27 December 2019

Jan and Dean, and the Writer Who Brought Them Back from Dead Man's Curve

Jan Berry had it all.

Jan and Dean's '63 drag race classic,
"Dead Man Curve." 
He was the Jan of Jan and Dean, the pop duo who, along with the Beach Boys, made surfing and drag racing something to sing about. Like the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, Jan wrote and produced. He was writing charts for the Wrecking Crew (if that term doesn't ring a bell, check out the the 2008 doc of the same name) while Brian Wilson and his brothers were still the primary musicians on Beach Boy records. Brian Wilson wrote "Surf City" with Jan. They appeared on each other's recordings.

Brian Wilson and Jan Berry were flip sides of the same coin. Brian Wilson was a studio progeny who stopped touring with his band so he could devote himself to creating gems like "God Only Knows" and "Wouldn't it Be Nice." While Jan Berry was a technically savvy producer, Brian blossomed in the studio. He directed the Wrecking Crew like Dudamel conducts the LA Philharmonic.  Brian was pudgy, and younger brother Dennis (famously the one true surfer of the group) was the only Beach Boy who seemed a natural on an album cover. Though the leader of the Beach Boys, Brian was cowed by his overbearing dad until he and his band of brothers kicked pops out of the control room. Pops got his revenge by selling the Beach Boys library for, if not peanuts, peanut brittle.

Brian Wilson, '66
If you took Brian's musical know-how and combined it with younger brother Dennis' good looks and athleticism, you'd get a closer picture of Jan Berry.  Jan Berry was a BMOC, a West LA high school football player and rule-breaking prankster who took orders from no one. According to Paul Morantz's groundbreaking Rolling Stone essay "The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve," Jan ran away from home for six months after his dad embarrassed him by picking him up at a party in front of his friends. "He had always been his own man and disliked authority of any kind. He was, said a friend, so much smarter, quicker, stronger than anyone else that he just made up his own rules," Morantz writes.

Jan and Dean
Jan Barry was living the dream. While making hit records and touring, Jan was, amazingly, a pre-med student at UCLA, minoring in music. He was the ultimate mid-sixties hyphenate. It's almost as if he had a duel identity, like Adam West's groovy '60s Batman.  Jan Berry, medical student by day, surfer-auteur by night. Jan and Dean even riffed on this idea in the album Jan and Dean Meet Batman. According to Dean Torrence, Jan didn't sweat it if record execs tried to push the duo around. "He's pre-med, I'm at the School of Architecture at USC. What do we care?" Dean said in a 2004 interview with Rolling Stone.  "You're going to kick us off the label? We'll start our own."

Jan dated Ann-Margret. Jan dated Yvette Mimieux. Jan drove his Corvette Sting Ray fast. Sometimes he worked while driving. "I'd seen him transpose stuff (music) while driving in his car,"  Dean remembers. "Why he just didn't ask me to drive while he changed the notes, I don't know."

Jan Barry crashed his Sting Ray into a parked pick-up truck in 1966, not far from the real Dead Man's Curve that he and Dean made a hit record about. Jan Berry suffered permanent brain damage. When once nothing seemed to exceed his grasp, now he had to relearn how to sign his name.  The go-it-alone attitude that had served Berry when he had the talent to back it up now only pushed people away. Los Angeles lowlifes leeched money from Berry, some plying him with drugs. He retained dreams of a come back, but who wanted a singer who couldn't sing? Dean, like the rest of the world, moved on.

Paul Morantz,
attorney, journalist, author
Paul Morantz is a LA hyphenate too; he's a lawyer and an investigative journalist.  As an attorney Morantz has successfully taken on shady cults.  Probably his most famous case was battling Synanon in the '70s. Synanon was a drug rehab facility based in Santa Monica that slowly morphed into a dangerous paramilitary cult. After Morantz became too big a threat, Synanon put a rattlesnake in Morantz's mailbox. The snake bit Morantz, and he spent six days in the hospital. Thanks in large part to Morantz's many lawsuits (and the snake incident), Synanon dissolved in 1991.

Perhaps Morantz's most famous piece of journalism is one of his first. According to his website (PaulMorantz.Com), Paul first met Jan Berry in 1969. Paul was a USC law student vacationing in Palm Springs, where he met a "strange figure with a handicapped body and a broken voice" sitting in the lounge chair next to him.   Paul wrote an article for the Daily Trojan about his two-day encounter with Jan Berry. This was the basis for "The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve," published in Rolling Stone in 1974.

"The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve" details the rise and fall of Jan and Dean, with the focus on the aftermath for Jan. I just want to stop here and say how good Morantz's writing is. He really paints a scene with his words. Here he is describing the leeches who ripped Jan off:

They came like scavengers to a shipwreck. Strangers walked in, used his bedroom and kitchen, and walked out, some with his stereo equipment and others with his records, clothes, or liquor. For those who stayed awhile Jan bought gifts and lent his car but eventually they left, too.

The story builds as Jan slowly, painfully, puts his life back together.  Morantz gives a fully formed picture of Jan before the accident:

He was concerned only with achievement. He worked constantly and kept few friends. His mind was always working on everything at once...

Jan lost the power to concentrate after the accident. Writing lyrics became impossible, though music still flowed through him. Unlike before, Jan has no choice but to take everything slow. He spends his time taking walks. He yearns for friendships. It's clear he'll never get to where he was, but it's enough that he just gets happier. The lessons that Jan Berry has to learn apply to all of us. Morantz is cleverly writing not just about Jan's comeback, but about the human condition. It's really a beautiful tale.
TV movie Deadman's Curve

"The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve" struck a chord. Interest in Jan and Dean picked up. The duo began performing together for the first time in years. Morantz's article became Deadman's Curve, a '78 TV movie for CBS that he co-wrote.  Richard Hatch played Jan, Bruce Davison played Dean. I saw it on TV when I was a kid and loved it.  It fit in nicely with all the '50s-early '60s, Happy Days-stoked  nostalgia of the era. And it's a great comeback story.

