Bob Greene has always been one of my favorite writers as he writes with a unique and flowing viewpoint on interesting and offbeat stuff that most writers wouldn’t think about or touch. I’ve been a fan of his since his newspaper column days as his sensibilities are very close to mine and I own a few books and anthologies of his. When I found out by chance that he just came out with a book about touring with Jan and Dean from the 1990’s onwards, I couldn’t wait to read it because I’ve always been a Jan and Dean fan as well. Jan Berry unfortunately passed away in 2004 but the book is partially a celebration of the 38 years he managed to live with grace and determination after his tragic car accident in 1966 that left him with severe permanent injuries that would have totally destroyed the spirit of most people.
Greene somehow despite not being a professional musician and not being particularly musically gifted, was invited to play in Jan and Dean’s touring band and this book is about life touring and playing with the band for the last 15 years or so. What makes this book unique is, I don’t think a book has ever been written before solely about the later years of a group after the hits ended. Surprisingly, neither Jan or Dean is really bitter – Jan Berry seems to live for the stage and performing, Dean Torrence seems to gracefully accept the fact that he’ll never be a star again and just tries to make the best of things and at the same time unselfishly helps take care of his friend Jan in a hidden, low key way. I almost get the feeling, perhaps erroneously, that if it wasn’t for Jan’s happiness on being on stage, Dean might not have continued to perform. The back-up band just loves playing live even though they won’t get rich doing it and Greene is just ecstatic about everything- he’s playing with and befriending a musical duo who’s music he loved and grew up with in Ohio, he’s become friends with the guys in the band and he’s touring the US and feeling young again doing something he loves. The book basically focuses equally on Jan and Dean together and separately, the backing band, Bob Greene’s thrill of performing and touring with musical legends, Bob’s relationships with the band and Jan and Dean, and what life is like touring together.
I would give this book an “A-” and say its mandatory reading for anyone who loved Jan and Dean’s hits such as”Surf City”, “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena”, “The New Girl in School”, “Deadman’s Curve” (as an aside, Dean Torrence sang the lead vocal on the Beach Boys hit, “Barbara Ann”) as you need the vibe of knowing their music to have this book come alive and give meaning to you. On the other hand, If you are not familiar with those songs, I don’t think this book will work for you, as I think you need to know the context of their music to relate to the tone of the book and the people in it. To those unfamiliar with Jan and Dean’s songs, I’d give this book a solid B- to C+, as I think you will have trouble relating.
The pluses in the book besides the subject matter, is Greene’s excellent concise but warm writing style which I’ve always loved, his tender but non-saccharine descriptions of Jan and Dean’s complicated friendship, his matter of fact portraits of Jan Berry, Dean Torrence, the band and himself, life on the road and performing in concert. My main criticism of this book is that it’s is too long and could easily have been edited from 339 pages to 239 pages without losing any meaning other then perhaps making life on the road feel more immediate then it really is. I also would have liked to have read a little bit more about Greene’s and/or the bands encounters with performers like Freddie “Palisades Park” Cannon, the Monkees and more – in all fairness maybe their encounters were too brief for detail, though Jan Berry was a particularly close friend in the late 60’s of the Monkees Mickey Jones after his accident (as written about in the excellent “Dead Man’s Curve and Back: The Jan and Dean Story by Mark Thomas Passmore, which supplements “Surfs City”), and a bit more detail about the bands members lives when not on tour as well as a little more about Jan and Dean’s musical history, though again, if you’re a fan you already know it.