If Brian Wilson was the king of the California dream regime, Jan & Dean were the crown princes – and the jesters. Composer/producer/lead singer Jan Berry and partner Dean Torrence manufactured enticing, comically exaggerated myths of the West Coast surf and hot rod lifestyle of the early 60s.
Surf City, Drag City, Ride The Wild Surf, Sidewalk Surfin‘ and Dead Man’s Curve form the soundtrack for the era, with the Beach Boys‘ indelible hits, while The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena) wittily mocked the macho hot-rod culture.
But beneath the blithe surface of the hits there was much more to Berry, who died on Friday 26 March 2004 at 62 in Los Angeles after years of health problems stemming from a 1966 auto accident. His wife, Gertrude, said he suffered an apparent seizure at his Brentwood home; the cause of death was not disclosed.
Growing up in Los Angeles’ wealthy Bel Air neighbourhood, he was an overachiever who at 17 scored a Top 10 hit, Jennie Lee (before the Beach Boys were formed), and had 11 hits before 1963’s Surf City crested the surf music wave.
The gifted Berry (Wilson once said, “I thought he was a genius in the studio”) shifted into overdrive, fashioning six studio albums in 16 months while taking pre-med courses. And though much of the material was formulaic, Berry’s music at its peak scaled the same heights as the era’s top American auteurs, Wilson and Phil Spector.
Early 1964’s Dead Man’s Curve was a taut mini-symphony, a chilling, lavishly orchestrated, block-by-block account of a race down Sunset Boulevard through Beverly Hills and Bel Air that ends in a tragic crash.
Two years later, in a much-belaboured but inescapable stroke of irony, Berry crashed his Corvette into a parked truck on a Beverly Hills street (pictured at left).
He suffered brain damage and partial paralysis, and the golden boy of California spent the rest of his life trying to regain normal speech and mobility.
He never fully achieved either goal, but his drive enabled him to record again, haltingly, on a couple of singles in 1967 and later a series of singles on a label owned by his production mentor Lou Adler.
Torrence rejoined Berry for touring and occasional recording; they toured China in 1986 and performed together as recently as 6 March 2004. Berry also pieced together a little-noticed solo album, Second Wave, in 1997.
Taking a harshly objective tack, you could say that Berry never came back from Dead Man’s Curve. But his unceasing efforts to restore his basic kills and refashion a career in music were an inspiring triumph.
And the music of his golden era lives on, the soaring harmonies and orchestrations couching a joyous invitation to an eternal, sun-kissed Surf City party.