The Ballad of Mike Love

A Beach Boy asks, "Why am I the villain?"

Mike Love bounds up the stairs inside his massive Lake Tahoe home (10 bedrooms in all, 12 bathrooms, two elevators, not to be believed) and into a large walk-in closet stuffed to overflowing with garish, multicolored shirts and a gazillion baseball caps, many of them emblazoned with the name of his band, the Beach Boys. A suitcase rests on the floor. Love nods at it, prods it with his foot. "A lot more shirts are in there," he says, "because, if you must know, I haven't unpacked."

And why should he unpack? For the past 54 years, he and various versions of the Beach Boys, which these days include only him as an original member, have toured almost constantly. On his current outing, he has 172 dates lined up, cramming 19 European shows into 22 days this past December, for instance, and shortly thereafter flying back stateside to give the 6,500 citizens of tiny Avon, Colorado, the chance to hear all about California girls. From there, it's onward, evermore, venues big and small, makes no difference to him. The man is 74. You'd think he'd want to mothball the Beach Boys caps and Hawaiian shirts he always wears onstage, maybe do something else with the years that remain. Not a chance.

"My cousin Brian loved the studio, but I like performing," he says. "I mean, I've probably sung 'Fun, Fun, Fun' live close to 6,000 times, and there are county fairs where we've broken the attendance records, playing to the biggest crowds they've ever had, 50- to 70-year-olds mostly, their children and their grandchildren. I love making music, and there's never been a time in my life when there wasn't music."

And the fans sure do get their money's worth, with more than 40 songs crammed into a typical two-hour show by the time "Fun, Fun, Fun" finally fades out, the soaring nasal twang of Love's bass-to-baritone range, so essential to the band's five-part-harmony stack, memorable and distinctive, leaving all the Dockers-wearing duffers buzzing happily, if not a little bittersweetly.

The Beach Boys: cars, girls and surfboards. Home movies on a backdrop. All the original members in a swimming pool, falling into and out of a life raft, laughing, fully dressed. Dennis Wilson, gone since 1983, drowned while drunk. Carl Wilson, cancer got him in 1998. Al Jardine, the band's Ringo, still kicking but quietly. Brian Wilson, 73 now, the group's musical genius, visionary, guiding light and the bearer of all those wonderful harmonies, a little wobbly in the mind since 1968, due to drug and alcohol problems and mental illness. Love, still going strong, looking fit and trim, just as he did back in the day, as always the entertaining cornball, joke-telling frontman, the souped-up, flamboyant counterpoint to his introverted cousin Brian, both entirely necessary to the band's enduring success.

At the same time, however, Love is considered one of the biggest assholes in the history of rock & roll. That's been the popular opinion of him for several decades. He just can't seem to shake it. There are "I Hate Mike Love" websites and a "Mike Love Is a Douchebag" group on Facebook. He's been called a clown, the Devil, an evil, egotistical prick, a greedy bully, sarcastic and mean-spirited, and, let's not forget, "if he were a fish, he'd be a plastic bag wrapped around the neck of a beautiful sea lion." Love is mostly able to laugh off this hateful venom, but on occasion he will break down, turn to his wife of 21 years, Jackie, and ask her, "What did I do? Why am I the villain? How did it get to this?"

According to his detractors, it all started in 1966, in a recording studio, with Love expressing his dislike for Brian's work on what became Pet Sounds, one of the greatest albums of all time. "Who's gonna hear this shit? The ears of a dog?" he is said to have said, though he strongly denies it. A year later, he supposedly so criticized the Smile project that Brian, that beautiful sea lion of a man, shelved it for 37 years. He has sued or threatened to sue Brian numerous times. Plus, in the 1970s, he used to wear gold-lamé bell-bottoms that were so tight that his (somewhat enviable) package seemed to have equal billing with everyone else. He made the insipid 1988 song "Kokomo," which Brian doesn't appear on and that has become the biggest-selling Beach Boys tune of all time, Love so proud of lyrics like "Aruba, Jamaica, ooh, I wanna take ya." He coughed up $5,000 in seed money so Tipper Gore could start her campaign to censor music. And then there's the baseball cap he wears everyplace he goes, onstage or not. It's universally despised. Even wife Jackie isn't a fan. ("When we go out on dates, I always ask, 'Can you leave the hat at home?'") Everybody knows he's bald. He should embrace it.

