment gets some headphones.


Ace's collection is fairly comprehensive, with some of the songs listed above as well as the Shangri-Las' "Give Us Your Blessings," Twinkle's "Terry" and Jack Kittel's grim "Psycho." (Not included: the Buoys' cannibal tale "Timothy" or the Shangri-Las' blissfully haunting "Past, Present and Future.")

There are certain themes running through these songs. Some echo the Appalachian murder ballad, though turned inside out. Some are about mismatched, "Romeo and Juliet"-type relationships. Many feature car accidents, which makes you wonder what was going on in the car beforehand.

The liner notes to "Dead!" quote Peter Blecha's book "Taboo Tunes," noting that authorities were concerned that death songs -- even novelty hits such as Nervous Norvus' "Transfusion" -- would inspire kids to kill themselves. Their panic led stations to ban certain songs, which -- in the time-honored rock 'n' roll manner -- only made them more popular.

Some of these songs have had a surprisingly long afterlife. "Last Kiss" was notably remade by Pearl Jam; "Leader of the Pack" (not included on "Dead!", but if you don't have a copy, buy a Shangri-Las greatest hits immediately) has been done by Bette Midler, Melissa Etheridge and Twisted Sister.

It all makes for entertaining listening. Just get in a happy mood before you put on the disc.

"Dead!: The Grim Reaper's Greatest Hits" was released in the United Kingdom in mid-March; it's due in the United States by mid-April.

On screen

  • In "Ice Age 2: The Meltdown," the Ice Age is ending and a flood is coming. What will the prehistoric friends do? The sequel to the 2002 hit again features the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo and Denis Leary, and now Queen Latifah joins the cast. And Scrat the prehistoric squirrel is there, too. Opens Friday.
  • "Basic Instinct 2" brings back Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell, now in London and wanted again for bad, bad things. Opens Friday.
  • "ATL" features four teens, hip-hop and roller-skating. It opens Friday.
  • "Slither" appears to be a throwback horror film with comic elements: Angry otherworldly slugs bite people and turn them into monsters. No doubt the people would rather be in "Tremors." The film opens Friday.
  • On the tube

  • Two MTV2 shows that take parody and self-parody to the nth degree, "The Andy Milonakis Show" and "Wonder Showzen," get their second-season premieres. 9 p.m. ET Friday, MTV2.
  • Jack Black hosts Nickelodeon's "19th Annual Kids' Choice Awards." 8 p.m. ET Saturday, Nickelodeon.
  • It's election night on "The West Wing," 8 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC.
  • It's a fine weekend for sports: The men's and women's Final Fours decide the country's Division I college basketball champions, and baseball's sweetest, most promising day -- Opening Day -- gets the season off right. The men's Final Four airs on CBS on Saturday and Monday nights; the women's on ESPN on Sunday and Tuesday; and baseball games will air on ESPN and a variety of local and regional networks.
  • Sound waves

  • "At War With the Mystics" (Warner Bros.), the new Flaming Lips album, comes out Tuesday.
  • "Me and My Gang" (Lyric Street) by Rascal Flatts comes out Tuesday.
  • Morrissey offers up "Ringleader of the Tormenters" (Sanctuary) Tuesday.
  • Pink's latest, "I'm Not Dead" (LaFace), comes out Tuesday.
  • The new album by the 5 Browns, "No Boundaries" (RCA), comes out Tuesday.
  • Looking to relive those days of hair bands and male makeup? Your old vinyl copy of "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" all worn out? Your prayers are answered: "The Best of Poison" (Capitol) comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • "Poet's Choice" (Harcourt), a collection and analysis of poetry compiled by Edward Hirsch, comes out Tuesday.
  • Stephen Harrigan's new novel, "Challenger Park" (Knopf), concerns a pair of married astronauts with a troubled marriage; how they cope with space, in its many forms, is a theme of the book. It comes out Wednesday.
  • "California: America's High-Stakes Experiment" (University of California Press), by Peter Schrag, describes how the country's most populous state has been a leader in progressive government, a bellwether on issues (witness tax cuts and immigration) -- and a warning about the ways it can all fall apart. It comes out Saturday.
  • Video center

  • "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" gets its DVD release Tuesday.
  • "Brokeback Mountain" comes out on video Tuesday -- and the film that beat it for best picture, "Crash," gets a special two-disc director's cut edition that day.
  • One of the most renowned TV variety specials of all time, Liza Minnelli's "Liza With a Z," gets a DVD release Tuesday.
  • "New York Doll" is the story of the late Arthur "Killer" Kane, onetime member of the New York Dolls, who found himself drawn to religion after the band's breakup -- and then was pulled out of obscurity by Morrissey. The film comes out on DVD Tuesday.
  • "The Mel Brooks Box Set Collection" is both a comedy festival and an illustration of decline: the eight-movie set starts with "The Twelve Chairs," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" and runs through "Robin Hood: Men in Tights." (It gets bonus points, though, for not including "Life Stinks" or "Spaceballs.") Still, this is some of the funniest stuff ever produced by Hollywood -- and it's always nice to see Brooks perform "High Anxiety" in all its hotel-lounge glory. The box comes out Tuesday.
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