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Foreign Movies

         Movies almost always had happy endings, unless they were foreign.
         —Andrew Grant Jackson, 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music


         What's with you foreigners? We don't like that downer crap over here.
Oh, wait, we do: when the Shangri-Las recorded "The Leader of the Pack"
         in 1964, it shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and not because
Jimmy and his girl Betty rode off together on his motorcycle and lived
         happily ever after, either, since her folks were always putting him down
(down, down) and saying he came from the wrong side of town,
         so when she had to say goodbye, all she could do was cry, I'm sorry

         I hurt you, the Leader of the Pack—easy words to sing, surely, though
getting all that pain across is another matter altogether, which is why,
         before Jimmy rides off to get killed as lead singer Mary Weiss
sings "Look out! Look out! Look out!" producer Jeff Barry has to psych her up
         until she bursts into tears at the story of the tough biker
who's really a softie at heart and the girl who somehow knows she'll never
         see him again. Right now I'm the only customer in this restaurant,

         meaning I have time to think that surely none of us is in favor of tragedy
as depicted in "The Leader of the Pack," the best-known example
         of the teenage road death song (also called "death disc"
and "splatter platter"). But while on the surface it sounds like a song
         for a girl audience, it's really a song for guys: masculine self-pity has
sold more records than any other emotion. Mainly, it's about
         thwarted love, and every member of every audience has felt that.

         I sip coffee and think, they like to cry, the people. To them, sorrow is a drug
or pharmakon, as the old Greeks had it, both remedy and poison, like
         alcohol, which makes us happy but then stupid, or football, which builds
character—you get knocked down, you get back up—yet scrambles our brains.
         Poet Erica Bernheim says,"I would like motorcycles so much better if they
didn't exist." You could say the same for thwarted love, yet who among us
         has not had his or her heart broken, and who does not think that he or she

         is a much better him or her as a result of that experience, even though
he or she didn't especially enjoy it at the time? According to Blake,
         "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man
as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro'
        narrow chinks of his cavern." Maybe foreign movies are right to end unhappily.
Is Jimmy going to sweep Betty up and marry her and have a bunch
         of greaser kids and start a successful chain of motorcycle sales

         and repair shops, or is he going to run a stop sign and be turned into
hamburger by some sleep-deprived trucker in an 18-wheel rig?
         You just don't know. I'm still the only customer in this restaurant,
but as I'm settling up, the door flies open, and eight sunburned golfers
         fall through it, and it's obvious that they've already served themselves
liberally at the clubhouse's "nineteenth hole," so I ask the waitress if
         she's ready for this, and she says, "I'm never ready. I just go with it."


David Kirby

American Poetry Review

March/April 2017


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