When We Get to Surf City: A Journey through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams

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In a dazzling and exhilarating display of narrative on-the-road reporting, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Bob Greene takes readers on an unforgettable American journey of music, memories, and universal longing.

Running away to join the circus is a dream we’re told to put away once we’re no longer young. But, as Bob Greene writes, “just when in our lives we give up on capturing the freedom and bright mornings of our world when it was new, sometimes...

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When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams

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Overview

In a dazzling and exhilarating display of narrative on-the-road reporting, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Bob Greene takes readers on an unforgettable American journey of music, memories, and universal longing.

Running away to join the circus is a dream we’re told to put away once we’re no longer young. But, as Bob Greene writes, “just when in our lives we give up on capturing the freedom and bright mornings of our world when it was new, sometimes something happens to keep the sun high in the sky a while longer. Sometimes we find something we weren’t even aware we were looking for."

For fifteen years beginning in the 1990s, Greene stepped into a universe that, out in the country every summer night, is hiding in plain sight: the touring world of the great early rock bands who gave America the car-radio and jukebox music it still loves best. Singing backup with the legendary Jan and Dean as they endlessly crisscross the nation, Greene takes us to football stadiums and minor-league ballparks, to no-name ice cream stands and midnight diners, to back roads and carnival midways as he tells a riveting story of great fame and lingering sorrow, of unexpected friendship and lasting dreams, of the things that keep us going in the face of all the things that threaten to stop us.

Striking chords of recognition and yearning, When We Get to Surf City glistens with cameos by the men and women with whom Greene traveled the United States on his deliriously unlikely journey, including Chuck Berry, Martha and the Vandellas, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, the Kingsmen, James Brown, Lesley Gore, the Drifters, Little Eva, and the Coasters.

All of them—not just the people on the stage, but the people in the audiences, too—are seeking their private versions of the mythical destination Jan and Dean came up with all those years ago: Surf City as the perfect, cloudless place we all believe is out there, if only we can find it.

Hilarious and heartbreaking, moving and brilliant, this is the trip of a lifetime, a travelogue of the heart, accompanied by a thundering guitar chorus of Fender Stratocasters. It is a story destined to touch readers not just today, but for generations to come, as long as the music itself echoes.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Beginning in the 1990s, Greene, a New York Times best-selling nonfiction author (Duty; Once Upon a Town) and commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered, spent summers traveling and performing with surf-music legends Jan Berry and Dean Torrence. In this easygoing, readable narrative of his experiences, Greene shows that life on the road is not all limousines and caviar. As he relates performing at state and country fairs, corporate parties, and grand openings of shopping malls, Greene emphasizes that what drives these musicians is the music. He explores themes found in his earlier writings, especially the reality of small-town America and nostalgia for the past-here, the heyday of surf music in the early 1960s, which becomes almost the raison d'être for the musicians and their audiences. After Jan's infamous near-fatal car accident in 1966, he remained active for decades, despite having to relearn lyrics each day, many he originally wrote. Greene sees a similar longing for the future via nostalgia for the past in audiences across America, who come to hear bands whose hits are decades old. Highly recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/15/08.]
—James E. Perone

