For songwriters, there's something especially enticing and gruesome about a vehicular crash. From the sweet-sounding drag-race death tunes of the '60s to the real-life account of Kanye West's life-threatening accident in 2002, pop music is filled with cautionary tales about how not to behave on bikes, in cars, and around railway tracks.
For an alarming number of people, though, those catchy tragedies are a gruesome reality. Six people die on Canadian roads every single day, according to the Canadian Council of Motor Transportation Administrators. Many more face life-changing injuries.
In an effort to memorialize those people, and to bring greater attention to road safety in general, the CCMTA has declared November 21 National Day of Remembrance for Road Crash Victims. So in honor of that day, we've assembled 11 of the most heartbreaking and harrowing songs about car crashes ranging from The Shangri-Las to Bruce Springsteen to Radiohead.
Jan and Dean "Dead Man's Curve"
Sixites surf rock duo Jan and Dean warn of the horrors of drag racing in their 1964 hit "Dead Man's Curve." What starts out as a friendly, testosterone-laden race between a Sting Ray and a Jaguar soon turns tragic, as the driver of the former recounts: "The last thing I remember, Doc, I started to swerve/ 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/ Won't come back from Dead Man's Curve." Jan Berry himself had a near-fatal car accident two years after the song was released. <a href="www.snopes.com/music/songs/deadman.asp">Contrary to urban legend</a>, though, that crash did not happen at Dead Man's Curve.
Bruce Springsteen "Wreck on the Highway"
In this particularly melancholy number from the generally melancholy<em> The River</em> album, The Boss sings as a man who comes across the aftermath of a crash on the highway. "There was blood and glass all over/ and there was nobody there but me/ as the rain tumbled down hard and cold/ I seen a young man lying by the side of the road/ He cried Mister, won't you help me please," he recounts. After an ambulance comes to take the young man away, the narrator is left to wonder if "a girlfriend or a young wife" would be getting bad news from the state trooper that night.
Pearl Jam "Last Kiss"
Written by Wayne Cochrane and popularized by J. Frank Wilson and The Cavaliers, and more recently Pearl Jam, "Last Kiss" is perhaps the most famous teen tragedy driving song. The tune follows a boy who borrows his dad's car to take his girl out. Not long into their date, they come across a car stalled in the middle of the road and the driver is forced to swerve. When he regains consciousness, he struggles to find his "baby" among the wreckage. He does eventually find her, but only in time to give her one last kiss before she passes away. In the chorus, he declares that "She's gone to heaven, so I've got to be good/ So I can see my baby when I leave this world."
Kanye West "Through the Wire"
West recorded his breakthrough hit about the near-fatal car crash he suffered and the way it forced him to reevaluate his life just two weeks after the accident occurred -- while his broken jaw was still wired shut. Wryly rapping about living on Ensure and pancake syrup, West recounts nearly dying at the same hospital as Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, the reconstructive surgery he endured, and his efforts to recover both his physical health and career prospects to the tune of Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire."
Radiohead "Killer Cars" & "Airbag"
In "Killer Cars" Thom Yorke and crew meditate on some of the worst case scenarios that could happen in traffic with lines like "this could be the last time you see me alive/ there could be an idiot on the road" and "I couldn't cope if you crashed today." In "Airbag," the titular object provides a happier ending as Yorke sings "In a fast German car/ I'm amazed that I survived/ an airbag saved my life."
The Shangri-Las "Leader of the Pack"
In the girl group's most enduring and third most morbid hit, they sing about Jimmy, the leader of a local motorcycle game who comes to an unfortunate end when his girlfriend is forced to break up with him and he speeds away in tears. "As he drove away on that rainy night, I begged him to go slow," the girl recalls. 'Whether he heard, I'll never know." The Shangri-Las also sang about a fatal crying-related crash in "Give Us Your Blessings." In that song, another Jimmy and his girlfriend Mary try to elope against their parents' wishes and die when they fail to see a detour sign on the road, further cementing the group's strong anti-emotional driving (and anti-Jimmy) stance.
Simple Plan, "Untitled (How Could This Happen To Me?)"
Pop punks Simple Plan wrote "Untitled," a song about a teenager who is hit by a drunk driver, after a number of friends and acquaintances died under similar circumstances. The video takes the story a step further, exploring both the young woman's final moments and the impact that her death has on her loved ones. As the band themselves said, "When an accident happens, there are more victims than people think, and many lives are changed forever... Parents, brothers, sisters and sons and daughters, grandparents... everybody feels the impact. We wanted to tell a story with this video: the story about the innocent lives affected by drinking and driving." Mothers Against Drunk Driving used the song in one of their campaigns.
KISS "Detroit Rock City"
Glam rockers KISS wrote "Detroit Rock City" as a tribute to a fan of theirs who died on the way to one of the band's shows. Telling the story from the victim's perspective, the song begins with the narrator getting pumped up for the concert and speeding down the road to the venue, but quickly veers into darker territory with the haunting final verse: "There's a truck ahead, lights starin' at my eyes/ Oh my God, no time to turn/ I got to laugh 'cause I know I'm gonna die/ Why."
Mark Dinning "Teen Angel"
In this song that was originally banned by British radio for being too morbid, '60s pop crooner Mark Dinning mourns a young woman who was hit by a train. Although the singer originally rescues the teen angel after his car becomes stranded on a set of railway tracks, he can't stop her from running back to the vehicle to retrieve something. It proves to be a fatal mistake and the authorities reportedly find the dead girl clutching his high school ring.
Barenaked Ladies "Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel"
Happy-go-lucky goofballs Barenaked Ladies took a turn for the macabre with this song. In a distant tone, the narrator of the track takes listeners through his final moments, detailing his last thoughts, the crash itself ("No commotion, no screaming brakes/ Most of it's over before I awake"), and the failed efforts by responders to use Jaws of Life. "I've never seen so much/ so much blood," he admits toward the end.
Meat Loaf "Bat Out of Hell"
Inspired by classic teen tragedy tracks like "Leader of the Pack," composer and longtime Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman wanted to write the most epic car crash song of all time. He certainly succeeded with the somewhat graphic "Bat out of Hell," which details a biker's quest to get out of town as fast as possible and the inevitable accident that leaves him "dying at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun, torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike." Steinman and the Loaf also address a plane crash that was responsible for the death of a friend in "Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are."