Mike Love: The name conjures up a particularly Californian image of sun, fun, peace and happiness. If Love, the longtime vocal anchor of the American institution known as the Beach Boys, hadn't been born with this name, he would have been well advised to adopt it.
But Love is a far more complex figure than this appellation suggests. He may be best known for his nasal crooning on bouncy hits such as "Surfin' U.S.A." and "Little Deuce Coupe," but over the years he's also proven to be the most outspoken member of this fascinating and influential act--a group that Rolling Stone called "in many respects...the most innovative white rock-and-roll band the United States has ever seen." On one hand, he's been an active advocate of transcendental meditation and sound environmental policy. On the other, he's complained loud and long that his group has never been given its artistic due; at the Beach Boys' 1988 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for instance, he implied from the stage that the band was better live than the Rolling Stones. Some critics of the singer (and there are plenty of them) feel that he has more than a little in common with another Love--Buddy Love, the abrasive lounge singer played by Jerry Lewis in the 1964 comic psychodrama The Nutty Professor.
This comparison is both unfair and superficial. Mike Love today is a multifaceted man defined in large part by his contradictions. He is more than happy to play the Beach Boys' hits on the nostalgia circuit, yet occasionally feels that the songs themselves are insignificant. He says he does not want the group to rest on its laurels even as he touts the band's latest album, dominated by cover versions of summertime party songs. And he dreams of the day when he and his cousin Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys' acknowledged auteur and architect, can work and write together again, in spite of the fact that he is suing Wilson and a number of those in his orbit for neglecting to pay Love royalties for songs he claims to have co-written in the early and middle Sixties.
"It's a drag, but it's not about Brian versus Mike," Love says, his voice as smooth and warm as a palmful of suntan lotion. "Brian has acknowledged my co-authorship of certain songs, and he's acknowledged that he feels guilty about it, yet the people around him--the attorneys, the people who have controlled his life--won't let him resolve it."
This conflict is only the latest to embroil the Beach Boys, a combo whose history reads like the plot of a soap opera often too twisted and strange to be believed. In the beginning, the core of the band was made up of the Southern California-bred Wilsons: Brian and his brothers Carl and Dennis. Together with their cousin Mike, they would sing at family gatherings, where they learned to emulate, and then surpass, the tight vocal interplay of the Four Freshman, a popular Fifties quartet. In 1961, Al Jardine, a high school classmate of Brian's, was added to the foursome, and under the tutelage of the late Murry Wilson, a frustrated songwriter as well as the family patriarch, the Beach Boys were born. Their first song, "Surfin'," was a modest local hit, but their second, "Surfin' Safari" (the band's debut single on Capitol Records), was a national smash that began a string of sales successes that continued virtually without interruption through 1966. During that time, Brian's production expertise rivaled that of his idol, Phil Spector.
Although he is listed as co-writer on "Surfin' Safari" and several other ditties, Love contends that he was robbed of recognition for penning all or some of the lyrics on a pile of additional tunes, including "Dance, Dance, Dance," "Catch a Wave," "Hawaii," "Be True to Your School," "I Get Around" and "California Girls," which is the most lucrative song, in terms of publishing royalties, in the entire Beach Boys catalogue. Love is very specific when asked who is to blame for this oversight: "Brian and my uncle Murry did not give credit to other people's contributions."
Love is careful to stress that this claim should in no way be interpreted as an attempt to denigrate Brian's creative accomplishments. "There's no arguing that in the early and mid-Sixties, Brian was a preeminent musical force--purely a genius in terms of what he was doing with arrangements and production and so on," he notes. "We came out with so many great albums, so many great songs, and primarily it was because of Brian's unique ability. I came up with some of the words and some of the hooks, but he was the composer and arranger, and when he stopped being as forceful and competitive as he had been, that's when the Beach Boys stopped selling as many songs.
"But whereas Brian is the one who delivered the astoundingness of the music, I delivered the conceptual and lyrical communication of it. For example, when I first heard `Good Vibrations,' I said, `This is so different, so weird. I wonder how people are going to feel about this.' But then I wrote the words: `I'm picking up good vibrations/She's giving me excitations.' It's more of a boy-girl romance thing that communicated a pretty simple message and was more relatable by more people. That combination of abilities allowed us to come up with something that could complement the music, and that resulted in a number-one record."
It would be the last such Beach Boys chart-topper for 22 years, when the Love-penned song "Kokomo," from the soundtrack to the lousy Tom Cruise film Cocktail, became the nation's biggest seller. Following "Good Vibrations" (released in 1966), Brian set out to create the ultimate concept album, a lighthearted project to be called Smile. He subsequently hooked up with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, a prodigious talent in his own right, but before the album was even close to being completed, Brian flipped out. He had already stopped touring with the group (Bruce Johnston, who is still with the band, became Brian's onstage replacement in 1965); he was so deeply into drugs and his own insecurities that, during a Smile session, he became convinced that his music had started a fire across the street from the studio. As Love says, "He went from being a dynamic, aggressive producer and songwriter to being a reclusive paranoid schizophrenic who barely came out of his house."
