Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise
By Joel Selvin
“Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learnin’ how,” sang the Beach Boys on their breakthrough hit, “Surfin’ Safari,” in 1962, and countless youths began dreaming of the Southern California good life — a Shangri-La of mile-high waves and tanned surfer dudes lugging their boards across the sand. The Beach Boys and their inspiration, the duo Jan and Dean, had inaugurated a school of rock ’n’ roll that had little to do with greaser rebellion. Their music had a breeze blowing through it; it swung with an easy gait.
Joel Selvin, the former pop music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle, has explored rock’s history in a string of fun books, including “Monterey Pop” (written with Jim Marshall) and “Summer of Love.” In his new one, “Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise,” he tells the story, set between 1957 and 1967, of a network of young Angelenos who “captured a California of the mind” — one of “cars, sun, sex and surf; ‘Gidget’ set to a rock ’n’ roll beat.”
Their lives were bathed in Hollywood unreality. The teenagers Jan (Berry) and Dean (Torrence) looked like blond, preppy Ken dolls. They loved snappy doo-wop and fast driving, but their partnership, formed in the late ’50s, had a snail-like crawl up the charts; only in 1963 did they make No. 1 with “Surf City,” about a mythical ocean paradise where there were “two girls for every boy.” Its composer, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, had repaid a debt by giving it to them: His group’s first single, “Surfin’,” was “practically a Jan and Dean knockoff,” Selvin writes. In a sequel, “Drag City,” Jan and Dean unveiled a new genre, the car song — “a symbol of freedom, possibility, self-sufficiency, the romance of the highway, all tied to life in Southern California.”
Jan and Dean unlock the door to other scrappy personalities in Selvin’s book. Kim Fowley, their schoolmate at University High in Santa Monica, was a ubiquitous music-business hustler who, though much disliked, had ears. In 1965, he met a group of “ragged hippies” who were sleeping on a friend’s floor in the Hollywood Hills. They became the Mamas and the Papas, and their hit “California Dreamin’” voiced one more siren call to the balmy West. It came out on Dunhill, a label founded by Jan and Dean’s early mentor, Lou Adler, who by now was living a Hollywood dream; he dated Ann-Margret, then married the teen idol Shelley Fabares. His former business partner, the trumpeter Herb Alpert, had given the California sound a Mexican twist. After attending a bullfight in Tijuana, Alpert had recorded “The Lonely Bull,” the hit that launched his new label, A&M, and made him a star.