Bob Greene's book "When We Get To Surf City"How’s this for serendipity?  20 years ago, journalist Bob Greene wrote a book based on a diary he kept as a teenager in 1964.  The book was called Be True to Your School, and, a few years after its publication, it caught the eye of a guy named Gary Griffin, who, as a touring musician, spent a lot of time in airports.  Griffin picked up the book at an airport bookstore – just something to read – and one of the book’s diary entries, in which Greene notes that he picked up the new 45 by the surf music duo Jan & Dean, caught Griffin’s eye.  At the time, Griffin was playing keyboards for the legendary duo as they were making their way across the country in their annual summer tour, and after a few phone calls had arranged for Bob Greene to join them at a show.  
As it happened, Greene’s starry-eyed meeting with the aging rock ‘n’ roll idols of his youth turned out to be the start of a beautiful friendship – with Jan Berry, Dean Torrence, and the guys who helped them deliver there two-and-a-half-minute odes to fun in the California sun to Midwestern state fairs, Mississippi casinos, private corporate parties and reunions across the country every summer; and his latest book When We Get To Surf City is an affectionate memoir of the days and nights he spent on the road with these “Lost Boys”, as he calls them – men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s playing their iconic songs about “The New Girl In School” and places like “Drag City” and “Surf City” as if they were still teenagers, and in so doing, providing the nearest possible approximation to a portable fountain of youth. 

Of course, despite the physical impossibility of winter in the songs of a surf-rock musician, all summers come to an end, and When We Get To Surf City is also a touching and sobering reflection on age, mortality, and cherishing every glorious second of every glorious song, both on-stage and off-stage.  And nowhere is the book more poignant, tender, or unabashedly sentimental than when it’s dealing with the complicated friendship/partnership/near-marriage between Dean Torrence and Jan Berry.   The story may not be well-known to readers who only know the songs of Jan & Dean from oldies stations (if they know them at all), so it bears repeating. 
In 1964, Jan Berry was something of a musical genius at the peak of his producing/arranging/performing powers.  A golden-haired golden boy from California poised at the verge of a movie career, he wrote a song called “Dead Man’s Curve” about getting into a near fatal car accident.   At the time the song became a huge hit for Jan & Dean, it was just another teenage death song – purely fictional.  But two years later, just as Jan was starting to set aside his musical career to enroll in medical school, he got into a car accident eerily similar to the one described in “Dead Man’s Curve”.   Though he survived the accident, he sustained massive injuries and brain damage.  In the ensuing years, he would have to learn to walk again, talk again, sing again.  He would never be a doctor.  And in fact, when Bob Greene meets up with him, he walks with a pronounced limp, he’s put on weight, and he has to re-learn the words to all the songs – songs he wrote – before every show. 
Meanwhile, Dean Torrence – the duo’s might’ve-been Andrew Ridgeley (he confessed to Bob Greene that his guitar is always turned down on stage, because he just doesn’t play that well) – has become a sort of oldies-circuit breadwinner-patriarch working the radio stations to get people to the show, but also sort of protecting and looking out for Jan.  As much as he clearly enjoys performing, being on stage, and singing all of these impossibly happy, summer songs, for Dean, it’s about making a halfway decent living and working with friends.  He’d be just as happy (or maybe he just fantasizes that he’d be just as happy) making a killing with some other business scheme, and as Greene writes, Torrence was always trotting out ideas for other things he might be doing instead of playing rock n’ roll.    At times, he comes off almost curmudgeonly – incongruous, considering his long blond locks and flowery stage shirts and the eternal adolescence of the duo’s music.
This is especially true when it comes to the band’s occasional run-ins with the Beach Boys, working essentially the same oldies circuit, only with a far bigger budget, and a far more enduring brand – and, yes, a far more bountiful supply of their own hit songs (Jan & Dean’s set was always bolstered with an infusion of early 60’s rock n’ roll covers, including a bunch of Beach Boys songs).   You could liken the difference between to the two groups’ operations to a scrappy, mom-and-pop pizza joint competing with the shiny Pizza Hut across the street.   While the Beach Boys were delivering glossy, uniform shows from coast to coast and making big bucks doing it, Jan & Dean’s tour was a more organic, do-it-yourself, on-the-fly thing – with all the trials and humiliations that might entail.  Greene notes that the members of the band only made $500 bucks a show, and they were well acquainted with Comfort Inn.  After shows, to make extra money, Jan would man his own merchandise table, selling autographed photographs of himself.

But, it’s very d.i.y. spirit – ironically not all that different from the indie rock circuits of the 80s – as much as the legendary music that endears the aging journalist to his aging idols and their band.  And their bond as bandmates, which clearly placed a premium on fun and friendship over commerce (while conceding the absolute necessity of the latter) is what ultimately helps their act survive the lost of Jan Berry, who passed away in the Spring of 2004.    Loaded with anecdotes that are alternately funny, sweet, poignant and meditative, When We Get To Surf City proves to be far more universal than it would seem.  You don’t have to love (or even know) the music of Jan & Dean to fall in love with the men and the stories behind that music.  Not only that, but it presents a very three-dimensional portrait of life as an oldies act.  And where, previously, I had always thought of relegation to the oldies circuit as an artistic fate worse than death – an eternal purgatory of irrelevance – by the end of the book, I was hoping that Martin Fry’s tour manager might stumble across my review of ABC’s concert at Taste of Waukesha a couple years ago, and invite me to join the band their next time out.