The Beach Boys’ Last Wave
‘Hey, Wilson,” says Mike Love, placing his hand gently on Brian Wilson’s forearm. “Hey, Love,” says Wilson, brightly, as his cousin slides into the booth next to him. “You were great last night,” Love says. “Animated. Ani-fuckin‘-mated.” Wilson beams. “Gracias, amigo. Our harmonies – we sound good together.”
The Beach Boys’ founding members, Brian Wilson, 69, and Mike Love, 71, are relaxing at a casino steakhouse in Hollywood, Florida. Dinner together is not an everyday thing for Love and Wilson. Or even an every-decade thing. The last holiday together Love remembers was Thanksgiving ’99. “I invited him up,” Love says. “He said, ‘Yeah, Mike. Family first.’ ” But it’s usually not like that. The Southern California cousins have been estranged for much of the Beach Boys’ career, their relationship fractured by disagreements over the group’s musical direction and hard-fought lawsuits, mostly instigated by Love, over issues like songwriting credits and some of the pettiest financial squabbles imaginable. “Our family’s been pretty screwed up,” says Wilson, who himself has battled mental illness since the Sixties. “It’s sad.”
Despite all that, tonight the sole surviving family members in America’s greatest family band actually seem to be enjoying each other’s company. “We’re cousins,” Love tells me. “And we love each other.”
It’s a rare night off on the Beach Boys’ week-old 50th-anniversary tour, a 73-date, 14-country trip that’s possibly the most unlikely rock reunion ever mounted. In addition to Love and Wilson, who have spent about as much time in court as onstage together during the past three decades, the show also includes original Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks (the guitarist who played on the group’s first five albums, before he clashed with Wilson’s dad and quit); Bruce Johnston, who joined in 1965 after Wilson quit touring; and Jeffrey Foskett, who has sung some of the most challenging and beautiful parts in the Beach Boys and in Brian Wilson’s solo band since 1980. Two key members are missing: Wilson’s brothers, Dennis, who drowned in 1983, and Carl, who died of cancer in 1998.
It’s hard to imagine two more different guys than Love and Wilson: Love is a swaggering, acerbic mix of wily businessman and hippie seeker – the guy who cuts corners on every possible tour expense, but is also a longtime vegetarian and student of Transcendental Meditation, who once hired an astrologer to choose optimal colors to wear onstage each night. (Suggested color schemes are still posted nightly in the band’s dressing rooms.)
Wilson, on the other hand, is a bundle of nerves – halting, anxious, impulsive. When the waiter arrives to describe the specials, he interrupts. “You got prime rib?” he asks. “Medium-well?”
“Any way you want, sir.”
“I’ll have a rib-eye steak, medium rare. And Caesar salad.” Then, to the rest of us: “What are you guys gonna have? You should get Caesar salad. Trust me.”
“Bri,” Love says after the waiter retreats, “remember when Dennis and I dropped trousers and raced across the stage and traded pants on the other side?”
“No way!” says Wilson. “That’s a Mike Love kind of rock & roll thing.” Then he adds, almost embarrassed, “We’re not crazy. We’re just a little loony. We’re loony people. You should know that about us.”
Later, Wilson asks, “Isn’t Kokomo around here, Mike?” “Kokomo,” from 1988, was the Beach Boys’ last Number One single, and their only hit that Wilson had no involvement in. “Somewhere down around the Florida Keys, right? We should go there.” He says it totally deadpan, so it’s impossible to tell whether he’s joking. Love chuckles and lets it go.
Wilson’s steak comes; he picks it up to eat off the bone. “Sir! Sir!” he shouts. When the waiter comes, he says, “Never mind.”
“What’s up, Bri?” says Love.
“I was gonna get another beer, but I don’t want to get drunk.”
“You’re not gonna get drunk, you’re having a big meal,” says Love. “What the fuck, it’s your night off!”
Wilson is on his third Miller Lite by the time he brings up what’s really on his mind: the set list for tomorrow’s concert. “Oh, Michael,” he says, faux-casually, shifting uncomfortably to face Love.
“I have feedback from my family,” Wilson continues. “They want new songs.”
Love grins, in a way that could be confused with a smirk. “Like what, cuz?”
