By Sean Daly
Back in the late '60s, when the rock 'n' roll template was chiseled in stone, the Beatles and the Beach Boys battled in brilliance. Blue-collar Liverpudlians and SoCal surfers, Lennon-McCartney against Brian Wilson, Pepper's versus Pet Sounds.
Who won? We did.
Four decades later, the Beatles continue to be deified; on Wednesday, they will be celebrated with an assortment of new box sets, video games and more. But despite their genius bloodlines and phenomenal songbook, the Beach Boys now reek of mothball nostalgia. Saturday, they'll play a free postgame show at Tropicana Field — a band with more sad, spare parts than '61-vintage ones.
So it was with a wrinkle of the nose and only middling curiosity that I sat in on a conference call with the controversial Mike Love, the sole founding member still touring under the Beach Boys shingle. (Bruce Johnston will be there, too, but he joined in '65 for California Girls.)
Although Love is not the reason the famously troubled Brian Wilson split the band — and Love's fractiousness certainly didn't cause the sad deaths of Carl and Dennis Wilson — he is nevertheless berated as arrogant and litigious, a loud, proud divider with a history of lawsuits against his musical family. (His most recent legal action against Brian was filed in 2005.) In '88, Love famously scored a dubious double-whammy: He insulted the Beatles and the Stones during the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Worse, he co-wrote Kokomo, the video that featured Full House dope John Stamos, now an occasional member of a once-indomitable band.
Love is synonymous with the Beach Boys' fall from relevance. But a funny thing happened on that conference call: I found the 68-year-old Love to be surprisingly interesting — or at least a little weird. Plus let's be honest: Love helped write Surfin' Safari, Fun Fun Fun and Good Vibrations, and his deep R&B voice lent great grooving counterpoint to Wilson's high hang-ten croon.
So I shouted out the first question, unafraid of being impolitic: Hey Mike, in 2011 the Beach Boys will celebrate their 50th anniversary. Any chance you, Brian and Al (Jardine, another founding member who left in 1998) will patch things up and reunite?
"There's a lot of thought going on in that direction," Love answered in a soft, methodical voice, both vaguely creepy and politely engaged. "There have been issues in the past...but for something that auspicious, yes, there's a lot of activity."
"Issues in the past"? Yeah, the Beach Boys had issues like Salem's Lot had vampires. Another reporter then asked who was in the band these days. Love responded: "As you may or may not know, my cousin Brian stopped touring with the Beach Boys in 1964..." Love said "my cousin Brian" as if he were casually wiping schmutz off his lapel.
For all his curious chatter — "I do transcendental meditation I learned from the Maharishi in September of 1967" — there was also just-plain-cool stuff. The Beach Boys "started out with a pure love of making harmonies," he said, inspired by doo-wop, the Everly Brothers, the Four Freshmen. "We wrote songs about surfing and cars and high-school life, and that subject matter was unique. It was the kind of stuff kids of all ages can relate to."
Love spoke of the late Ted Kennedy: "Because of our experience in the Beach Boys, we met quite a few of the family members. I was at Ted Kennedy's house one time. I took a shower there." That led to a story about Love and "cousin Brian" writing the devastatingly beautiful Warmth of the Sun on the evening of Nov. 22, 1963: "One of the most beautiful songs we've ever done. It's about losing someone who doesn't love you back — and that's a bummer."
I managed to sneak in another question, asking about that Beatles-Beach Boys rivalry: "The Beatles are unrivaled globally," he said. "But the Beach Boys have always been heralded as original. Paul McCartney has said that God Only Knows is the perfect song, and that Pet Sounds is required listening for his kids. It was a mutual admiration society more than a competition."
That creaky-jointed nostalgia was suddenly youthful, vital. But then Mike Love tried to instill confidence in the modern Beach Boys, his Beach Boys: "Good Vibrations was the most unique and most popular of our songs — eclipsed only by Kokomo. That's been our best-selling song."
Ugh. God only knows what Brian Wilson would think.