In 1992, when journalist Bob Greene was 45, he received a letter that would change his life. Gary Griffin, a musician in Jan and Dean's touring band, had picked up a copy of one of his books, Be True to Your School, and wrote to say how much he enjoyed it. A phone call later and Griffin had invited Greene to come to one of the band's gigs. Not only did Greene see the show, he ended up singing and playing guitar with the band for the next 15 years, something he would never have dreamed possible. He did what journalists do: he wrote about it.
When We Get to Surf City is Greene's account of his summertime on again-off again touring with Jan and Dean --- part travelogue, part biography, and part memoir. I thought it would be a sad book, the recordation of a declining over-the-hill duo playing to crowds either reliving nostalgic memories or oblivious to the legends before them. I was wrong. The book demonstrates the value of friendship, of working to be the best at something you are passionate about, and of the timeless value of good songs. I finished it not sad but warmed by its humanity and by the common decency of the people that inhabit its pages. Its humble prose suggests more about life than it articulates.
Jan and Dean were a promising duo in the early 1960s. Contemporaries of The Beach Boys, they had a #1 hit with "Surf City" in 1963, a song that became their signature. The chorus, "Surf City, here we come," became a mantra of longing for many landlocked high school kids who dreamed of hot rods, surfing, and endless summers --- of someplace ther than where they were. They followed it with several more #1 hits before being overtaken by The Beach Boys and, of course, The Beatles.
By the time Jan Berry had his tragic car accident in 1966, an accident that left him to a long recuperation and lasting damage, the duo were a footnote on the popular music scene. Neverthess, they did not stop touring. Berry fought his way back and partner Dean Torrance stood by him. Despite a broken body, slurred speech, and a muddied memory, Jan retook the stage, even though he had to relearn his own songs before every concert. They played everywhere --- state and county fairs, festivals in small and medium-sized towns, corporate events, and oldies shows with the likes of Chuck Berry, Fabian, Gary and the Pacemakers, Ben E. King, and more. Winters became a mere interlude to be endured until summer and the real life of touring.
What I like about the book is not the fact that we get to peer into the lives of Jan and Dean, at Jan's difficulties and fears and the relationship he had with Dean. Such a telling can feel like voyeurism, making me wonder what the person written about would think. It is, after all, personal. And yet the spotlight Greene shines on the duo has the effect of endearing them to us rather than destroying some ideal we had of them. In fact, given the decadent lives of most rock stars, Jan and Dean and band come off as hard-working, conservative, all-American guys. In other words, they are much better human beings than we might otherwise have thought. They are passionate about what they do, are conscientious, and, above all, value each other. In fact, in the end, that's why they keep doing it.
And then there's the songs. They are timeless. The idea that you can go to a place like "Surf City" endures, as it captures a longing for an experience, time, or place where everything feels right. Audiences continue to interact with that song and others sung by Jan and Dean because they tap into something universal, something that continues to resonate in the human soul. Although the author may not speak of it as a spiritual longing, that is its essence --- a desire to transcend the mundane toil and troubles of the world, even if it is ephermeral.
At one point Greene is riding with Ben E. King, and he asks him what he's thinking about when he looks out at an audience of middle-aged people who are past their prime, past high school dances, surfing, and late-night parties. Listen to what he says about his songs:
On "Save the Last Dance for Me": "You think about what the last dance used to mean to you --- all the dances you went to when you were young --- and then you think about all you've been through in life, what's behind you and what's ahead. All your years of setbacks, all your years of hope."
On "Stand By Me": "[M]akes me think. . .[a]bout how important it is to have at least one person in your life you can count on. Someone you can call when there's no one else to talk to."
Timeless. Seen the way Ben E. King sees them, or the way Jan and Dean see them, oldies take on a new glow, reapplied and fresh every night as they are sung by musicians who still believe what they say, who look upon an audience not as something to be endured but as human souls to be given a gift of understanding, of songs that connect to their deepest longings.
To the extent there are redundancies in this book, like the many times Greene proclaims his wonder that he is playing with Jan and Dean, he can be forgiven. He is, after all, living a dream. However, in all these summers of interaction, of sharing stages, meals, and hotel rooms, you would think that deeper questions about life would come up. Jan and Dean and band were either oblivious to spiritual issues or, as is more likely, guardedly private about most areas of their life outside touring. The later is likely the case. Life on the road rarely intersected with life off the road.
In March 2004 Jan Berry died of a seizure, and Jan and Dean ceased to exist. Nevertheless, Dean Torrance continued to tour under the moniker of the Surf City Allstars. Good songs are, after all, timeless, and Surf City is forever on the horizon, a summer beyond our reach.
I recommend When We Get to Surf City. It lives up to its subtitle as "A Jouney Through America in Search of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams." It hints at a greater journey we are all on, a search for not just one more magic summer but a life when all is set right.
Here we come.