The following article appeared in New York Press in 1996.
Berryed Treasure: The Glorious Underachievements of Jan & Dean
In the spring of '66, while Mike Love, Al Jardine, & co. were struggling through the complex harmonies of future classics like "Good Vibrations," a creative leader of California surf-rock underwent a mind-altering experience from which he has yet to fully recover. No, not Brian Wilson. Guess again.
A few weeks ago, when the mail brought the Jan & Dean CD Teen Suite 1958-1962(Varese Vintage), I was reminded just what the world lost on April 12, 1966. Jan Berry had reason to be preoccupied on that day. Not only was he preparing for his medical school exams, but he'd just learned that the U.S. Army, not wasting any time, planned to draft him upon his graduation. The hawkish Berry, whose recent anti-protest song "The Universal Coward" had ridiculed draft-dodgers, was caught between rock and a hard place. Whatever was going through his head when he smashed his Corvette into a parked truck, it was the last conscious thought he'd have for months.
Although Jan's gruesome accident made for good teen-magazine (and future TV-movie) fodder, it didn't mean much to many rock fans outside the music industry. Since the Beach Boys had moved beyond surf and other gimmick records, Jan & Dean symbolized everything that was old about California rock. Their most recent LP at the time of the accident was Jan And Dean Meet Batman, and the one before that was the cash-in Folk'N'Roll, complete with "Surf City" rewritten as "Folk City."
Admittedly, compared to such hometown competition as the Association, the Byrds, and the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean were never great singers. On their biggest hits, like "Surf City" and "The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena)," they were helped out by everyone from Brian Wilson, to P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri (a.k.a. the Fantastic Baggys). Their songwriting talents--or, rather, Jan's songwriting talents, since Dean hardly wrote--were maddeningly inconsistent. They could come up with a tune of Brian Wilsonian glory, like "I Can't Wait To Love You," only to turn around and write Lame Follow-Up #127 To "Surf City."
What made Jan & Dean great were two of the things that were least obvious to the average "Sidewalk Surfin'" listener: the duo's strong comedic chemistry (check out album tracks like Ride The Wild Surf 's "The Submarine Races") and, most importantly, Jan's genius as a producer. Yes, you can stop laughing. I typed "genius." Because there's no other word to describe things like "The Anaheim, Azusa, & Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review And Timing Association." An obvious follow-up to "Little Old Lady From Pasadena" ("Hey, since that worked, why not one about fiftylittle old ladies?"), it opens with the Fantastic Baggys singing the title, to the tune of Bach's Chorale 54. Transposed, by Jan, to barbershop harmony, no less. Jan's production is a baroque tour-de-force, featuring the busiest harpsichord this side of Nicky Hopkins' work in the Kinks' "Session Man." Except that "Anaheim, Azusa, & Cucamonga" was recorded in July of '64, and "Session Man" was done two years later. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if Hopkins had heard Jan's production work. After all, the Kinks' producer, Shel Talmy, was also producing the Who, whose Keith Moon was a major Jan & Dean fan. (Ever heard the Who's version of "Bucket T"?)
In November, 1993, I went to L.A. for a P.F. Sloan tribute concert that featured, among others, Jan Berry. Before I left, I asked my mother for advice on how best to communicate with Jan. It seemed appropriate, since Mom happens to be a cognitive therapist working with the brain-injured. I can't recall her exact advice, but it probably had something to do with being patient, understanding, and encouraging. Brain-injured people, my mother explained, aren't stupid. They've just got a break in their information pipeline. Anyone speaking to them should allow extra time for their minds to find alternate passages to let the information get through.
When I got to the concert, I quickly learned that, as always, Mom was right. Jan, who was accompanied by his platinum-blonde surfer's-dream manager-wife, had an eerie kind of grace. He was like the typical character in a Philip K. Dick science fiction novel who lives in two different time periods simultaneously; this time and some other time, somewhere else. In this way, he seemed more, rather than less, intelligent; he simply had more on his mind than the rest of us. On the one hand, when I gave him a copy of a Jan & Dean CD for which I'd done the liner notes, his eyes grew misty as he recalled how much being a producer meant to him. Although he was painstakingly slow in responding to my comments, his memory of the early Sixties was better than that of many other rockers I've met. On the other hand, I could have laughed and cried simultaneously, watching his forever-patient wife guiding him to the backstage area. "Jan, we're going up these stairs. Up here, Jan. Jan? Why are you going in there? There's nothing in there, Jan. That's a closet. Jan!"
Teen Suite 1958-1962, covering Jan & Dean's earliest recordings, does not include "Surf City" or any of Jan & Dean's other mid-Sixties hits. The music, starting with when the duo was "Jan & Arnie" (the original Dean was one Arnie Ginsburg), is uneven, ranging from killer proto-garage ("Gas Money") to syrupy Your Hit Parade pop ("We Go Together"). However, listening between the lines, you can hear two wisecracking guys trying to keep the fun factor in post-Elvis, pre-Beatles rock'n'roll. A hidden bonus track, track 22, contains seven minutes of Jan & Arnie fooling around on Jan's Ampex tape recorder, circa 1958, trying to write a B-side for "Jennie Lee" and getting frustrated because the song keeps turning into "Get A Job." It's obvious that, unlike the New York-style, Brill Building songwriters of the time, the duo is writing and playing for the sheer fun of it. Jan kept that sense of fun in every record he made up to his accident. It's ironic and fitting that 1966 was the year when rock became Rock, taking itself so seriously that it left many pop fans by the wayside. When Jan Berry lost part of his brain, the music world lost some major-league endorphins.
Varese Sarabande/Varese Vintage Records, 11846 Ventura Blvd., Suite 130, Studio City, CA 91604.
Return to the Gaits of Eden