It was rock historian/ musician/ label owner Billy Miller — musing over an old photo of the classic Beach Boys lineup sitting in a 1964 Pontiac — who summed up the personalities in this band so succinctly:
“Quiet Carl pilots the GTO and smart guy Brian’s behind him to call the shots while the key spot is manned by girl-getter Dennis…wisecrackin’ Mike gets the backup posit where he can razz the doggy chicks and squares. Al, of course, is relegated to the hump.”
It’s been a long time, longer than the days prior to the passing of Dennis and Carl Wilson, since the original members of The Beach Boys shared a cramped cruise in a car, a ride in a tour bus, or the same side of the conference table at a lawyer’s office. The American institution that’s fast approaching its golden anniversary in show business (a reunion album of sorts is being talked up, with no hard evidence as yet) split into two factions around the time of the landmark Pet Sounds sessions in 1966 — the studio-bound residency of Brian Wilson and the hard-touring, crowdpleasing roadshow skippered by Mike Love — and despite intermittent attempts at reconciling for albums and tours, the dichotomy abides to this day in the more or less separate-but-equal live shows fronted by the first cousins turned frenemies.
When the 2011 touring edition of The Beach Boys rolls into the Count Basie Theatre for a late-summer’s indoor concert on Tuesday, August 23, the core of Mike Love and Bruce Johnston (the successful singer/ songwriter/ producer and Ted Kennedy lookalike whose 45 year history with the band hasn’t stopped him from being “The New Guy”) returns to the scene of some well-received sets of recent years — as well as memorable nights featuring Brian and his band The Wondermints. The two senior Boys will preside once more over a pretty awesome cavalcade of canonical hits, conveyed by a crack team of craftsmen that includes veteran John Cowsill (from the bands that gave us both “867-5309 JENNY” and “The Rain, The Park and Other Things”) — although the on-again, off-again stuntcasting of TV star John Stamos as drummer/ vocalist appears not to be in the cards for the Count’s crib.
Google Mike Love’s name and you’ll get any number of links to pages that lay out, often with exhaustive research and little in the way of Love, why the basketball-tall Beach Boy is responsible for the destruction of a national treasure. That said, the story of the Beach Boys is a way-stranger-than-fiction saga that takes in madness, child abuse, mind control, Charles Manson, multi-generational laboratory-level drug use, untimely death and tons of litigation — the story of America, in other words; all set to a soundtrack of the most achingly gorgeous “teenage symphonies” ever devised in a crossfire of inspiration and aspiration.
We spoke to newly minted septuagenarian Mike Love — polarizing figure, energizing frontman, boosterizing flagwaver for environmental causes, transcendental meditation and not so gentle politics — from the Boys’ tour stop outside Philadelphia; turn the record over for more.
The 2011 touring edition of The Beach Boys — with John Cowsill at far left, plus Bruce Johnston and Mike Love front and center — returns to Red Bank on Tuesday, August 23.
upperWETside: Thanks for makin’ the time for us, Mike Love! We’re talking in advance of your gig next Tuesday in Red Bank, New Jersey, where the Beach Boys have certainly found snug harbor many times over the past decade.
MIKE LOVE: The Count Basie’s a great place to play. Every summer we try to get to New Jersey, whether it’s Red Bank, Six Flags, Atlantic City — or Ocean Grove, where we sold out the show a couple of years ago. We play new venues, and we play old places that pre-date the invention of air conditioning. Which could include what used to be called the Garden State Arts Center.
It’s now the PNC Bank Arts Center.
Ah well, they’ll commodify anything these days. We played, not too long ago, a thousand year old city in France — the first time I’d ever been there — so we keep coming up with new places to play, or in this case new OLD places to play.
Having played pretty much every theater, stadium, fairground, ancient ruin or sloping lawn on the planet, do you see yourselves as cultural ambassadors, without portfolio?
The portfolio for us would be things like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the American Music Awards. I should mention also that I’m very close to marking my 50th anniversary in music. Our first record came out in the fall of 1961…and our first show, our first where we were promoted as the Beach Boys, was on New Years Eve. We played three songs at a Ritchie Valens memorial concert, at Long Beach Municipal Auditorium.
I read some months ago that you and the remaining original band members were planning to record a new album in commemoration of your milestone — is that a project that’s still happening?
It’s still in the works. We’ve had a lot of discussions about it, Brian and I; we’ve talked about making time to write again, and right now the plan is that we’re looking forward to recording in the fall.
Not sure if this is something you want to talk about or even contemplate, but you passed a personal milestone yourself a few months ago; your 70th birthday.
