Exclusive Q&A: Original Beach Boy David Marks on the Band's Anniversary Tour

'Brian Wilson is smiling a lot,' says Marks. 'It's like a family reunion in a way.'

david marks beach boys
REUTERS /LUCY NICHOLSON /LANDOV
Bruce Johnston, David Marks, Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine of the Beach Boys at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards.
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When the Beach Boys announced their 50th anniversary reunion tour last year, many longtime fans were thrilled to see original guitarist David Marks in the lineup. Marks lived down the street from the Wilsons when the group formed in the early 1960s and played guitar on their early albums, but he split in late 1963 after butting heads with their manager, Murry Wilson. In the late 1990s, he briefly rejoined the Mike Love-led Beach Boys, but this upcoming tour will be his first time hitting the road with Brian Wilson since he quit almost 50 years ago. Before rehearsals begin in late April, we spoke with Marks about the early days of the group and how their reunion came together. 

This reunion has been rumored for years. How did they first tell you about it?
Well, we've been talking about it together for years, Mike (Love) and I. I finally got a call to do a session for "Do It Again." That's pretty much how I was informed and it just took off from there and plans continued.

To go way, way back, can you tell me how you first started playing in the Beach Boys?
It started when I was seven years old and I moved in across the street from the Wilsons. They were a very musical family, and they had Sunday sing-alongs. I used to go over and sit in. They actually kind of stood around me and sang. Audree Wilson, the mother of the three boys, showed us all how to play boogie-woogie on the piano. Then Carl and I started taking guitar lessons at a very young age. I was ten and he was 12. Our guitars just created a style of our own that attracted Brian to use on his songs that he started writing. So Carl and I were very involved in the creative process.

Are you playing on "Surfin'" at that first Beach Boys home recording session?
I was not present at that. I was at school. We rehearsed that song in the music room and it was in the afternoon and I was at school. Shortly after that, however, we did the "Surfin' Safari" demo for Capitol Records.

How old were you during this?
It was right before I turned 14.

What was Brian like back then? Just a normal high school kid?
Yeah. My first impressions of Brian…he was very athletic, involved with the high school sports thing. He was always recruiting us neighborhood kids to play football in his front yard. Even then, he exhibited the leadership qualities that he had for music.

The Wilson brothers were close, but they had quite different personalities, right?
Yeah, they were totally different personalities. They were all unique, and they all had specialized talents. Dennis just picked up the drums out of nowhere and became one of the stylistic drummers of the time, and Carl's voice was one of the best voices in the world. And Brian had his writing and vocal arranging talents. They were all extremely talented in their own right.

Did you ever witness even the slightest hint that Brian was going to face mental difficulties later in life?
No. There was no exhibition of that in the early days at all.

Tell me about the earliest tours.
When we first started touring, we would fly into a major city and then get a station wagon, rent a U-Haul and pack our gear in the back. For the most part we would drive from one show to the next, a few hundred miles. I usually roomed with Mike Love. We just promoted the heck out of those songs. We worked our butts off.

The group took off pretty quickly.
Yeah. It was exciting to hear our first songs, "Surfin' Safari" and "Surfin' U.S.A.," blasting with sound over the radio.

They brought in session musicians later, but you guys actually played everything on those early albums.
We were a totally self-contained band. We played all of our instruments on our first five or six albums. It wasn't until later in the 1960s that Brian started to recruit some of the session guys. However, we did use Hal Blaine on drums for a couple of the early album cuts, like "Hawaii" and "Our Car Club." 

The story tends to go that you and Murry Wilson didn't get along. Is that accurate?
Well, Murry was just a typical father looking out for his son's welfare. We didn't always see eye to eye. I was sort of a punk kid, and Murry was strictly business…But he had a lot to do with the success of the band in those early days.

He's often described as a tyrant and a bully. Do you think that's unfair?
I wouldn't call that unfair. He did all he could to whip us into shape because we were, for the most part, a bunch of unruly kids and he had to put his fist down.

Did your parents pull you out of school once the group started to take off?

Yeah. Actually, we discovered we were getting popular when we started causing disturbances in school and Carl and I had to end up going to private schools in Hollywood.

When I look at photos of the band from those early days, I'm always struck by how insanely young you all look, especially you and Carl.
It was amazing. We weren't the only ones, either. There was a lot of young artists back then: Stevie Wonder, Dee Dee Sharp…

It was an interesting time in the rock world. Most of the 1950s guys had disappeared from the scene, and the Beatles had yet to hit America.
That's part of the reason we became so successful. We had a very unique sound with those rock & roll guitars. And Brian's beautiful vocal harmonies and his arrangements with the rock guitars created something that people hadn't really heard before. It was a new sound that was very unique at the time. There was a wide opening. There just wasn't very much happening then.

Was it clear from Day One that Brian was the musical leader?
Yeah. Brian had a very clear road. He had everything in his head. His music was very clear and he knew what he wanted when he went into the studio.

