Taken from the December 2004 Edition of Mojo magazine.
Well, that's what we got told. But The Beach Boys' vocalist says he never hated 'Pet Sounds' and he certainly didn't stop 'Smile' coming out. Charming, calm, amiable says Bill Holdship. Just don't ask him about Al Jardine.
“PEOPLE READ THESE BOOKS – YOU SEE FOUR or five negative things about Mike Love – so Mike Love must be a bastard.” The man long considered one of the most hated in rock 'n' roll is explaining how it feels to be constantly portrayed as the villain in the story of The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson. “I know how I live, my values, and my philosophies. So, personally, I'm comfortable with it all. It does get annoying because it's an inaccurate picture of what actually happened. But when it's left to people who've written books about Brian, it gets distorted. I don't blame people for coming to that conclusion, but it's based on inaccurate statements made by people who weren't there, or if they were, they obviously had an axe to grind because somewhere along the way, I told them to take a hike.”
We're sitting at the pool behind Love's mansion in the remote ski area of Incline Village, Nevada, located between Reno and Lake Tahoe. The area has some stunningly gorgeous scenery, just in case anyone was wondering why one of the creators of the California myth would want to live in Nevada. Besides, the mountains that his pool faces are in California; the lake below them separates the two states. Love shares this opulent estate with his sixth wife, Jacqueline, and two of his seven children – an eight year old daughter, Ambha, and a sixteen year old son, named, interestingly enough , Brian. Love's wearing a red plaid shirt over a blue plaid shirt, dark trousers and the ever present baseball cap. He has very blue eyes. At 63, he looks older than I anticipated (“Closer to hip surgery than to hip hop” he says he jokes during shows), although quite fit for his age. Nevertheless, those blue eyes sometimes look very tired.
He plays me cuts from a solo album he recently completed in his home studio. He's currently shopping it around. It's titled 'Mike Love, Not War,' which, you hope, shows that he does have a sense of humour. The CD will include the birthday song he says The Beatles wrote for him in India in 1967, followed by his response. He plays the title track (“Back in the '60s, it was during Vietnam/I remember Brother Marvin singing 'What's Going On?'”). One track has a close approximation of classic Beach Boy harmonies. Nothing he plays me is horrible.
Love agreed to this interview as a chance to tell his side of The Beach Boys story, as he prepares for yet another British tour at a time when Brian Wilson's career is at a critical peak, especially in the U.K. He mistrusts the press and hasn't done many interviews in recent years. When I tried to contact him for a 1995 MOJO piece on Brian Wilson, Love's reps wanted me to sign a release stating I'd write nothing bad about him. The offer was declined. While I'd like to believe that this meeting was a summit nearly a decade in the making, it's probably presumptuous of me to think Love's read anything, good or bad (mostly bad), I've ever written about him. The requested contract was probably a result of my story coming so soon after Love had won a $5 million lawsuit against Brian. Of course, Love hasn't done a lot over the years to exactly endear himself to rock writers or Brian Wilson fans.
“There are two sides to every story,” says Darian Sahanaja, MD of Brian's current band, “and I'm sure some of what Mike claims is legit. But I also believe 'it's all about how you present yourself'. I think Mike could get his [critical] due, but I don't think people are willing to give it to him just because of the way Mike is.”
Legend has it that Love detested Pet Sounds, calling it “Brian's ego music.” He's been portrayed as one of the major forces behind the abandonment of Smile, Brian and lyricist Van Dyke Parks' “psychedelic” music tribute to America, which has just been released as a Brian solo project to almost universal acclaim. In 1993, Love sued Brian and won $5m in back royalties for “uncredited lyrics” to many of The Beach Boys' most valuable songs. Right before that, he received an out-of-court settlement in a defamation suit against Harper Collins for Brian's 1991 Wouldn't It Be Nice autobiography. In 2003, I received an e-mail from a reporter at a newspaper in Ventura, California, which was being sued by Love for defamation of character over an article he'd written. It could be said that Mike love's role as a villain is cemented in rocklore.
