Jan and Dean: You Don’t Come Back from Dead Man’s Curve
OKAY, ALL you, out there. How many of you remember Jan and Dean? If they weren’t the great innovators of surf music, they were at least the second in line… the only people who ever shut them down were the Beach Boys.
Of course, there were other surfing bands, the Ripcords, Ronnie and the Daytonas, the Surfaris, the Rivingtons and even the Trashmen. But these were no competition. If they weren’t an amalgam of Jan, Dean or members of the Beach Boys, they were invariably recording either a Beach Boys or a Jan and Dean tune.
Jan and Dean had a fast brief career that ran from around 1959 to 1966. They didn’t have the solid artistry of either the Beatles, Chuck Berry or the Beach Boys, but they carved a solid niche in the consciousness of their time with songs like ‘Little Old Lady From Pasadena’, ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ and ‘Ride the Wild Surf’. They were firmly locked into the surf and drag crazes of the period and provided pleasant (and occasionally memorable) songs that celebrated these phenomena.
In April 1966 the career of Jan and Dean came to a sudden full stop. Their wave broke. Jan piled up his Corvette in Whittier Boulevard, Los Angeles. The head injuries he received in the crash caused serious brain damage that left his speech and physical co-ordination seriously impaired. It was the end for Jan and Dean. Dean Torrence tried to preserve a little of the momentum with an album called Save For A Rainy Day, but after a more than negative response from Jan, and legal wranglings with his family, Dean backed away from the whole project and retreated to the quiet, more orderly life of a graphic designer.
Today, eight years after, Dean Torrence looks like a kindly, gentle senior surfer. The flat top has gone, his blond hair is now shoulder length. He still wears sneakers and a sweatshirt, however, and he still goes surfing. Dean has mellowed, but he hasn’t totally put the past behind him. In fact, when we met, he was checking the final release details of a retrospective Jan and Dean album called Gotta Take That One Last Ride. He seemed pleased to talk about the old days of his rock and roll career.
“In the beginning we just started singing. There was no idea of actually making a living at it. Almost everything that was happening seemed to be coming out of Philadelphia. Stuff like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, that kind of thing. It never occurred to us that we could make money singing.
“Jan and I were both in the high school football team. That’s really how we met. We had lockers next to each other. It sounds like a bad movie script, but it’s true. We first sang together in the showers, really. Things like the Silhouettes ‘Get A Job’ and Danny and the Juniors’ ‘At The Hop’.
If one single fact contributed to the conception of Jan and Dean above all others it was that Jan was a tape freak. He had two home machines set up in his garage, and an embryonic group began to gather there.
“Mostly neighbours. There was Bruce Johnson, Sandy Nelson played drums and there was a third guy with acne whose name I don’t remember who brought over his saxophone. We’d all get together in Jan’s garage and fool around.
“One day Jan came in and told us how it was possible to make a dub from our tapes. We’d never heard of anything like that before, and it seemed a great idea to actually have a disc of one of our songs.”
The song chosen was one called ‘Jennie Lee’. It was written after seeing a stripper of the same name at an L.A burlesque theatre.
“We went up this studio to find out about making a dub. The guy in charge told us it would be 20 dollars an hour and we thought ‘Jesus’. We didn’t have that kind of money. Then he explained that he could make two dubs, one for me, and one for Jan, for 10 dollars. We decided that was okay, and went ahead.
“While the engineer was running the tape through to get a cutting level, a little Jewish guy stuck his head round the door and yelled ‘Hey’. It was just like a bad rock and roll movie again. He told us that he loved the record and that he wanted to put it out. He told us we’d be bigger than the Everly Brothers. He paid for the dubs that we wanted, and took some for his company. He worked for Arwin Records. We only found out later that Arwin was a tax shelter for Doris Day and her husband Marty Melcher.”
As things turned out, the Little Jewish Guy was as good as his word. Four months after its creation, ‘Jennie Lee’ was number three in the national chart, behind ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ by the Everly brothers. Jan and Dean were up there with Don and Phil.
Except it wasn’t Jan and Dean, it was Jan and Arnie. Arnie?
“Arnie was another of the guys who used to come over to Jan’s garage. Before the ‘Jennie Lee’ thing even came up I had volunteered for the army. It was one of those do-six-months-now-and-save-two-years-later deals. Nothing else was happening so I went ahead with it. I didn’t find out about the record until the guy at Ford Orde comes running in and tells me that ‘Jennie Lee’ is on the radio.”