After Brian melted down, the rest of the Beach Boys tried to save what they could of the Smile recordings, releasing the results under the title Smiley Smile. That album's single, "Heroes and Villains," was a moderate success, but on the albums that came afterward, Brian's contributions were often limited to the writing of a few insular compositions. Heard as part of the recent Beach Boys five-disc box set, called Good Vibrations, many of the songs from commercially disappointing platters such as Friends, 20/20, Wild Honey and Sunflower sound surprisingly good. Still, America wasn't buying them. The Beach Boys' biggest-selling album of the Seventies was Endless Summer, a greatest-hits compilation. The band was trapped by its own past, and Brian, the man who might have lifted them to another level, was barely functioning. His attempted comeback, represented by the 1988 solo album called simply Brian Wilson, was overseen by Dr. Eugene Landy, a psychiatrist who had surrounded the performer with a full-time staff of professional nursemaids.
"Dr. Landy would love to be an artist--he and his wife, Alexandra," Love says. "But they don't have the talent to support that desire. They see Brian as the goose that laid the golden egg, but the problem is that the eggs haven't been properly fertilized. And they won't be unless there's the right chemistry between people with the right sensitivities--people who know when and how to get the best out of Brian. But instead, they medicate him until he can't make the beautiful, melancholy music that comes from his nature." (Landy has repeatedly denied taking advantage of Brian Wilson.)
Brian's delicate mental health was only one of the reasons Love says he waited so long to seek acknowledgment for his contributions to several of the Beach Boys' songs--and the other factors he cites are exceedingly complicated. He says that he first considered seeking reparations in 1969, when Murry sold the band's publishing company to Almo-Irving, then a branch of A&M Records. Love claims that he asked the band's attorney at the time if he should file a lawsuit in order to recover unpaid royalties and was given a negative response. "But it turns out," Love continues, "that our attorney was also Almo-Irving's attorney--which came to light in the mid-Eighties. So I asked our then-attorney what I should do, and he said it was too late to do anything. But he was wrong, because in the late Eighties Brian sued Almo-Irving because of the conflict of interest back in 1969, and they ended up giving him $10 million. But they didn't give me money or credit for the songs that I'd co-authored, so we've had to force the issue and bring the suit."
As a result, Love has spent much of the past several months involved in the court case, which he believes should be resolved this fall. He's confident that the ruling will come down in his favor. "Brian called me up two years ago and told me, `You were right to sue me. I owe you and I want to pay you, and I want to get back together.' And we found a letter from 1985 where Brian said he wanted to start paying me for `California Girls,' but it was stopped by his attorneys. Brian has surrendered to a conservatorship, because he's basically incompetent to take care of his own financial matters, but he's also controlled by these people who don't know anything about creativity. All they know how to do is administer his money--that being a euphemism for `take his money.' It's a very sad situation."
Other aspects of the Beach Boys' career haven't been a barrel of laughs, either. Dennis Wilson, the band's drummer, as well as the only one of the original members who actually surfed, drowned in 1983, the same year that then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt banned the group from performing at a Fourth of July celebration in Washington, D.C., because he alleged that they constituted a "bad influence" (the group was invited to participate at the concert the following year). And in spite of the out-of-the-blue success of "Kokomo" in 1988, the Beach Boys are no longer under contract for new recordings with a major label. The band released its 1992 album Summer in Paradise on its own Brother Records imprint and is still working the disc two years later; a reworked version of the Drifters classic "Under the Boardwalk" has just been shipped to radio as a single. Other songs on the album include Sly and the Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and "Forever," on which the Boys (Mike, Carl, Bruce and Al) join forces with, believe it or not, John Stamos, the star of the situation comedy Full House.
"We set out to do an album that would be easily assimilable by Beach Boys fans, new and old," Love says. "But we also wanted to do something that was more topical and relevant. The lyrics to the title song, `Summer in Paradise,' were inspired by our trip to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and reflect our concern about the environment. It charted some new territory for the Beach Boys, since most of our songs haven't been particularly aware socially and environmentally.
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"I think it's important that we go off and do some songs that address our feelings and the needs of the times rather than just forever repeating songs that are great but maybe don't have any particular meaning or relevance when weighed against today's realities. The Beach Boys can do it, so long as the desire is there--and I think it is, but I don't think it's been focused. It would be nice to resolve these things that are going on with Brian and get back closer to the original team. I think if Brian's situation was slightly altered, we could do new music together that we could be proud of rather than just parodying ourselves."
All of that will have to wait at least until the court case ends. In the meantime, the remaining Beach Boys are on the road again, pushing the box set (which already has sold more than 500,000 copies) and Summer in Paradise. And while major record labels presently are keeping their distance, other corporations recognize the band's appeal: The group is participating in a join-the-Beach-Boys-on-stage promotion sponsored by the makers of Fleischmann's margarine. As for Love, he is attempting to keep the lives of the Beach Boys--past, present and future--in some kind of perspective.
"There have been tragedies, but there have been great things, too," he says. "We do over a hundred concerts a year, we've made a lot of money, we've gone to a lot of great places, we've won a lot of accolades, met interesting people. But as great as the Beach Boys' musical legacy and history is, it's not the most important thing in the world. After all, the Beach Boys aren't boys anymore."
KOOL Koncert '94, with the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, Jan and Dean, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. 5:15 p.m. Saturday, June 11, Mile High Stadium, $12/$7, 290-