In all fairness, there are positive things to say about a man who was a collaborator in what was once America's greatest rock'n'roll band. Brian was the architect and rsident genius – the “Stalin of the studio” as Mike recalls it – but there was undoubtedly collaboration. Certainly anyone who loves the cars, girls and beach mythos of the early Beach Boys would have to give Mike his due. It would've been very different without him. He's the only original member of The Beach Boys to still tour under that brand, in a unit that includes second string member Bruce Johnston and emphasises keeping that endless summer alive. And whether it's Brian's current touring band or Mike love's Beach Boys, I Get Around and Fun, Fun, Fun will always sound great blasting from a concert PA. Nevertheless, when one is about to meet Mike Love, it is, as Don Was put it in that 1995 MOJO story, like waiting to meet “the living embodiment of evil”. Don's conclusion? “He was O.K.”
So , it's not totally surprising to discover that Love has a certain amiability when you finally meet him. It's not exactly charisma, but you can't help finding him charming, if sometimes in a bumpkinish sort of way. Even when asked difficult questions, he remains calm, relaxed, never combative, and seems to believe every word he says.
Thanks to numerous books, TV movies, documentaries and articles like this one, nearly everyone knows the strange, fascinating saga of The Beach Boys – not just the story of a band with the added family dynamic as well. Three brothers, one cousin, a family friend. One musical genius; four others with more than a fair share of talent. There was a controlling, abusive father, Murry, who acted as manager, tyrant and ego-buster. The genius, Brian, loses his mind while creating his masterpiece, Smile, partially due to pressure from father and other members; eventually is saved by a Svengali-like psychotherapist, Eugene Landy, who soon acts as both collaborator and “god”. Genius releases commercially disappointing solo album; band releases single and goes to number 1 without genius. Two of the three brothers are dead; family friend Al hates cousin Mike; the original Beach Boys never performed together after Kokomo, the story's punchline. The tales of jelousy, greed and mental illness take on almost Shakespearean-like tragic overtones – but the release of the genius's masterpiece and his new found security finally presented the possibility of an unlikely happy ending.
My interview with Love took place exactly two weeks before the release of the new Smile album. At the time, I'd heard a reliable rumour that “The Beach Boys' attorney” had sent the Wilson camp a letter stating they hoped the new recording “doesn't screw-up the integrity of [The Beach Boys' unfinished version of] Smile. (The only official statement that Wilson's representatives had to make for this story: “Brian hopes Mike hears and enjoys the music.”) Love never cops to the letter, although he's asked several times what he thinks of Smile finally being released. “Well, I think The Beach Boys worked on the Smile album and Brother Records paid for it – and we did some phenomenal stuff at the time. So I think it's the people currently around Brian encouraging him to take something that's unfinished and doing something with it. But I don't see how it could vocally be anything like The Beach Boys' renditions. Because there's a certain authenticity to that and a certain historical accuracy.”
“I thought it was some brilliant stuff,” he says when asked to elaborate on the material. “The 'Fire' tapes, for instance. But there again, Brian thought he'd created a fire in Los Angeles with that music and it freaked him out because he was mentally delicate. The effect it had on Brian was not proportionate to reality. And he retreated from being a dynamic producer right around that time. Now, some people have said that Smile didn't come out, in part, because Mike Love didn't want it coming out. I just saw a review that said that. And that is an horrendous bunch of bullshit. I had nothing – zero, nothing, no input – nothing to say with Smile not coming out at that time. That was Brian withdrawing.”
So you wouldn't have cared if he'd released it as a solo album at the time? “That was Brian's decision to make. I was not responsible for giving Brian drugs and making him freak out and then shelving the entire project. All I did was sing and help write songs, if I was asked. So it's a complete fabrication. I do remember asking Van Dyke Parks what do these lyrics mean? I knew what he was doing in terms of alliteration and the flow of words. In those terms it could be termed brilliant. But with me, whenever I've written lyrics, I've learned to say to myself, OK, how does this music and these lyrics combine to to somehow relate to the listener? In the case of Good Vibrations it was 'I'm picking up good vibrations, she's giving me excitations.' That did not exist until I came up with it. But that was a total boy-girl thing to which people could relate. No matter how weird that track may have sounded in 1966, that lyric was relatable. But that's a totally different thought process from Van Dyke Parks.