Kirkus Reviews
Journalist Greene (And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship, 2006, etc.) reports on 15 summers playing with a venerable rock 'n' roll band. In 1992, the author was permitted to join the ex-boys in a hot rod/surfers' band headed by Jan and Dean, survivors in the world of touring oldies packages. Greene traveled and sang and picked with the summer soldiers, whom he came to admire greatly. The California lost boys played "Surfin' USA" and "Honolulu Lulu" in Elko, Nev., and Blue Ash, Ohio, in fairgrounds, stadiums and casinos. They belted "Little Deuce Coupe" in Lac du Flambeau, Wis., and Burgettstown, Pa., and sang "Ride the Wild Surf" in Cassopolis, Mich., in Fort Wayne, Cambridge and Roanoke. There were overnights in Quality, Best Western, La Quinta, Holiday and Hampton Inns, rations of local ice cream, barbecue and cheeseburgers, the fare at White Castles and Waffle Houses. In the heartland, they encountered Elvis impersonators and the real Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. And they met America. The devoted fans, the rotten gigs and the music were all wonderful. Greene sings of the music and of the brotherhood. He paints moving portraits of Dean Torrence and especially Jan Berry, who suffered grievous injury in a car crash some four decades ago. Underlying the celebration of the band's skill and perseverance is the poignant story of Jan's slow fade and Dean's affectionate care of his partner. Greene's memoir is, after all, a love story. He recalls the great guitar licks and the happy crowds of those treasured warm-weather months, regularly evoking to good effect "the promise of summer days and summer nights."A practiced explorer in the age-old search for sunlityouth, the author here proves himself a sentimental gentleman of rock 'n' roll.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312375294
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 5/13/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 343
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Award-winning journalist Bob Greene is a commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered and a New York Times bestselling author whose books include And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship; Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen; Duty: A Father, A Son, and the Man Who Won the War;  Hang Time: Days and Dreams with Michael Jordan; Be True to Your School, and, with his sister, D. G. Fulford, To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come.

As a magazine writer he has been lead columnist for Life and Esquire; as a broadcast journalist he has served as a contributing correspondent for ABC News Nightline. He wrote a syndicated newspaper column based in Chicago for thirty-one years, first for the Sun-Times and later for the Tribune. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times op-ed page.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The rental car, for the moment, was just a speck in the distance, and things this wonderful are not supposed to happen in a man's life.

I caught sight of the car when it was maybe a hundred yards away, its tires kicking up big clouds of brown dust on the rutted and narrow dirt road by the side of the crowd of forty thousand people.

From where I stood on the stage, the car, and the dirt access road, were to my left. The sun was just starting to dip; the people in the crowd, in their shorts and T-shirts and bikini tops at the end of a broiling June day near the banks of the swollen-almost-to-overflowing Ohio River, were on their feet and dancing to our music. We were singing "Barbara Ann"- . . . Ba-ba-ba, Ba-Barbara Ann, Ba-ba-ba, Ba-Barbara Ann ... -and the people out in the audience were singing right along with us, forty thousand voices joining ours, and that's when I first saw the car.

There was a chance that Chuck Berry was inside.

And I found myself hoping against hope that he wasn't.

That's why I'm telling you this-to give you some idea of the extent of the joy.

I was hoping that Chuck Berry wasn't in the car because if he was, it would mean that we would have to leave the stage.

The others onstage hadn't noticed the car yet. Maybe they weren't looking for it; maybe I'm the only one who for whatever reason always seems to have one eye constitutionally searching for trouble. But the others-Jan, Dean, the four guys who in addition to me were backing up Jan and Dean-were unaware of the car, drawing closer with each passing second.

We had been told that Chuck was an apparent no-show. That's why we were up here and singing for the second time today. Not that we minded. It had been an afternoon so bright, so warm, so awash in beginning-of-summer sun that no amount of time on the stage was going to feel like enough, no number of songs were going to feel sufficient. An early-June afternoon bursting with the promise of summer days and summer nights to come, one of those afternoons that fills you with the illusion that against all odds you can be a kid again-that you can get back summer as summer had existed when the music you were singing right now had been brand-new, when you had been brand-new yourself.

But when you had been brand-new yourself, in a world that had felt constantly new, you could not have conceived of ever standing on the same patch of land as Chuck Berry, of ever breathing the same air, never mind hoping that a car just entering your line of sight did not carry him inside.

After we had first played earlier in the afternoon and had finished our set, we had been in the backstage area having ribs and sandwiches and beer while some of the other acts on the bill-Sam the Sham, Little Eva, the Marcels-had performed. As we had been getting ready to go back to our hotel we could see that the promoters were getting jittery. They had been whispering among themselves; clearly something was wrong.

What had been wrong was Chuck Berry-the absence of Chuck Berry. He had been signed to be the headliner-he was supposed to close the show. But he hadn't appeared, and no one had been able to find out where he might be. The promoters had made some calls and had been told that Berry had apparently missed all of that day's flights out of St. Louis; he had not been in contact with them, and it was nearing his time to be onstage.