He's wearing one today. He steps out of the closet and plucks it off his head. He bends forward. "Yeah, well," he says. "You really don't want to blind oncoming traffic, OK?" And back on it goes.

So, he's got his reasons for the cap, as well as for most everything else, a good bit of which, he says, is just plain flat-out wrong. "The fable is that I'm such an asshole, but a lot of that stuff is skewed by the crazies," he says. "I never said half the shit that's attributed to me. I mean, I must be pretty prolific in asshole-type things to say, like, I get up in the morning thinking, 'I've got a job to do. How can I be a total jerk today?'" Later, he says, "I've become cannon fodder." He pauses and grins. He could pull back, or continue a serious discussion of how he has been pilloried and why it's so off-base, maybe even apologize for some of the things he's said. But such, apparently, is not his way. "It's o-pun season," he says, making a pun for pun's sake, with little regard for how it might sound to those around him.

The most important thing to know about Love is that he meditates twice a day, without fail, morning and night, and has done so for 49 years. He learned meditation from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi himself, in 1967, at which time he forswore pot, hash and hard liquor, his only real vices, while Brian and Dennis, in particular, continued lighting up their brains with the more drugs and booze, the better.

Today, Love is tooling around in his wife's Audi SUV, taking a right onto Tahoe's Lake Shore Drive, the lake itself shimmering off into the distance. He looks quite crisp, happy, prosperous and well put-together: wool trousers, striped pullover, his Van Dyke–type beard trimmed close. He talks in a friendly, easygoing way.

"When I learned to meditate," he says, "I said, 'Hallelujah. I can relax without all that stuff that fogs your mind up.' But everybody has their own path, makes their own choices. My addiction, if it's an addiction, is to meditation."

He has been up since seven this morning, already meditated and practiced yoga, eaten a vegetarian breakfast and spent time wondering how best to release his recent recording of a song he wrote in 1979 called "Alone on Christmas Day."

"It refers to the melancholy of feeling alone on Christmas Day," he says, "but I meant it sweet, in that you're never really alone. It fits a number of situations, whether it's a parent or a grandparent or somebody that you really cared for who is not there anymore."

Like Brian, Dennis, Carl and Al, one could say, but the point seems too obvious to make. So let's get back to meditation for a moment. Have there been periods where you haven't meditated?

"Oh, no, that would not be safe," he says, chuckling. "I need to meditate. Well, let's put it this way. It's not good for me to miss meditation. And not good for others, too."

One time he skipped was in 1988, on the night of the Beach Boys' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Come time to make a speech to the crowd, he started off by saying, "We love harmony, and we love all people, too," after which he hurled insults at Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Diana Ross and "chickenshit" Mick Jagger, while insinuating that he and the Beach Boys were bigger and better than any of them. He struck a grim-as-death, tight-lipped pose and was greeted with jeers and boos. At one point, he said, "I don't care what anybody in this room thinks," which was clear enough. He also said, "A lot of people are going to go out of this room thinking Mike Love is crazy," which was true too.

He scratches at his beard, recollecting this awful, reputation-cementing moment, and says just about the only thing he can say: "Well, I didn't get to the punchline."

Do you regret anything about that night?

"Yeah, I regret that I didn't meditate," he says. "It helps you deal with whatever you're dealing with. I meditate in order to cope with things."

And over the years, he's certainly had a lot to deal with. There's the time, he says, "when my then-wife, Suzanne, mother of two of my children — I'd flipped for her, she really rocked my world — had an affair with cousin Dennis. Out of all the women in the world, you would think ... "

What else? Has there been one thing, above all others, that's required meditation to cope with?

