The Little Old Lady from Pasadena - Jan and Dean
While the Beach Boys are normally seen as being the creators of the "California Sound", Jan and Dean should also get a fair share of the credit. The sound kicked off in November 1961 with the Beach Boys' first release "Surfin' ", but Jan and Dean, who up till then had had a string of minor hits with rocked up doo-wop, were listening attentively and scored with their version of "Linda", a song originally written in 1946 for the four year old Linda Eastman, later to become Linda McCartney. Any doubt that this was J&D's switch to the Californian Sound is dispelled when you spot the album it was lifted from is entitled "Jan and Dean take Linda Surfing". Subtle stuff. Jan and Dean's next release, Surf City, was the first California Sound US number one. Jan Berry co-wrote this with Beach Boy Brian Wilson, and is famous for the refrain "two girls for every boy" which I always felt would have served better as the chorus line for the Beach Boys' "Salt Lake City".
Four hits on from "Surf City", came "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena". There is more to this than the charming notion of a "l'il ol' lady" carving up all of the local young hot rodders. While the California Sound idea was based around the idyll of sunshine, sandy beaches, surf, girls in bikinis, and young guys motoring around in flash cars, this version of the golden state was in many respects true and the destination of choice for retiring successful businessmen. A side effect of this was that these guys, having pop their clogs with cardio or related diseases, would leave their wives with, amongst other assets, their flash cars. Just as in the UK the mantra of used car salesmen used to be (and probably still is) "only one owner and she was an old lady, hardly ever used it", in California in the early sixties the line for a former owner was "a little old lady from Pasadena". Berry's words turn the cliche on its head with some great lines such as
"The little old lady from Pasadena has a pretty little flower bed of white gardenias but parked in a rickety old garage is a brand new, shiny red Super Stock Dodge"
and, even better,
"she's gonna get a ticket now sooner or later 'cause she can't keep her foot off the accelerator"
With modern social changes one can't help feeling that the novelty of the "little old lady" stereotype went out of the Buick window some time ago.
When I first met my wife, she took me to meet her Granny Seaside, so called because she lived in a Nissan hut-like bungalow atop a steep south coast hill, just five minutes walk from the sea. She had nine grandchildren, seven of whom were granddaughters, and welcomed their various partners and friends with an open but mischievous grin. She originally hailed from the Midlands and retained the vestiges of a Staffordshire accent, calling anyone who made her smile "you daft ha'porth"; to her granddaughters she was a magical old lady, and their childhood holidays with her by the sea were the stuff of family legend, her bungalow seemingly the hottest place on the South Coast, the epicentre of a microclimate I always used to think.
Each morning she'd put out her breakfast remains for the birds, calling them by banging a metal saucepan with wooden spoon, and every night she'd lay down a bowl of milk with a butterscotch at the bottom for the badgers, which given the absence of badger dentists on the area, probably helped keep their numbers down. She had an old caravan at the bottom of her garden that, the story had it, she used to make available for use by courting couples from the village.
As she became older, she restricted herself more and more to just two rooms, her kitchen/living room in which there was an old television and a cot, and her bedroom. She would sit there watching the tv in an old croupier visor as though she was just about to deal a hand of poker, often nodding off, while maintaining the fiction that she was always busy. If you caught her, she'd say "I've only just sat down" or "this is the first time I've sat down for thirty years!". One morning, being first up, I knocked on the door of her bedroom and brought her in a cup of tea. She thanked me, took a sip and said it was too strong and needed to be weaker so I made another cup. This time it was too weak so I tried again, only for her to say it was now too milky. When I brought in the fourth cup, I put it down in front of her abruptly saying "if you don't like this one, it'll be the last cup I'll ever make you!" She picked the saucer up in her left hand, then lifted the teacup in her right, sipped and smiled. "Young man," she said "that is the best cup of tea I have ever tasted."
"The guys come to race her for miles around but she'll give 'em a length and then she'll shut 'em down."