The Beach Boys
Surfer Blood
by Ron Wadlinger

It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Beach Boys are one of America’s most legendary rock bands. Formed in 1961 by brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine, the band brought the California rock sound to the American mainstream in the early ’60s and helped to make the rock album a true form of art during their friendly, transatlantic rivalry with The Beatles in the middle part of that decade. Beach Boys songs like “I Get Around,” “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations” remain as vibrant as they were nearly five decades ago, and their landmark LP Pet Sounds is almost universally hailed as one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

The band has also been through its share of tribulations. Brian Wilson has suffered through well-publicized mental health and substance abuse issues since his SMiLE project, the ambitious follow-up to Pet Sounds, disintegrated in 1967, and the band often found limited commercial success after Brian took a step back from his leadership position in the studio during the late ’60s and ’70s. The Beach Boys remained a successful live draw, but essentially became a nostalgia act after Dennis Wilson’s tragic death in 1983 and Brian’s nearly total withdrawal from the group. After Carl Wilson passed away from lung cancer in 1998, the band splintered, and litigation between the surviving members, as well as their advancing ages, led many fans to believe that a true Beach Boys reunion would never happen.

But as the band reached its 50th anniversary, Brian Wilson assembled the remaining Beach Boys in the studio, and it was announced that an album of new material would be released in 2012 accompanied by a world tour. The new record, That’s Why God Made the Radio, is largely a return to the original, fun-in-the-sun Beach Boys sound, with the band’s signature layered harmonies and shoreline-themed lyrics heavily featured. The most stunning moments of the album, however, appear near its end, on songs like “Strange World,” “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer’s Gone” in which the band takes a meditative and often wistful look back at life from its latter stages.

The reunited Beach Boys line-up—Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston (who joined the group in 1965 and contributed signature backup vocals to “California Girls” and “God Only Knows”) and David Marks (who came into the fold in 1962 when Jardine temporarily left to pursue dental school)—sounds fantastic in concert, performing a nearly two-hour set of both hits and lesser-known surprises from throughout the group’s career. I caught up with Jardine on the phone before the band’s tour stop at Blossom Music Center in Northeastern Ohio to talk about the reunion, his solo work, and his thoughts on both The Beach Boys and the music world over the past 50 years.

How has the tour been going?

Al Jardine: Extraordinarily well. The album just entered the Billboard charts at number three, I think. Everybody’s really digging the new music.

What have been the highlights of the tour for you?

AJ: The highlight is being around the piano like we used to when we started. We open the second set by gathering around the grand piano and sing a song called “Add Some Music to Your Day.” It’s a great moment. We make eye contact, and we’re really singing to one another, as well as the audience.

Over the years, you’ve been one of rock’s quintessential families. Like any family, you’ve had your differences over the years. Was it tough to get everybody back together on the same page?

AJ: Well, yeah. I was trumpeting the idea probably a year before it happened, maybe two years, and kept telling the fans it was going to happen. If you say something enough, it becomes true. So I just kept the ball rolling, pretty much, and the guys started to feel the pressure—good pressure, because the fans were hoping for one last gasp. In fact, it looks like there’s more than a gasp left in us, because we’re selling out everywhere, and the record’s doing so well, I imagine we’ll continue to work together for quite some time. It’s remarkable.

Speaking of the new record, can you describe the role you played in putting it together?

AJ: I didn’t play very much of a role, as a writer. I sang quite a few things on it, which was a great experience. I came in towards the end of the project and put my parts in wherever needed. Brian had it all pretty much figured out where he wanted me to sing, pretty much the old formula. So we all did our part. It was like riding a bike: you just get on and go. But I have my own album out right now, called A Postcard from California, and Brian and The Beach Boys put their immense talent on that when we recorded it a couple of years ago. That helped get things going a little bit too. It’s been kind of a nexus of events that have brought us together again.

You mentioned A Postcard from California, which is a pretty interesting record itself. What was the genesis of that album?

