Beach Boys' Mike Love Talks Brian Wilson, Lawsuits, and if He's Really the Biggest Asshole in Rock

It can be easy to forget how great the Beach Boys were. People remember the fun-loving surfer sound, and they remember the album “Pet Sounds.” But when discussing the greatest bands of all time, it is the rare person who will toss the Beach Boys name in alongside acts like The Who and the Rolling Stones. Not because they do not belong on the list (they do), but because something about their legacy has not seemed to endure in the same way as the other great bands have.

At some point — most people point to 1967 — the Beach Boys officially stopped being relevant, and that seemed to have sapped the strength from its previous work as well. Now, despite the fact that there has never actually been a time since 1961 when the Beach Boys have not existed in some form or another, people tend to think of them as exclusively a ’60s act.

Through most of the band’s success, the Beach Boys heart and passion sprang from the minds of Brian Wilson and Mike Love. The rest of the original lineup — Carl and Dennis Wilson and Al Jardine — rounded the sound out and made it sing, but Wilson and Love were the men who made it all real. Throughout the ’60s, their relationship was often strained and sometimes bordered on adversarial, but when the two men found themselves in the right zone together, magic could happen.

Most of the band’s biggest surfer-era hits were made as big as they were thanks to the potent combination of Wilson’s pen and Love’s now-iconic vocal style. But just as often, the group’s best early work can be found in Wilson and Love’s written collaborations, like 1964’s “Warmth of the Sun,” off the “Shut Down Volume 2” album.

Written on Nov. 21, 1963, Wilson and Love completed the song just hours before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“Brian had just moved out of his family home because things were pretty rough with his dad,” Love recalled during a phone interview. “I went over to visit with him for a songwriting session. It was all mattresses on the floor and no furniture. Really basic stuff, because he had just moved in. But he had a keyboard, and he began playing this song that he’d been working on.

“It was probably midnight or 1 a.m. It was this beautiful, mystical melody. I took out my paper and started to write a poem that resonated with not only the melody but the mood of the song. It was so melancholy that it caused me to think of a situation that I’d experienced where I’d gone to Hawaii and met this girl. I thought that there was something there, but she wrote me a letter and said she didn’t feel the same way. That’s happened to a million people all over the place since time began.”

“The Warmth of the Sun” has all the hallmarks of the Beach Boys early sound, with Carl Wilson’s beach-rock styled guitar and the band’s trademark lush vocals. But it was the song’s sensitive lyrics along with Wilson’s then-unprecedented C to A-minor to E-flat chord transitions that combined to make the song one of the greatest ballads in the Beach Boys catalog.

“Brian can get into a really melancholy mood and write from that,” Love said. “But I was always looking for a silver lining. So, yes, that love affair ended before it began. But on the other hand, at least you had felt that type of love that comes with it. That’s the warmth of the sun.”

As time goes by

This is a bittersweet decade for the Beach Boys. Starting in December of 2011 and continuing through this day, the group has been celebrating a steady string of 50th anniversaries. In 2012, the band’s surviving founding members (Dennis and Carl Wilson died in 1983 and 1998, respectively) reunited for a reunion tour. That year was also the 50th anniversary of the “Surfin’ Safari” album. The year 2013 was a banner one, as there were similar celebrations for the “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Surfer Girl” and “Little Deuce Coupe” albums.

“It’s really weird, thinking of it on those terms,” Love admitted. “There was a little girl I met in Kentucky; she was 10 years old. I asked her what her favorite Beach Boys song was, and without hesitation she said, ‘409.’ That song came out 40 years before she was born!

“Time is so fleeting and ephemeral. How can you pinpoint it? One minute you’re in kindergarten, and the next you’re in assisted living. It’s weird to be thinking about a 50-year celebration for ‘California Girls’ or ‘Fun, Fun, Fun.’ But people love anniversary celebrations and identify with them. So we figure, why not?”

But these anniversaries also throw the band’s current state into unavoidable contrast. The Beach Boys, as they are currently constructed, consist of exactly one founding member: Love. Bruce Johnston has been retroactively listed as a founding member on the band’s official website and Facebook page but did not join the group until the “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)” album in 1965. The rest of the touring members of the band — Christian Love, Randell Kirsch, Tim Bonhomme, John Cowsill and Scott Totten — have never appeared on a Beach Boys album. Meanwhile, Brian Wilson and Jardine (along with David Marks, who joined the band in 1962 and appeared on those seminal first four albums) occasionally tour together as “Brian Wilson and Friends,” legally forbidden from using the Beach Boys name in any way, which has helped cement Love’s reputation as one of rock and roll’s biggest villains.

