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Thursday, July 15, 2004
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Road scholar: Crash course


By Newt Briggs

Sure, it would be easy to compile a list of our favorite car songs. Cars are pretty, fast and unpredictable--the perfect fodder for songs of love and adoration. But as any paramedic will attest, they're also rolling boxes of horror and grisly, mangled death. As such, it seemed appropriate for the Mercury not to compile a list of its favorite car songs, but its favorite car crash songs. The screech of tires, the groan of sheet metal, the melodic tinkle of broken glass: No, this list will not include Dave Matthews' "Crash" or anything by the Crash Test Dummies, but it will have the Birthday Party and at least one song about a distraught young man digging up his dead lover's body. So strap on your safety belt and say a Hail Mary; this is guaranteed to be a bumpy--perhaps fatal--ride.

"Warm Leatherette," The Normal (1979): Although this song begins a little like a Dick and Jane primer ("See the breaking glass/ In the underpass"), it quickly turns into a rock 'n' roll death ballad worthy of Sid and Nancy: "A tear of petrol/ Is in your eye/ The hand brake/ Penetrates your thigh/ Quick, let's make love/ Before you die." Is that the sound of James Spader unzipping his trousers? (See Crash.)

"Understanding in a Car Crash," Thursday (2002): Leave it to the emo kids to turn a split second of underwear-soiling terror into a moment for deep thought and introspection: "Splintered piece of glass falls in the seat of gets caught/ These broken windows, open locks, reminders of the youth we lost." Makes you wonder what these chipper, young lads could have done with a murder-suicide.

"I Want My Baby Back," Jimmy Cross (1964): So apparently this dude was driving back from a Beatles concert with his special lady, and--to make a long story short--he got a little herky-jerky on the roadway and she did a graceful header onto the concrete. Anyway, it's never easy to lose a loved one (especially under such unpleasant circumstances), but what's a sad and lonely boy to do? Duh! Exhume his girlfriend's corpse in the middle of the night and pretend like nothing happened. For fans of the Southern Gothic, "I Want My Baby Back" is basically the rockabilly equivalent of William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily."

"Dead Joe," The Birthday Party (1982): It's not surprising that a morose motherfucker like Nick Cave would write one of the best car crash couplets ever: "Welcome to the car crash/ You can't tell the boys from the girls anymore."

"Motorist," Jawbox (1994): The story goes that Jawbox spent almost a month working on the first 20 seconds of "Motorist," which is totally cool because it sounds like the melodicore equivalent of a 17-car pileup on Chicago's Kennedy Expressway. "This is my wreck so let it be/ Cracked gauges carry messages for me."

"Leader of the Pack," The Shangri-Las (1964): Chances are, a lot of encyclopedia manufacturers and telemarketing companies still play "Leader of the Pack" at their year-end sales meetings, but this is actually quite a gloomy little song. In short: Jimmy is a misunderstood street tough. Betty sees him at the candy store. The two get it on. Betty's father doesn't like the idea of his daughter being defiled by a lowlife greaser punk. Jimmy drives fast in the rain. Jimmy dies. Betty cries (but likely goes on to marry the successful owner of a dry cleaning franchise in neighboring Bucksport).

"Car Crash," Avengers (1977): Okay, so Our Lady Peace and Powerman 5000 also did songs titled "Car Crash," but this is it, the greatest car crash song of all time. "You wrecked your car, you lost your head": Penelope Houston's haunting caterwaul makes a neck brace sound like a pair of crotchless panties. Why this song didn't turn the Avengers into the Northern California version of X will remain a mystery for the ages.

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