Jan Berry was fearless and smart. If the music thing didn't pan out, he'd be a doctor. Maybe he and Jan would have their own TV show. He had a lot of irons in the fire. He wasn't interested in making sensitive music about his feelings, and he wasn't necessarily sympathetic to the counter culture that was rising around him. Even so, "Dean Man's Curve," is a stone cold classic, the best of the drag racing tunes. I like its attention to detail. The Sting Ray. The Jag. The  deserted Sunset Strip. It's a tale of hubris that ends in death.

Jan Berry did walk back from Dead Man's Curve, but unlike his former self, he couldn't go it alone. He had the help of Paul Morantz, a writer who dug deep again and again until he got to the heart of a story.

Check out PaulMorantz.com to read "The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve." Paul Morantz is a terrific writer and journalist who has many great stories to tell. 

I'm Lawrence Maddox.

My novel Fast Bang Booze is available from DownAndOutBooks.com

Or on Twitter, Lawrence Maddox@Madxbooks.


  1. I didn't know most of that, thanks. About a decade ago I was listening to WUMB, the all-folk music station, and the morning DJ was reading through a "today in music history" list. At one point he said "On this date in 1966 Jan Berry crashed his car near Dead Man's Curve." Long pause. "If you're under fifty, don't worry about it. It's not important."

    Cracked me up.

  2. DEAD MAN"S CURVE. You're right. It's a stone cold classic. Still sounds great. Thanks for giving us the this and reminding us of when the rock and roll ruled the Earth.

  3. The music of my childhood! Love this stuff. Great column, Larry.

    (I need to talk to you and Paul Marks, about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Finally saw it the other night, and WHOA . . .)

  4. Great song, Larry. I know Jan's struggled over the years. And it's haunting how close the song's lyrics are to what happened to Jan. (On a side note, I borrowed that song title for a story that appeared in an anthology, though the anthology title escapes me at the moment.)

    John, would love to talk to about Once Upon a Time.

  5. I remember all of this, including Synanon (like Southern California needed MORE cults). I was one of those who preferred Jan and Dean to The Beach Boys, thanks to Surf City and Dead Man's Curve. Very nostalgic post for me.

  6. That’s hilarious Rob! There’s a humbling lesson for all of us in what that DJ said...

  7. Thanks O’Neil! What’s especially great about that song is the Corvette driver’s interview with the doctor at the end. We can only guess how busted up he is. All we know is he’s the lone survivor, and he’ll never forget. Rock n roll!

  8. Appreciate it John! I've been waiting to hear your response to Once Upon a Time. I thought it was a great, provocative film. Looking forward to a second viewing. I know many folks who love it but part ways with me on the ending. I'm okay with that. I miss movies that inspire those kind of conversations. For me, the ending was powerful. Interested in hearing what you thought!

  9. I agree, Paul! I'm not surprised that you used the song title for one of your stories. Like your stories, DMC is dripping with LA history, and the point where reality smashes head-on into myth.

  10. Great post, Lawrence.

    I agree, this is one of THE songs of the era. And it's not just a Jag, it's an XKE, which is even more evocative.

    I knew some of this, but I didn't know Jan did the arranging and producing for their records. I like the production on Jan and Dean songs better than the Beach Boys because the bottom usually sounds heavier. I don't know who the session drummer was (maybe Hal Blaine???), but the fills at the ends of lyric lines on Dead Man's Curve really move the song along, like the two cars gaining speed. And I love the slightly clipped feedback on the chord that holds at the end of the verses...it reminds me of the cars revving up. I wonder if that was intentional or just lucky happenstance. Studios were such chancy things in the early 60s.

    I also use song titles a lot, and for the same reasons. I don't think I've ever used a Beach Boys or Jan and Dean song, though. I did replace "Spring Little Cobra" once when it was a place-holder, though.

  11. Thanks Eve! The Synanon story is truly nuts. Check out Paul Morantz's website (paulmorantz.com) for some juicy Synanon stories. Hoping you'll share your Sunset Strip adventures!

  12. I knew bits and pieces, but not the larger story. I love it. Thanks, Larry.

  13. After reading this, I started thinking of the novels of Henry Gregor Felson, a favorite author of Stephen King.

  14. Thanks Steve! Really great comments about the DMC production. You’ve got a good ear! And I’m almost positive youre right, it’s Hal Blaine. He worked with Jan when he was still Jan and Arnie. I’ve read interviews w/ Dean where he claims Jan taught Brian Wilson how to utilize a studio. In return, Brian taught Jan group harmonizing. And he gave them a near-finished Surf City. I recently caught a Brian interview where he praises Jan’s producing, singing, just everything. If he Jan around during Smile, I bet he could’ve finished it.

  15. Thanks Leigh! I looked Felson up after I read your comments and he looks like someone I’d want to read. He going on the list!

  16. Great article, Larry. I had a Jan and Dean cassette years ago and knew about the accident, but I didn't know about the Jan before or how people were ripping him off after. I'm glad you talked about Morantz and how a piece of journalism changed somebody's life for the better. I suppose the rattlesnake scene in Robert Altman's "The Player" might have come from the mailbox incident.

  17. Thank you Travis! You're right about The Player. At PaulMorantz.com, Paul discusses how the snake-in-the-box made it into that film and others too. Morantz is a fascinating guy who had to forego a lit career to legally pursue shady cults. He helped a lot of people.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>