“I was thinking ‘Marcella,’ ” Wilson blurts, referring to a great but obscure 1972 track he wrote about his favorite masseuse.
“Whaaaaat?” Love yells.
Wilson, never one to embrace conflict, bravely perseveres: “ ‘Marcella’ ’s pretty cool, Mike.” He sings the song’s first lines, “Hey, hey, Marcella!”
Love: “What are we gonna cut?”
Wilson: “Well . . .”
Love: “Maybe we can alternate songs.”
Wilson: “Yah, OK, all right, whatever.”
Wilson lets it go, but soon he throws out another idea. “ ‘Add Some Music’ is a cool, cool song. We should do that one. You and I wrote that, you know.” (He’s referring to “Add Some Music to Your Day,” a gorgeous gospel track from 1970’s Sunflower.) “We wrote that in my Bel-Air house. You just said it one day, ‘Let’s write a song called “Add Some Music to Your Day.” ’ ”
Love: “I said that?”
Wilson: “You said that.”
Love: “If he says I said it, I said it.”
Wilson: “We put that song together in a half-hour!”
The subject is dropped, and Wilson leans back, looking worn out by the effort to convince his cousin of the value of songs that may not be as well known as “Surfin’ Safari” but that show the evolution of the Beach Boys beyond their teenage hits. This argument dates back to at least 1965, when Wilson began to write personal, adventurous music for the monumental Pet Sounds, while Love preferred to keep cranking out two-and-a-half-minute surf hits. When Wilson set off into avant-garde terrain the following year with Smile, Love disliked the abstract lyrics, which he described to me as “acid alliteration.” Wilson has said that Love’s disdain is one reason he abandoned Smile, though Love denies this.
“Mike’s an entertainer,” says Foskett. “Brian is an artist. There’s room for both, but it’s a fundamental difference, and pretty hard to reconcile.”
The issue of the set list has caused friction on the tour so far. Love, who licenses the Beach Boys name for 125-plus shows a year with his own band (which also features Bruce Johnston), prefers fast-paced sets packed with early-Sixties hits and covers. Wilson, for the past 14 years, has toured with a 10-piece band that delivers luxurious arrangements of Beach Boys hits and gems resurrected from deep in his catalog.
“The set list is the script of the play,” says Wilson’s horn player, Paul Von Mertens, the co-musical director on the Beach Boys tour (along with Scott Totten, from Love’s band). “So the question is, what story do we want to tell?
“It could be a lot worse,” he adds. “Just that we’re all onstage together is a miracle. It’s a tentative peace that’s been worked out, and no one wants to upset the balance, or risk everything falling apart.”
“It’s tricky,” Love tells me. “Brian’s been doing his tours the way he wants to for many years. And I’ve been doing the same thing. I have always felt that people come to see you on the basis of what songs you’re known for. I would never think of not doing our biggest hits. That would be foreign to my way of thinking.”
Wilson shrugs when I ask him about his vision for the Beach Boys tour. “I’d like to scare people a little.”
Last May, the Beach Boys got together at Capitol Studios to test the waters for a 50th-anniversary reunion. The objective that day was to remake “Do It Again,” a 1968 single that itself was a throwback to the group’s early sound. But Wilson had something else in mind, too – so he asked the Beach Boys to gather around the piano to sing some new music he’d been working on. “None of them knew what he was doing,” says Joe Thomas, a longtime Wilson collaborator, who was enlisted to help bring the reunion together. But Wilson kept on – “C’mon, guys, let’s go.”
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“When he first started playing the chord progressions,” Love remembers, “I was standing there, thinking, ‘Wow, that’s cool, that’s a certain type of Brian Wilson chord change.’ I thought, ‘Shit – he’s got all his talents intact.’ ”
Then Wilson began to call out instructions for the vocals – “layering in our voices,” says Jardine. “Somehow he had worked out this entire arrangement in his head. He knew each person’s range, and just stacked one voice on top of the other.”
An hour later, the Beach Boys had cut their first new track together since 1985, “Think About the Days,” which appears as the hymnlike opening to the new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio. “I thought it would be cool to show we’ve still got something special up our sleeve,” Wilson says. “And the guys came through for me.”
