Everybody knows the song “Last Kiss.” Everybody’s heard it at least once, and after they do, they tend to remember it. The haunting refrain “Oh Where Oh Where Can My Baby Be?” just stays with you, cuts through whatever else is going on around you and makes you listen a little closer. It makes you feel the all-encompassing sense of loss, just a little, but harder. The song tells the all too tragically common story of a car accident. Simply. No frills, no pretensions, just pure, sadly beautiful loss.
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Most people these days know “Last Kiss” by Pearl Jam’s cover, which was a smash hit in 1999, peaking at No. 2 on Billboard’s charts to become the band’s highest grossing single ever.
This was the first version I heard, and though the lyrics stayed with me, there was something about this souped up alt-rock version that struck me as inauthentic, that just rubbed me the wrong way. My suspicion was validated when I heard that it was a cover, and in fact, one in a long and storied line of them. The song was first written in 1961 by a soul/country singer named Wayne Cochran, who lived in rural Georgia near Barnesville.
He had already been planning a song about one of the car accidents that were so common on the area’s dark and poorly paved roadways, when a teenage couple, the subject of the song, out on a date on a rainy night in December, fatally struck a tractor trailer. The tune was a local hit, and in 1964, a Texas record company bought and re-recorded it with J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers. It was nationally released to instant commercial success. Thereafter, “Last Kiss” became something of a 20th Century American folk ballad, a part of the collective musical repertoire, picked up again in 1973 by the Canadian group Wednesday, and again and again by dozens of South American groups. The song clearly strikes a collective nerve. There’s a purity in the singer’s bafflement– a helplessness in the face of random death. The listener may not believe that he lost “the love of his life,” but the unadorned innocence of the statement only makes it more poignant. The song strikes you as a story that just needed to be told, no matter how common it is, and while it might depress you momentarily, it will perhaps comfort you with more consideration. Death is one of the only truly universal facts of life. It touches all of us at one point or another, but when it does, we too easily convince ourselves that no one else could understand. The enduring effectiveness of “Last Kiss,” which you can see in the faces of every person who hears it, no matter who plays it, should put the lie to this belief.