In 9th grade I set my hair on fire. “Your head’s smoking!” yelled Katherine O’Bryan. She had an enormous mouth and I could see her uvula as she delivered the dire news. Immediately, I began to regret having taken Erin’s advice—side swept bangs were a terrible idea. But turning the Bunsen burner on high was a worse idea. An assortment of honors science students patted down the flames and later, I rode the light rail home. My bangs were charred and I smelled like the seniors who smoked Parliaments on the front lawn—but without the rebellious allure. High school was everything but rebellious; I swam on the varsity team, participated in a National History Day competition, took the fattest boy from my Jewish middle school to prom and then graduated. I spent a lot of high school wishing I was one of the cigarette smoking kids. They wore torn jeans and said things like “I don’t know what to do anymore. Except maybe die.” And they meant it. But the truth was, I wasn’t like those kids at all, I only smelled like them.
Even now, three years out of high school, I still get the same starry eyes thinking of the teenage vigilante, defying their parents and championing young love. This is what drew me to The Shangri-Las. The quartet, comprised of two sets of sisters (Mary Weiss, Betty Weiss and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser), were the bad-girls of the 1960’s pop scene. While, similar in sound to The Ronettes and The Shirelles, The Shangri-Las’ songs contain controversial content that would rival today’s soap operas. The band’s famous single, “Leader of the Pack,” is the story of a sensitive delinquent who fatally crashes his motorcycle after his girlfriend's parents force them apart. “Leader of the Pack,” like many of the group’s other songs, features a dramatic, spoken verse. The spoken verse contains a theatrical element that helps construct the perfect teenage melodrama; one that captures how important things feel at an age when little is truly important. So when Mary Weiss describes her last interaction with the motorcycle misfit--“He sort of smiled and kissed me goodbye/The tears were beginning to show/As he drove away on that rainy night/I begged him to go slow/But whether he heard, I'll never know”--each girl sitting on the light rail home, for two minutes and fifty-two seconds, can live in an alternate reality on the “wrong side of the tracks.”
Many modern-day miscreants have been influenced by The Shangri-Las’ bad girl rep. Most notable is Blondie’s cover of the song “Out in the Streets” and most recent is the Black Lips’ 2007 album Good Bad Not Evil whose title references a spoken line in the song “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” describing a teenage boy. Whether it’s Debbie Harry or my fourteen -year-old self, everyone needs a little leather-jacket-wearing, real-close-dancing, Shangri-Las rebellion. So, go ahead, pick up a greatest hits album, drive back to your high school and smoke a cigarette on the front lawn.