Mike Love is still having fun, fun, fun

Despite dispute with others in band, original Beach Boy keeps music alive

April 28, 2003|By Charles Passy | Charles Passy,COX NEWS SERVICE

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Before you get far into a conversation with Mike Love, the much-maligned founding member of the Beach Boys, he wants to make one thing perfectly clear.

He's not Brian Wilson.

Wilson, not Love, is the singer, songwriter and production genius who's credited with being the "soul" of the surf-loving Southern California group, which transformed itself into an art-rock ensemble on the heralded Pet Sounds album.

But Love, the Wilson cousin who sang that unmistakable nasally lead and contributed lyrics to such timeless songs as "Surfin' Safari," "Fun, Fun, Fun," "California Girls" and "Good Vibrations," wasn't exactly hiding in the background.

Like his former bandmates - Wilson brothers Dennis and Carl and family friend Al Jardine - he was there from the beginning in the Wilson home in Hawthorne, Calif., shaping the sound of endless summer.

"They've written some stuff that's disparaging about me, that I didn't like the Pet Sounds album," he says of his critics. "Not true at all. In fact, I went with Brian to Capitol Records to present the album."

And he makes the same point when discussing "Good Vibrations," the song that, with its trippy vibe and myriad layers of sound, is considered a hallmark of rock and pop's classic era. "It was a brilliant concept," he says, before noting, "I worked with him [Brian] on the chorus: `I'm picking up good vibrations, she's giving me excitations.' It's something more subtle than surfing, cars and girls."

In other words, Love wants you to know he gets it. He understands the Beach Boys in all their glory, from the silly to the psychedelic.

Ultimately, however, it's the fun-loving side of the band that Love celebrates when he brings the group on tour.

"Everyone identifies the Beach Boys with the sounds of summer," Love says. "If you're doing "Fun, Fun, Fun" or "Surfin' U.S.A." or "I Get Around," the audiences really respond vociferously."

Of course, critics still have their gripes. Salon magazine calls the band's current configuration "a sham nostalgia act," particularly because Love is the only original member left. (Longtime, nonfounding member Bruce Johnston is also on board, along with a handful of backup musicians.)

Brian Wilson, whose drug addictions and battles with mental illness have been well-chronicled, is now a solo artist. Brothers Dennis and Carl have died. And while Jardine is still around, he's fronting his own Beach Boys-style group.

That leaves Love to carry the torch of semi-authenticity. And now that the Beach Boys seem primed for another wave of adulation - this summer, Capitol will release a 30-song retrospective, similar to the greatest-hits packages that have put the Beatles and Elvis Presley back in the spotlight - it's perhaps time that Love got his share of recognition.

The problem, however, is twofold. For starters, Love is still perceived as the lightweight, pop-loving counterpart to Brian Wilson, the tortured artistic genius. "He suffers from an extreme case of the Paul McCartney syndrome," says Glenn Gass, a rock historian who teaches at Indiana University.

And while Gass is happy to give credit where credit is due, saying "It's true [Love] provided many of the lyrics and a lot of the sensibilities of the subject matter," he also notes "the lyrics are sometimes the problem" in terms of their startling lack of depth.

But it goes beyond a songwriting issue. For much of the past couple of decades, anything concerning the Beach Boys' original lineup - and their output - has involved a legal dispute.

Love waged a successful battle against Brian to have his name listed as a collaborator on several songs, thereby guaranteeing himself a cut of the publishing royalties. And he's still fighting in court with Jardine over his touring ensemble, saying Jardine can't use "Beach Boys" in the name.

For Jardine, the move represents "a total squeeze-out."

"Basically, you can call it what it is - greed and avarice, pure and simple. That's a big treasure chest he's sitting on," he says, speaking by phone from his home in California.

But what really bothers Jardine is that Love keeps fronting a group he calls the Beach Boys, but that has only the thinnest connections to the original lineup.

"You have to distinguish between the band [as it stands today] and the recordings," Jardine says.

And what about the current roster? "Well, you probably won't recognize anybody," Jardine adds.

It's a point that Gass, the rock historian, also picks up on.

"What he [Love] is doing to the band's legacy is a whole other matter," he says of the current touring version. "It would be like Paul McCartney going out there and calling it the Beatles. It would be appalling."

Such comments haven't deterred Love, who seems proud of his role as the guy who kept the group together - in whatever form. He sees a connection between the band's past and present, noting, for example, that drummer Mike Kowalski has been with the ensemble for more than 30 years.

Love also notes that for all of Brian's contributions in the '60s, both the surf-minded and the serious, the band has largely existed without him - on stage and, in some cases, creatively - for most of its four-decade history. Consider that the group's last hit, "Kokomo," had nothing to do with Brian.

"Other people were able to come out from under Brian's shadow," he says. "My cousin Carl did that song "The Trader." Al Jardine did some things. Bruce [Johnston] did some things. And I was there all along, doing whatever."

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