As an alternative to cashing in one’s chips, I don’t mind talking about it! I like to think I’ve kept myself in reasonably good shape; stayed fairly sane. I don’t drink — I mean, I’ll have the occasional glass of beer, wine or champagne — I don’t smoke; I’m not addicted to anything.
We learned a long time ago that you can’t burn the candle at both ends and still be able to sing. You’ve got to take care of yourself and be a little more rational about your lifestyle. I’ve been into Transcendental Meditation since 1967 — I think it’s given me the energy, the clarity, to keep it going as long as I have.
You were a very early proponent of TM, back when few people here had heard of it — and as opposed to other famous folks who dabbled in it, you seriously stuck with it over the years, even training in the advanced technique of Yogic Flying. In fact, for a short time we even had our own Institute of Yogic Flying, at the Berkeley Hotel in Asbury Park — sometime between now and when it was co-owned by Johnny Cash!
I think I remember reading about that years ago — they had a healing center inside the hotel as I recall. But really, it was The Beatles who popularized the TM movement more than anyone else. I went to India in 1968 while they were there with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — George Harrison and I both celebrated our birthdays while we were there, which was such a fascinating, interesting time.
You mentioned Asbury Park, where the Beach Boys played many years ago…I also got a chance to cover ‘Hungry Heart’ on a Springsteen tribute album; it’s a song that I enjoyed doing because I could hear a Beach Boys sort of sound running through it.
That might have something to do with the fact that Springsteen originally wrote it for the Ramones — who, even though they weren’t exactly known for their ethereal harmonies, had something of a Beach Boys element to their sound as well.
Kind of a Beach Boys without cars — a car band that took public transportation out to Rockaway Beach!
Considering that amazing catalog of crowd-pleasing hits that you perform regularly, are there any lesser-known Beach Boys songs that you like to put out there on rare occasions…or anything from years ago that you’re dying to perform for the first time?
I would say ‘The Warmth Of The Sun‘ — which, while it’s a well known song, is not one that we perform all the time. Brian and I wrote it the night before President Kennedy was shot in Dallas…I see it as a wistful, haunting, melancholy, sad little song about losing someone or something that means a lot to you. It came out during what was emotionally a very raw period for America — and the message that it carries, in between the lines of the lyrics, was influenced by the mood of the country at that time.
Full house: John Stamos, who’s not, repeat, NOT expected to join the Beach Boys at the Basie, is pictured in a 2010 concert appearance with Mike and Bruce.
‘In My Room‘ had a similarly introspective feel to it. These songs were more about life experience; more mature than the cars-and-girls stuff we had become known for, and they became a precursor to Pet Sounds, and to ‘Good Vibrations,’ which was also not so much of an object-driven song.
We might do a song like that occasionally, then step it up to something like ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ — and then pick up the pace with ‘Fun Fun Fun,’ ‘I Get Around.’ Some songs, obviously, go over better than others.
Still, you’ve gotta do one for yourselves every now and then.
We do! Something we worked into the shows is ‘Their Hearts Were Full of Spring‘ and other things by a great 1950s vocal group called The Four Freshmen. Brian was very enamored of them, and it had a big influence on shaping the Beach Boys sound. We do it in four part a capella, very artful, in a way that showcases the voices in the band.
As far as the current edition of the band, does everyone involved do vocals as well?
All the musicians sing — we are very fortunate to have with us John Cowsill, who you might remember as the youngest member of The Cowsills family band. He’s a great drummer, and he takes the lead vocal on ‘Help Me Rhonda,’ ‘Heroes and Villains,’ and on our version of ‘California Dreaming‘ by The Mamas and The Papas.
My son Christian, whose voice sounds very close to my cousin Carl, sings Carl’s parts on things like ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Kokomo’ — it’s amazing to hear that voice onstage.
Before we sign off, how about a shout-out to our friends over at the Clearwater organization, who are putting on their annual Clearwater Festival this weekend? It’s a great tradition here; a music and environmental fest that’s brought in people like Springsteen, Levon Helm…
Any organization that keeps beaches and waterways clean and accessible is doing great work. Me and Bruce are both board members of the Surfrider Foundation, and I think that artists tend to have a philanthropic attitude about the environment, because that attitude’s built into the mind and the heart of an artist — there’s a desire to have an even-trade balance, to be able to do what you love to do while having some sense of relevance to the greater world around you. That empathy comes directly from being an artist; a person who’s in touch with their feelings and who can express them.
See you in Red Bank then, and maybe another of the, what, 150 to 200 shows you do each and every year?
We have scaled back a little bit in the past few years, as so many of the outdoor festivals we like to perform at have cut down, or even cut out entirely. If left to our own devices though, we do 125 to 150 shows a year. Beats working!
Tickets ($39 – $129) for the 8pm show on August 23 are still available, right here.