Wednesday, March 30, 2011

When We Get To Surf City

I'm at the local Dollar Tree stocking up on the usual goods. I have Arizona Southern Style sweet tea, sesame and honey coated cashews plus bottled water. As I wait in line, the one person ahead of me starts to argue with the cashier over the price of something (it's Dollar Tree! everything is a fuckin' dollar, everything!)  As I waited, a nearby end cap loaded with hardcover books caught my attention. There I found "When We Get to Surf City" by Bob Greene, having just written about surf music, I was hooked. When you think of America's great writers, Bob Greene probably doesn't come to mind. He's not terrible, but his writing style is plain and flat as the Midwest that spawned him. Nobody could remember all the details that he does, not without jotting down umpteen fuckin' notes or recording every single conversation over the course of fifteen years.  However, it appears that Greene did just that, as he takes us on the road with Jan & Dean and their tour musicians. Almost by chance Greene is introduced to the band,  soon he's joining them onstage, holding a guitar with the volume muted while contributing off key back-up vocals. For Greene this becomes a rite of summer, starting in 1992, he joins up with the touring musicians for a series of shows around the country.  
Greene recalls seeing Dean Torrance for the first time; "His face was still a rock star's face, everything in his bearing said that this was not a fellow who made his living in an office building." His first glimpse of Jan Berry is markedly different "He's carrying a sack of fast food burgers, walking slowly, unevenly, he's considerably heavier than his old photos." As Jan struggles to make it to the boarding gate we are reminded that a car accident in 1966 had changed Jan's life forever. "As a young singer he had been staggeringly handsome, with a face made for the silver screen." Before the accident Jan had enrolled in medical school and was well on his way to becoming a doctor. Now Greene is becoming aware of the cognitive mental lags that Jan has to overcome daily "On the airplane I heard singing in front of me, It was Jan singing, he was holding a tape player, his eyes were closed." Gary Griffin the keyboardist explains to Bob: "Part of it is rehearsal, but mainly he just has to learn the words again everyday." Greene bonds with the musicians as they travel to state fairs and conventions. When they run into their rivals, The Beach Boys, before a show, there is a hint of tension between Dean and Mike Love. This becomes more apparent when Love hires Jan & Dean's band for a tour of Europe. When the band returns to the states, one of them starts to tell Dean "London was great" when Dean cuts him off  "Fuck You, I've never been to Europe, now go get yourself a hamburger, we order at the counter here in America."  
Dean is wound tight, he runs the front office, at one point Jan calls him during the off season to ask for a raise, Dean turns him down flat, he then gently explains to Jan "If we keep our fee low, we get booked for more shows, that's how it works." Dean carefully irons his Hawaiian print shirts (the band uniform) before every show, he counts the audience, he bristles when Lou Christie hogs the show, costing Jan & Dean their promised encore. For the musicians it's just a job, they arrive at their hotels, they do the show, they eat, much of the book is centered around meals. When Jan requests a slice of lemon pie and a brownie to take back to his room, he feels the need to tell Bob "This can kill me, but you have to live and enjoy." They feast on canoes full of shrimp in South Carolina, steaks and ribs in Oklahoma, they take their breakfast at McDonald's, and eagerly await fresh baked cookies and cold milk provided free at one of their hotels. Greene starts to notice how attractive the lifestyle can be, carrying his guitar through airports he draws attention "I was surprised by this at first, and then concluded it was a daily testament to the continuing powerful mystique of the electric guitar." Chubby Checker's tour guitarist then puts it in plain English: "Yeah! of course, it's like carrying your dick through an airport." 
Along the way they share the stage with a sad parade of aging rock 'n roll icons, James Brown ("Don't Die, so I don't ever have to hear the news that Jan & Dean are dead") Jerry Lee Lewis ( "It's good to be on the bill with Jan & Dean, they probably didn't know I was still living") when a woman calls out enticingly to The Killer "What are you doing later, Jerry Lee" he wearily answers "Not tonight darlin" as if sex would be the last thing on his mind. Greene is amazed to find guitar legend James Burton playing with Jerry Lee. "Elvis was dead, a guitar player has to play somewhere, it was probably logical that James Burton and Jerry Lee Lewis had found each other." Burton who was best known for playing behind Rick Nelson, Elvis Presley & Emmy Lou Harris, now shares the stage with Bob Greene. In Wisconsin, they pass Lake Monona where Otis Redding's airplane crashed, killing him and several members of his band. Greene wonders  "What do you think would have happened to his career if he hadn't been on that plane?" one band member quickly replies "He'd probably be out here with us, eating the free breakfast buffets." They also share the bill with a number of different Beatle's Tribute bands, most of whom speak in fake Liverpudlian accents.  At one show, space on the stage is so limited that the drums are placed on the side instead of the back. This causes a fake Ringo to scream at the promoter "Ringo would never drum facing sideways" to which the lady replies "But you're not really Ringo now, are you" he yells "Bitch" at her and she comes back with "Fuck You!"  Later while watching the fake Ringo play, Jan & Dean's drummer remarks "He's not bad! one of the better Ringos I've seen."  
At the heart of the book is Jan Berry, once a pop idol with a near genius IQ, he now labors to get through each day.  After a meal, while walking back to their hotel, a teenager taunts a lumbering Jan by yelling "Igor" at him. Fearing that fans will be put off by his appearance and behavior the band drafts an announcement that is read before each show: "Ladies & Gentlemen, in 1966 Jan Berry survived a near fatal car accident..." Greene reflects on Jan's struggles "To do what he did, to travel the country, knowing, somewhere inside what people saw and thought as they looked at him" he puts it all in perspective "There was an unquenchable courage there, something inside him that was so determined, so ambitious in the face of everything."  Jan Berry never really came back from Deadman's Curve, at best it was a partial recovery. When the band would play Deadman's Curve, someone would usually yell "We're glad you made it back Jan!"  Jan would soak in the adulation, but Dean Torrance understood what was lost that day in 1966, and to him the song is just a sad reminder.  Jan Berry suffered a seizure and died in 2004, bringing the endless summer tours to an end. Bob Greene strips away the glossy trappings of stardom and we see the musicians as working men, trying to make ends meet. It's not your typical rock stars on the road book, it's real, down to earth and ultimately very moving