“He was driven,” says Dean Torrence of singer, songwriter and producer Jan Berry — his best friend and the other half of the best-selling surf-rock and hot-rod-pop duo Jan and Dean. “He always knew what he wanted to do and how to go about doing it. And he didn’t wait around for someone else to tell him it should be done differently. Luckily for him, most of the time it turned out.”
The tragic exception came on the morning of April 12, 1966, when Berry — at the peak of his career with Jan and Dean, with ten Top Thirty hits over the past three years, including the AM radio classics “Surf City,” “Dead Man’s Curve” and “The Little Old Lady (from Pasadena)” — slammed his speeding Corvette into a parked truck near the intersection of Sunset and Whittier Boulevards in Los Angeles. The blond, handsome, twenty-five-year-old Berry survived the crash but never fully recovered from his injuries. For the rest of his life, he struggled with severe brain damage, partial paralysis and impaired speech and motor skills. Yet he fought to make music, until his death on March 26th, at the age of sixty-two, following a seizure at his home in L.A. Three weeks earlier, he had been on stage with Torrence in El Cajon, California, singing the old Jan and Dean hits — celebrating a time when Southern California was the teenage capital of America and Berry was creating the national anthems.
Four days after Berry’s passing, Torrence spoke fondly and extensively of his friend and partner to Rolling Stone: about their mid-Sixties heyday in the studio and on the charts and their long, slow climb up from catastrophe over the next four decades. Torrence also paid tribute to the magazine, for its original publication in 1974 of Paul Morantz’s vivid account of Berry’s accident and its agonizing aftermath, a story that became the basis for the successful 1978 television film Dead Man’s Curve.
“The only negative,” Torrence pointed out, “was that we were supposed to be on the cover. Annie Leibowitz came to L.A. to take pictures — it was a serious shoot. And then Nixon resigned.’ Torrence laughs at the irony, even now. “We got bumped off the cover for Nixon.”
How hard was it for Jan to sing and tour in recent years?
There was nothing he cared about more than performing. He needed the input from the fans, and they were just happy that he was there. They were very forgiving if he didn’t hit all the notes.
Technically, in a show, he only sang lead on three songs out of the twenty in the set. He would sing background on almost everything. But the challenge was on the important ones he had to sing. He was close enough, and the fans appreciated it.
It was hard for him. But when I consider the difficulties that any band would go through, ours were . . . well, they were difficulties. But they were minor. Our difficulties didn’t get in the way of us enjoying what we were doing. We had our own problems, and they were unique. But we were overcoming them — to a degree.
I didn’t think of it as a struggle, because we did get along. There were times, after the accident, when I had to remind Jan what good friends we were, because he wasn’t sure. Other people would undermine our relationship and I would point out to him, many times, that we were roommates at the time of his accident. I was living at his house for almost a year. The only reason I moved out was because he was in a coma — I felt it wasn’t right for me to be living in his house when he was in the hospital. I packed my stuff and moved. But we never stopped being best friends.
How would you describe the way Jan worked in the studio? At the time of the accident, he was at the peak of his powers and commercial success, on a par with his friend and collaborator Brian Wilson. But while Brian became recognized as a genius and an icon, Jan’s life became defined almost entirely in terms of the accident.
People would not recognize the technical aspects that Jan put into a recording. It’s easier to go, “Oh, there’s a pretty song, a great melody.” But the less obvious parts — that was Jan’s genius. Jan was not necessarily the creative force behind our records. Jan had a bunch of us working with him, in subtle ways: myself, Lou Adler. Brian Wilson was a little less subtle. But Jan was brilliant in taking all those subtle things, recognizing how good they were, and putting them together to make a good record. We all worked as team, but Jan was the quarterback.
For example, Brian pretty much gave us “Surf City.” The basic structure was in place, maybe half the words. And Brian lost interest in it. He was concentrating on “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” which he wanted to finish for the Beach Boys. So he handed “Surf City” to us, and we recognized how good it was. We tweaked the words, then Jan went full bore on creating the best instrumental track he could.
He could read and write music?
Absolutely. He minored in music [at UCLA]. He was getting grades on arrangements he was writing for Jan and Dean. If a professor said, “Oh, that’s no good,” Jan would bring it in again four weeks later — on a record. I’d seen him transpose stuff while he was driving in his car. He’d go, “That key is wrong. Hand me the sheet music.” Why he didn’t just ask me to drive while he changed the notes, I don’t know.
How would you compare Jan and Brian — their styles of working and the results?
Each had different strengths. Jan taught Brian a lot about the technical aspect of recording. Jan knew a studio backwards and forwards. By 1959, we were doing some of our recordings in Jan’s garage, and then the tapes were taken to the studio. And Jan was very inquisitive. He’d be in there with the engineers asking questions. Brian only cared that you sang into this microphone, and it went into that tape recorder. He just wanted to work on the harmony parts. Jan wanted to know why a particular microphone worked best.
Who came up with the original idea of “Dead Man’s Curve”? There are four writers credited: Jan, Brian, Roger Christian and Artie Kornfeld.
