For a band that’s always espoused the simple joys of growing up in idyllic innocence, surrounded by surf, sand, girls, hotrods, and any other means of getting on with fun, fun, fun, the Beach Boys have shown themselves to be a controversial cast of characters. Brian Wilson, the band’s songwriter, visionary and resident genius, suffered a nervous breakdown just prior to a tour in 1965 and retreated from the road to devote himself wholly to what he called his “Teenage Symphonies to God” while safe in the studio. His father, Murray Wilson mercilessly berated his boys without relief, forcing them to fire him to ensure he couldn’t impeded their further success. However their problems didn’t end there. Dennis Wilson found himself at the center of controversy due to his unfortunate friendship with mass murderer Charles Manson, and later fell victim to substance abuse prior to drowning off a pier in Southern California. Carl Wilson, the most soulful and stable of the Wilson siblings succumbed to cancer. Lurking in the shadows of the music and the memories, the ever-compounding controversies continue right through to today.
That became clear once more three years ago on the heels of a much touted 50th anniversary reunion tour that brought them rave reviews and return to the headlines. Singer Mike Love, (who turns 75 on today’s date of publishing) promptly ousted Brian, longtime stalwart Al Jardine and founding guitarist David Marks, only to reclaim the Beach Boys mantle for himself and Brian’s original road replacement Bruce Johnston. The tension that lingered between the two cousins had clearly never been fully resolved, earning Love a less than stellar reputation for essentially recruiting a bunch of stringers to pose as Beach Boys while claiming legitimacy for a band that finds him its only original member.
Not surprisingly then, one approaches a conversation with Mr. Love with some degree of trepidation. We’re warned not to rile him by making mention of the rift with Wilson. Nevertheless, he comes across as surprisingly amiable and justifiably proud of the Beach Boys legacy, one he credits himself with taking forward. He talks about the band’s triumphs, seemingly oblivious to the fact that many blame him for circumventing his cousins Brian’s participation, and that Brian himself is touring with Beach Boy Al Jardine in tow,
Still, we are delighted that Love has agreed to talk and share his side of the saga. He not only calls in at the appointed time, but calls in early, leaving a message that he’s on a train traveling down the California coast on his way to a meeting in L.A. and he’s worried that the connection might be lost if the call’s not made soon. Then he calls back.
“I didn’t know exactly that I’d be on this train when it was time to call in, but here I am.”
The Beach Boys appear to be relentless road warriors. Exactly how many shows do you do these days?
We did 175 performances last year. It was a big year for us, that’s for sure. We just got back from a European tour not too long ago. We did a show over there that’s kind of the German equivalent of “American Idol.” We helped with the judging and had a blast.
At this point in your career, do you ever tire of touring?
That’s a very sensible question. Fifty years is a long time. I look at it as a pretty cool deal that people still want to come out and hear your efforts some five decades after you’ve started. In fact, I’ve never had a time in my life when I wasn’t around music. My mom was a big music enthusiast. I grew up with a grand piano, an organ and a harp in my living room. There were always birthday parties and Christmas parties and recitals when we were growing up. So there was never a time in my life when music wasn’t a part of it. It’s second nature. It’s not like there’s someone with a gun to our heads saying we have to tour. It’s just a pleasure. We go places big and small, and normally we’ll do two hours worth of music. We certainly have enough songs to choose from. In fact, we can’t come close to doing them all. (laughs)
You will turn 75 on March 15. Did you ever in your wildest dreams think you’d still be singing Beach Boys songs?
Our role model is Tony Bennett. He’s still out there at age 89. He’s still a wonderful artist and a great performer. That’s a benchmark that he’s laid out. There are some people that are handicapped because of their lifestyle; they’re smoking or drinking or have personal habits that prevent them from doing it like Tony Bennett can. I personally practice transcendental meditation which I learned in 1967. I still do that every day. It helps me maintain my energy level. You just have to be sensible in your lifestyle choices.
Still, after all this time, do you find that singing songs about fun, fun, fun and California girls gets a bit, shall we say, old?
No. I don’t get jaded. My dad and my grandfather were in the sheet metal business and I got my work ethic from them. They worked very hard to provide a good living for their families. That influence never left me. It’s just a pleasure to do what we do.
Your connection with TM seems to be quite strong even though it’s been nearly 50 years since that famous gathering in India that found you, the Beatles, Donovan, Mia Farrow and several other celebrities grooving with the Maharishi.
Yes. I practice it every day, It’s gotten me through a lot of difficult times. It’s still a very significant part of my life I’m pleased to say.
I must have been amazing to be part of that superstar summit in India.
I celebrated my birthday there and I remember coming down to breakfast and having John Lennon sing me happy birthday. I’ll never forget that.
That’s also when Lennon and McCartney wrote “Back in the U.S.S.R.” with all its obvious Beach Boys references. Did they run it by you?
Yes, they sure did. I think I even helped them with the harmonies.
Your relationship with your cousin Brian is one of endless speculation. Out of curiosity, did you see the recent biopic “Love and Mercy?”
No, I have not. There was a special screening set up but for some reason it was cancelled at the last minute. I have no idea why.
That does seem strange, especially since you are obviously portrayed in the film. Did anyone consult you at any point and ask for your insights or your input?
I had nothing to do with the movie, other than to be named in it.
Hmmm. Do you think perhaps that you haven’t been given the credit you deserve in terms of the Beach Boys’ trajectory?
Oh yeah. I definitely do! I was cheated out of writing credits by my cousin and by my uncle, Murray Wilson. For example., I wrote every single syllable of “California Girls” and nearly all of “I Get Around.” I came up with the hook. I wrote nearly all of “Surfin’ USA” and still haven’t been credited on that song. I wrote most of “Help Me Rhonda” (sings) “Since you put me down, I’ve been out doing in my head.” That was my line. It came from a phrase that used to be popular back then. If you were mixed up or had a problem, you’d say you were doing something in your head. So those were my lines, my concepts.
You were credited with helping to write “Good Vibrations,” however. Yet many people consider that Brian’s masterpiece.
I contributed the chorus. In fact, that song was a true collaboration.
Yet it’s been widely written that you weren’t pleased with Brian’s direction at a certain point, and with the Smile album in particular.
People say I had a problem with it, but I didn’t. I only had a problem with the lyrics Van Dyke Parks had written because I thought they were weak. The reason that history has gotten it wrong was because I was not credited properly.
So is it your intention now to set the record straight?
I’m in the process of writing my memoirs. It’s one of several projects we have planned for the coming year. So all that will be gone over plenty once my book comes out..