Skip to main content

Show the (Mike) Love!

Beach Boys icon Mike Love speaks about his autobiography, and many of the highs and lows along the way to superstardom.
Mike Love 2016. Photo by Udo Spreitzenbarth.

Mike Love 2016. Photo by Udo Spreitzenbarth.

By Ken Sharp

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 frontman/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 villianized 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 book 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 evocatively rendered in the 422-page tome; 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.

GOLDMINE: 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 I 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, whereas a lot of commentary has been written by people who weren’t there. 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.

GM: What were the most difficult and darker aspects of the group’s history to go back and revisit?

ML: 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.

GM: What’s the source of your ambition and strong work ethic?

ML: Well, my grandfather Love came from rural Louisiana where he hauled 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 5:30 in the morning and leaving the house by 6 a.m. and going down to work at the Love sheet metal factory that my grandfather, my uncle and father worked at and ran.

GM: And the source of your ambition?

ML: 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.

GM: But The Beach Boys have been able to tread that fine line of artistry and commerce, which is a tricky feat to pull off.

ML: 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 strengths 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 ages are singing along (laughs).

GM: 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?

ML: 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 (singing) “I’m picking up good vibrations, she’s giving meexcitations” for the chorus, but I had not written the lyrics.

GM: 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?

ML: 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 that 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.

GM: Conversely, how has it helped you being “the switchblade and the butterfly?”

ML: Well, on the other hand, I first heard the term “do you in” in high school when some of the African American 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.

GM: You cite your aunt Audree, Brian Wilson’s mother, as the primary source of his talents.

ML: 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. Ironically, Audree was extremely gifted. 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.

GM: You mention “Surfin’ U.S.A” being one of your strongest vocals. What are other songs, well known and lesser known, that you feel you delivered a high-quality vocal?

ML: 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.”

GM: I like your vocal on “Airplane,” too.

ML: Oh thank you. That’s sort of that dream state of vocals that I occasionally do.

GM: The Beach Boys were slated to play the Monterey Pop Festival. What led to the band turning it down? Would it have helped the band to have played that festival and be considered more hip at that stage in your career?

ML: 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 dysfunctionality 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,” if that’s not an avant-garde song in 1966 I don’t know what is (laughs).

GM: It still is.

ML: 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 No. 1, in fact. We were voted the No. 1 group in Great Britain, and No. 2 being The Beatles, on the strength of “Good Vibrations” in 1966.

GM: It’s well known you had issues with Dennis Wilson through the years, you bit him in a fight in the ‘60s?

ML: 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). 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).”

GM: But you were also very close at the time, too, even sharing an apartment together in the early ‘60s. Looking back with love, what were the things you loved most about Dennis?

ML: 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.

GM: 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 mediation.

ML: 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 gives 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 mediation 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.

GM: There was talk you told him that had he toured behind his solo album, he would have been thrown out of the band. But in your book, you state that rumor is not true.

ML: 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 bullsh*t (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.

GM: You worked with Dennis on his solo album, “Pacific Ocean Blue,” penning the lyrics for the title track.

ML: 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. (Dennis) also had aspirations to be in the movies and he appeared in the film, “Two-Lane Blacktop.”

GM: What’s the back story behind the song, “Happy Birthday Mike Love”?

ML: I was in India studying with the Maharishi and The Beatles were there as well. It was my birthday, March 15, 1968. George Harrison had his birthday on February 25 and there were fireworks and music. It was a really fun thing. Maharishi being the ultimate host created a party for my birthday and Donovan and John (Lennon), Paul (McCartney) and George Harrison — Ringo had left to go back to England. So John, Paul and George along with Donovan created this song called “Happy Birthday Michael Love.” It was called “The Spiritual Regeneration Movement Foundation” and it was kind of written with a Beach Boys “Fun, Fun, Fun” template (laughs). At the end of it, you can hear them say (sings) “Happy birthday, Michael Love, happy birthday, Michael Love.” It was really great. It was an amazing honor and a wonderful thing and it just showed the atmosphere there at the time and how much love was in the air.

GM: Keith Moon was a huge fan of surf music and The Beach Boys in particular. So much so that had the band asked him to join, he would have left The Who. Do you have any special memories/stories that involve Keith?

ML: Keith Moon actually wrote us a letter saying he wanted to be the drummer for The Beach Boys. Of course, we had a drummer, Dennis Wilson, so that didn’t work out. He was another wild man but he was great and you’re right, he loved The Beach Boys. So for Keith to write us that letter was pretty amazing.

GM: Your speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in January 1988 was bizarre. What was the intent behind the speech and do you regret it?

ML: I was bummed because Paul McCartney didn’t show up because he was having issues with Yoko and that’s messed up, and Diana Ross didn’t show up for The Supremes induction even though Berry Gordy was getting inducted as well. Diana didn’t show up because Mary Wilson was there. I mean, c’mon! That’s not cool. But the fundamental thing is I always thought the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame stands for chronology. You know, the time you recorded and how long you recorded. But the combined talents of all the people in that room could actually do something fantastic for the world if people got it together instead. But everybody that was in charge of dividing these groups, whether they be managers or agents or record companies and definitely attorneys, were all there. The thing is, my premise, which I was not allowed to say, is that it would be nice if the combined music industry could stand for something more than just chronology. So did I go about it the right way? Probably not (laughs). It was a bit of the “switchblade” that night ... (laughs).

