Review: Dead Man’s Curve: the Rock and Roll life of Jan Berry

By David Wills

I don’t know if you’re like me but whenever I’m reading a book about a musician or a rock band, I choose to fully immerse myself in their music until I finish the book. Allow me to report back to you that I had a blast listening to nothing but Jan & Dean (and Arnie … and just Jan) for these past few weeks. This wouldn’t be the first time I had cranked up these legendary masked surfers as I traveled to and from my day job. I’d done this before after reading Bob Greene’s When We Get to Surf City, Dean Torrence’s memoir Surf City: The Jan & Dean Story and Mark A. Moore’s first Jan-centric book Jan and Dean: The Complete Recording Sessions. With his latest tome Dead Man’s Curve: The Rock and Roll Life of Jan Berry, Moore will likely become a Mark Lewisohn figure to Jan & Dean fanatics. 

But back to my Jan & Dean marathon.

 While I was listening to their discography, and their LPs were getting progressively weirder as time wore on, I kept asking myself “Who do these guys remind me of?” The obvious answer to many would be The Beach Boys, but that doesn’t work for me. Jan and Dean front-load their records with an idiosyncratic sense of humor, quirky subject matter, and Jan’s pioneering do-it-yourself spirit. By comparison, The Beach Boys don’t have as much extracurricular activity underpinning their albums and singles. The Beach Boys are like a pure expression of music itself. No, Jan and Dean are something different. The closest match I could come up with was They Might Be Giants, those late 80s college radio kingpins who married wackadoodle arrangements and snarky comedy to catchy-as-hell pop music. Like TMBG, J&D always seemed to be just a little too weird for their intended audience yet were somehow totally mainstream. 

2021 is shaping up to be the year for reappraisals of Jan Berry’s work, first with Joel Selvin’s ode to the Los Angeles music scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s Hollywood Eden (where Jan is a major player) and now in Moore’s definitive Jan biography. Selvin’s book ends in 1966 after the car crash that altered Jan’s life forever and just as Jan began his battle to regain a music career that practically everyone assumed was over. Moore’s book takes the story much further until Jan’s death in 2004. 

The first half of this book, chronicling Jan Berry’s development as a music (and mischief) maker in tandem with the burgeoning career of Jan & Dean, makes for great reading. When I reviewed Joel Selvin’s book earlier this year I referred to Jan as a real-life Ferris Bueller. Now I think I was selling him short. Jan was more like Chris Knight, the character played by Val Kilmer in the 1985 comedy “Real Genius” (I mean if we’re sticking with the ’80s teen flick comparisons). Jan was the studly boy wonder who could throw the ultimate campus party and somehow trick the cops into buying the beer. Along with his clown prince buddy Dean Torrence, Jan didn’t so much ride the waves of a changing musical landscape as he tee-peed it. The only thing more impressive than putting on the whole world (the duo was on a meta hot streak with albums like Jan & Dean Meet Batman and the original version of Filet of Soul before Jan’s accident) was the sterling academic future ahead of them. In fact, Jan Berry was a med student by day/rock star by night! Had there not been any gold records, these guys probably would’ve been fine anyway. Interestingly, there’s an anecdote in the book about Jan Berry’s friendship with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson that reveals a lot about his well-deserved and healthy ego. Although both men had much in common (being gear heads, chick magnets, and hard partiers in no particular order), Jan was not above lording his intellect over Dennis, effectively putting him in his place. Ah, young men and their need for an established pecking order. 

Moore interviewed a number of the musicians and industry peers who worked with Jan and they all marvel at his talent and forward-thinking studio work. They’re quoted extensively in the book. The suggestion is that Jan was a musical genius. This is one of those scenarios where the expression “your mileage may vary” seems appropriate. While I personally don’t hear anything in Jan’s music that approaches the brilliance of a Brian Wilson or a Lennon/McCartney I do recognize that he was an innovator before it became acceptable and expected for a pop artist to think outside the box. Jan became the guy who set up others (particularly Brian) to put the ball over the goal line. Who knows what he could’ve accomplished had things not taken such a tragic turn? 

The second half of the book documenting the years after Jan’s car accident is both inspirational and harrowing. There’s no denying Jan’s bravery in working incredibly hard to get his life back, learning how to walk and talk again and do all the fundamentals of daily life that are taken for granted. Unfortunately, his compromised faculties made Jan an easy target for grifters and drifters. He also didn’t do himself any favors descending into drug abuse and surrendering to sexual indulgences. That he managed to keep it together and achieve periods of stability and creativity while struggling with his long recovery process is rightly celebrated in the book. 

However, I do think Dean Torrence gets a bit of a raw deal here. While there’s a mountain of evidence proving that Jan was the brains behind the duo and (yeah, I know) this is a book about Jan and not “Jan & Dean,” I couldn’t help but feel like Dean Torrence was being continually and aggressively marginalized. The quotes reasserting Jan’s dominance in the studio are all well and good, but some of the later criticism of Dean seems more petty than revelatory. To be fair, the latter-day career of Jan & Dean existed under extraordinary circumstances. The fact that it continued at all is somewhat miraculous. In his own way, Dean is also a sympathetic figure to me. As I mentioned earlier, I really enjoyed Dean’s book and would welcome a sequel covering his later years with Jan. 

At over 500 pages, Dead Man’s Curve: the Rock and Roll life of Jan Berry is a feast for fans of Jan, early rock and roll, and the powerhouse of pop percolating from the Sunset Strip. The section of the book dealing with Jan’s rise to fame is like reading about the greatest frat party of all time set to a killer soundtrack. If the goal here was to enrich the experience of listening to those Jan & Dean records once more or to encourage the uninitiated to think about them (and Jan) seriously for the first time, then I’d recommend you check out the book. It’s a heck of a story … and a lot more than what they could ever fit into a made-for-TV movie. 

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