Getting the credit

There’s so much false stuff said about me. It’s a bunch of made-up garbage.

Love feels wronged. Meet him at a show or talk to him at a public event, and you will see a man who is endlessly upbeat and highly charismatic. Love likes people, and people like him.

But talk to him for any length of time about the Beach Boys, and you start to see under the positive vibes and happy exterior. He is a man who feels like he has never gotten his fair due. What makes the issue so complex is that he is not entirely wrong. But in his desire to see the record set straight, Love has handled some things very poorly, and his personal reputation has suffered for it. That is part of the reason why he finally sat down and wrote an autobiography, “Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy,” due out later this year.

“There’s so much false stuff said about me,” he said. “It’s a bunch of made-up garbage. They say I didn’t like ‘Pet Sounds.’ I never said that. But it’s out there, so I’ll let my book speak for itself. I realize the way things are with social media. There are people who, that’s all they do is talk. Some people are just haters, like Taylor Swift said.

“It doesn’t affect me, but it does affect my loved ones. I want to tell my story for my children and my wife. So I figured I should do it now while I’m still able to remember it.”

Much of that remembering centers around conflicts with Wilson and Love’s perception of himself as the protector of the Beach Boys legacy.

Protecting the name

In 1962, Wilson’s father, Murray Wilson, became the Beach Boys’ first manager. During the next seven years, he would remain the band’s publisher, retaining rights to the entire catalog and eventually selling those rights to A&M Records in 1969 for $700,000, angering all of the band’s members.

In 1990, Brian Wilson filed a federal lawsuit claiming fraud at the hands of his father and sued to regain the rights to his songs. The court ruled against reverting the song rights but awarded Wilson $25 million in damages, which included unpaid royalties. Before the ink was dry on that ruling, Love sued Wilson, claiming that he was never given his proper writer credit on 34 of the Beach Boys songs, including hits like “409,” “Be True to your School” and “I Get Around.” In each case, Love’s contribution to the song was relatively small — he claims the title hook in “I Get Around,” for example — but a judge found the claim substantive enough to award him $13 million of Wilson’s settlement.

He sued Wilson again in 1992, claiming defamation of character in Wilson’s 1991 ghost-written autobiography, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story,” and was awarded $1.5 million.

In 1998, Love was awarded an exclusive license to tour under the Beach Boys name, and it is a license that he takes very seriously. Love is a tireless worker, a man who, even at 75 years old, spends more than a third of the year touring the world, performing Beach Boys hits to thousands of people every night. He also views himself as the steward of the Beach Boys name and sound, and he has clearly vowed to protect both fiercely.

It was in the act of protecting that name and brand that he would go on to sue both Wilson and Jardine separately for using the Beach Boys name — Jardine in 2001 for touring as “Al Jardine of the Beach Boys,” and then Wilson in 2004 over the release of the long-delayed Beach Boys album “SmiLE.” Love won the injunction against Jardine, and the case against Wilson was thrown out.

When Wilson, Jardine, Marks, Johnston and Love famously reunited in 2012 for a 50th anniversary tour, Love announced before the last show was even played that he would be heading back out on the road with Johnston and his other replacement members, leaving Jardine and Wilson out once again.

For all of the above, Love says people are only looking at half of the story.

“I think that if you removed all the people surrounding Brian and Al, you’d hear something different,” he said. “Al and I have talked recently, and I think he has a fantastic voice. We both became teachers of transcendental meditation. I really admire the fact that he’s a great singer. Al and I enjoy a good rapport. So I wouldn’t believe everything you hear.”

In the case of the lawsuit for song royalties, Love claims that he and Wilson were unable to work out a deal privately, since Wilson’s affairs are held in a trust due to his mental status.

“Brian wanted to get something done, but he couldn’t,” Love said. “It wasn’t up to him. So the only way I could get things changed was through the courts. It was just the process.”

And as for the reunion tour, Love is equally blunt.