His blue eyes darken to gunmetal gray, and the bristles of his beard nearly stand up and quiver. "Yeah," he says. "The major one of those things is being cheated."

Ah, yes, that, of course. It goes way back to the start. Thanks to the Wilson brothers' father, Murry, who was an abusive, conniving piece of work, as well as the Beach Boys' first manager, Love's name didn't make it onto the publishing credits for many of the early hit songs. For instance, on "Wouldn't It Be Nice," Love says he was responsible for the ending couplet "Good night, baby/Sleep tight, baby," not an earthshaking contribution but significant nonetheless, as were the lines that he wrote for "409": "She's real fine, my 409" and "Giddy-up, giddy-up, 409." And so on, with many other songs, including "California Girls," "Help Me, Rhonda" and "I Get Around."

Brian apparently knew what his father was up to but was too scared of him to do anything about it (Brian Wilson declined to comment for this story). Even so, Love seems to blame both of them, although, on occasion, he does acknowledge how cowed Brian was by his dad. And it doesn't seem to have helped that in 1993, long after Murry's death, Love successfully sued Brian for back songwriting credits, got his name appended to some 35 of the songs, and was awarded at least $2 million in back royalties. The whole thing still pisses him off. And once he gets started on it, there's no stopping him.

He's in his house now. Waterfalls burbling, Chef Joaquin tending the stove, wife Jackie overseeing some interior redecorating, Pixie the little cat sleeping in the bed that Pumba the big dog should be sleeping in, and Love lost in the past.

"I wrote every last syllable of the words to 'California Girls,' and when the record came out, it said, 'Brian Wilson' — there was no 'Mike Love,'" he says. "The only thing I didn't write was 'I wish they all could be California girls.' 'Surfin' USA,' too, the big shaftola. Same thing with 'I Get Around.' I came up with 'Round, round, round, get around, I get around' and redid Brian's lyrics. And nowhere was my name mentioned on the record. Thank you, Brian. Thank you, Murry," he says with a laugh. "And, OK, so then what do I say? My only recourse was legal. But if I stick up for myself, Mike's an asshole. I mean, Brian wanted to settle, but he was in a conservatorship that wouldn't let him. I give him credit for that. But I was cheated and stolen from by my uncle and my cousin, and I don't think it's ever going to be resolved. I mean, how you gonna resolve it?"

In 2005, Love sued Brian once again, this time for "shamelessly misappropriat[ing] Mike Love's songs, likeness and the Beach Boys trademark" during the promotion of Brian's belatedly released Smile album, mainly because a tiny picture of Love with the Beach Boys found its way onto a promotional CD given out in a British newspaper. A judge dismissed all of the claims and said the copyright aspect "bordered on frivolous." But far from suing Brian at every opportunity, shouldn't Love, with all his years of meditation, have been the one to step forward and try to make peace?

He blinks at the question, rolls his eyes and curls his lip.

"When somebody in your family suffers from a mental illness, sometimes it's gone past the opportunity to have a normal relationship," he says. "I mean, there may be a feeling that, ideally, you would like to see peace in the family. And I have nothing but sympathy for Brian. But when you say 'peace,' that would presuppose everything is peaceful. Well, when somebody has chosen a path or direction in life that has led to some pretty unhappy situations, everything isn't all right."

And he's completely serious. It's out of his hands. There's nothing he can do. It's enough to make you bang your head against the statue of Shiva, the Indian god of destruction, that stands in his house, or turn upside down the framed photograph of him, George Harrison, John Lennon, Donovan and others hanging out with the Maharishi back in the day. Then again, in 1968, Love said, "One of the greatest things [about Transcendental Meditation] that interested me was that [the Maharishi] said, 'You don't have to give up your Rolls-Royce and forsake all your pursuits of material pleasures to develop inner-spiritual qualities.' That sounded real good to me." And maybe all the lawsuits could be considered part of those pursuits, too, and thus fully justifiable, at least on an inner-spiritual level.

