Well the last thing I remember, Doc, I
started to swerve
And then I saw the Jag slide into
I know I’ll never forget that
I guess I found out for myself that
everyone was right
Won’t come back from Dead Man’s
When Jan Berry wrote that prophetic lyric 14 years ago, he and Dean Torrence were Surf City’s fair-haired lads, with a string of hot rod-hodad-‘n’-hedonism hits to rival their pals, the Beach Boys. Then in April 1966 Jan swerved to avoid a car at an intersection and plowed his new Corvette Sting Ray into a parked truck. A month later he awoke from a coma with brain damage that left him almost a tabula rasa—and the act a rock’n’roll casualty.
Last week, halfway through each show of a 10-day blitz, Beach Boy Brian Wilson was introducing a duo he called a “Southern California legend.” Young audiences couldn’t place the face as Dean, 38, strode onstage. Then Jan, 36, followed slowly, awkwardly—his right leg is partially paralyzed and his right arm hangs practically useless. Memories now piqued, the crowds would add a cathartic roar to their polite applause as the duo launched into their own Surf City and The Little Old Lady from Pasadena. The old harmonies were not as tight; what is remarkable is not that Jan’s timing is occasionally a microsecond off but that he can utter coherent sounds at all. The spirit, though, was intact. “This is fabulous,” glowed Dean. And Jan, who before each show had to rememorize a typescript of lyrics he wrote 15 years ago, added: “I had a little anxiety before the first appearance, but the feeling when I was onstage—God, I couldn’t explain it.”
“To have them with us is a thrill,” says Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy composer, who worked hard to help Jan regain his musical sense during the years of hospitalization and therapy. “Jan and Dean are part of the Beach Boys.” (“Yeah, their farm team,” cracks Dean, awed by the group’s private jets and huge crowds.) Says Jan of his empathy with Brian, who has had well-publicized psychiatric problems: “I had an accident; he freaked out. I have thought through the years we’d gradually get better together.”
Jan and Dean, best friends and football teammates from L.A.’s University High, had a TV series deal and had started a movie (Easy Come, Easy Go) just a month before the accident. Dean, who had been in USC grad school on the side, set up shop as a designer. His Kittyhawk Graphics does album covers (Steve Martin, the Beach Boys) and promo packages. His next dream is to produce G-rated movie musicals with Beach Boy Mike Love.
After the crackup Jan, a second-year medical school student with “an IQ 50 points above everyone else,” according to Dean, had to start all over. “I was like a child,” Jan recalls. “I took speech and physical therapy and learned to read and write. When the doctors first told me I would be brain damaged for the rest of my life, I didn’t think I could cope with it. But it’s all right now—I’m getting better all the time.” Although he had been playing small clubs with his Aloha Band for a year, few fans realized how much better Jan was until he showed up unexpectedly and joined in with two other Beach Boys at a Mike Love performance at USC this spring. Then, on the strength of the high ratings of CBS’s movie on the duo last February, Dead Man’s Curve (“It gave me the shivers,” Jan admits), the tour was born.
Jan shares his Westwood apartment with an actress named Diane, who was an extra on the Curve set. Dean (also a lifelong bachelor who met his lady, Doreen, at the USC concert) inhabits a three-story Hollywood Hills place that once belonged to Bogart. Jan and Dean may keep touring, but the latter nixes a new LP. “Too much water has passed under the bridge,” he says. “It was a special time and a special place. That place is gone.”