For over 55 years, Mike Love has been a faithful steward of the Beach Boys, the ultimate cheerleader championing their timeless legacy around the globe. He’s the lead vocalist on signature classics I Get Around, Surfin U.S.A, California Girls, Do It Again, Be True To Your School, Little Deuce Coupe and countless others and a natural born front man/entertainer who is never more comfortable than prowling a big stage, exhorting SRO crowds to have Fun, Fun, Fun.
But as his new book reveals, it hasn’t all been Fun, Fun, Fun. Love, a polarizing figure often villainized in Beach Boys history, is finally setting the record straight in Good Vibrations: My Life As A Beach Boy, a new autobiography penned by the singer with writer James Hirsch.
Candid and revealing, the tome is an absorbing read and offers a fascinating journey chronicling how this sheet metal worker with a deep love of Chuck Berry and doo-wop partnered with cousins, Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson plus Alan Jardine, and transformed into one of the world’s biggest rock stars fronting Southern California’s finest musical emissaries, the Beach Boys.
It’s a story of triumph and betrayal, transcendence and despair. It’s all here: the Beach Boys’ struggling formative years and eventual breakthrough, power struggle battles with the Wilson’s father/one time band manager Murry, Brian’s artistic zenith with Pet Sounds and Smile, hanging out with The Beatles in India during their meditation phase with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, inner band dramas and festering enmity, Dennis Wilson’s involvement with Charles Manson, lawsuits, the triumphant 50th anniversary reunion tour and much more.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What was the process behind doing the book?
Mike Love: Basically, I did tons of interviews and spent a lot of time with Jim Hirsch, who was the writer. He also read everything that’s ever been written about the Beach Boys and about Brian or Dennis all of us. That was helpful because he would bring up situations or events and then would ask me to comment on them which made the book a lot more in-depth than what could just remember on my own.
And some of the things that were written about us were not valid. They’re maybe not quite so accurate (laughing) or complete outright mistruths, but the benefit of doing the book from my point of view … I was there since before the beginning of the Beach Boys. (laughs) In fact, that’s where the book starts. It goes into the origins of the Beach Boys in terms of our families. So this book is a real comprehensive thing. We’ve been working on it for a couple of years.
What were the most difficult and darker aspects of the group’s history to go back and revisit?
Mike Love: I did an audio recording of the book so I was reading the whole book and some parts of it were very tough to get through. I got very choked up in a couple of situations. For instance, after his last concert with us in Atlantic City the year before he passed away, seeing Carl Wilson take a look at all of us and saying goodbye for the last time to everybody, which is basically what it was; that was really hard to think about again.
But also, it wasn’t pleasant getting a call from somebody in Charlie Manson’s family and telling me to “Prepare to die, pig.” You know that wasn’t fun.
And Brian’s descent into drugs and mental instability; that’s rough. It’s somebody I’ve known for all his life; I’m a year older, and that was sad to recount.
I’ve always been impressed by your work ethic. What’s the source of your ambition and strong work ethic?
Mike Love: Well, my grandfather Love came from rural Louisiana where he hailed logs to a mill before he moved to California in 1909 and worked in the sheet metal industry. He eventually did really well, even through the depression and World War II. My dad lacked for nothing because my grandfather was so hardworking and so was my father. I remember him getting up at five thirty in the morning and leaving the house by six AM and going down to work at the Love sheet metal factory that my grandfather, my uncle and father worked at and ran.
And the source of your ambition?
Mike Love: Well, I am competitive. My brother Stan was in the NBA and my other brother Steve was a quarterback. I ran cross country and track, long distances so I was very competitive. I lettered three years in a row in varsity cross country, 10th, 11th and 12th grade. So I’ve always been competitive and not afraid of working. So given that, and the example that my father and my grandfather were to me, I think that really influenced my thought processes, my psyche, my work ethic. Ambition is based on the competitive thing. See, there’s artistry and there’s commerce. If you are an entertainer or recording artist and if you’re very creative that’s great. But if you’re not commercially successful, the record company will drop you; the minute you start to not sell records they start to think about getting rid of you. And that has happened to hundreds if not thousands of artists over the years.
But the Beach Boys have been able to tread that fine line of artistry and commerce, which is a tricky feat to pull off.
Mike Love: Yeah. With me, I prefer the live performance to the studio. There are some people that don’t want to be on stage but love the studio and I think my cousin Brian is one of those people. We’re opposite in that way. Those opposite natures did beautifully when it came to creating a song together.
He’s more into the musical structure of things, the chord progressions and harmonies; not that I’m not into the harmonies but I sing a bass part to the four part harmony singing. But Brian’s strengths were in the recording and arranging and producing areas. My strength are more in the writing, the concepts, the lyrics and the lead singing on a lot of the songs we crafted together. Then seeing them come alive in concert, that’s; the miraculous things about it, that more than 50 years later we can do Surfin’ Safari and people of all age are singing along. (laughs)
You’ve spoken about your strengths but every artist also has their own weaknesses. If you had to put your finger on yours, what would you say?
