CENTRAL BOOKING: When We Get to Surf City by Bob Greene


10 May 2010, 14:31

I've read a lot of rock bios, and I've read of lot of books about rock from actual writers. One chief complaint I've always had about rock bios (even the ghost-written ones) is that there's no real narrative arc, no grand scheme holding things together. Most tend to connect the major events of the artist or band's career together, giving the reader a Cliff's Notes version of that band's career. This isn't a bad approach, but it tends to downplay the little moments of joy and exhiliration that caused most of the artists to get into the music biz in the first place. Conversely, whenever “esteemed” writers attempt to display their affection for their favorite music or band, it's often stated from a viewpoint well away from the stage and even further away from the artists themselves. Examining something with such microscopic focus usually results in a cold, clinical appreciation rather than the sweaty, cramped euphoria a live show offers. So finding a way to combine a great writer's knack for finding the transcendent in the day-to-day routine of a rock band with said writer actually being IN the band is an exciting wrinkle in the rock memoir division. Bob Greene's When We Get to Surf City is such a work.
Greene is as esteemed writer is you can get: author of more than twenty books, long-time columnist for two national newspapers and several magazines. Thankfully for readers of Surf City, he is an unrepentant fanatic for bands and music of the '60s. As it turns out, one of his non-fiction memoirs found its way into the hands of Jan & Dean's touring band who saw his band mentioned within. He invited Greene to a show, which Greene thoroughly enjoyed. From that improbable start, Greene becomes an temporary member of the band, joining the band on weekends or whenever his schedule is open... for over a decade. Along the way, he witnesses the ups and downs of a Golden Oldies act travelling across the country, and becomes entangled in the strange dynamic between Jan and Dean themselves. There have been several “travelling with the band” rock bios, but precious few include sections where the author is berated for being off key for that night's performance. While Greene may not have had the musical chops of his bandmates, his keen eye for detail and the story behind the story makes even the most awkward and uncomfortable moments of touring gain gravitas. The end effect is somewhat like having Garrison Keillor as your roadie (except IMO much more entertaining – Keillor's folksiness always seemed strained to me.)
The book's biggest accomplishment for me was being able to transmit his joy and appreciation onto the page. While most of the acts the Jan and Dean band encounter are well past their sales peak, Greene still handles meetings with folks like Chubby Checker, Dion, Lou Christie and Freddy Cannon with the wide-eyed glee the teenage version of himself would've had. But even in the oldies circuit, there is a pecking order, and Greene effectively demonstrates the difference between a show with Leslie Goreand, say a show with The Monkees or The Beach Boys (who serve as both booster and bane of the Jan and Dean band). Still, Greene spends most of the time reflecting on his own band and its two stars. In hindsight, most tend to look at Jan and Dean as a second-string substitute to the Beach Boys, but Greene manages to dig further into how two kids making fun singles about cars and skateboarding in the '60s stay together thirty years later. It's touching, heartbreaking in more than a few places, and ultimately shows the true staying power of rock music.


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