He's on a roll, though he maintains the same composure and mood throughout the entire interview – sitting back in his chair, hardly moving, talking soft and slow, never once angry and, in true cartoon-villain fashion, entirely comfortable discussing himself in the third person. It may make a strong case for the benefits of trancendental meditation.
“It's the same thing they say about Pet Sounds – that I didn't like it – and that's bullshit too. I went with Brian to present Pet Sounds to Capitol. I also named the album at Western Recorders just after we mastered it. It was in reference to the dog barks at the end. It wasn't rocket science – but I did give it the name. And we all worked hard on that album, it was a group effort. I don't think the label knew what to do with it; I remember the A&R man saying, 'Gee that's great guys, but don't you think you could give us something more like Surfin' USA' Pet Sounds was such an avant-garde departure that it took like – what?-- 30 years for it finally to go platinum. But to say I didn't like it! I don't even know what kind of mentality wouldn't like a Pet Sounds album. It doesn't even make sense!
“It all boils down to, 'Let's hate Mike Love.' But why do you want to hate Mike Love? What did he ever do to Brian? Did he hit him? No. Did he steal from him? No. Did he give him some good hooks and some good lyrics to go with his songs? Yeah. So I don't understand the 'us and 'them' situation. There were people around Brian who didn't like me because I didn't like them because they were feeding him drugs. I wanted to throw certain people out of the window who had heroin on the road before Brian even left the tour.”
With all those drugs around and it being the '60s, it's hard to imagine that Mike never dabbled. “Well I smoked my fair share of marijuana before I learned meditation,” he admits. “But after I learned TM from the Maharishi in the summer of '67, I was able to relax naturally without alcohol or drugs. I can totally understand self-medication, but once you learn meditation, you don't have any reason to be anxious about things. It's just when they say that I didn't like Pet Sounds or it was partly my fault that Smile didn't come out. They have to draw the line.”
There was a lot of disharmony in the band following those years, but Love points out that there was always something “not entirely harmonious” about The Beach Boys. “Certainly never as harmonious as the sounds made around the microphone,” he says, “because from very early on, my Uncle Murry was involved. He basically took over publishing of the songs Brian and I wrote. He was always pretty tough to deal with. I think he was a thief. He could be very obnoxious; I mean he was terrible to his sons – emotionally, physically and financially. Definitely an abusive person. Brian and I ended up firing him at one point, so I think his way of getting back at me was not include me on the co-authorship of many, many songs, including California Girls and I Get Around. So from the very beginning of our song writing together, there was always that negative vibe underneath it all.”
He complained about it at the time? “Yes, but my cousin Brian would usually say, 'Well my dad fucked up.' He said that at least a half-dozen times when I'd bring it up. I blame my uncle a lot more in the cheating of Mike Love because my cousin Brian was so shaky for so many years. He has auditory delusions and mental illness [which] made him very afraid to speak up for himself. He was very hard-pressed to protect my interests in our collaborative efforts, let alone his own.”
History has demonstrated that song writing cases are very hard to win, so one has to wonder how Love was able to convince a court. “Well, ironically, my cousin Brian wanted to settle the issue but he was unable to because he was in a consevatorship due to his mental state. The conservator was a lawyer who said that the statute of limitations had expired. That's what Brian was told, so that's the course he had to follow. But because of everything that went on with Murry and the selling of the catalogue, it could be considered fraud. So I was able to plead my case. In court my attorney would say something like, '“She's real fine, my 409”. Did Mike Love make that up?' And Brian would say, on the witness stand, 'That sounds like something Mike would do.' They'd bring him out of the courtroom and tell him, 'You're going to go bankrupt if you keep saying things like that!' In his own way, he was trying to rectify things, even though his attorney didn't want him to pay. He even told me he wanted to, on the phone and in person, before all this happened. But it was his attorney who forced me to go to court to resolve the issue. I certainly don't have any animosity or hard feelings towards Brian, especially understanding his state of mind at the time. But he knows what I wrote and so do I.”