“The 50th anniversary tour was supposed to be 50 shows,” he said. “That was contractually agreed to by Brian Wilson and Mike Love. Then we actually did 23 more. That tells me that somebody wasn’t opposed to doing a reunion.”

For the Beach Boys fans who are in the pro-Wilson camp — and they are legion — there is plenty of ammunition for the argument that Love is the biggest jerk in professional music. But there is the distinct possibility that Love’s biggest shortcoming is simply an almost complete lack of self-awareness.

Love said, after the initial contract was signed, he then booked appearances for his touring band a month out from when the reunion was supposed to end. But by extending the reunion tour four weeks, that window of down time disappeared, giving the impression that he was “firing” the founding members in exchange for his touring act. What seems to most outside observers to be an unfortunate situation that was handled with a complete lack of grace, Love sees as a simple fact of scheduling.

Love will tell you, and justifiably so, that the Beach Boys continued existence is due to him. Wilson and Jardine have openly lamented that they are not a part of the current Beach Boys lineup. But there have been times in the past when neither of them wanted anything to do with Love. Love has been on the road with the Beach Boys current incarnation for 13 years now, and while the touring lineup has recorded no albums together, it is abundantly clear that nobody is buying a ticket to hear new stuff, especially when there is an entire catalog of magical, paradigm-shifting ’60s work to draw from.

But for his part, Love does not let much of the criticism in.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “I know what type of person I am. I’ve been in support of Brian and Al all these years. Our touring makes money for those guys.”

He has heard all the bad names and rumors for far too long and has grown immune to their venom — or he has grown so bitter over decades of perceived slights and wrongs that he has become blind to his own delusion of grandeur. Which statement you choose to believe will depend on how deep your Beach Boys fandom runs.

Still, for all of the fighting and all of the posturing on both sides, it can be difficult not to view Love and Wilson both as tragic figures. Wilson’s issues with mental health and substance abuse are well documented and easy to see. But for Love, the tragedy comes in looking at what might have been.

After the single “Good Vibrations” hit No. 1 in 1966, the Beach Boys would not top the charts again for 22 years until the Love-penned “Kokomo” did so in 1988. And one could easily argue that if it were not for the rampant popularity of the “Cocktail” movie soundtrack (on which “Kokomo” was featured), the Beach Boys would still be waiting. To this day, “Kokomo” remains the only Beach Boys Billboard charting single not written or produced by Wilson.

Love says the lawsuits for royalties were not about the money. What Love really wanted was his contribution to be recognized. He wanted the credit. Love sees his collaboration with Wilson as an American version of McCartney/Lennon. When Love and Wilson put their heads together, he says, magic happened. Like “Warmth of the Sun.”

“Brian and I are first cousins. We grew up together,” Love said. “We go back to childhood. When we would sit down and write a song together. We had similar musical influences. He’s one of the greatest ever at chord progressions and melodies.

“His issues are well documented, and it’s a personal tragedy to me. But even with that, I went to his house in 1968 and got him literally out of bed. We went for a walk in the sand, went home and wrote ‘Do It Again,’ which went to No. 1 in Europe. We wrote that song in about 20 minutes.”

The cold, hard fact of the matter is that Wilson is a far greater musical talent than Love. But it is also every bit as true to say that Love is a far better businessman, a more capable worker, and is single-handedly responsible for the Beach Boys continuing to be a touring juggernaut for the past two decades.

Wilson and Love are both in their ’70s now, and the days of them having anything culturally relevant to say are long past. Nobody is clamoring for new Beach Boys material, but they are lining up in droves to hear “Surfin’ U.S.A” and “God Only Knows.” And you can choose to dislike him all you want, but when people think of Beach Boys songs in their heads, more often than not it is Love’s voice they hear.

Love says he and Wilson have no ill feelings toward one another. Talk to Love for more than a couple minutes, and it becomes increasingly difficult to dislike him. He is affable and positive.

And despite all the years, the lawsuits, the trouble in the past and the forthcoming autobiography that has “tell all” practically written across the cover in big, red letters, Love still firmly believes that he and Brian Wilson could still find a little magic.

“I went over to his house in ’75 and said, ‘Let’s do rock and roll music.’ And we did some really great work,” he said. “If Brian and I went to a piano this afternoon, he would sit at those keys, and I would have my concepts, and you never know. Great things might happen.”

article originally ran in Cityview May 11, 2016