Surf City Survivor

updated 08/25/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/25/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ONCE THE DAREDEVIL HALF OF '60s surf-rock duo Jan & Dean—the beach-blond pair behind the classics "Surf City" and "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena"—Jan Berry was enjoying a tranquil family holiday last June in St. Catharines, Ont., when he lost his balance walking up his mother-in-law's drive. Unable to right himself, he toppled to the slate pavement. "He went into convulsions," recalls his wife, Gertie Filip, who ran to help. "His eyes started turning back into his head, his face was red. I just held his head and kept saying his name. I was so scared."

Berry, 56, recovered. He always does. But the most mundane tasks have presented constant challenges to Berry and his broken body since April 12, 1966. That morning, rushing to a business meeting, the singer and second-year medical student swerved into the left lane of a curved stretch of Whittier Drive in Beverly Hills and plowed his silver '65 Corvette Stingray into the back of a gardener's truck parked at the curb. His head split open, paramedics thought he was dead until he stirred with a faint breath.

Though his right side is paralyzed and he suffers from brain damage that makes it difficult for him to translate his thoughts into speech, Berry has slowly, tenaciously rebuilt his life. Now, having battled physical disabilities and bouts of depression, he has marshaled surprisingly good spirits and his enduring musical instincts to produce his first solo album, Second Wave, a collection of reworked Jan & Dean classics and new material. "For him to pick up a pencil," marvels his producer Rob Kuropatwa, "and be able to score melody, chords, key signatures and lyrics, takes an excruciatingly long time. He did it all himself."

Making a cup of coffee, let alone a record, is a major challenge for the musician. "I get flustered," he says. Ask him a question, and his response may not make sense. Or come an hour later. "I'm kind of in the dark a lot," says Filip. Only when a tune pops into his head is there a hint that he's a founding father of the California surf sound. He can still capture a melody, on pitch and in rhythm, and, for good measure, toss in a few "bomps" and "um-wa-wawas."

Sadly, Berry comes from a family well acquainted with suffering. His parents, William, 87, a retired electrical engineer, and Clara, 77, a home-maker, raised 10 kids, three of whom died young (Carol drowned at age 2 in the family pool; Bruce died at 22 in 1972 from a drug overdose; and Steven, then 36, succumbed to AIDS in 1995). Jan fell out of a moving car at 2, then nearly lost a leg when he jumped off a speeding train while filming a Jan & Dean flick in 1965.

Growing up in L.A., Berry was a hell-raiser who was expelled several times from school and liked to pick fights with strangers. "And he gave great parties up in Bel Air at his dad's house," says actor Ryan O'Neal, a former schoolmate. "He was deejay." Always in love with music, Berry had his first hit in 1958 with "Jennie Lee," a pre-Dean Torrence effort first recorded for fun in his parents' garage. Teaming up with Dean, Berry helped shape the California sound with 1963's "Surf City," a No. 1 tune he cowrote with Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Jan & Dean had five more gold singles before the crash, which put Jan in a coma for a month and a half. "Doctors said he would be a vegetable," says Clara. "Well, he proved them wrong."

Nothing came easily, though. "I was a baby all over again," Berry says. Still he was determined to make music, and in 1978—given a chance to open for their old friends the Beach Boys—he and Dean reunited. Their tours are brief, but Berry always looks forward to getting onstage. "Jan would probably like to work more, but he's the only one," jokes Torrence, 57, who runs a graphic-arts business in Huntington Beach, Calif.

It was on tour in 1990 that a warm new light was shed on his life. He met Filip when she was a waitress in Ontario ("I put extra butter on his baked potato," she says). At their wedding a year later, onstage in the middle of a concert at the Stardust casino in Las Vegas, he serenaded her with "Chapel of Love" and answered the priest with a vigorous "Yes, sir!" Caring for Berry is a challenge, but Filip is as proud of his comeback as he is. "I can't believe how many people, come up to me and say, 'I have a niece, I have a brother [who is handicapped],' " says Filip, "and they look up to Jan in awe."

KYLE SMITH
JEANNE GORDON in Los Angeles

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