Surf City

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Jan Berry

Dean Torrence.

Separately, their names won’t ring a bell.

Put them together – Jan and Dean – and for a generation they conjure up visions of summer nights cruising and listening to songs such as "Surf City," where "there are  two girls for every boy."

More than just songs, these were and still are states of mind, observes author and Bexley native Bob Greene in his latest book, When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams (St. Martin’s Press.)

Over more than a decade, starting in the early 1990s, Greene spent summers playing guitar on tour with Jan and Dean.

Along the way, the veteran journalist discovers "Surf City as the happy, cloudless place we all want to believe is somehow out there, the place where we all wish we could end up."

Through the endless road trips, the triumphs and struggles and disappointments, Greene learns that the destination is not as important as the ride.

Along the way, he offers glimpses of the decidedly unglamorous life of a traveling band, lightened by a strong feeling of camaraderie among the musicians.

He also provides a portrait of courage in the person of Jan Berry.

At the height of their fame Jan and Dean scored 16 Top 40 hits and were bigger than the Beach Boys, whom they influenced with their California sound.

Berry was the genius of the studio, writing and producing songs such as Drag City and the sadly prophetic Dead Man’s Curve. They were featured in films (composing the score for Ride the Wild Surf) and on television.

The young men, college students at the time, had ambitions beyond rock and roll, with Torrence studying advertising design and Berry enrolled in medical school.

Jan was two years into his studies to become a doctor when he crashed his speeding Corvette into the back of a truck, not far from the actual Dead Man’s Curve he had immortalized.

The accident put him in a coma and caused brain damage and partial paralysis.  He would have to learn to walk again and use his left hand to write.

His dream of a career as a physician was over. All he had left was his fame as half of Jan and Dean, and the two started touring together again in the late ’70s.

Greene hooked up with the band in 1992 after one of their guitarists, Gary Griffin, offered the invitation after reading a reference to buying a Jan and Dean album in the writer’s memoir of 1964, Be True to Your School.

For Greene, it became the equivalent of running away to join the circus, traveling to fairs and festivals and nostalgia-soaked extravaganzas where he met rock and roll legends Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and second-tiers stars like Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon.

He came to deeply respect the professionalism of his bandmates, especially the still-disabled Jan and the more business-like but no-less-dedicated Dean (who irons his surf shirts before every show because he doesn’t want to appear slovenly to the audience).

He witnesses moments of frustration and tenderness between these two men who had known each other since high school.

He finds out that Jan, still limping from his accident, has to re-learn the lyrics to the songs he wrote before every show because of his brain injury.

In spite of the handicaps, Berry harbors the dream of writing and producing another recording.

Every summer they criss-cross the country, playing for 40,000 people at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and sparse crowds at county fairs.

Greene even gets to play several times in his hometown at Cooper Stadium (or Jet Stadium, as he refers to it, its name during his boyhood).

Over many summers, Greene observes the audiences who came to relive (or newly discover) the lure of Jan and Dean and their mythical Surf City. He sees sudden violence, unexpected courtesy, and unbidden lust.

Along the way, he’s mistaken for everyone from Bobby Vee to Little Ricky from I Love Lucy.

But in the end, he’s part of the band. Despite the unwritten rule that personal and professional lives are not to merge, the line blurs as the men learn more about each other.

A cloud of mortality hangs over the band during Jan’s slow decline, as they realize that "summer always ends."

But Jan refuses to give in to that realization, and Greene finds in the lyrics of the record that is finally completed a determination to seize the day.


Better ask her now if you want to dance
It’s getting pretty late, it’s your only chance

This becomes Jan and Dean’s legacy, and maybe the final word on rock and roll: "Savor every day, every summer night."

Bob Greene, who still appears with Dean Torrence’s Surf City Allstars, will sign copies of Surf City at the Jack Roth Rock N’ Run fundraiser, June 8 at Bexley High School.

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