Dean got out of the service after doing his time and was welcomed back by Jan.
“Arnie wasn’t interested any more. Arnie went surfing. Jan was still in his garage recording songs and going to college.”
The only difference that ‘Jennie Lee’ seemed to have made was that Jan was now being advised by the Little Jewish Guy and three of his associates. The products of that relationship proved singularly fruitless, and Jan and Dean were eventually dropped by Arwin.
Their next relationship was with the youthful combination of Lou Adler and Herb Alpert. The product of this conspiracy was ‘Baby Love’, which, arranged by Alpert, went to number seven after which Adler had sold it to Dore, a comparatively new label that had recently had a hit with the fifteen-year-old Phil Spector’s production of ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ by the Teddy Bears.
These followed a series of Dick Clark shows and a bunch of little chart records from Dore. Jan and Dean did their major tours during the summer months when the high schools and colleges were out — partly because they pulled better audiences, and partly because Jan and Dean were still at college themselves, ensuring their future careers in case the rock and roll money gave out.
Right up until his accident, Jan was studying to be a doctor.
In Dean’s case this late studying paid dividends. After the disaster he could slide easily into a ready-made career. From his conversation you get the idea that he is proud of the Grammy award for the cover of the album by a group called Pollution, as of any of his hit records.
“Anyway, there we were back in L.A. It was round about that time that Herb and Lou decided they ought to part company. It started when Herb came in with his trumpet record that he’d recorded and expected Lou to get a release for. Lou told him that he was crazy, and that trumpet records had no chance at all. Then Lou found out that Herb had spent all the company’s money on producing it. At that point they decided it might be better if they divided up what was left, and went their separate ways. Lou got Jan and Dean, and Herb got the tape recorder.”
Two things happened next that were to have a major effect on the continuation of Jan and Dean. They listened to the Four Seasons, and they signed with Liberty Records. The Four Seasons gave them idea of using a falsetto parts, and the company gave them a solid foundation to perfect the sound and produce their major hit ‘Linda’.
“After ‘Linda’, Liberty wanted us to do an album. We were going surfing, surfing music had just happened and we wanted to do a surfing album. We had to keep ‘Linda’ in the title so we arrived at Linda Goes Surfing.”
Dean politely cracks up at the humour of it all.
“We were looking round for songs to put on the album. We’d played at hops with the Beach Boys and sung with them, and it seemed natural to do our version of ‘Surfin’ and ‘Surfin’ Safari’. We got the Beach Boys along to help us out. After the session Brian Wilson played us their new single. It was based on a Chuck Berry tune and called ‘Surfin’ USA’. We immediately wanted it, but Brian said no, he was going to keep it for himself. Then he played us another tune, ‘Surf City’ and said we could have that one.
It wasn’t however, a time without problems. The first was created by both Jan’s and Dean’s positive refusal to drop out of school. They still had little faith in the long-term career prospects of rock and roll stars. Being essentially part-timers, it created massive problems for any potential manager.
“Lou (Adler) ceased to be involved with us. He just couldn’t handle it. It had become too big. We had a lot of problems with managers. Most wouldn’t touch us because we were still in school.”
Management wasn’t their only problem. Another was censorship.
“We tried to do this song by Brian called ‘When Summer Comes, Gonna Hustle You’. We went ahead and did it. Nobody thought anything about it. Then the company executives heard it and they really got upset. ‘You can’t say hustle on the radio’. We were amazed. ‘Why not?’ ‘People might think it was dirty, to do with prostitution’. We recut it with new lyrics. It became ‘New Girl In School’.”
After 10 years, Dean finally gets to put the original version on the new album. Apparently hustle is no longer a dirty word. A more serious problem was an escalation of difficulties with record companies.
“We’d worked for a long time with the Beach Boys, Brian in particular. He was always around. Jan would take a song to a certain point, and then Brian would come into the studio and make it anything from five to 15 per cent better. He could take a good track and make it fantastic. We were quite free about singing on each other’s records, but then the record companies started clamping down. Capitol got really uptight about the Beach Boys singing on some of our hits and Liberty in their turn, began objecting to us singing on Beach Boys tracks. It started to get stupid…. and then I really opened a can of worms.
