Is the Beach Boys' Mike Love a hero or villain?
The vilified singer talks drugs in the '60s, SMiLE and the genius of Brian Wilson
Talking with Mike Love is like having a conversation with the devil. He's an excellent conversationalist who's charming to the end. At 70, he's the only original Beach Boy to sail on under the group's name. Now fronting a seven-piece lineup featuring longtime Brian Wilson replacement Bruce Johnston and drummer John Cowsill, among others, Love brings the surf, sun and fun back for another round of endless summer classics. Myriad books and articles about the band have painted Love as the perennial bully. But there are two sides to every story, and despite his villainous portrayal, Love remains an indelible voice in the Beach Boys' greatest hits.
You're still hitting those high harmonies after all these years?
Yeah, I'm still singing lead on the stuff that I've always done — the cars and surfing songs. Close your eyes and it might transport you back to 1965. laughs
What's the range of material you're playing these days?
We do a lot of everything. "Kokomo" was the Beach Boys' biggest hit ever, so I'm told — No. 1 for eight weeks in Australia. In the U.S. it was only No. 1 for a week, but still, that's quite an achievement, and it happened 22 years after our prior No. 1 hit, "Good Vibrations" in 1966. We had a lot of hits in the '60s — "California Girls," "Help Me Rhonda," "Barbara Ann," "Fun Fun Fun," "I Get Around" — but we're also doing plenty of stuff from the '70s, and "Kokomo" was '88.
We also do some esoteric stuff to show off our harmonies, including an a cappella version of "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" by the Four Freshmen. Before we had our own songs, we also did some of those great doo-wop songs from the late '50s and early '60s. There's a whole synthesis of those influences that resulted in the way we sound — my cousin Brian Wilson being unequaled in structuring harmonies and chord progressions.
Are you and Brian talking about getting back together?
Yeah, we've talked about doing some new music together, which would be really cool. I have contributed musical value to many of our songs, but he's far away the musical genius with the melodies, harmonies, chorus progressions and production. He's deeply into the musical values and I'm equally into the conceptual and lyrical sides, and the hooks. I came up with "I'm picking up good vibrations," but Brian and I didn't work on "Kokomo" together. Terry Melcher, John Phillips and I developed that, but I came up with all of the chorus: "Aruba, Jamaica ooo I wanna take ya/Bermuda, Bahama come on pretty mama." That's my forte, having the lyrics and concepts resonate with the music, whether it be the rhythm, the melody or what have you.
How is your relationship with Brian?
Well, there have been issues, but they weren't between Brian and me a lot of times. They were between other people that were controlling his life — my uncle Murray Wilson not crediting me for writing. I wrote every word to "California Girls" and most of the words in "Help Me Rhonda" and "I Get Around," but I wasn't credited, and they were big hits! Brian even said, "Hey, Mike wrote those words." He wanted to rectify things, but was in a conservatorship, which means that other people administer your stuff. For whatever reason they didn't want to rectify those wrongs, but they were rectified.
Most of the books and articles written about the Beach Boys portray you as a villain in the group.
The problem is that the people who write these things weren't around, and are operating on second- and third-hand accounts. The complete picture, like reality, is a composite. Every person's view — even in the group — is different. When outsiders start looking in and offer conjecture, things get abstract.
Why have you been pegged the bad guy?
Back in the '60s, there were two camps in the Beach Boys: the Wilson Brothers, who were into drugs, and Al Jardine, Love and Bruce Johnston, who were not. I never appreciated the effects that LSD and other drugs had on our cousins. Dennis went to an early grave because of his excesses and I'd be full of shit if I said I had a fond opinion of the people who brought drugs around and the effects that those drugs had on Brian, Dennis and, to a certain extent, Carl. I'm an outspoken person and I called people out. I can be a very spiritual, loving guy, but if I see someone destroying people's minds by plying them with drugs because it's cool — well, I don't think it's cool.
Not a popular opinion to have during the psychedelic '60s.
Exactly. I saw too many people becoming way too weird. I'm not a fan of excessive drug use, so I'm the asshole for speaking out about it and not liking certain people that came around the group back then. I was more into meditation.
You did write the song "Transcendental Meditation" on Friends.
I wrote a song more recently called "Cool Head, Warm Water," which was something the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi said to me once: "You need to have a cool head in warm water." So I made it into a little pop song. I've been meditating since I learned from him in Paris in 1967.
Is there a Beach Boys record that resonates with you more than the others?
Pet Sounds is one of my favorites. "Good Vibrations" was truly one of a kind. Rolling Stone named it the single of the century and I'll take it! Brian outdid himself with that track, and I came up with the chorus, "I'm picking up good vibrations, she's giving me excitations." I wrote the words in a car on the way to the studio, actually.
The Beach Boys were working on SMiLE around then, which has become the Holy Grail of lost rock 'n' roll albums. What did you think about Brian and Van Dyke Parks' '04 version?
I'm not qualified to comment too much. Here's the deal: When you have Brian at his strongest and Carl, Alan, myself and Bruce singing our asses off in the '60s, doing Pet Sounds, doing "Good Vibrations" and working on SMiLE, you can't top it. People can copy that, but you'd be hard-pressed to come up with that group's level of chemistry and brilliance at that time. When you hear Brian Wilson sing "Wonderful" on the original SMiLE tapes it's unbelievable. Those tapes will be released November 1.
Have you been involved with the SMiLE reissue?
No, other than to comment on it. I was involved with recording the songs originally, but other people are putting the album together as well as a box set with lots of outtakes and different versions of songs. Do you have a favorite Beach Boys record?
It changes, but Friends and Love You are current favorites. The cover painting on Surf's Up, titled "End of the Trail," personifies genocide, which is juxtaposed with the first song on the album, "Don't Go Near the Water," all under the album's title, Surf's Up. There are so many mixed messages there that I've always wondered what's going on beneath the surface.
"Don't Go Near the Water" was our environmental song. We would have called it "Don't Fuck Up the Water" if we were Canned Heat. We've been sensitive about the environment from early on. "California Saga" on Holland was bestowing the virtues of the environment and a way of life. It's ironic that Surf's Up had nothing to do with surfing.
Where will this article appear?
Atlanta's weekly paper, Creative Loafing.
I like the sound of that. Years ago we did a song called "Busy Doin' Nothin,'" which is sort of the same idea.