AJ: It starts with The Beach Boys. The single off the album, “Don’t Fight the Sea,” is a testament to the ongoing relationship we all have with one another. I figure we’re partners for life, in spite of the differences and all the things you hear about us. There’s a great love for each other that underlies all of this. Brothers fight, and families have arguments, but we all have made up and have contributed to each other’s projects, which is nice, and Postcard is a good example of that.

It’s kind of a story about family—my family, and Brian’s and Mike’s—moving out west and discovering California for the very first time, which the title song encapsulates, with Glen Campbell doing his classic “Rhinestone” effect, which I really dig. I really love his inflections. I got very lucky. I got Glen on there and The Beach Boys, and I got America, Steve Miller, Flea, and a host of others I can’t even remember. And Alec Baldwin, he’s my voice of God on there. He’s incredible.

He’s pretty great.

AJ: What a wonderful little piece of tidepool interlude, a little section that leads into the other stuff, little more environmentally conscious things. With the artists and the engineers, I got lucky at every stage. Not to mention Neil Young, David Crosby, for God’s sake, Stephen Stills—holy crap!

Yeah, it’s pretty much an all-star line-up.

AJ: They’re hard to find. These guys are hard to locate. You have to be really motivated to get people of this stature on your recordings because they’re always working. They’ve got their own lives to live and they’re on tour all the time. It’s amazing.

There’s a version of “Sloop John B” on your album that has dramatically different lyrics than what we’re all used to. Are those from an earlier version of the song or are they ones you’ve contributed yourself?

AJ: It’s from a children’s book I put together about five years ago that went out of print, so I thought it would be kind of cute to have as a bonus track. I don’t know, it’s one of those things where you have to put the lyrics to 32 pages of artwork, because the publishers require that, so it basically goes on for about 34 pages too long. That’s why it starts and stops, and starts and stops, because you’re flipping the pages of the book.

You’re credited with introducing folk elements to The Beach Boys’ music. Do you feel that The Beach Boys are a part the American folk tradition?

AJ: Yeah, I think we are. We’re now in the lexicon of folk music, I mean in the later sense. One hundred years from now, it will be considered the music of the people, like folk music to us is from 100 years ago. It’s stories and poems about the way life really is, or was, or should’ve been, like little pocket symphonies. I like to think about them as stories about surfers, cars, girls, places, things—you know, the 20th century.

The California experience is a frequent theme in your songwriting. How does the California of today compare to the California of the early ’60s, when The Beach Boys were starting out?

AJ: I wish it was the California of the ’30s. I wish California could be the California of the ’20s or the ’10s, or whatever. But for me, it’s really about being in your own head, being what you want it to be. I think we all romanticize California to the point where it’s impossible to get your mind around it. It’s probably still there, you know, you just have to find it in your own way. If you’re a surfer, it’s definitely still heaven. It’s paradise for surfers. If you want clean air, it’s not bad either. The air’s cleaned up pretty good. Traffic’s a mess, but traffic everywhere is a problem, with freeways and stuff.

But for the most part it’s still there. It’s just a matter of you have to be willing to go out and find it and deal with it on today’s terms. It’s a hell of a place. The Golden Gate bridge hasn’t changed a bit since I discovered it myself. San Francisco is still a great city. There’s so many good things about it. You can find lots of things to grumble about, but it really is an amazing state.

What are the major changes you’ve seen in pop and rock music during your career?

AJ: I’ve seen eras come and go. I’ve got a guest coming to the show tonight, the drummer from Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Eagles, Joe Vitale. He was one of the great drummers of the ’70s, and now that era’s kind of come and gone, but suddenly we have The Beach Boys again. I think what goes around comes around. If it’s good, it will be good forever. It’s going to be temporarily out of fashion, but if you have integrity—and people like Joe will always have a place to play and a band to produce—if you have great music and great songs, which are key to the whole thing, it will always find its way to the top.