“Jan was working on these really terrible songs. They lacked any of the usual Beach Boys humour. The worst one was ‘You Really Know How To Hurt A Guy’. I hated it so much that I told Jan I wasn’t going to sing on it. Jan got mean and, on the day we were due to dub the vocals, Jan told me to get the hell out of the studio. I told him I was going along to this Beach Boys session. Jan got even madder, and told me whatever I did I wasn’t to sing, because it would just cause even more trouble.
“The session was for the Beach Boys Party album and when I got there they were all drunk. They started scratching around for another track, because I was there, somebody suggested that they should do ‘Barbara Ann’, and that I should sing lead.
“When the album came out, there was my voice clearly singing on ‘Barbara Ann’. Jan exploded, and so did the record companies. They eventually cooled off though.”
Although Jan’s accident came as a sudden and traumatic shock, Dean has no difficulty in talking about it. He appears to have spent a good deal of time, over the years, putting both his rock career and its sudden termination into clear perspective.
There was even what amounted to a strange kind of dress rehearsal for Jan’s accident. It happened during the filming of a projected movie called Easy Come — Easy Go.
“It was a full-scale comedy film centred around Jan and Dean. The rest of the cast included Stan Frieberg, Mel Brookes and Terry Thomas. It was going to be a major film debut. We’d already starred in the TAMI Show, and we’d written the music for a Fabian movie called Ride The Wild Surf‘. We were originally supposed to appear in that film, but then some of my friends were involved in the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr., and we were dropped. I don’t know exactly what the producers were afraid of. They maybe thought that we were going to kidnap Fabian.
“On the first day of filming, we had to do this sequence with a train. We had to walk along the track with a train quickly catching up on us. The camera was mounted on another train that ran along in front of us, keeping pace. The train behind us would back up, we’d start walking, and then it would come storming down the track. At the last minute we ran off the track, the camera train would speed up, and the other train would slow down and stop.
“We did a number of takes, and it all seemed very easy, although each time we had our makeup fixed this old makeup guy would tell us how dangerous he thought it was.
“We finished our part and they started shooting cutaways of the train coming closer. Jan and I climbed on to the camera train to watch, but after a while I got bored, and got off. I walked up the hill to where the catering trucks were parked. I met the makeup man again and he kept going on about how dangerous the whole sequence was. Then there was this terrible crash. The train that was being filmed had run into the train with camera crew on it.
“I ran down the hill and saw Jan flash past in the car. He had a compound fracture of his leg. He was bleeding really badly. He’d held his leg together, pinching the arteries, and jumping into these kids’ hot rod and made them drive him to hospital. He could tell, from his med training, that if he waited for the ambulance, he would bleed to death.
“When I got to the bottom of the hill, it was horrible. The director had a broken hip. A cameraman’s nose had been sheared off. There were about 17 people badly injured. The ambulances were coming. There were pages of the script scattered all over the ground. It was the end of our film career.
“Jan had had his cast off for about three weeks. He’d been off sick from medical school , and the draft board called him in to explain why he wasn’t there. He was getting student deferment. He was late, and anyway, Jan always drove as though he was crazy. He came down the side street much too fast and hit a parked truck. He all but took the top of his head off. For over a year he was totally paralysed.
Jan slowly regained some of his faculties, but he has never got back to being a fully functioning human being. When, in 1973, he managed to sing through the entire lyric of his single ‘Tinsel Town’ it was a major achievement.
Dean, however, is totally realistic about the whole episode. “In some ways the accident was a terrible relief. Relations with Jan had been getting terribly uneasy. There had been a lot of little battles, and he’d also been trying to cut up with Brian Wilson in a lot of petty ways. The problem was, even before the accident, Jan was never that creative and he’d become bitter and difficult.
“Jan still wants desperately to be a rock star. Things tend to frighten him. When I took round a pressing of the Save For A Rainy Day album that I put together after the crash from material Jan had been working on, he freaked and smashed the album. I tried working with him — there was a live appearance at the Surfers’ Stomp reunion in 1973. It was a fiasco.
“The real question is what Jan can contribute, I’d like to work with him, but I don’t think it’s possible. I have my graphics company, and music is strictly a second interest. I can’t let Jan slow me down.”
© Mick Farren, 1975