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Pickle Me This

October 23, 2017

Leader of the Pack Conspiracy Theories

The whole thing just sounds incredibly dodgy to me: “I met him at the candy store,” Betty explains to her friends. “You get the picture?” But no; we don’t. Because what kind of self-respecting motorcyclist, let alone one who rises through the ranks to become the actual leader of the pack hangs around at a candy store? The very idea is embarrassing. What was he buying: Big League Chew? Unless it’s a candy store that’s a front for a pedophile ring, or something else just as sinister.

“Hey, Betty, are those Popeye cigarettes you’re smoking?” “Uh, uh.” 

But before we go leaping down “Leader of the Pack” rabbit holes, I want to start at the very beginning, possibly a problem of chronology. Or else the ridiculous insensitivity of Betty’s “friends” who can’t stop talking about her boyfriend and say to her, “Gee, it must be great riding with him. Is he picking up up after school today?” Betty’s reply being negative. Because, obviously, he’s just been killed in a fiery crash, and her friends must have known about this because at school everyone stops and stares when Betty can’t hide the tears, and she doesn’t even care.

Are Betty’s friends just really really cruel and they’re merely toying with her in order to start her crying again? Are Betty’s rampant emotions just a game to them? Although another possibility is that in this era of boyfriends killed in fiery crashes (Teen Angel, Tommy who told Laura he loved her, and the poor fellow who was driving the Jaguar XKE in “Dead Man’s Curve”) Betty’s friends had come to take such incidents for granted, the same way we don’t think a lot about breathing, or gravity, and maybe Betty’s boyfriend’s recent tragic death had simply slipped their minds.

One important clue to the entire song lies in a lyric that follows Betty’s initial exchange with her friends, and after she recalls the way her folks were always putting him down, her friends pretending to play a supportive part by functioning as a literal echo chamber—and let me tell you, tonally speaking, there is something disingenuous about they way they ask her, “Whatcha mean they say he came from the wrong side of town?” Obviously, these girls know their local geography. Betty’s parents aren’t saying anything that Betty’s friends haven’t said amongst themselves. But can you blame them for their disloyalty? I’m not sure we can…

I’ve still not got to the clue yet, but bear with me. All this thinking about the complex and troubling narrative of “Leader of the Pack” has come about because my daughter is obsessed with the song (as I was at her age; it’s a song about boyfriends and candy, which is very appealing to eight-year-olds and a reason why eight-year-olds have a prime demographic of the terrible pop song “My Boy Lollipop” for decades now). And in thinking about “Leader of the Pack” in the context of having a daughter, the line that stands out for me is one that I sang with unawareness for years and years but which terrifies me now, and it is, “They told me he was bad; but I knew he was sad.”

There it is, in a nutshell.

I tell my daughter, “If you ever, ever, hear yourself uttering a line like that, don’t walk but RUN away from whatever relationship you’re in.” Never date someone who is bad but you know he’s really sad. Such knowledge is not actually knowledge at all, but instead it’s a delusion. If he’s really sad, you’re not going to be able to fix him, and then you’re going to have to spend the rest of your life riding sidecar to Melancholy Melvin, who cries all the time and hates your friends. And possibly everyone’s not wrong about him, and he really is bad—this is the Leader of the Pack who hangs out around the candy store, remember. He’s not even good at being Fake James Dean.

So what if Betty’s friends had heard her line about how she knows he’s sad, and decide there’s no other answer…but to mess with the brakes on Jimmy’s bike? Betty’s dad could also have in on the deal, making a point of informing his daughter that she has to find someone new on a day in which the weather forecast called for rain. The slippery streets and the messed up brakes meant that a crash would be inevitable. Though they’d all be also putting Betty at risk—presumably she’d be riding on his bike at some point, and maybe he’d even be picking her up from school that day…

Another suggestion is that Betty herself is responsible for Jimmy’s death, that her testimony about having begged him to go slow was completely a lie. I mean, she hadn’t even ensured that he’d heard her, right? So how earnest could she have been? Maybe the begging was a whisper in her mind. “I could speak this thought aloud,” she told herself, “or I could let him speed and die in a fiery crash, thereby freeing me from the burden of spending the rest of my life hitched to a biker who hangs around candy stores.” Betty’s obvious distress at Jimmy’s passing, as expressed in the song’s final verse, her inability to hide the tears, is mostly because Betty’s feeling guilty, but there is a part of her that also feels freed.

