Old Wives' Tales
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Claim: Jan Berry of Jan & Dean had a near-fatal automobile accident on the very same road the duo had sung about in their hit "Dead Man's Curve."
Origins: Many an American town has been home to a "dead man's curve"
Exactly where Los Angeles' version of "dead man's curve" can be found is the subject of some debate, but by general consensus it's a tight corner of Sunset Boulevard near the
The most renowned victim of Los Angeles' infamous curve was Mel Blanc, famous as the voice of
A few years later, in the summer of 1963, the singing duo of Jan & Dean (with help from the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson) topped the charts with "Surf City," and at the end of the year they scored another top ten hit with "Drag City." Looking to follow up their success with another single based on the familiar drag-racing theme, Jan Berry teamed with Roger Christian, a disc jockey turned songwriter who had co-written similarly themed Beach Boys car songs such as "Little Deuce Coupe." Christian came up with the idea for writing a song about a "dead man's curve" and structuring it as a narrative of a drag race:
I thought someone ought to write a song about Dead Man's Curve. I said, "Well, we ought to make it into a race," because Jan and I were really into racing. Every Saturday night we'd meet and go to Sunset andJan Berry and Roger Christian turned their real-life experiences (Berry figured he "raced several hundred times on Sunset") into lyrics about a drag race and its tragic aftermath, and Jan & Dean scored another top ten hit with their version of "Dead Man's Curve," which reached #8 on the Billboard chart in April 1964:
I was cruisin' in my Stingray late one nightRather then setting their fictional drag race at the site of the real "dead man's curve," however, Jan Berry and Roger Christian placed it more to the east — from Hollywood down the Sunset Strip, the portion of
when an XKE pulled up on the right
and rolled down the window of his shiny new Jag
and challenged me then and there to a drag.
I said, "You're on, buddy, my mill's runnin' fine.
Let's come off the line, now, at Sunset and Vine.
But I'll go you one better if you've got the nerve.
Let's race all the way to
Dead Man's Curve."
Dead Man's Curve, it's no place to play.
Dead Man's Curve, you must keep away.
Dead Man's Curve, I can hear 'em say:
"Won't come back from Dead Man's Curve."
The street was deserted late Friday night;
we were buggin' each other while we sat out the light.
We both popped the clutch when the light turned green;
you shoulda heard the whine from my screamin' machine.
I flew past LaBrea, Schwab's, and Crescent Heights,
and all the Jag could see were my six taillights.
He passed me at Doheny then I started to swerve,
But I pulled her out and there we were at
Dead Man's Curve.
The last verse of "Dead Man's Curve" was introduced by percussion effects reproducing the sounds of crashing cars, brass instruments sounding like automobile horns, and a harp glissando, all of which preceded a spoken dramatic interlude which interrupted the final repetition of the chorus:
Well - the last thing I remember, Doc, I started to swerveThe song — and especially this final verse — proved eerily prophetic two years later. On
And then I saw the Jag slide into the curve
I know I'll never forget that horrible sight
I guess I found out for myself that everyone was right
(Jan Berry did survive his ordeal, and although he suffered permanent brain damage that left him partially paralyzed on his right side and impaired his speech, he eventually recovered well enough to return to the stage with former partner Dean Torrence in 1978 for a summer tour as an opening act to the Beach Boys.)
The legendary aspect to this story has it that Jan Berry's accident occurred on the very same "dead man's curve" that he and Roger Christian had in mind when they wrote the song two years earlier, but the Beverly Hills side street where Berry ran his Stingray into a gardener's truck was in fact south of Sunset Blvd., a few miles away from the real location of "dead man's curve." Nonetheless, this minor difference in detail between legend and actual events might be overshadowed by the revelation that it was Jan Berry himself who was adamant the denouement of "Dead Man's Curve" be a terrible crash:
The weirdest part of the story: Roger didn't intend for "Dead Man's Curve" to be a "disaster" song at all — he wanted the race to end in a tie. But Jan, who wound up in a serious car accident in real life, insisted that the song end with a disastrous crash.Last updated: 23 May 2007
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