I was cruisin’ in my Stingray late one night
When an XKE pulled up on the right
And rolled down the window of his shiny new Jag
And challenged me then and there to a drag.
--"Dead Man’s Curve,”
Jan & Dean, 1964
Teenage street racers of the early 1960s were especially drawn to the tortuous section of Sunset Boulevard that borders Bel-Air Estates. The road runs two lanes in each direction, rising and dipping as it twists between tall clusters of trees.
An urban legend grew out of the illicit races there: that singer Jan Berry was almost killed in a car crash on the same curve that inspired the hit song.
The tale is not entirely true. Berry did crash his Corvette Stingray in 1966, two years after the hit reached No. 8 on the national charts, by slamming into the back of a gardener’s truck. The accident left him with permanent injuries, including difficulty speaking and walking. But the truck was parked south of Sunset, a few miles from Dead Man’s Curve.
“It was close enough--as close as most urban legends go,” says Dean O. Torrence, the other half of the Jan & Dean duo. “He may have even gone through Dead Man’s Curve to get where he was.”
The location of Dead Man’s Curve has been another subject of misinformed conjecture, but Torrence, who now lives in Huntington Beach, is unequivocal: It is a sloping corner of Sunset just north of UCLA’s Drake Stadium and just west of a tiny cross street called Groverton Place.
The curve is most dangerous traveling east, Torrence says. Eastbound, a driver reaches the curve after a long downhill, then must bank sharply left or crash through a stand of trees into the athletic fields.
In writing the song, however, the artists wanted to incorporate famed locations in Hollywood, so they turned their fictional race to the west. “Let’s come off the line, now, at Sunset and Vine,” they wrote in lyrics that describe a race that would have been nine miles long. “But I’ll go you one better if you’ve got the nerve / Let’s race all the way to Dead Man’s Curve.”
We both popped the clutch when the light turned green
You shoulda heard the whine from my screamin’ machine
I flew past LaBrea, Schwab’s, and Crescent Heights
And all the Jag could see were my six taillights.
Mel Blanc was nearly killed at the curve in what remains the most noted accident there. The comic voice of “Bugs Bunny” and “Daffy Duck” was 52 in January 1961 when he descended the hill at 9:30 one night traveling eastbound.
His sports car collided head-on with the car of an 18-year-old college student. Blanc had to be freed from the wreckage, unconscious after suffering head injuries, a broken pelvis and two broken legs.
He later filed a $510,000 lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, alleging design negligence that could cause even a safe driver to lose control and cross the center line.
The claim was ultimately settled for $25,000, but the accident drew widespread attention. Only a day later, as Blanc still lay in critical condition, the city Board of Public Works approved costly changes in the banking of the turn. A city engineer testified that in two years there had been 26 accidents, including three deaths.
Jan & Dean at the time were barely 20 years old, new to the charts and part of a youth culture that craved souped-up cars and customized hot rods. That culture was largely bred in Los Angeles. It fed on street races and the outlandish machines of automobile designers such as George Barris and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
“Most of the cars that teenagers owned were some kind of high-performance cars,” says Torrence, who figures he raced several hundred times on Sunset. That was how the youths of the day expressed themselves.
Blanc’s accident was still on their minds when the singers decided to follow their No. 1 hit, “Surf City,” by recording a car song. “Dead Man’s Curve” was released in 1964 and won critical praise not so much for its content as for the arrangement and instrumentation--the use of horns, strings, castanets, even a harp.
“We had no idea,” Torrence says, “that these records would be played for 40 years.”
Dead Man’s Curve, it’s no place to play
Dead Man’s Curve, you must keep away
Dead Man’s Curve, I can hear ‘em say:
Won’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve
Despite the removal of the roadway crown and the raising of the outer lanes, Dead Man’s Curve remains a difficult turn on a treacherous road. The five-mile stretch through Bel-Air and Beverly Hills is filled with undulations that challenge BMWs, Jaguars and Porsches.
“There’s a lot of accidents on Sunset, all over the place,” says Los Angeles Police Department motorcycle Officer John Bigrigg, who has clocked drivers coming down the hill toward the curve--a posted 35-mph zone--at more than 60 mph.
A paved walkway borders the curve, just below the guardrail and a stand of pine trees, where UCLA students stroll from class to class. Most have never heard of Dead Man’s Curve or Jan & Dean.
“I have no clue,” says Ryan Martin, 22, a senior who listens to Disturbed, Stone Temple Pilots and Incubus.
Freshman Jeff Clay, 18, is another Incubus fan who also likes Creed. Jan & Dean? “What are they exactly?” he asks. “Old singers?”
Yes, and still singing, despite Berry’s injuries. Not long ago, he went blind in one eye. He sits through most of his songs. But the duo is playing in Chicago in mid-December and is planning a New Year’s Eve concert in Honolulu. The singers--and the piece of L.A. geography they immortalized--are being honored through January in an exhibit called “Cars & Guitars” at Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard.
In a hall with Elton John’s chrome-grilled 1949 Delahaye convertible and Janis Joplin’s psychedelic 1965 Porsche Cabriolet sit a Corvette Stingray and a Jaguar XKE, each a gleaming red. A map and sign tell the story of Dead Man’s Curve. A few of the lyrics are inscribed on the wall.
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.