As it turns out, while few people would have bet that a Beach Boys reunion was possible, Wilson had been thinking about it for years. Some of the songs started to take shape back in 1999, after Wilson recorded a solo album, Imagination, with Thomas. (Thomas co-wrote several tracks on the new album.) “He had all these great things,” Thomas says. “But he didn’t want to finish them. He’d say they were songs for the Beach Boys. At first, I thought that was just an excuse. But after I heard him say it about four or five tracks we’d done, I realized – he’s not BS’ing anybody, he’s making a Beach Boys record.”
When the guys finally got together to record, another question remained: How would they fill in for Carl, whose warm tenor was the group’s dominant voice in later years? What they discovered, in the early sessions at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, was that Wilson and Jardine, who used to sing higher than Carl, could cover his parts because their voices had gotten lower as they got older. “It’s almost eerie,” says Jardine, who sings one of the album’s most spectacular leads on “From There to Back Again.” “Brian really has that Carl punch now, and we both meet in his range – that really satisfying and mellow sound he had.”
That’s Why God Made the Radio ping-pongs between nostalgic, sun-splashed songs and the more reflective, melancholic music Wilson tends to write these days. The highlight comes at the end: a harmony-drenched 13-minute “suite” built around a twilight Pacific Coast Highway drive. Thomas says the suite’s original tracks, recorded as cassette demos, sat on his shelves for years before he and Wilson started working on them again in 2008. “It sounded like a bunch of unfinished parts to me,” says Thomas. “But all along, Brian had this idea about how to put them together. . . . It was like he wrote the songs in code.”
The final segment of the suite, “Summer’s Gone,” started from a conversation Wilson had with his brother Carl shortly before he died. (Wilson’s mother had passed away two months earlier, and Brian was dealing with the fact that he might end up the last surviving member of the Wilson family.) According to Thomas, Carl had planned to record a song for Imagination. But when Brian visited, Carl told him, “You know, Brian, I’m not gonna be able to make it.” Brian’s response was unusual. “He told me his last words to Carl were ‘I think I’m gonna stay for a while,’ ” says Thomas. “I mean, what a weird and emotional thing to say: ‘I know you’ve got to go, but I’m gonna stay for a while.’ ”
One afternoon in February, the Beach Boys crowd into the control room at Ocean Way to listen to the suite. John Stamos, the actor (a serious Beach Boys fan who often performs with Mike Love’s band), stands in the back, twirling his sunglasses. When the music ends, the room falls silent. Finally, Stamos breaks the ice. “Magical,” he says. Love, sitting next to me on a leather couch, has another reaction, which he demonstrates by putting his fingers into the shape of a gun, placing it under his chin and shooting himself in the head. “It’s brilliant, beautiful, but I didn’t write it, so it doesn’t have that silver cloud on the cumulus nimbus,” he says. “It’s more cumulus than I probably would do.”
Wilson may no longer have the same intense drive as he did making Pet Sounds, when Love dubbed him “Stalin of the studio.” But he is clearly in control. Over two days at Ocean Way, it’s a thrill to watch Wilson work – driving the singers through multiple takes of each line of a song, arranging harmonies and teaching them to the group on the spot. In all, 28 tracks were cut. And with only one more day of studio time booked, no one but Wilson knows which dozen will make the album. This makes some people anxious. “We’re just waiting for word,” says Jardine, sitting on the edge of a couch with his wife, Mary Ann, and their 10-year-old whippet, Willie.
One song Wilson seems most excited about is an R&B-style track Love wrote, “Daybreak Over the Ocean.” “I love your new tune, man,” he tells Love. “It kind of snuck up on me. I wasn’t ready for it. Like, ‘Hey! What? Where? Who?’ ”
Wilson does not react the same way to Jardine’s song. For the second day in a row, Jardine bugs Brian to work on “Waves of Love,” a lovely track that features one of Carl Wilson’s last vocals.
Wilson doesn’t want to hurt Jardine’s feelings, so he tries to ignore him. But Jardine keeps pushing. “We don’t know where this is going, Bri,” Jardine persists, “but it’s important to put it in the bank.”
“No, can’t do it today, Al,” Wilson says.