GM: Onstage, you called Mick Jagger chicken sh*t to get onstage with The Beach Boys. You ran into Mick later that night. What did you say to each other?

ML: Well, it’s funny. He threw one of my tuxedo shoes off the stage during the jam session and I threw one of his off and we were acting like idiots and juveniles (laughs). So I told him, “The reason I said some of that stuff onstage is if we ever fight by satellite, it’ll be worth a lot of money,” and he laughed and said, “That’s good, that’s good.” (laughs)

GM: Can you explain why you often get cast as a villain in The Beach Boys story?

ML: Well, there are a couple of reasons. For instance, I wrote all the words to “Surfin’ U.S.A” and there’s a myth that I didn’t ... that the words were written by someone else. But that’s not true. I wrote all the words and I consciously crafted it to be different than Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” although it is derivative because of the structure of the song and the way it goes. But see the thing is, I wasn’t given credit by my uncle Murry nor Brian. And the sad part of it is Brian could have rectified that when Murry died. Or that omission of credits on “California Girls” or “Help Me, Rhonda” or “I Get Around,” some big hits and it could have been rectified. The only recourse I had was to go to court and that’s a drag because we’re talking about family. Growing up I didn’t think, oh, how can I screw my cousin or my uncle? But it happens. And it happened and it was terrible so that’s not a fun thing to go over but that’s exactly what happened.

GM: Is that part of why you think you’ve been villainized, suing your cousin and bandmate, Brian Wilson?

ML: Yes, that’s part of it. Here’s the thing: “Help Me, Rhonda” and “I Get Around” and “Be True To Your School” and “Surfin’ U.S.A” came out and they were credited just to Brian Wilson. There are many songs that I co-authored with my cousin that I was not credited on so then you find that people form a perception of you based on the facts they know. Well, the fact is I did write those songs but I wasn’t credited. So that’s not an accurate presentation and portrayal of how these songs came to be. I’m not taking credit for Brian’s brilliant arrangements and production or anything like that, and I’m not saying I could have done it on my own. I’m saying that there was not an accurate picture of who did what when it came to the creation of these songs, so as far as anybody knew I didn’t play a very important role in creation of many many hit songs. I think out of like say 10 of Top 10 hit songs that The Beach Boys had, I probably sang and wrote nine of them with cousin Brian (laughs).

GM: So suing Brian colored people’s perception of you as a “villain?”

ML: Yeah, it didn’t present the reality. It presented something different than the actuality of how those songs came to be. So that’s no fun to talk about but that’s what happened. But in this book, I just say it from my point of view, what my experience was. And the only time it got recognized was going to court to establish my authorship. That was done because in part of Brian’s incompetence because he was in a conservatorship. Now he called me and asked if we could get together and rectify those wrong doings but he was unable to because he was in a conservatorship. That means all his major life decisions weren’t his to make. They were made by an attorney. Forget ethics (laughs), that goes out the window real fast around a court room. Instead of rectifying it they thought there was statute of limitations where if I had a claim I should have come with it in a couple of years. Well, it was my family; it was my uncle and my cousin. My cousin I grew up with signing Everly Brothers songs and Four Freshmen songs and doo-wop. I never in a million years thought I would have to go to court to establish my authorship with somebody I had grew up with like that. And your uncle … you don’t think that your uncle is gonna screw you but he did and I wasn’t the only one. Brian, Dennis and Carl got the same treatment because he sold the Sea of Tunes publishing. There was another issue there. There was an attorney involved that represented The Beach Boys and he also represented the people who bought the publishing. So those two things, Brian’s incompetence and the duplicitous nature of the relationship with the attorney involved, that gave the opening to even be heard in court. The decision by the jury was overwhelmingly in my favor.

GM: Lastly, what were the circumstances behind your meeting Elvis Presley and later seeing him perform live?

ML: We were recording in the same recording studio as Elvis was. We were recording in Studio 3 at Western Recorders and he was in the bigger room. He was wearing the cape and we met him and spoke to him a little bit. He was talking about going back out on tour and asked us questions about it. He was just a really awesome gentleman, just a plain nice guy. Obviously one of the biggest stars ever in music. But we also went and saw him a couple of times at The Hilton in Las Vegas. We got to go backstage and meet with him. He was great in concert.

GM: Was Elvis aware of The Beach Boys?

ML: Oh yeah. Absolutely he was aware of The Beach Boys because being a recording artist and being so incredibly successful, you hear The Beatles, you hear The Beach Boys and you hear the other forms of music coming out. So absolutely, we were all aware of each other, that’s for sure. I mean, right now, these days we’ve done some concerts with The Temptations. We played to 7,000 people in Aurora, Illinois. The combined artistry of Motown is unbelievable. The Beach Boys and The Beatles get a lot of ink for being the big deal in the ‘60s, but what about Motown? If you think about all the combined artistry of those group on that label it’s astounding. In fact, on oldies radio, The Beatles and Beach Boys get about 20 plays a day, but Motown gets over twice that because they’ve got The Supremes and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and The Four Tops and The Temptations. GM