Was Al Jardine around for much of this time period?
Yeah. Al Jardine was in the very, very beginning of the band. When they were doing local gigs he played the standard bass. He was very into folk-oriented music, like the Kingston Trio. He really wanted to go in that direction. He did stick around for the first Capitol stuff that we did. He wasn't on the first contract, but he did end up participating on the albums. We were actually on "In My Room" and some of those songs together. He was also on "Catch a Wave" from the Surfer Girl album.

Al also did a lot of work with us on the road when Brian decided to stay home on those first tours. Al came on the road with us and did Brian's bass parts and sang his falsetto parts. I would say there were six original Beach Boys, if you really want to get technical.

Why did you leave the group?
Well, I was very young and it was mostly…I think the parents, Murry and my parents, they were at odds over money. I was popular in the band and Murry kind of wanted to keep it all in the family, so he was very intimidating until I got to the point where I couldn't take it and quit. A 15-year-old doesn't really think long term, so I wasn't thinking about the future. And I did have my own band, the Marksmen. We were first signed on A&M Records, and also on Warner Brothers. As a matter of fact, I was on five labels by the time I was 21.

Was there any point after you left and you saw how big they became that you regretted it?
Oh, not really. As a matter of fact, I quit for the first time when we were on top. We were the Number One band in the country. I went on to do very productive things. I had my own bands, and I became a studio player. I also continued getting royalties from Capitol, so I was able to take the time and study more guitar. I went through classical, jazz, pop, blues. I wrote a bunch of songs in the 1980s. I was a single father, raising my daughter. I ended up playing with very good players, some of the best musicians in the world. I would say that overall, the experience was probably equal to what I would've gotten if I had stayed in the Beach Boys. It was a very rounded experience through the years. And for the last 15 years or so I've been very close to the bands, sitting in with Mike and Al. Also, Dean Torrence and I have a band together. We play together very much.

Wasn't there talk about you rejoining in the early 1970s?
Yeah. I was living in Boston and I happened to see them. I went by to say hi when they were performing at Symphony Hall. Mike asked me to come back into the band and play bass. Shortly after that I came back to L.A. and started to practice bass, but I was so into the guitar that it just didn't work out at the time.

Do you ever feel like you were erased from history? Not a lot of people know your story.
Well, Murry Wilson did have a PR strategy. After I left, he tried to erase me from history. But I was on the first six albums, and my image was used all the way up until '64. 

You rejoined the group briefly in the late 1990s. How did that come about?
The band was experiencing some personnel changes. Carl had to drop out because he got sick. I kind of stood in for him, and we totally expected him to come back and recover and we were planning on being together again. Unfortunately, tragically, he didn't make it. So I stayed in the band after that for a couple of years, and then I got sick myself and had to take a leave of absence.

What was it like playing on all those latter-day songs for the first time?
I wasn't involved in Pet Sounds, but during that tour I started really appreciating it.  I was unaware up to that point just how much of a genius Brian really was when I started learning those intricate songs.

Do you have a favorite songs or album from the period after you left?
I'm in love with the Pet Sounds stuff, and some of the SMiLE stuff too. I like "Caroline, No," "Good Vibrations" and "Here Today." A lot of those songs are just works of art.

A lot of people thought that this reunion tour would never happen. There's so many years of bad blood, and so many lawyers and managers and old lawsuits. Did you think it was ever going to happen?
Well, I was never involved in any of that. But nowadays, being all together, it just seems like all of that is behind us and we're looking towards the future. Everyone seems happy together. Brian is smiling a lot. I think that this is going to be a good time. It's like a family reunion in a way.

What's it like for you to be back with the guys after so many decades?
It's spiritual. You can just feel the love.

How are you putting the setlist together? Brian tends to do a lot of songs that the Mike Love Beach Boys didn't do.
Well, I won't know for sure until rehearsals start. But I'm sure we're gonna visit the hits. We might do some of our favorite things from Pet Sounds and possibly some new material.

How far along is the new album?
I must say that Mike and Brian still have it. You know, with Mike's words and Brian's music…the album is coming along great. I haven't heard the whole thing yet. We've yet to finish it. I still have to do some guitar and vocals on it, but I'm sure when it's finished it will be very, very good.

You guys have a pretty grueling tour in front of you. Are all of you prepared for that?
We're all healthy. Mike and Brian are incredibly healthy. Everyone is singing good, and I think it's going to be a pretty good tour. I know there are a lot of dates lined up, but we can handle it. We've all been touring up until this time on our own, so we're in shape for the tour.

How is the Brian of today different than the Brian you knew growing up?
Well, I can see some of the old Brian in there still. We've all aged. We've all matured. We're totally serious about the music, but we still kid around. Brian is doing very well. Like I said, I can still see sparks of the young Brian in there. We kind of kick off where we left off last time we were all together.