Summer’s here, more or less, and Joel Selvin’s new book, Hollywood Eden, is a good one to take to the beach, the park or the back garden. Subtitled “Electric Guitars, Fast Cars and the Myth of the California Paradise”, it’s the story of a group of white kids who poured out of the local high schools — Fairfax, University, Beverly Hills, Hawthorne and Roosevelt — intent on using the medium of the pop song to reflect a certain idea of life as it was lived by the jeunesse dorée of Southern California in the first half of the 1960s.
Employed as the pop columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1972 to 2009, Selvin also also contributed to Rolling Stone, the Melody Maker and other publications. His many books include biographies of Ricky Nelson and Bert Berns. It might seem strange to have a study of the Los Angeles scene from a San Francisco author, and indeed I’ve heard a grumble or two from native LA writers. But Selvin has certainly gathered enough information over the years to give credibility to his account.
This is a polyphonic tale switching back and forth between the stories of Jan and Dean, Kim Fowley, Sandy Nelson, Bruce Johnson and Terry Melcher, the Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Lou Adler, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, Johnny Rivers, the Byrds and the Mama’s and Papa’s as they proceed from the affluence and optimism of white America in the Eisenhower/Kennedy years to the dawn of the hippie era. The story of Jan Berry and Dean Torrence forms the spine of the book, much of it seen through the eyes of Jill Gibson, Jan’s girlfriend, who briefly replaced Michelle Phillips in the Mama’s and Papa’s and is the author’s principal source.
Berry himself was an interesting character: a confident, ambitious, driven young man who came from a rich family, studied medicine and had a fair amount of musical talent to go with his surf-god looks. In 1964 he and Dean had a hit with “Dead Man’s Curve”, a song about a fatal drag race along Sunset Boulevard between a Corvette Stingray and an E-type Jaguar whose morbid echoes gained an extra resonance two years later when Berry, a notoriously reckless driver, crashed his own Stingray close to that very spot, suffering injuries that effectively ended his career as a teen idol.
Other shadows dapple a mostly sunlit narrative: the motorcycle accident in which Nelson lost a leg, Wilson’s breakdown in 1964, and Adler’s cavalier treatment of Gibson when Phillips reclaimed her place in the group. They add a semblance of depth to a fast-paced book that reads like a proposal for a 10-part Netflix series and will certainly have many readers pulling out favourite tracks from the period (my random selection included J&D’s “I Found a Girl”, the Beach Boys’ “The Little Girl I Once Knew” and Bruce and Terry’s “Summer Means Fun”). The book ends without a hint of the horror that will soon erupt — in the form of the Manson murders — to demolish the security of the privileged caste whose golden hour it portrays.
* Joel Selvin’s Hollywood Eden is published by House of Anansi Press. The photograph is from a picture bag for Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” 45.