“Let’s do it while you’re here,” Jardine pleads. “We’ve got to deliver some stuff, to the top.”
Wilson closes his eyes and folds his hands across his chest. Then, a moment later, he bounces his hulking frame out of the chair, exits the control booth and walks out the front door to his car. He does not return to the studio until the next day. “Waves of Love” is not included on the final album.
Mike Love is under the gun. He’s got to write final lyrics for “Isn’t It Time” tonight and sing them tomorrow, the final day of recording. He doesn’t seem anxious about the deadline, reminding Wilson how he wrote the lyrics for “California Girls” in the hallway right before he sang them. After staring at a blank legal pad for a while, Love suggests a dinner break. So we hop into his growling blue Bentley and zigzag through Hollywood to El Cholo, an old-school Mexican joint where he’s eaten with his family and the Wilson clan since he was a kid.
Love is wearing a loud patterned shirt, a Caesars Palace cap and three massive jeweled gold rings on his right hand. More gold dangles inside his shirt. Over Pacificos and Sonora Style Nachos (his favorite, and vegetarian), he tells jokes, shares stories and exudes a vibe that is somehow mellow and edgy at the same time.
Though all the Beach Boys dabbled in TM, Love and Jardine stuck with it after they spent two weeks in 1968 studying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, along with the Beatles and Donovan. “It was the most fascinating experience I ever had,” Love says.
“Prior to learning to meditate,” he continues, “I drank a fair amount of alcohol. I’m a Pisces, a water sign, and Pisces are notorious for being drug addicts or alcoholics. Back then, I wouldn’t have one drink; I’d drink half of a fifth of vodka with orange juice, smoke a fair amount of marijuana or hashish. Once I learned to meditate, I stopped all of that, because I found myself feeling energetic and good, versus feeling groggy and hungover. It was a no-brainer.”
Love meditates twice daily, once in the morning and once before showtime. “If I were to not have meditated this morning, I’d be irritable right now,” he says. “All my thoughts and actions would be influenced by that irritability, but if I am able to meditate very regularly, I feel great.”
Love is aware of his reputation – “big, bad Mike Love,” he calls himself, with a laugh. In truth, he says, “I’ve got different things going on – part spiritualist, part humanitarian, part brat.”
I ask Love if he’s nervous about being back on the road with Wilson after all these years. “There’s no doubt the talent’s there,” he says. “I wonder about his health. He’s overweight and out of shape, and he doesn’t seem to pay much attention. . . . It’s tough, when you’ve seen the Brian Wilson you grew up with and the Brian Wilson that’s going to be onstage nowadays.”
Love says he’d like to help get Wilson on a diet-and-exercise regimen. “My grandmother Wilson died of diabetes-related stuff, and his father, Murry, passed away about two years after having several yards of his intestines taken out for diverticulosis. So there’s a history of health issues. . . . As you get older you either become proactive about staying in shape and taking care of yourself or, you know, time has its effect on you.”
“When we were younger,” Love continues, “no one really knew what was wrong with Brian. Nobody knew about mental illness. We just had no clue about that as kids, as cousins and brothers, growing up. . . . I think there’s probably a tad bit more compassion that goes into our being together now. And I think there’s sensitivity to the fact that there’s only a limited amount of time left for this cast of characters to do what they do. There’s a lifespan involved here.”
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The biggest miracle of the Beach Boys’ 50th-anniversary tour might be that they make it to the stage every night. The logistics of transporting five senior-citizen rock stars, plus a 10-member band, 25 crew members, and assorted wives and families, on a tour with as many as five shows a week, is a feat in itself. (And not without casualties: The first tour manager quit for “personal reasons” after five shows.)
Complicating things further is the fact that Wilson and Love operate very differently. On his tours, Love travels lean and mean, what his bandmate Bruce Johnston calls “the Walmart frame of mind,” flying coach, renting equipment in each city, carrying only four crew members. Wilson, on the other hand, tours with state-of-the-art equipment and rides in his own deluxe tour bus. “He can hide whenever he wants,” says Love.
For the Beach Boys’ tour, they’re essentially combining these approaches – running two tours out of one. During the Florida shows in May, Brian travels on his own bus, while everyone else piles into a rented coach – 25 people driving gig to gig. “Mike’s attitude is it’s, like, four hours between gigs,” says tour manager Michael Swift. “If they can’t sit up in a bus for four hours, let ’em take a taxi.”