So the promoters had hurriedly called Dean Torrence aside and conferred with him. They had asked if Jan and Dean would do a second set to close the show, and Dean had said yes, and thus here we were.

And there, to the left of the sea of bare, sunburned arms that were waving in the southern Ohio air as we sang, was the car, moving toward us, and I could see through its windshield that it contained only one person: the driver.

He hit the brakes and brought it to a halt directly to the side of the stage, throwing one last billow of thick dirt toward the sky. He opened his door and stepped out.

Chuck Berry.

Dean Torrence was in the midst of his falsetto-he always loved singing this song, he was in his fifties now and sometimes there were songs, I could tell, that he sang just because the audience expected him to sing them, songs he just as well could have done without, but this wasn't one of them, he never seemed to tire of it-and he was singing Oh, Barbara Ann, take my hand, and I thought I should let him know.

Why I had to be the bearer of these particular bad tidings, I'm not certain. He was going to find out anyway, soon enough. No one was making me do it. But then, no one was making me be here in the first place.

I let my right elbow nudge Dean's left arm, careful not to hit his lime-green Stratocaster as I did it, and he looked over at me, not breaking his vocals-... you got me rockin' and a-rollin'-and I motioned with my head to the area below the stage.

Chuck Berry had walked around to the rear of his rental car, and now he popped open the trunk and pulled out his battered guitar case.

There wasn't a cloud in the sky, but invisible clouds covered Dean's eyes as soon as he saw what I was seeing.

The others in the band weren't aware of it yet, weren't aware that our day-the glory part of it-was about to abruptly end. They were still singing-... tried Peggy Sue but I knew she wouldn't do ... -some of them making eye contact with women in the first few rows of the crowd, and they didn't know.

Chuck Berry climbed a short flight of metal stairs until he was on the stage, to the side of the drum kit and behind the equipment crates so he was hidden from the audience. Singing, I wheeled in his direction, just wanting to take in the moment. There was that skinny, sharply angled face of his, a mirror reflecting all the aspects of the lifetime he had led: rough-edged, angry, incarcerated, uncompromising, suspicious, solitary, profane, stubborn....

Went to a dance, lookin' for romance....

I sang the words, and he caught my gaze, and I couldn't help it, I burst out laughing, this was too much, this was too great. What are the chances that this could ever happen? What are the chances that the day will ever come when even though you're not much of a singer at all, you're singing in front of forty thousand people, you're singing the songs you grew up loving with a band you grew up loving, guys who, deep into your life and theirs, have against all probability become some of your best friends in the world, guys with whom you perpetually travel America in the hopes of finding the best parts of summer again....

What are the chances that you'll be singing a song in the June heat, and that even as your voice booms out of the speaker towers and sails into tens of thousands of ears, your eyes will be looking into the eyes of Chuck Berry, and he'll be watching and listening? How can such a moment ever come to pass?

I knew this would be it for the day; I put as much as I could into the vocals, because I understood, with Chuck on the skirt of the stage now, it would be ending for us.

At least for today, it would. But there would be others: day after day after summer day. That was the gift.

The seven of us at the front of the big wooden stage sang it one last time: Ba-ba-ba, Ba-Barbara Ann....

I was still half turned so I could see the wings, and Chuck Berry shot me one of those cold and wary Chuck Berry squints that meant: What are you looking at?

And I thought: Don't you know? I'm looking at you, Chuck. I'm looking at you.

... saw Barbara Ann and I thought I'd take a chance....

I decided to take my own chance. So as I sang the words I smiled in his direction and nodded my head in time to the music.

And Chuck Berry, after a flicker of hesitation, returned my grin, and nodded back, and, with his eyes locked on mine, for a few brief seconds he sang along.

There were moments, moments like that, when it seemed the gifts would never stop.

Excerpted from When We Get to Surf City by Bob Greene

Copyright © 2008 by John Deadline Enterprises, Inc.

Published in May 2008 by St. Martin's Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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