In the main, he's a fun and engaging, slightly wackadoodle fellow. One day he's up in his home studio, playing "Alone on Christmas Day" and a few other songs, most of which he plans to put on a future album titled Mike Love Not War, and says, "I call it that because punditry never dies." Many other puns feature his last name — about one song, he says, "A lot of Love went into that one," and then says, "It's a name you can have lots of pun with." He signs his autographs "Love Mike Love." He doesn't care if you groan. He expects you to. He'll never stop.

On the other hand, one can only imagine how frustrating and difficult it was for him at times, having to deal with Brian when Brian was in the throes of his drug-and-alcohol-induced delusions, crazy stuff, such as thinking that songs of his created fires in downtown L.A. Or when Brian was in full-on, persnickety, dictator-of-the-mixing-board mode. Or when Brian decided that surfing songs were passé.

The 2015 movie Love & Mercy, made with the cooperation of Brian, shows much of this history. And while Love does not come off especially bad in it, he was, he says, denied an advance screening and told, "Oh, go pay to watch it in the theater." It's just another salvo in a conflict that seems without end. And he has no plans to see the movie. "I don't really need to see it," he says. "I've lived it."

The last time he actually played with Brian was during the 50th-anniversary tour, in 2012. The reunion ended badly, with Love going on to play dates with his version of the Beach Boys and Brian feeling like he'd been fired. "I'm disappointed and can't understand why he doesn't want to tour with Al, David and me," Brian said. "We are out there having so much fun. After all, we are the real Beach Boys."

Jackie says that during the tour, however, seeing Brian and her husband together again was really something else. "They're like two 16-year-old best friends," she says. "Once, Mike and I were giving Brian a ride during peak traffic in L.A., and they were like two boys out in Mom and Dad's car. Brian's like, 'Mike, so what are we gonna do?' and every few minutes, he'd say, 'Are we getting closer? Are we getting closer?' And Mike would say, 'Brian, look at the traffic. I can't go anywhere!' It's hysterical."

"Yeah," says Love. "I was very close to Brian growing up. We'd go to Wednesday-night youth meetings at the Presbyterian church and come home singing. We'd go outside and play the radio in his car, because my dad would throw us out of the house." He smiles at the memory, shaking his head. "So that was the kind of closeness we had as children, and then we wrote all these songs together."

The last job he had before becoming a Beach Boy was working in his dad's sheet-metal factory, cleaning dingleberries off welds, and pumping Standard gas at night. He was 19. He'd gotten his girlfriend pregnant, married her, lived with her in a tiny apartment, had no prospects, evidently felt no calling, thought about going into real estate. "What I might have done," he says, "is find run-down houses that need work, fix them up and resell them, but I didn't have a plan, per se." He grew up in Baldwin Hills, California, an L.A. suburb inland of the 405, but he spent a good bit of time nine miles away, in Hawthorne, hanging out with his music-obsessed cousin Brian and putting an early, fleeting interest in surfing to good use, offering up lyrics like "Surfin' is the only life, the only way for me/Now surf! Surf with me!"

In late 1961, the song "Surfin'" entered the Top 40 on local record charts, hitting a high of Number 75 on the national Billboard charts, jump-starting what became known as the California Sound and, in due course, leading to all the hits, confusion, interminable feuds and untimely deaths of the past 54 years. Since 1998, he's been the sole licensee of the Beach Boys name and the only one legally able to tour using it, although they all share in the tour profits. When Jardine once attempted to go out as Al Jardine of the Beach Boys, Love slapped him with a lawsuit and put an end to that. These days, when Jardine and Brian tour together, they tour under Brian's name, with no mention of the Beach Boys anywhere. ("They sound good," Love says. "Al has got a great voice, and his son Matt sings all my parts, but you know in the reviews they say he is singing Carl's part. It is bullshit — they are singing Brian's high falsetto on the original recordings. I don't know why people can't just be truthful and honest and own up to it.")