Mike Love: I think maybe I had an issue with procrastination. I think I let things go too long sometimes. I’m not the most proactive person in terms of getting things done. A classic example is Good Vibrations. The track was all done. I’d come up with (sing) “I’m picking up ‘Good Vibrations, she’s giving me the excitations’ for the chorus but I had not written the lyrics. I dictated the lyrics to my then wife Suzanne on the way to the studio, on the 101 freeway, a 25 minute drive to the studio in Hollywood from where we were in Studio City. Anyway, there’s a classic example of a great song and the lyrics were written an hour before we sang them. (laughs)
You’ve described yourself as having the duality of being “the switchblade and the butterfly,” how has that helped and hurt you as a member of The Beach Boys?
Mike Love: Well, it might have hurt me by being outspoken because I was raised in a family where around the dinner table there’d be these insults flying. They’d call them “‘chop” or in school I would join up with a lot of the African American kids and there would be these sessions where everybody was insulting each other but in fun. It was a way of having fun and a way of being clever but nothing was sacred. Anything or anyone could be attacked. So I grew up in theta atmosphere and that environment. But see, that type of humor can be hurtful and can be insulting and can be demeaning and it’s not understood by everybody ‘cause everybody doesn’t grow up like that. So whereas my sense of humor at times can venture into the sarcastic or caustic realm.
Conversely, how has it helped you being “the switchblade and the butterfly”?
Mike Love: Well, on the other hand, I first heard the term “do you in” in high school when some of the kids would say, “I’m gonna do you in,” meaning put an end to you, actually (laughs) or beat the hell out of you. So when I came up with the first line of Help Me Rhonda, (recites) “well, since she put me down I’ve been out doing in my head…” So that vernacular found its way into some of the lyrics of our songs. So the thing is, unless I had participated in that kind of repartee with those fellas in school I might never have heard that term. I definitely would not have put it into the first line of Help Me Rhonda. So that’s an example of being involved in the switchblade aspect of things that found its way into our lyrics.
You cite your aunt Audree, Brian Wilson’s mother, as the primary source of his talents.
Mike Love: Well, my mom felt that Audree was the finest musician she had ever met because of her ear. She could sit down at the piano and play anything having heard it just once. It could be any type of music. Audree was extremely gifted musically, as was my mother. It’s kind of interesting. My mom being the sister of Murry Wilson. Murry was an aspiring songwriter and he never became successful but he knew about publishing and writing and what you had to do with it. I didn’t know anything about that. My dad was a sheet metal worker and my mom, Murry’s sister, was very gifted musically. She sang light opera and sang on the radio in the ‘30s before I was born. So in spite of the poverty involved in my mother’s side of the family, they had music and that was something that gave them joy even amidst some pretty challenging situations. But ironically Audree was extremely gifted and add it to the Wilsons genes and I think that gave Brian a super charged packet of genealogy that gave rise to his brilliance in music.
You mention Surfin’ U.S.A being one of your strongest vocals. Forgetting that one, what are other songs, well known and lesser known that you feel you delivered a high quality vocal?
Mike Love: Well, I think anything to do with the bass parts of any of our songs is pretty awesome because I love singing the bass. I don’t have a lot of volume but I have a lot of resonance so that blend with the resonant of the lowest part gives the basis of the whole foundation of all the harmonies and stuff and it’s one of the important elements of that.
Very seldom does one talk about singing the bass part of a song being important but in the structure of a four part harmony, it’s incredibly important. As for lead vocals I’m particularly proud, it could be All I Wanna Do or All This Is That or Everyone’s In Love With You or Big Sur. It’s a little softer and more mellow approach. I have three voices that I have used commercially. One is the Fun, Fun, Fun, Surfin’ Safari, Surfin’ U.S.A, I Get Around voice and the other voice is Kokomo and the other voice could be Everyone’s In Love With You or All This Is That.
I like your vocal on Airplane too.
Mike Love: Oh thank you. That’s sort of that dream state of vocals that I occasionally do.
The Beach Boys were slated to play the Monterey Pop Festival. What led to the band turning it down? Would have helped the band to have played that festival and be considered more hip at that stage in your career?
Mike Love: Yeah, it probably would have. But I speak about this in the book, the Beatles ran circles around us in terms of promotion and marketing and in part that was Capitol Records’ doing. About the time you’re alluding to, we were being promoted as the number one surfing group in the U.S.A., which is not particularly relevant when there are things like racial issues, integration problems, studio unrest, Vietnam.
But the group internally was pretty dysfunctional at the time. You had Carl Wilson and he was being pursued by the draft. He was supposed to report for induction in the military and he wasn’t going for that so he had to fight that and we were part of that fight. We helped him by playing lots of shows at prisons and hospitals and different community service kind of things along the way.
