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CARPE LIBRUM: Jan and Dean and the ‘60s surf rock that brings nostalgia to the forefront of importance

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Summer might be turning to fall right now, but readers can stretch it out for another week with ‘When We Get to Surf City.”

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Surf City“When We Get to Surf City”
by Bob Greene
St. Martin’s Press, 2008, Pgs. 343

“This has been in my ‘to read’ pile for about a year and a half, so I decided it was time.” I indicated the bright blue-and-orange-covered book depicting a woodie with a surfboard on top.

“How big a pile is that?” Jock asked.

“Infinite,” I responded.

I have a writing project in mind that involves music of the 1960s and a road trip. I’ve been planning it and working on it off and on for a few years now. So a book about touring with Jan and Dean, subtitled “A journey through America in pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship and Dreams,” seemed the perfect research material.

Jan and Dean were a music duo that personified the surf-rock sound before The Beach Boys overtook their career and eclipsed them. Jan and Dean were the golden boys of California, and embodied everything teenage boys wanted to be and teenage girls wanted to date. Most probably are familiar with “Surf City”: “two girls for every boy….” At the height of their fame, life and art began to reflect something like a horror film. In 1964 they released a song titled “Deadman’s Curve,” which reached number eight on the Billboard singles chart.  It chronicles a car accident in a street drag race between two teenage boys.  Two years later, Jan Berry, of Jan and Dean, driving a Corvette Sting Ray—one of the cars mentioned in the song—would have a car accident on North Whittier Drive. When first-responders arrived at the scene, they declared him dead.

But he wasn’t.

After two months in a coma, he woke up and had to learn to talk and walk, in spite of partial paralysis to one side of his body. His days as the golden boy of California music already ended before; he was planning to be a doctor and had finished two years of medical school. Yet, it would never come to be.

Flash forward to 1992.

Bob Greene, then a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, received an unexpected invitation to meet Jan and Dean on tour. Apparently, they were playing a circuit of state fairs and summer concerts across America. One of their touring musicians had read about Greene’s admiration for them. The invitation morphed, unexpectedly, into Greene joining the touring back-up band for Jan and Dean for the next 15 years.

Full disclosure: I love Bob Greene’s nostalgic writing style—and a lot of this book is nostalgia. Greene is clearly in love with recapturing the feeling of the world and rock music unfolding as something new and wonderful that consumes all thoughts. But he doesn’t shy away from hard truths. The most obvious is the fragile state that Jan Berry is in at the time. His struggle to regain a normal life is nothing short of heroic. That he still gets out and tours and performs onstage is almost beyond comprehension. Perhaps the most heartbreaking detail Greene relates to is that Berry has to relearn lyrics to songs he wrote every day. Berry carries a Walkman around with him and must listen to and learn the hits he wrote and made famous over again. He can’t ever retain them—not even for 24 hours.

A few years ago I commented to Jock I was so grateful my destiny in this lifetime was not to be Mick Jagger. I couldn’t imagine how awful it would be to be 70 and prancing around a stage, trying to rekindle a sense of youth to an audience over 50, and dependent on that financially and for a sense of purpose. I retract that statement. I am grateful it is not my destiny to be a one-hit wonder from the ‘50s or ‘60s and touring D-list venues to survive.

At the beginning of the book, Jan and Dean are headlining a lot of these events with opening acts like Little Eva, Sam the Sham, Chubby Checker, and Bobby Vinton—people I didn’t think were still alive, let alone touring. But here we get a chance to meet them backstage, see them as people now long past the age of the parents who saw them as symbols of youthful rebellion. Greene peels back the curtain on the life of professional musicians who have long since peaked and are on the other side of a downhill slide.

The Drifters might have only one original member, but Jan and Dean are the real Jan and Dean. That is a special package to sell when the ephemeral sense of human life starts to become real to your audience. At 16 no one understands their own mortality, but in the second half of life you understand it all too well.

But for all the distress those images can conjure, Greene focuses on the joy audiences find, still, in the music. It’s obvious he developed as a newspaper columnist because each two pages is written to be a complete scene to take readers through a specific emotional journey. Toward the end of the book, when Jan Berry’s eminent death is hanging over the band, he discusses how each moment of life is a pebble in a jar—a finite experience. Just like each scene in the book is a memory to be savored and revisited, mentally, on the days he needs a reminder of what the power of friendship and music can really do. He captures it beautifully. I wanted to read almost every page aloud to Jock—just to share it with someone. That is a testament to the writing and the power of the theme.

Summer might be turning to fall right now, but readers can stretch it out for another week with this book, which reminds us what makes summer so special: endless opportunity to play with friends, have adventures, and share the important things in life.

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