"Mike has his own vision of what the Beach Boys are, and he doesn't need us anymore," says Jardine. "It's like, 'Wow, that hurts.' I mean, he's obviously a terrific singer, and, oh, gosh, he's just so clever with lyrics, but his strength was his ties to Brian, who is, let's face it, the golden goose of all time. I think he really just wants to be back in the locker room at Dorsey High, being that guy who threw the most touchdowns — he has to have that recognition."

One reason is that many people, when they think of the Beach Boys, rarely think of him, at least not in a good way. It's all about Brian. "Everybody's kind of tried to dial Mike out and make Brian a deity," says Bruce Johnston, who has played with the Beach Boys since 1965 and is still playing with the band today. "I mean, you get so swept away by Brian's incredible production abilities that people probably overlook the fact that they hear all this through Mike Love's words." Not even Dennis was immune to seeing brother Brian as the end-all, be-all. "Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys," he once said. "He is the band. We're his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We're nothing. He's everything."

That attitude must have rankled Love. And even when Brian was at the height of his musical powers — which have not diminished all that much in the past several decades, as he still writes and records music, releasing three studio albums since 2010 — Love apparently continued to second-guess him, which is what ticks so many people off about him.

In 1966, during the recording of Pet Sounds, did you really say what so many people think you said: "Who's gonna hear this shit? The ears of a dog?"

"That's a bunch of bullshit," Love says. "I never said anything like that. All of us worked our asses off on that!"

And what about Smile? Brian has said your criticism of its trippy, experimental nature undermined his confidence and caused him to shelve it.

"But he's also said the opposite of that: 'Mike had nothing to do with it,' which is the truth," Love says. "I never said anything bad about any of the tracks. I admit to wanting to make a commercially successful pop record, so I might have complained about some of the lyrics on Smile, calling them acid alliteration, which even the guy who wrote them, Van Dyke Parks, couldn't explain. But I wasn't resistant to ... I mean, crazy stupid sounds, like animals, farmyard sounds, did all that shit, laying in the bottom of an empty pool, singing up at the mic. I did all that stuff."

Later on, he sighs and rounds up on another, related thought.

"It was a crazy time, people fucked up out of their minds on stuff," he says. "You do a lot of pot, LSD, cocaine, you name it, paranoia runs rampant, so, yes, Brian could have become extra-, ultrasensitive to attitudes, you know, body language, or whatever. My psyche is mainly ... except for the, maybe, moments of true frustration or anger or whatever, saying things in a way that's been misconstrued. Maybe I'm cast in that light, which is unfortunate but maybe deserving. But can I be responsible? Should Mike Love take a beating for Brian's paranoid schizophrenia?" (Brian is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.)

Love continues, "My contribution was positive lyrics. Why the fuck should I be the scapegoat and the fall guy for that other stuff?" He says a while later, "Smile ... that's a misnomer if I ever heard of one."

And that is about all Love will admit to. "He's reinventing his role in the band," says Jardine. "He feels it has not been [properly] expressed, so he's reinventing most of the things that are important to the songs he loves to perform."

The first time Love sued Brian was in 1992, for defamation regarding how Brian made him appear in his autobiography. His main complaint revolved around how little credit he was given for the songs he and Brian wrote together. "They disparaged me," he says. "It was like I hardly did anything and Brian did everything. It's like kind of trying to erase somebody from history or create another reality." The publisher, HarperCollins, settled the suit for $1.5 million. Love has never read the book, which thus allows him to say things like, "At the risk of being facetious, it's my favorite book I never read, because what books have you ever read that paid you a million dollars?" He means this to be amusing, but it doesn't exactly come off that way. Crass, is more like it. He does acknowledge this, saying, "I guess a lot of people don't understand I have a sense of humor that's kind of wack, or different, or sometimes bratty, so I get labeled with that and there goes my image, right down the toilet." But it doesn't slow him down any and probably never will. To the school of himself, he is totally true.