Another issue: iPhones. Rather than printing each day’s itinerary for the band, everything on the tour is communicated via an app called Master Tour Mobile. The app is updated with itineraries, flight information and daily schedules. The only problem is, most of the guys don’t really know how to use their iPhones.
“Is it iBooks? Wait, I don’t have it,” says Al Jardine, fumbling with his phone in line at the breakfast buffet at the Tampa Airport Marriott. “Oh, I do. Here it is here. Now what do I do with it?”
(Jardine is often a little lost. On the plane from Tampa to New York, he couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilet, so he had to ask the stewardess. “Oh, that one!” he said. “I’m not very good at computers, either.”)
Jardine is a warm, thoughtful guy who spends most of his time with his family on their ranch in Big Sur. His voice has remarkably maintained the same youthfulness and punch it had when he sang the lead on “Help Me Rhonda” 47 years ago – perhaps more than anyone, he makes it sound like the Beach Boys up there. Off-stage, however, Jardine is struggling to find his place. “We don’t discourse,” he says over breakfast with his wife, Mary Ann, and their twins, Drew and Robbie, 26. “You’ve got the Love band, who’ve been together for years and have developed a style. Brian’s band has been going for a long time, too – so we’ve been coming from three different places. Our managers assume I know what they know. And I don’t.”
The other night, in Georgia, as soon as the show ended, Jardine ran offstage and onto the bus – just like the Beach Boys did in the old days. “I thought we were leaving,” he says. “The old Beach Boys – prior to Love’s Beach Boys, the last-millennium Beach Boys – that’s the way we did it. After the show, boom – we were gone. So I’m sitting in the bus for a half-hour and no one came. I fell asleep. I didn’t know where the hell I was. I thought, ‘Where is everybody?’ ”
Asked how his bandmates have changed, Jardine says, “Mike has taken it upon himself to carry the flag for the group. Come hell or high water, he’s gonna be the last man standing. It’s his purpose in life just to be there. Brian’s given him this wonderful, amazing opportunity. The lead singer always has the power, in any organization. He develops this condition we call LSD – lead-singer disease.” He says this with a laugh, not with resentment. “Mike never played any instruments other than the little bit on the saxophone, so out of necessity he invented himself. He created himself as the lead singer.”
Jardine says his main concern is how Wilson will handle the stress of this tour. “He needs his creature comforts,” he says. “He’s so delicate – he’s like a GPS machine or something; all the guidance features have to be calibrated perfectly. Otherwise, he can veer off somewhere. I don’t want anything to happen to him. He’s our leader – he’s our center.”
If Jardine gets lost in the chaos, Bruce Johnston thrives on it. At 69, the man is a ball of energy, bouncing off the walls of the backstage area in Tampa in white shorts, a T-shirt and Stan Smiths, talking to anyone he passes in the halls. Johnston, who got his start playing with Phil Spector as a teenager, joined the Beach Boys in 1965, after Brian quit the road. He won a Grammy in 1976 for composing “I Write the Songs” (a fact he will frequently remind you of), and he also wrote some fine tunes for the Beach Boys, including “Deirdre,” from Sunflower, and “Disney Girls,” which he performs on this tour.
Johnston has a way with words – he calls the Beach Boys reunion the “When Surf Freezes Over” tour – and sometimes his lack of a filter gets him in trouble, like when a reporter taped him telling autograph seekers that Obama is a socialist and an “asshole.” But he also has a lot of nice things to say, especially about Wilson. “I have the best seat in the house every night to watch my hero, Brian Wilson,” he says.
An hour before showtime, Johnston is in his dressing room, ironing his jeans. “I don’t put those Seventies creases in them anymore,” he says.
When I ask if it feels sentimental to be onstage together, he laughs. “This is what we do,” he says. “It’s not exactly business as usual, but it’s friendship as usual. It’s friendship defrosted. Seriously, everybody is/was/is friends, no matter what silly lawsuits or whatever those guys did. With these guys, it’s like taking a coat out of the closet after 20 years – and it still fits! It’s totally wonderful. It’s like freeze-dried food.”
