The Leader of the Pack Is Back

Photo: Peter Hapak

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.”

The Shangri-Las in 1964. From left, Margie Ganser, reckless biker boyfriend, Mary Ann Ganser, and Mary Weiss (Betty Weiss not shown).Photo: Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

The band toured nonstop for four years, with a road manager barely out of his teens. After a man put his arm through the plate-glass window of her hotel room, Weiss bought a gun for protection, which resulted in her mother’s being visited by the FBI. “She must have loved that,” says Weiss with a laugh.

The band emerged late on the girl-group scene; Phil Spector protégées like the Crystals—who were even more hysterical, with songs like “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”—had peaked in the early sixties. The Shangri-Las essentially closed the genre down, pushing the teenage yearning and countercultural fixations of West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause as far the radio would allow (“Leader of the Pack” was banned by the BBC but proved irrepressible, hitting the U.K. charts three times and as late as 1976).

In 1968, after an attempted upgrade to Mercury Records resulted in two dud singles, the Shangri-Las disbanded amid legal issues that Weiss still cannot discuss. “My mother kind of signed my life away when I was 14,” she says. “I’m laughing. Thirty years of litigation. There’s a storeroom of litigation up to the ceiling … That’s one of the reasons I walked away. The litigation was much thicker than the music. I couldn’t go near another record label for ten years.”

The girl-group era was over anyway, replaced by something more band-driven and psychedelic. Perhaps obviously, she moved to San Francisco, where she spent a year and a half roller-skating through Golden Gate Park, pursuing “peace and love and all that hippie stuff—and floundering,” before returning to Manhattan (“Where else was I going to go?”) and living in weekly-rate hotels like the Warwick that were popular with musicians.

Eventually, she became a secretary at an architecture firm in midtown; later, she moved to a commercial furniture dealership. “I ran installation—all the techie stuff. When I left there, I was working on $20 million projects. The major project I worked on blew up during September 11. The landing gear came through the roof. They had asbestos, dioxin, mold growing everywhere—I walked through it with a mask on and cried.”

As for her former bandmates, Mary Ann Ganser died in 1971; conflicting accounts cite a drug overdose or a seizure. “And I’ll leave it that way. It doesn’t much matter anymore,” pronounces Weiss, sounding a bit like an intro to one of her old songs. Margie Ganser died of breast cancer in 1996. “It happens a lot,” says Weiss, sighing. “They get it, and then within five years—” Her sister is well but “doesn’t want to be a part of this,” says Weiss (Betty was an inconsistent member of the group, in any case).

The comeback was a long time coming. In 1977, Sire Records honcho Seymour Stein signed the three surviving Shangri-Las to record a new album, but a summer of recording sessions—capped by an impromptu gig at CBGB—displeased everyone involved and went into the vaults. Otherwise, she was too gun-shy from her legal experiences (which expanded to include a lawsuit against a promoter who had launched an impostor Shangri-Las act in the late eighties) to want to record.

Then last year, she had a chance meeting with Billy Miller, head of the Brooklyn indie label Norton, at a Rhino Records party for the girl-group boxed set One Kiss Can Lead to Another (it featured two Shangri-Las tracks). “I was a fan since the first record, which I remember hearing on WABC when I was 10 years old,” says Miller. “I followed every record they made. They were on TV a lot. It was the time of the British invasion, and it was just so unique that they were local. It was always stressed on TV that they were from New York City. Everybody on TV was either from Liverpool or California.” He e-mailed her and asked her if she wanted to go back into the studio. “The first thing I told her was I’m not interested in nostalgia. That’s what she wanted to hear, I think.”

“I always said I would do this once more,” she says. “And I didn’t feel like I wanted to—it just wasn’t right.” Still, the fans didn’t forget her; sometimes they went through her trash and showed up unannounced at her office. “When I walked away, it took me twelve years to get lost in the street and not be recognized.” After stints in Forest Hills and an eleven-year marriage that ended in 1985, Weiss now lives in Babylon, on Long Island, and has ducks on her front lawn. Her husband is a legal-case manager. (“I never thought I’d get married again,” she says. “I called it the M-word.”)

She decided to go for it. She listened to records in Miller’s Prospect Heights apartment. People wanted her to record their songs. “A lot of it was sort of dramatic—somebody drives off a cliff or something,” says Miller. “She said that’s nice—just don’t bring it up again.”

Dangerous Game contains a remake of the Shangri-Las “Heaven Only Knows.” It didn’t make it on the CD, but she’s dusting off a cover of the deliciously ambiguous “Train From Kansas City” to perform live. She’s not so sure she wants to play “Leader of the Pack” again.

“I wanted to do a mix of new with old,” Weiss says. “Why walk into the studio to do old things? What’s the point?”

She has been encouraged by social-networking Website MySpace. “I did my page myself. I didn’t want anyone else to touch it. I talk to people every day, and I go in and look at what young people are listening to. And their tastes are so all over the place and so sophisticated. They’re grounded. They’re listening to stuff from the forties, really good stuff! I went ‘Whoa,’ and thought, There’s room for me. But I didn’t know that before MySpace.”

She will play a show at Austin indie-music fest South by Southwest, and another in Cleveland; her New York City homecoming has yet to be scheduled. “I’m taking it very slowly,” she says. “Small steps. No rush.

“I just want to have fun now. And I’m going to. People can take advantage of you in your youth,” says Weiss. “And they’re not going to do it again. There are benefits to being a grown-up.”

The Leader of the Pack Is Back