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R.I.P. Jan Berry

When I'm Cool

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Tony, that's pretty harsh. Jan & Dean, which Berry co-founded with former schoolmate Dean Torrence while both were college students, enjoyed seven top-10 hits, including the 1963 chart-topper "Surf City," which was co-written by their friend, Beach Boy Brian Wilson.

The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean often performed on each others' tracks, without the knowledge of their rival record labels. Other Jan & Dean hits included "Drag City," "Dead Man's Curve" and "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena," all from 1964.

Berry, a pre-med student with a genius-level IQ, was the creative brains behind Jan & Dean. He assumed control of production and arrangements at a time when such chores were left to the pros. He was a key influence on Brian Wilson, who would soon take songwriting and production to a whole new level, according to Berry's official biographer, Mark Moore.

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Tony, Jan was without a doubt a true musical genius. He was taken for granted because of the perception that Jan & Dean's music was light, but he was a tremendous influence on Brian Wilson's production and arrangement styles. I've read many interviews with top-notch musicians such as Carol Kaye (bassist on most of the BB's stuff) and Hal Blaine where they speak in glowing terms of Jan's abilities. And yes, he did have a genius-level IQ.


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Jan & Dean's first top 10 hit was in 1958 ("Jennie Lee") and was followed by another top 10 hit ("Baby Talk") in 1959--four years ahead of the Beach Boys... there were a few other vocal groups who influenced Brian Wilson as well as the Ronettes/Phil Spector, BUT, Jan & Dean were monumental in the shaping of the Beach Boys..

I will post here, a recent excerpt written by Bob Lefsetz, regarding the passing of Jan Berry--Bob has given his permission to post this:

"In the sixties, California was a dream. Most people credit Brian Wilson. But Jan Berry was there first.

At the present time, the only surf music that seems to survive is instrumental. The renaissance of songs about the beach and girls is still in the offing. But those of us who lived through that era were indelibly stamped. The only thing akin to that era was the nineties economic run-up. When money was plentiful and people were consuming. But the early sixties were different. The early sixties were about both hedonism and hope. Hope on both an individual and societal level. Hope that there could be societal equality. Both racially and economically. Hope that the future could be better than the past. Hope that we would be both happy and fulfilled. That hope was in Jan Berry's music.

It could be as simple as the possibilities re the new girl in school.

"I got it bad for the new girl in school

The guys are flipping but I'm playing it cool

Everybody's passing notes in class

They really dig her now she's such a gas"

You might find these words laughable. I consider them poetry.

The most meaningful words are the most basic. Ones spoken from the heart.

Today's novelists lay on so much description that their books are unreadable. Today's songwriters write in such universal platitudes that their works slide right off of you. But THIS you could envision. If you didn't check out the new girl or boy in school, you're not human. You've been with the same people for YEARS! Now there's new blood. This is what passes for EXCITEMENT in high school, hell JUNIOR HIGH!

Now make no mistake, just because they're not in the news today, Jan and Dean were HOUSEHOLD NAMES! They HOSTED the T.A.M.I. Show. A cavalcade of stars ranging from the Rolling Stones to Chuck Berry to Lesley Gore. Hell, as they sang, THEY'RE COMING FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD!

And they were into skateboarding LONG before Tony Hawk.

"Grab your board and go sidewalk surfin' with me"

Now this was sung to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Catch A Wave", still, the lyrics were so contemporary. It was a CRAZE!

There was hit after hit, like the immortal "Little Old Lady From Pasadena".

And then there was the prescient "Dead Man's Curve".

Jan Berry did not have his car accident on this famous strip of Sunset Boulevard near U.C.L.A. No, he crashed into a gardener's truck in Beverly Hills. And he didn't die. He was just incredibly fucked up. He suffered brain damage.

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I did get to meet Jan and Dean one time in a small club in California. Poor Jan had some serious problems, but he was certainly trying. It was a major struggle to do an autograph for this one fan but he managed to do it.

Dean had other talents. Much like Ron Wood, he is an accomplished artist, and in fact had his own graphic design company.....even did the covers for some Beach Boys albums.

Speaking of the TAMI show, it was cool when they got the fire extinguishers out while introducing James Brown.

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Well, I too thought that the movie made the car crash look like Jan was in a fit of rage over the draft issue. I've never read or heard that for a fact. Maybe that made the movie more dramatic. Jan was already graduated from UCLA medical school at the time, so being a rock star and premed student, I doubt he had much to worry about. The movie seemed to play down Jan's higher education and genius in biochemistry. I remember seeing Jan and Dean interviewed and hearing Dean make the comment that Jan had always been a dare devil, before and after the crash. And that he did everything with a "no fear" attitude, espically driving cars.

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Sorry for this long post, but I thought that some of you might be interested in this excerpt from the latest Rolling Stone. It's an interview with Dean Torrence:


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.

"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 bruptly 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."

For more information on the life, music and trials of Jan and Dean, read Dean's rich detailed memoir at jananddean.com



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