They were the ultimate New York band of the sixties: four Catholic schoolgirls from Queens with leather vests and abandonment issues who sang beautifully arranged pop operas involving death by motorcycle (“Leader of the Pack”), death by car accident (“Give Us Your Blessings”), and death in general (“I Can Never Go Home Anymore”), along with the occasional ecstatic valentine involving the clomping of boots and the blowing of kisses.
The Shangri-Las turned teen angst into dark and spiky pop art, and even as the campy vroom-vroom! of their biggest hit became a starting point for junior-high talent shows everywhere, the group’s influence cut deep and wide. They were patron saints of the CBGB crowd—Blondie, the New York Dolls, and Johnny Thunders covered their songs; the Ramones took notes—and their mix of hooks and heartbreak has filtered down into the furthest reaches of alt-country and emo.
The lead singer was a 15-year-old named Mary Weiss. She wore her hair long, her pants off the men’s rack, and her heart on her billowy sleeve. In 1964, she screamed “Look out!” over and over as her biker boyfriend ate the pavement—all the way to No. 1. Four years later, the band itself had eaten it, run down by the sort of vituperative litigation that ridiculously successful bands staffed by minors always seem to generate. Next week, at age 58, she’s releasing Dangerous Game, marking one of the rock era’s longest hibernations and most anticipated comebacks. “I think people are expecting me to come out onstage in a walker,” says Weiss over lunch at the old-school Chinese restaurant she insisted on meeting me in near the United Nations—and across the street from her former apartment. “But they don’t realize how young I was back then.”
When it all started, Weiss, her older sister (a Bardot doppelgänger named Betty), and two of their friends (twin sisters Mary Ann and Margie Ganser) were singing at school dances. Nothing had come of their first demo. Then they were introduced to aspiring songwriter-producer George “Shadow” Morton. It was the era when the Brill Building songwriters reigned supreme over the American bandstand, and Morton decided he would impress two of the Brill gurus, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, by cutting a demo with the girls. The song, “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” was loaded with seagull sound effects and hit No. 5. (Years later, Aerosmith covered it and Weiss sang backup.)
Weiss speaks in terse and low tones, Garbo with a Queens honk. She grew up in “kind of downscale” Cambria Heights. “My father died right after I was born, and my mother didn’t do much of anything,” she says. “I had a fairly rotten childhood. Lived in abject poverty. Always fended for myself. I didn’t really have a childhood; I was supporting myself from the time I was 14.”
But Weiss never thought of herself as hardened. “I’ve heard we were tough, and I just find that so hilarious,” she says. “If you really look at the old tapes, I don’t think that word would even come up. I saw a clip recently and I sound like—” She makes a whimpering noise. “How do you get tough out of that? It makes me laugh. People liked to put people in boxes back then, especially the girls. Maybe it was the boots. Do these make me look tough?” she asks, hoisting an intimidating black heel to table height.
“Leader of the Pack,” their second hit, featured revving motorcycles, screeching tires, crashing glass, and an infamous adenoidal spoken-word intro. Its success led to a string of bubblegum Grand Guignol. In “Give Us Your Blessings,” Weiss begs her parents for approval to marry her boyfriend; the two drive off to their deaths—the song implies that their prodigious weeping might have affected their driving—leaving the parents to sob over their rain-soaked bodies. In “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” a girl contemplates running away, inspiring her mother to die. But “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”—mwah!— and “Right Now and Not Later” were among the most buoyant songs of the time. There were war-bound boyfriends (“Long Live Our Love”) and bad-boy crushes to be analyzed (“He’s good bad,” went the interlude, “but he’s not evil”).
In an era that never lacked for overcooked melodrama, the Shangri-Las stood out because of Weiss’s vulnerable delivery. Today, to listen to “Out in the Streets”—in which a girl cleans up her hoodlum boyfriend, then realizes his soul has died and she has to let him go—is to swoon in pop dolor: “He used to act bad / Used to, but he quit it / It makes me so sad / ’Cause I know that he did it for me.” The group’s last top-100 song, “Past, Present and Future,” released in 1966, is an entirely spoken-word piece set to swirling piano and strings. It has also been interpreted to be about date rape, which Weiss says is nonsense. “It’s about being hurt and angsty and not wanting anyone near you.”