I wonder if the reality is more complicated, however, and doesn’t involve murder in the slightest. What if the entire song is the fantasy of a middle-aged Betty, living in the suburbs during the 1970s. She’s got five kids, one with special needs. Their ranch bungalow needs work and condensation keeps seeping in, fogging up the windows. The kids won’t stop bringing home puppies, and her eldest son is going to be drafted. Betty’s husband Jimmy can’t hold a job for more than a couple of months, and her parents have had to help them out time and time again. Jimmy’s teeth are in terrible shape from decades and decades of eating candy, but they can’t afford the dentist. He has a dream of opening a bike shop, working as a mechanic, but Betty’s lost her faith in Jimmy because his own bike’s been sitting in the carport for years and no matter how much time he spends fixing it, he can’t make the damn thing start. If the bike only started, Betty thinks, maybe her sad sorry husband could ride away, out of their life, and she’d stand a chance at a fresh start on her own.

“Leader of the Pack, and now he’s gone,” is the song’s final refrain, and the meaning is doubled here. First, as a projection, a thought about what could have been if Betty had been able to listen to her dad and break up with Jimmy—but she was already pregnant with their first child by this point, totally craving sugar, and Jimmy always had candy, which kept her coming back for more. What if things had been different, Betty wonders, almost able to see the hypothetical fiery crash in her mind, and hear the thing she  might have shouted: “Look out, look out, look out!” Or possibly she wouldn’t have shouted at all. (Also, what was he supposed to be looking out for anyway? So much goes unsaid in this scenario.)

But the refrain is also a more mundane reflection of her 1970s’ reality, about how Betty’s archetypal husband has morphed from a badass biker dude into a sad wreck of a failed mechanic whose white undershirts are stained yellow now and whose leather jacket is in tatters.

“Leader of the Pack, and now he’s gone,” and is he ever, thinks Betty, who is contemplating better things, the return to fashion of shoulder pads, and getting a job as a career gal in the city.

5 thoughts on “Leader of the Pack Conspiracy Theories”

  1. Beth Kaplan says:

    Fabulous and poignant, your deconstruction of this seminal song of our youth. Or at least, MY youth, as I am considerably older. I feel the need to point out, grasshopper, that in the day, candy stores were also soda fountains – that is, they had round seats and milkshake makers and maybe even BOOTHS. So, not just candy. I hope I have not blown your mind. Did you see the Carole King musical that was in town recently? So wonderful, those old songs. And will you love me tomorrow?

  2. Linda Costain says:

    Or, to be more negative, candy store may also refer to cocaine distribution at the local drugstore/soda fountain. Jimmy is obviously a genuine leader of a cocaine ring and was probably going too fast because the police were after him…
    All parents breathed a sigh of relief and Betty grew up to look back at her narrow escape.

    1. Kerry says:

      TERRIFYING!! Betty is so lucky…

  3. theresa says:

    As a young teen, I have to say I loved this song. I was afraid of motorcycles (fell off the back of my brother’s as he drove me to the stables for my riding lesson. Ouch), didn’t like the cigarette-box-rolled-in-the-sleeve look, but my parents did forbid me from dating a boy who was 5 years older and whom I had to meet “secretly” when they were out and though he wasn’t particularly bad (just older), I related to Betty and her tragic situation. And now, nearly 50 years later, I still remember all the words.

    1. Kerry says:

      There is something so compelling about the narrative of the song, and the different voices, don’t you think? I was as obsessed with it as Harriet is now (and that I managed to write 1000 words about it, even tongue-in-cheek, suggests there is something of substance here).

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