'When We Get to Surf City'

Bob Greene lives out a dream traveling with a 1960s surf band.

When We Get to Surf City By Bob Greene St. Martin’s Press 352 pp., $24.95

First things first: Bob Greene is no Chekhov. When We Get to Surf City will not cause you to question your very existence nor will it leave you pondering the complex relationship of the ego to the id. But it might just prompt you to ask yourself, “Am I having enough fun yet?”

Second things second. Men never want to grow up. We may think we want to before we are actually men, but trust me – once we get there and finally have to surrender our toys and dreams of playing shortstop for the Cubs or becoming rock stars – that’s when panic sets in.

But author, NPR commentator, and middle-aged guy Bob Greene found the magic key to Neverland quite unexpectedly one day in 1992. Correction – it found him, via a letter that arrived at his office, postmarked Panorama City, Calif.

This letter contained an invitation to a concert to be performed in Kansas City that summer.
In a 1987 book of teen memories “Be True to Your School,” Greene had confessed to being a big fan of Jan & Dean, the early 1960s singing duo, who, along with the Beach Boys, put surf music on the charts. Thirty years after their smash hit, “Surf City,” J&D were still on the road, crisscrossing America every summer, playing state fairs, baseball stadiums, and corporate picnics.

Seeing an opportunity for some much-needed publicity (or perhaps just sensing a kindred spirit), a J&D band member had sent Greene the invitation.

Greene traveled west to Kansas City to catch the show and then he just kept on going – all the way back to the summer of ’63, to cloudless blue skies and “two girls for every boy.” Back to burgers and shakes at the Dairy Queen and the thrill of the perfect song on the radio.

Soon he was meeting up with the band whenever and wherever he could, jumping onstage to join in on harmony on sun and fun chestnuts like “Barbara Ann” and “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.” With each gig, his confidence grew, and before too long he found himself a full-blown, guitar-strumming member of the Jan & Dean band.

And so for the next 15 summers, Bob Greene rode this perfect wave.

Like The New Yorker’s John McPhee, Greene has a writer’s gift of breathing unexpected life into the seemingly mundane. The dusty county fairgrounds, honky-tonk casinos, and nearly abandoned small-town squares that dot America’s midsection have never looked so appealing.

The entertainment-starved denizens who come out in droves to see the aging stars (whose last hit was 30 years ago) are profiled with real affection and poignancy.

But the real soul of this book emerges in the good-natured camaraderie of the guys in the band and the indelible snapshots of grown men (like so many Peter Pans) joyfully at play along America’s back roads and interstates.

There are images of these 50- and 60-somethings bunking together in private homes or raggedy motels, constantly on the prowl for the best small-town cheeseburger or rib joint, playfully pilfering each other’s French fries.

There are also touching scenes of Dean Torrence, who played second banana to golden-boy Jan Berry when they were stars, now running the show and quietly caring for his brain-
damaged partner (injured in a near-fatal car crash in 1966), getting him dressed and helping him relearn lyrics to (Berry’s own) songs before every show.

But when it’s time to hit the stage, to celebrate the communal joy of long-haired girls, candy-apple-red Corvettes, and endless summers – Jan Berry is whole again, a rockin’, rollin’ legend. And Bob Greene and the rest of the crack Jan & Dean band are high up on the crest again, riding that perfect wave.

And the audience is right there with them, singing their hearts out in the warmth of the sun, 16 once again.

(Note: Jan Berry passed away in 2004. Now 68, Dean Torrence is still out there rockin’ the summers with the Surf City Allstars.)

John Kehe is the Monitor’s design director.

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