One afternoon in Lake Tahoe, he and Jackie are sitting down for lunch, about to dig into some pretty tasty quinoa burgers. Jackie's 22 years younger than Love and, because she's been married to him for more than two decades, can say, "I'm wife number six, but it's OK, because I've beaten the cumulative average." How long was the shortest marriage?

"Sue Oliver," says Love. "She was a great hang, but she was a fortune hunter. Lasted maybe six months." After that, he gives a rundown on the rest of the exes. Another "liked alcohol and pot better than meditation and me." Suzanne, the one who really rocked his world and had an affair with cousin Dennis, he says, once hired Manson Family murderess Susan Atkins as a babysitter, "which was kind of the last straw for me." Another wife he met at a meditation gathering, but then she "became overly fond of another meditative fellow, who was living in a compound I bought in Santa Barbara." And so on. As well, he can lay claim to eight biological children, ranging in ages from 20 to mid-fifties.

And yet here he is, having survived it all. The biggest asshole in rock & roll history? No, not really. Egotistical? Without a doubt. Obtuse? He can be. Tortured soul? He'd like no one to think so. A Beach Boys history revisionist? To some degree, perhaps, which may be reflected in his memoir, due out this fall. Angry at Brian? Passive-aggressively, at the least. Mainly, he's turned out just the way he has, telling puns, living in this massive house, owning a Bentley and a Maserati, still thankful that the Maharishi did not frown upon material possessions, and still performing like not a day has gone by since 1963.

"Despite the obvious dysfunctionality of the Beach Boys as a group of human beings," he says later on, "to be able to take this music — all of these foibles and trials and tribulations, all of the unhappiness and self-destruction, the self-indulgent behavior — but if you take the music, that's the story of it, right? The value of the music, and what it's meant to so many people." He shifts his weight, looking a little sad and uncomfortable, maybe thinking of something he'd said earlier. "Oh, man, going through the past like this," he'd said. "It's like digging up a rock and all these bugs are under it."

Most of those bugs, of course, have Brian's name on them, leading one to wonder what he might say to Brian if Brian magically appeared here right now?

He and Jackie are just finishing lunch and pondering some fine-looking gluten-free carrot cake. "What do you mean?" he says.

How would you greet him?

"Oh, OK, well ... "

Jackie speaks up. "Let me be Brian," she says.

Love looks alarmed. "No, no, no, no," he says.

But it's too late. Jackie has hopped onto her chair and is towering over her husband, both magnifying the actual height difference of the two men by about three feet and reducing the actual distance between them by about 450 miles. She puts on a deep voice. She's Brian now.

"Mike, hey, Mike!" she says.

Mike is held speechless. Finally, he says, "What?"

"That's what you would say?" Jackie asks.

He laughs, awkwardly, and gives it his best shot. "Hi, Brian, what's happening?"

Deep voice. "Hey, Mike. I found you. Ya know, dude, what are we gonna do? I miss you, Mike."

Love drops out of the moment. "Brian probably would say that. If he had the ability." He giggles nervously.

Jackie isn't satisfied. She gets serious with him. "I don't want to make you cry, but would you greet him as being your cousin and collaborator in music first, or just as a collaborator? OK, so I'm Brian. You're seeing me. Express the personal part of it. What would you say?"

Many, many seconds go by.

"I'd probably say, 'I love you,'" he says, moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes. "'And I love what we did together. And let's do it again.'" But then he gives his head a shake, narrows his eyes, any wetness there drying up, frowns and once again gives voice to what no amount of meditation can ever smooth over. "I've been ostracized," he says quietly. "Vilified. In other words, fucked with." He looks around for agreement. When none is forthcoming, he says, "Pass me the water, please," and, in such a way, lets it be known that some things will never change.