Then there was drugs; there was the dysfunction due to the drugs some of the guys were doing. So yeah, I think probably missing that seminal event was a mistake along with our not having our act together when it came to promotion and communicating who the Beach Boys were actually becoming. I mean, Good Vibrations for crying out loud is a whole lot different than Surfin’ Safari.
One is objectivity and one is more subjectivity. For instance, with Good Vibrations, it that’s not an avant-garde song in 1966 I don’t know what is. (laughs)
It still is.
Mike Love: Yeah, I know and I agree. I always thought it was avant-garde for its time and it’s still avant-garde. It’s my example of being unique and creative and still being commercially successful ‘cause it went to number one in fact. We were voted the number one group in Great Britain and number two being The Beatles, on the strength of Good Vibrations in 1966.
It’s well known you had issues with Dennis Wilson through the years, you bit him in a fight in the ’60s?
Mike Love: Oh yeah. He filled up a squirt gun with some urine in the bathroom in Des Moines (laughs) when we were on one of our earlier tours and that didn’t go over so well with me. (laughs) Anyway. So yeah, we brawled that time but we came to our senses also and said, “Well, we have shows to do so we better stop beating the hell out of each other.” (laughs)
But you were also very close at time too, even sharing an apartment together in the early ‘60s. Looking back with love, what were the things you loved most about Dennis?
Mike Love: He and I were the driving forces in the band when you talk about the competitive forces of the Beach Boys. I think we were right there lockstep with each other when we went out to do a concert. We’d say, “Let’s go out there and kick some ass!” He would beat the hell out of the drums so he was a very powerful drummer and he had that competitive spirit. He was also tremendously attractive to the young ladies as well. And he was also very generous and giving in his own way. He didn’t care much about possessions. He ran through his money like water.
You credit him with the gift of connecting you with meditation and the Maharishi and near the end of his life, you rescued Dennis somewhere in Venice and it all came back to meditation.
Mike Love: As you know, transcendental meditation has been an important part of my life. It’s one of the most important things in my life because it’s given me the inner strength and ability and flexibility in coping with stress. There’s plenty of them…personal stresses, familial stress, business stresses and being in a group itself. It can be a hassle.
We had left Paris in December of ’67 and gone to London and no sooner had we arrived in London that I got a call from Dennis saying, “Hey, you gotta come back to Paris!” And I said, “Why is that?” And he said, “Maharishi is gonna teach us to meditate.” So it was actually Dennis’ call to me that got us to fly back to Paris and this is before we’d even been in England for 24 hours. So we flew back and did in fact get initiated into TM by Maharishi in December of ’67. So it was because of that call from Dennis that that happened. I had gone to a meditation lecture before that but didn’t sign up for it because I’d gotten into an argument. Because of the value and importance of meditation I became a teacher of TM. I went to a six month long meditation course in the ‘70s; six months living like a monk!
“So it’s been an invaluable experience. Meditation has meant a tremendous amount to me and I always have to attribute that connection to Dennis. Even when he was having problems with alcohol or whatever kind of drugs he was taking, he never forgot about meditation. So when I went to visit him when he was living in Venice and he had been kicked out of the group because he was dysfunctional because of alcoholism and drug abuse, he still said, ‘Let’s meditate.’ We always tried to help Dennis; same thing with Brian and we supported the whole thing with Dr. Landy because we felt it was preferable than him dying and the same thing with Dennis. The reason we kicked Dennis out of the group is not because we didn’t want him in the group, we wanted him to get healthy. But Dennis was tough. He would go into rehab for a night and then leave the next day. Those demons just had a hold of him and he could never quite shake them.
There was talk you told him that had he toured behind his solo album, he would be been thrown out of the band. But in your book, you state that rumor is not true.
Mike Love: No, it’s not true that I told Dennis if he went off on a solo tour that he’d be kicked out of the Beach Boys, I don’t know where this kind of crap comes from but it’s all bullshit. (laughs) I mean, there are so many things that are outright inaccuracies and lies. I would have never said that to Dennis but I would say is, “Dennis, you have to go get your life together, you have to get healthy and until you do that, don’t come around.” We also would show tough love to Dennis; Carl and myself.
You worked with Dennis on his solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, penning the lyrics for the title track.
Mike Love: Yeah, well, the thing is he had a boat and he lived on his boat for a quite a while. It was called “Harmony.” He and I both had concerns about the environment so he asked me to go ahead and write the lyrics to the song that he had come up with. So I was happy to do that and I was looking forward to doing more with him because there were plans to do future albums. My success in songwriting happened with my cousin Brian, Dennis’ brother. They were different styles of writers. Brian had a way of crafting things and I would come up with some hooks and he would incorporate them into the song. With Dennis he would write the song and have a track and give me that to write to. That’s how I worked with him on previous songs like Only With You and Sound of Free. With Brian I’d sit at the piano and we’d interactively create the song. He also had aspirations to be in the movies and he appeared in the film, Two Lane Blacktop.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our chat with Mike Love, coming soon!