“Help Me Rhonda” is probably your most famous lead vocal for The Beach Boys. Do you have any particular memories of recording that song?

AJ: Yeah, we recorded it twice. First time, it was more of a laidback kind of slow shuffle. It really didn’t have much energy. It was more like a first try, you might say. Sometimes you try something out and it doesn’t work. We got a phone call from Terry Melcher, producer of “Kokomo” and a lot of Byrds songs. He did a lot of productions at Columbia, and he asked Brian and the guys if we would mind if he recorded “Rhonda,” because he had heard it on an album and thought it would be a hit. And Brian said, “Hey, if you don’t mind, we’d like to try it again in a different way, try a different style.” He said sure, and sure enough, we came up with a better formula. It’s still the best song in the concert practically. It’s when people get up and start rocking out, and they really start moving. It’s all the way home from there. It’s a good one.

With those songs, did you ever expect that you’d be performing them 40, 50 years later?

AJ: Hell, no! By now I thought I’d be a dentist. No, actually I never thought I’d be a dentist. I was just doing that to please my parents. But I thought I’d be doing anything but this 50 years from then. You can’t think in those terms when you’re that age. It’s impossible to think even 10 years ahead when you’re 19. “When I Grow Up to Be a Man,” we do that in concert. I told Mike onstage last night, “You know, the numbers don’t even come up high enough.” I think we end up around 35 or something at the end of the song, chanting out the years. There aren’t high enough numbers in that song to match our age now.

Can you tell me about the background of the song “All This Is That,” an overlooked song from the lesser-known Carl and the Passions album from the ’70s, and how it got added to the set for this tour?

AJ: That’s a good question. It’s really at Mike’s insistence. He’s been doing it with his band, and it’s in the set now. The audience really likes it. It’s a beautiful chant, pretty deep subject matter. I discovered that when I was at Maharishi’s lectures years ago. I thought, “Geez, that’s an interesting saying. That’s deep: ‘I am that. Thou art that . All this is that.’” I’m going, “Geez, that sounds like a chant, if I’ve ever heard one, for a singing part.” So I put that together for the guys.

How many songs are in your repertoire right now?

AJ: About 42 to 45. We do a slightly different show every night. If there’s a real serious overtime, we don’t do as many.

You’re playing in Northeastern Ohio tonight. You were born in Lima, Ohio, and the Wilsons trace their lineage back to Ohio. Do you have any particular memories of your time there, and do you feel there’s any kind of cosmic connection between Ohio and California?

AJ: I love Ohio. I remember how beautiful it is when I’m here. Beautiful green lawns, and the air is so soft and so warm. I guess I’m partial to the trees. A lot of themes in my songs are about going home, and I think a lot of it has its roots here in Ohio. California’s climate is diverse, but dry for the most part. You tend to miss the greenery and the nice, soft air, because Coastal California is a pretty harsh place, with the winds and the sea air can be very cold. So yeah, there’s a warmth about Ohio. I didn’t know the Wilsons have roots in Ohio. They have roots in Kansas.

Yeah, I guess when the family originally settled in America, they settled in Ohio.

AJ: It makes sense. People take little steps on the way out west.

And there’s also the song “Back Home” off the 15 Big Ones album that mentions going back home to Ohio.

AJ: Oh yeah, I forgot about that. I’ll have to ask Brian about that one. I like that one. He wrote that. I think Dennis came back here for a summer, about 1963 or ’62 to spend time with an uncle or a friend, and I think maybe Dennis told Brian some stories about that trip. Maybe we’ll pull that out of the hat sometime.

So do you have any plans about what you’ll be doing after you’ve finished up with this tour?

AJ: No, none of us have a clue. We’re taking it a day at a time and seeing how things unfold. We have another album coming out after this, so I imagine it will probably take us into another level. Who knows? We’ll be going overseas very soon to promote the album. Right now we have plans probably through the end of the year, but that’s about it, so we’ll see.