Nostalgic Trip to Surf City

Whenever I am at the Dollar store, I look at the book bin because they have books that are sometimes average or better to read, and they only cost a buck.  They are good for airplane reads, though I am starting to use my iPad more and more for airplane reading.

Recently, I picked up a thick book there by prolific, scandal-plagued former Chicago columnist Bob Greene. (of the Predator variety – read the Esquire piece on it on Google.) He is an average writer (and wears a toupee which automatically makes me think of him as a bit ingenuous) but has written some best sellers and some duds. He is big with nostalgia and memories like I am, so I occasionally read something by him.

This 350 page book (for a buck!) is called When We Get to Surf City, and it recalls his touring as a male groupie (without the sex part) to the great surf band Jan and Dean through much of the 1990’s. I guess not many people would even spend a dollar on this book, but I bought it eagerly for several reasons listed below:

I was an avid music listener as a young girl, and surf music was a big part of my growing up. And I was not only listening to surf music, but I made an occupation out of seeing every lousy beach movie that came out. (which of course featured LOTS of surf music!)

Being a music nerd, I recall all of the groups and songs of the era, most notably by Jan and Dean, and of course the Beach Boys. Surf music was so California and it fascinated me.

The big story on Jan and Dean of course was their ironically prophetic song Dead Man’s Curve, and how it became the true story of Jan Berry’s life after he crashed his car and suffered permanent brain damage. That accident didn’t stop them from touring-give or take a dozen years in between while he recovered. Despite Jan’s limitations (including according to the book Jan having to relearn lyrics by tape recorder before every one of their nostalgia concerts,) they toured until his death in 2004 of a stroke.

I just adored a few of their hits: The lesser known Baby Talk ( Play it here and tell me if this isn’t a catchy doo-wop song!) and of course Surf City and The Little Old Lady from Pasadena. But they had a string of hits: Ride the Wild Wave, New Girl at School, Drag City, Sidewalk Surfing, Dead Man’s Curve, and others.

When I was 30, another couple and my husband and I booked a getaway to Las Vegas on a long weekend. It was the mid 80’s and the Monkees were on the oldies circuit along with others including Jan and Dean who I always wanted to see! We booked at the same hotel where the show was being performed, a strategic plan to sight some of the performers. It worked!

When I bumped into Jan (without Dean) in the hotel,  he was very sweet and very handsome, and somewhat shocked that I mentioned their oldest hit, Baby Talk.  (It was released before my time but since I follow music passionately, I know about it and love it. I can easily say that I love doo-wop music with noises and of all of that genre, Baby Talk is my favorite.) Jan shifted his paralyzed side, and in his halting voice, started singing Baby Talk to me right there in the lobby. (Ba-ba-ba-ba…) I really appreciated Jan after that – still performing and making fans happy after all he went through. Here’s me and Jan below! (After he sang to me and I was still thrilled as you can see on my face!)

So of COURSE I bought this book about the author’s time with them. Bob Greene was a Jan and Dean stalker and they took a liking to him and included him in their band for many years. He performed without pay – just for his own pleasure, and then of course profited off of it by writing a book about the experience. (Or maybe not with the fact that it is in Dollar stores being sold for a buck.)

The oddest fact of the book for me was the scrimping-by life lived by Jan and Dean, supporting themselves off their tours at State Fair venues or as part of an oldies bill at a larger venue. Once superstars, they were now just scraping by, and HAD to tour to support their families. I guess since they did not write their own music, residuals or income from their famous time had dried up. There was a lot of this in the book, and it made me sad.

I starting googling them and learned that Dean is still touring without Jan.  Surf music lives on, as the Beach Boys still tour too.

Dean actually is a talented graphic artist and could certainly make an easier living that way – he designed a lot of famous album covers when Jan was out of commission. But maybe it is the thrill of fans still screaming and singing along that has Dean continuing to tour – probably seeking those old thrills. For that, I don’t blame him at all. RIP Jan.

If you want to see Jan’s limitations – making his comeback for thirty more years even more amazing, watch this clip of him on the Dinah Shore Show.


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