How The Surf Hit “Dead Man’s Curve” Almost Became a Tragic Reality 60 Years Ago Today

When surf rock duo Jan & Dean released their 1963 hit “Dead Man’s Curve,” they expected to capitalize on a popular trend of teenage tragedy songs set to quintessentially ‘60s surf guitar and falsetto harmonies.

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But what they couldn’t have possibly expected was that just two years later, life would imitate art when Jan Berry got into a near-fatal car accident close to the infamous 90° turn he and bandmate Dean Torrence sang about in their hit track.

“Dead Man’s Curve” Set The Scene For A Future Wreck

The teenage tragedy song combined the best of the ballad-heavy, highly narrative folk movement and the rising tidal wave of rock and roll. Jan & Dean’s “Dead Man Curve” followed this theme with a Stingray-driving narrator who embarks on a drag race with a stranger in a Jaguar. I said, ‘You’re on, buddy, my mill’s runnin’ fine, they sing. Let’s come off the line now at Sunset and Vine

Adding to the track’s Californian vibe is the mention of notable Beverly Hills landmarks like LaBrea, Schwab’s Pharmacy, and Crescent Heights. The narrator describes him and his opponent speeding down Sunset Boulevard past North Whittier Drive toward Dead Man Curve, a colloquial nickname for a hairpin turn on that road.

The last thing I remember, Doc, I started to swerve, the story continues, setting the tone for the teenage tragedy to come. And then I saw the Jag slide into the curve. I know I’ll never forget that horrible sight. I guess I found out for myself that everyone was right. Won’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve.

Jan Berry’s Near-Fatal Wreck Occurred Two Years Later

Surf rock duo Jan & Dean enjoyed the success of their 1964 hit for a couple of years before a terrifying incident would transform their ominous pop tune into a disastrous reality. On April 12, 1966, Jan Berry was speeding down Sunset Boulevard in his own Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. As he approached the sharp turn on which his famous track was based, Berry crashed head-on into a parked truck.

Berry suffered such intense injuries that when paramedics first arrived on the scene, they initially thought the musician hadn’t survived. However, the medics eventually found a weak pulse and rushed Berry to the nearest hospital in Beverly Hills. The surf icon’s severe brain trauma put him in a coma for six weeks. When he awoke, he had lost his ability to speak, move his right arm, and walk.

The musician began what would become years of extensive physical therapy to regain partial mobility on his right side. Berry returned to the studio a year later and continued playing music into the 1990s. Jan & Dean never regained the momentum they were riding before Berry’s car wreck. The bands they influenced in their early years, like The Beach Boys, would prevail as the more popular acts.

Berry continued to have health problems related to the car accident for the rest of his life. The surf rocker died in March 2004 after suffering a seizure in his Los Angeles home. Berry was 62 years old. His hit song “Deadman’s Curve” continues to be covered today, including by the Brothers Osborne at the 2022 Grammy Awards.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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