Love reserves most of his current animosity for the other living original Beach Boy, Al Jardine, who he alleges tried to orchestrate a Beach Boys symphonic tour with Peter Cetera and Brian – but without Mike – the week Carl Wilson died from lung cancer in 1998. There's a snide quality in his voice but still no real sense of anger. “Carl was always the mediator in The Beach Boys, so his absence created a very big void. I didn't feel like continuing with Al after that, so that launched the whole thing where Al went off and did his own thing and I did mine with Bruce. It definitely created a schism which has lasted to this day. Alan has repeatedly brought lawsuits against Brother Records. But we've been successful at defending ourselves and so his antagonistic approach hasn't gotten him anywhere.”
He claims to have no ill will towards Van Dyke Parks (“He's brilliant! He's a genius! He's cool! And he's fun!”); that there were no signs of mental illness in Brian when they were young (“He was shy and sensitive and very introverted-- a little bit awkward – but fun ! We used to make each other laugh so hard, we literally had to hold our sides!”) and even takes a revisionist view of Brian's controversial therapist, Eugene Landy: “He engendered such animosity that man. He was very tough and egregious and scandalously expensive with Brian's money. But I have to give credit for saving Brian's life. Brian's alive, and a lot of people doubted that he would be had there not been that second intervention with Gene Landy. He was the only guy we knew who could handle Brian because Brian was a monumental case. It's a miracle that he's still alive – but it's great he's alive because inside inside all that facade and superficial patterns of behaviour is lurking a Promethean giant of music. The conditions and people around him just have to be right to hit a home run.”
That said, Mike Love claims to not follow Brian's solo career closely. “I know that's where Brian's artistic direction has gone, but that's about all I know. I do have a theory, though. I think Brian was most successful when he co-authored songs with his cousin Mike. And when he's done other things, he hasn't been as commercially successful. It's debatable from there whether he's been creatively successful, because that's totally subjective, according to the taste of the listener. His strengths, musically, are great. But I have a little bit more of an ability to verbalise moods, feelings and thoughts in a way that compliments the music, but never loses sight of the fact that, hopefully, somebody's going to listen to it. As far as commerciality is concerned, when I collaborated with Brian, that's when the most commercially successful music resulted.”
If Brian is better with Mike and the reverse is also true, one wonders why fans would like to see the Wilson-less Beach Boys as they prepare for this tour of England. “The songs they hear are the pillars of The Beach Boys success, and they'll be performed by the original lead singer – on many of the songs, anyway. And we take very great care to replicate those songs in a manner that's true and does them justice. If you see The Beach Boys in concert and close your eyes when we sing California Girls, it'll sound like 1965 all over again. Or when I sing 'I'm picking up good vibrations,' it'll sound like 1966. Or I Get Around or Fun,Fun,Fun all those great songs. That's why people come to The Beach Boys shows. Not because of who did hwat to whom or what was done or wasn't done. They come to hear those songs, because the songs are classics.”
So what to think after spending an hour in the presence of Mike Love? Well, I walked in with a lot of pent-up ill will and walked out... well, U can't say I disliked the man. Listening back to the tapes, it's apparent that he sometimes said nothing of real relevance and a lot of what he said certainly doesn't jibe with what rock history has told us over the years. And then there's the fact that it's just sometimes hard to reconcile flesh-and-blood reality with a legend. I met Phil Spector five months before the shooting; he was charming and friendly enough for me to walk away thinking that perhaps those allegations were exaggerated. I had friends tell me the exact same thing about Don Arden and Allen Klein.
He sincerely believes he's performing a service by keeping The Beach Boys brand alive. And he repeatedly emphasised one point on which we can all agree: Those songs – including the ones he sang and co-wrote – are classics indeed. Long may they live.