Look Out! Look Out! Look Out! Look Out!: Musings on Leader of the Pack

Let us now turn our attention to that great Shangri-Las record, “Leader of the Pack.” We know what happened to Jimmy. But what of the song’s narrator?

They told me he was bad, but I knew he was sad.

As you recall, Betty was the last to see Jimmy alive. It’s unclear from the lyrics if she witnessed the crash; the cries of “look out!” imply she saw the whole thing, but one must assume he had to build up enough speed to make his rain-induced wipeout fatal, suggesting he was already far away when he met his end. (In this case, is Betty crying “look out!” in her sleep, or under hypnosis?)

No matter. Jimmy is dead either way, and Betty bears the guilt. It’s here her life can take two possible turns. The first finds her eventually placing the blame on her father, who insisted on the breakup. Dad’s prejudices, Betty would come to decide, led to the events which in turn led to the crash. Betty becomes alienated from her family, finds comfort in Jimmy’s friends from the wrong side of town, and is introduced to a much harder lifestyle. She drops out of high school, bums rides across the country, and winds up in Haight-Ashbury just in time for the Summer of Love. But there is no love for Betty, whose nihilism prevents her from finding any joy from sex or drug use, although she engages in both frequently to numb the pain. Alone and angry, she dies of a heroin overdose in a filth-ridden biker bar bathroom in 1971.

OK, so that’s probably a bit much. And rather unlikely, considering Betty isn’t actually much of a rebel at all. Sure, she’s attracted to the dark-and-dangerous Jimmy, but she insists sees his softness, that quiet, thoughtful side nobody else can see. It’s a typical “bad boy” crush. If she truly had a rebellious streak, she would’ve stood up to her father instead of caving in so immediately. No, Betty is a good girl, and remains a good girl long after Jimmy’s demise.

Which makes the second and more probable possible turn the much sadder one. Betty makes it through high school more or less fine. Despite spending the next year or two being the girl at whom everyone stops and stares (and, of course, talks about as soon as she’s out of earshot), she gets by thanks to plenty of therapy (which adds to her “weird girl” reputation, but her loving parents know it’s needed) and friendship (courtesy of the girls who get the picture). College gives her the freedom to start over; no one knows of her past there. No longer the “weird girl,” she’s asked out on plenty of dates and eventually meets the man she eventually marries. She spends the 70s as a homemaker and mother, the 80s and 90s in the world of big business. Today she is a successful grandmother.

But none of it gives her much joy. College allowed her to bury the secret of Jimmy, and she never bothered to un-bury it. She’s told no one, not her husband, not her children, not her friends, not her co-workers. Not even her doctor, as she gave up therapy long ago. It’s a secret which overwhelms her; she’s never escaped the guilt. She’s still convinced, five decades later, that she’s to blame. She wakes up in cold sweats, having once again dreamt of that rainy night, and she has no one to talk it through. She loves her husband, but not the way she loved Jimmy. She’s a shadow of a past she can never escape, haunted and alone.

Song’s not much fun any more, is it?

(Third possibility: Betty meets the narrator of “Dead Man’s Curve” at a support group and live happily ever after.)

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