California Dreaming: Laurel & Hardy

Jan Berry was back from Dead Man’s Curve.

At least, he was part of the way back.

Jan was, if not an actual psychopath (a diagnosis it would be improper to give without knowing him personally, but which is not implausible), certainly an incredibly impulsive, thrill-seeking personality. His car crashes had caused problems for Jan and Dean in the past — they were about to make their feature film debut when Jan was in a serious accident and had to cancel filming — but one was significantly worse than any of the others.

On April 12, 1966, Jan had his final appeal with the draft board. The man who had written The Universal Coward, attacking anti-war protestors, was himself a chickenhawk who was desperate to get out of military service, and his attendance at medical school had so far kept him out, but this like time it looked like he was going to Vietnam.

To this day, no-one knows what the result of his draft board attendance was, because straight after it, he got in his car, sped off — and was in a crash so bad that he was in a coma for two months.

Was it exhilaration from discovering he didn’t have to go? A suicide attempt from discovering he did have to go? Anger and frustration? Just wanting to be on time for his next meeting? No-one can know. But it seems at least plausible that Berry was attempting to get hurt — not badly enough to do himself serious damage, but badly enough that he could have the draft deferred.

If that was the case, his plan backfired spectacularly. When Berry awoke from the coma, he had almost completely lost the power of speech, which had to be regained over a period of months, he was almost paralysed on his right side and had to go through intense physiotherapy, and his brain was sufficiently damaged that the young man who was widely regarded by those who knew him as a genius (it’s been widely claimed that he had an IQ of 180, and while IQ is a very unreliable measure of intelligence, that would put him in the top 0.00003% of scorers if true) now had very severe learning disabilities.

While doctors were using words like “vegetable” about him, Jan still hoped to get better, and that hope was shared by those around him. Dean Torrence, in particular, decided to keep the “Jan and Dean” name alive until Jan was capable of working again. Singles were released of material that the duo had previously recorded, and the promotional material was deliberately vague about how well Jan was doing. Eventually Dean went into the studio himself, and recorded a new “Jan and Dean” album, Save For A Rainy Day.

Dean thought that Jan would be pleased that Dean was keeping their career going, but he was anything but. As far as Jan was concerned, he was Jan and Dean. Dean hadn’t even sung on many of their big hits, while Jan had written, produced, and sung on them. Jan would show Dean who Jan and Dean really were.

After a year of physiotherapy and constant support from his friends, including Davy Jones of the Monkees, who had befriended Jan when he first moved to LA and had become a star while Jan was still recovering, Jan felt that he was ready to go back into the studio. But the problem was, he couldn’t sing — he was still slurring his words, and losing words all the time. He couldn’t write songs — he could get vague musical ideas, still, but he didn’t have the concentration to pull them into coherent shapes. And he couldn’t arrange or play any instruments — he had no control yet over his right hand.

But Jan did have an iron will, an ability to manipulate people, and huge amounts of energy, and he could put those to use. He called in Roger Christian, and gave him ideas — sometimes a few bars of melody, sometimes just a title — and Christian finished the songs for him and gave him co-writing credit, as did Jan’s songwriter ex-girlfriend Jill Gibson. George Tipton and others wrote arrangements, and Jan hired in session singers, including Glen Campbell, Jill Gibson, Tom Bahler, and Davy Jones.

A typical track from the era was Laurel & Hardy. Jan Berry had always been a fan of the films of Stan & Ollie, and Jan and Dean’s between-songs comedy routines had been inspired by them, and he and his collaborators took them as inspiration for a piece of “psychedelic” music, which to Jan apparently meant just that the track had a sitar on it (played by Mike Deasy, a frequent collaborator with Curt Boettcher), while otherwise being highly-orchestrated soft pop.

Two versions of the song were recorded, with slightly different lyrics, one with Davy Jones on lead vocal which didn’t see release until the 2000s, and another with Tom Bahler on lead that was released as a single under Jan & Dean’s new Warner Brothers contract (presumably Davy Jones’ voice was too distinctive for use on a single, given that he was signed to another label — Bahler on the other hand does a fairly decent imitation of Jan’s vocal style.

Starting off with a sitar version of the famous Laurel & Hardy theme, the song goes on to talk about how what “Mr. Laurel and Mr Hardy” meant to Berry was “roller coasters on a rainbow reaching far across the sky” (and in the released version, but not the version with Jones singing, that Laurel and Hardy were sat in said roller coaster with the Maharishi behind them — Jan Berry once again trying to leap on every bandwagon going, regardless of logic).

From these sessions, two singles eventually emerged — I Know My Mind/Laurel & Hardy, and Girl You’re Blowing My Mind/In The Still Of The Night (the latter of which featured Jones in a spoken section in the middle eight), but neither was successful. An album was recorded, to be titled Carnival of Sound, but it remained unreleased until 2010.

When it was finally released, it was greeted by some as a lost masterpiece of psychedelic pop, but in truth it’s a mixed bag at best in terms of musical quality. But as testament to someone who was struggling to keep making music despite having lost everything that had made him capable of doing it, using sheer force of will to overcome his incapacity, it’s quite astonishing. On the released CD, one of the bonus tracks is Jan Berry’s guide vocal for Laurel and Hardy. We hear him not even attempting the words, just “la-la”ing through the melody — and the “la la”s are flat, slurred, and off-key. Yet he got the single out, and the album was recorded, if not released.

Carnival of Sound was the last gasp of Jan Berry as a recording artist, but despite the fact that he wasn’t vocally present, it may be his greatest achievement.

Laurel and Hardy
Jan Berry & Roger Christian

Line-up: Davy Jones (vocals), Jimmy Bond, Joe Osborn, Lyle Ritz, and Ray Pohlman (bass) Don Lodice, John Cave, Ronnie Ossa, Roy Caton, and Virgil Evans (horns), Emmet Sargeant, Igor Horoshevsky, Jan Kelley, Jesse Ehrlich, Joseph Ditullio, and Joseph Saxon (cello), Al Casey, Bill Pitman, David Cohen, Don Peake, Tommy Tedesco, and Glen Campbell (guitar), Michael Deasy (guitar and sitar), Don Randi, Glen D. Hardin, and Larry Knechtel (keyboards), Harry Hyams, Joseph Difiore, Leonard Selic, Philip Goldberg, and Samuel Boghossian (viola), Arnold Belnick, Darrel Terwilliger, Israel Baker, James Getzoff, Leonard Malarsky, Ralph Schaeffer, Sid Sharp, Tibor Zelig, and Bill Kurasch (violin), Tom Bahler (vocals on released version). NB this is the list of players on the Carnival of Sound album, not all of whom may be on this particular track.

Original release: The version without Davy Jones on was released as I Know My Mind/Laurel & Hardy, Jan & Dean, Warners 7219. The version with Davy Jones on lead was only ever released on the now-deleted The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees 3CD box set from Rhino Handmade.

Currently available on: The Davy version is not currently available. The version with Bahler on lead is on Carnival of Sound, Rhino CD

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