The way I remember it, Artie came up with the idea, and everybody contributed a verse here, a verse there. Most of the good stuff was done by committee. Everybody was asked, “If you have a good idea, speak up.” That’s why the studio musicians dug playing on Jan and Dean tracks, because we would do it our way first — Jan’s way — and then he’d say, “We’re open for discussion. Anybody have something to add?” Glen Campbell would go, “I hear this on guitar . . .” Jan would say, “OK, that’s cool, do that.”
There was an actual stretch of Sunset Boulevard locally known as a dead man’s curve, although it was not where Jan had the accident.
The one up near UCLA — we all understood that was the one we were talking about. But we tried to keep it general too. We talked about Sunset Boulevard, but we also mentioned spots in Hollywood. And we knew that everybody would have their own dead man’s curve and make that connection.
The car-crash sounds on the record seemed to be standard sound-library effects. But I read that for “Sidewalk Surfin'” (1964), you taped yourselves wiping out on your own skateboards outside the studio.
You couldn’t go to the sound library and ask for skateboarding. They didn’t know what a skateboard was. “How about roller skates?” No, that’s no good. We raided the tape library for the car stuff, but the skateboards — we had to do it ourselves. And we carried our skateboards wherever we went. We always had one or two in the car. We were at a state-of-the-art studio [United in Los Angeles], and we had state-of-the-art microphones that we could take outside. We just kept wiping out ’til we got it right.
Was Jan set on being a musician and pop star for the rest of his life? He was still going to medical school at the time of the accident, as if he hadn’t made up his mind what he wanted to be.
We were going to have to make that choice. That was on the horizon. If he hadn’t had the accident, a year or two later he would have had to decide whether or not to do an internship. We were also working on a TV pilot — a comedy show with music. While Brian Wilson was heading towards Pet Sounds, we were heading more towards Saturday Night Live. The psychedelic thing that was going on — that wouldn’t have affected us at all. We would have been in a whole other category.
Yet while Jan was recovering from his accident in 1966, you recorded your own Pet Sounds — the rare psych-pop album, Save for a Rainy Day, which you credited to Jan and Dean and released on the J and D label, even though Jan was not on it.
We had talked about doing something like that together. It was my intent to take that concept and go ahead and finish it. Hopefully by the time Jan was well enough, we would have something in the pipeline. [Save for a Rainy Day, now recognized as an L.A. acid-pop classic, was reissued on CD in 1996 by Sundazed Music.]
But at his peak, Jan didn’t seem to care much for the counter culture — he was too busy turning out hot rod records.
The comedy show would have been fun. And it would have worked. Besides, there was no way we were going to compete with “God Only Knows.”
The care and detail that Jan applied to making records was bonafide artistry. But because the songs were about cars, surfboards and innocent teenage fun, the big Jan and Dean hits have never been taken seriously, awarded the same critical cachet as Beach Boys records.
I don’t know why people have not recognized Jan. It was always obvious to me. Maybe the snobs in the business, at the record companies, were ticked off that we stayed in school. They were kind of pompous about how important the record business was. I think we insulted them. I remember being told by execs, “You do this, or you’re not going to have a career.” I’m like, “So what? We’ve got degrees. He’s pre-med, I’m at the school of architecture at USC. What do we care? You’re going to kick us off the label? We’ll start our own.” We couldn’t be intimidated. Maybe that had a lot to do with us not being taken seriously. Although, check the charts, bud.
How would you like Jan to be remembered? The only thing many people know about him now is the car accident and how it abruptly changed his life and career.
Get out a copy of Drag City. You hear the humor — people laughing — and you get the hits. You can tell these two guys are having one hell of a time — making records that made them chuckle, under no pressure, as friends.
It was really a whole group of friends — everybody who was there with us in the studio. I remember when we’d come to the East Coast, we’d cross paths with all of the teen idols: Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell. One time, we ran into Bobby at some Dick Clark thing, and he said he was recording that night. We said, “Oh, man, we’ll come on by and hang out.” He looked at us and said, “Oh, no, the session is closed.” [Laughs] We looked at each other, like, “Closed? What are we going to steal from him? ‘Volare?’ Why would it be closed? We just wanted to say hi.” That was not the mentality we were used to.
Jan and I met on a football team in high school. We understood that everybody on that team had a function, that you played as a unit. When we met the Beach Boys, we didn’t consider them competition. We thought there was room on the charts — there were a hundred records on there, for God’s sake. There was no way we weren’t going to enjoy hanging with these guys, letting them come to our sessions and hoping they’ll invite us back. We’ll do this as a team of guys that enjoy making music.
There’s a great story about how, in the middle of a Jan and Dean session, you popped into another studio where the Beach Boys were cutting their Party album and you sang lead on “Barbara-Ann.”
They asked me, “Here’s the songs we’ve done, what do you want to sing?” It was their project, they were pulling me in. Do I want to help them make their album better? I didn’t think twice. “Have you thought of doing ‘Barbara-Ann’ [a 1961 hit for the Regents, covered by Jan and Dean on 1962’s Jan and Dean’s Golden Greats]?” “Let’s do that!” Half an hour later, I was back at my own studio. I barely remembered I was even on the record.
For more information on the life, music and trials of Jan and Dean, read Dean’s rich detailed memoir at jananddean.com