One of the most experienced, insightful and productive writers in rock journalism, Joel selvin, revisited the story of the birth of LA pop and the 60s California dream with his latest book, Hollywood Eden: electric guitars, fast cars and the myth of California’s paradise.
When it comes to writing about rock music and writing great about it, few people can match Selvin. From 1969 to 2009 he was rock music critic for the Chronicle of San Francisco, as well as a contributor to Rolling Stone, Melody Maker, The Los Angeles Times and much more. He has written or co-authored excellent books on artists like Ricky Nelson, The Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone and Sammy Hagar, events like Monterey Pop, The Summer of Love, Altamont and The Birth of Craze. for dancing The Peppermint Twist at one of the New York club’s pioneering stages, The Peppermint Lounge.
With his masterful book from 2014, Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert berns and the dirty business of rhythm and blues, Selvin saves from obscurity one of the most innovative producer / songwriter of the 1960s, a man who was largely forgotten after his death in 1967 at the age of 38. Berns is the man who brought Latin swing to rock with his first hit production. A Little Bit of Soap ”in 1961, as well as the architect of many of the early Atlantic Records hits for R&B stars like Solomon Burke, Esther Phillips, Ben E. King and Wilson Pickett. Berns has also been the author of classics like “Twist and Shout”, “Piece of My Heart”, “Cry Baby” and “Hang on Sloopy”, and the producer of mega-hits like “Under the Boardwalk” by the Drifters, Barbara Lewis “Baby I’m Yours” and “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison.
If all of his books have one thing in common, it’s Selvin’s skill as a storyteller. His books read like someone spinning a long thread around a campfire. They are incredibly rich in fact and staging detail, and compulsively readable. Hollywood Eden is cut from the same mold.
Selvin’s latest tells the story of a group of young musicians who came together in the dawn of the ’60s to create the enduring sound that fueled the Californian dream myth. At the center of the saga are a group of sun-kissed teens from Class 58 at University High School (Uni High), which included surf music pioneers Jan and bizarro rock impresario Dean. Kim Fowley, drummer Sandy Nelson, Nancy Sinatra, the Beach Bruce Johnston and Kathy Korner, the little teenage surfer who inspired the book and movie Gidget. They came of age in Southern California at the dawn of a new era where anything seemed possible. It was kids who created the idea of modern Southern California, with surf music, hot rods, and electric guitars, which the rest of the world saw as a teenage heaven on earth.
The front of the book sets the storyline of Rock-n-Roll High School by also listing alumni from other schools, like Hawthorne High (Brian Wilson) and Fairfax High (Phil Spector, Herb Alpert, saxophone Wrecking Crew Steve Douglas and songwriters PF Sloan and Steve Barri), sound-obsessed youth who would revolutionize pop music. Some of the Angeleno legends referenced were native New Yorkers or had connections with the Big Apple, such as the Mamas and the Papas and Phil Spector. With all of their glorious accomplishments, some of the stories here end with characters being burnt out, for flying too close to the sun or driving too fast and crashing down. The latter was the case for Sandy Nelson, who had smashing success with the solo drum instrumental “Teen Beat” and in particular Jan Berry of Jan and Dean.
Berry is the worthy centerpiece of history, another legend whose achievements are lost over time. Tall, blond, handsome, athletic, and with a magnetic personality, Berry’s adventures in music began in the late 1950s, when he formed a doo-wop group called The Barons, which included people like Sandy Nelson, Bruce Johnston, actor-to-be James Brolin and, of course, his future partner Dean Torrence.
With his father’s gift of an upright piano and two reel-to-reel Ampex tape recorders, Berry set out to experiment in his garage. He started bouncing tracks and stacking vocals to create a sound that would become the signature of California’s sunny dream, he would also serve as a role model for a legendary musician he would come to work closely with, Brian Wilson.
When Torrence was drafted into the military, Berry teamed up with Arnie Ginsburg and scored hits including “Jennie Lee” and “Gas Money” as Jan and Arnie. By 1959 he was back in business with Dean scoring a Top 10 with the “Baby Talk” produced by Herb Alpert. Although he attended medical school, Berry also had the energy to write and produce for other artists like The Rip Chords, The Matadors, and actress-turned-singer Shelley Fabares.
Jan and Dean’s peak business was from 1963 to 1966, when they scored sixteen Top 40 hits, many working with Brian Wilson as Wilson-Berry wrote “Surf City,” along with “Drag City” and “The Little. Old Lady of Pasadena. Berry’s fate would be presumed with his 1964 No. 8 hit, “Dead Man’s Curve.” In April 1966, he crashed his car at high speed just off that same curve and suffered severe brain damage and paralysis that would essentially end his creative career.
Also to be noted in Hollywood Eden is the fascinating career of Bruce Johnston. A privileged child of Bel-Air, Johnston also made great strides while still in high school, performing with Richie Valens, The Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochran and producing and performing on Sandy Nelson’s “Teen Beat”. He also produced the Rip Chords and his own series of surf and car singles, with future Byrds producer Terry Melcher. In 1965 he joined the Beach Boys and appeared on some of their classic albums like Animal sounds, sunflower and Surf.
The story of drummer Sandy Nelson is another interesting story that, like that of his good friend Berry, got derailed by driving too fast. Nelson was a session drummer on the early hits of Phil Spector and the Hollywood Argyles, before scoring a million sales, Billboard Top 5 with the drum solo “Teen Beat” in 1959. Nelson beat two more Top 10 hits , including “Let There Be Drums”, before a 1963 motorcycle accident resulted in the amputation of his leg.
Readers will also be intrigued by Selvin’s account of Nancy Sinatra’s story. It recounts how Ol ‘Blue Eyes’ baby girl went out of nowhere in her singing career playing the ‘good girl’ before landing a world number 1 as the ‘bad girl’ who growled “Those Boots are made to walk ”.
Selvin’s latest provides tons of insight into the careers of more LA legends like performer / head of record label Herb Alpert, the Mamas and the Papas and their producer Lou Adler, Phil Spector, Kim Fowley and , of course, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. The book ends with the release of Wilson’s supreme achievement, “Good Vibrations,” and the start of its decline with the commercial failure of Animal sounds and its follow-up abandoned Smile.
With any luck, with America finally emerging from the long Covid-19 quarantine, Selvin Hollywood Eden will be a great summer read for music lovers who want to experience the sounds of the sun and a bit of California dreaming.