Then, like everyone else, Johnston shares his views of Wilson. His analysis doesn’t involve health concerns or a sensitive GPS system. Instead, he sees Wilson as an astronaut who may have ventured too far into space, but still checks in with those of us stuck on planet Earth.
“Did you see 2010?” he asks, referring to the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Remember Dave Bowman, the astronaut? That’s how I see Brian. He’s way up in space, floating around. He was real successful, hitting home runs like crazy. But somewhere between Pet Sounds and Smile, it kind of sucks him in, and no one can understand quite what he was doing. Brian appears, then he disappears. In the film, Dave came back on a television screen and talked to his wife and said, ‘I’m going to some incredible place,’ then he was gone. I see Brian that way. He’s been chosen to do incredible things. We just have to wait for them.
“When I listen to Brian talk now, I kind of get it,” Johnston continues. “He probably has more things going inside that head of his – whole records that he’s made up there – but he’s one of those guys that doesn’t need to talk that much. I listen to him closely. I love having the chance to be around him. It’s not going to last very long, he’s not going to do 170 concerts a year, that’s not what he is. I think he’s come back on the screen for a little bit, before he goes back, getting ready to go to Jupiter, and start life over.”
Thirty-six minutes before showtime in Tampa, Brian Wilson sits in a chair alone on the dark stage, just out of view of thousands of people filing into their seats, some wearing Hawaiian shirts, a few older women carrying pompoms. Wilson seems oblivious to the rumble of excitement on the other side of the curtain. His eyes are closed, hands resting peacefully on his knees.
“I like to meditate before we go on,” he says. “It gets busy backstage, so I come out onstage, where it’s quiet.” Wilson says he uses the time to “pray a little.”
“I think about how I’m gonna sing, and how the boys will sound.”
He’d told me this earlier, sitting in his dressing room before soundcheck. “Cool dressing room,” Wilson noted, even though it was just a tiny beige cubby with one fabric chair, two plastic folding chairs, a mirror, a jar of nuts and some potato chips.
We had just arrived from Fort Lauderdale, a four-hour drive. I planned to use the time to interview Wilson about the tour. Instead, he rode up front with his driver, Glenn Jones, white Nikes perched on the dash, staring straight ahead. The only times Wilson spoke were to place a McDonald’s order (vanilla shake) and to ask Jones to switch the satellite radio from “Malt Shop Oldies” to the Forties music station. When I turned on my recorder and started asking questions, Wilson cut me off after a minute and six seconds.
Now, in his dressing room, Wilson’s in a more talkative mood. “We scored a concert, man!” he says. It’s not clear exactly what that means, but it sounds like a good thing. “I hope it’s a good one. I’m hopin‘!”
I ask if it’s getting easier each night. “It’s leveling off, I guess,” he says. “I’m getting used to playing piano – I didn’t used to play this much.”
Wilson sits back, twists his spine, winces. He’s struggling with back problems. He can’t walk too far and needs help getting on and off the raised platform where plays his white piano onstage. “I can’t exercise, really. So I have to sit around a lot.”
Wilson is quiet for a while, then out of nowhere brings up one of his favorite Pet Sounds tracks. “ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ had that Phil Spector Wall of Sound feeling to it,” he says. “We cut it at Gold Star. Spector was around when we cut it. I think he produced it indirectly. Not actually produced it, but indirectly produced it. The spirit of the Wall of Sound.”
Talk turns to other old colleagues, like Three Dog Night’s Danny Hutton, a friend from wilder days in the Sixties L.A. rock scene. “I haven’t talked to him in a long time,” Wilson says. “I wouldn’t know what to say. Some of my old buddies are just gone from my life.”
He tells me that he always found Hutton’s singing “scary,” which for Wilson can mean one of two things: good-scary, in the sense that it challenges you, like the Beatles album Rubber Soul, or bad-scary, in the sense that you get frightened and want to hide.
In Hutton’s case, he says, “His voice is just so resonant.” Good-scary. Another group he mentions is the Doobie Brothers. Bad-scary. “ ‘What a Fool Believes’ scared me a lot. Michael McDonald. I can’t handle that.”
I ask if the Beach Boys ever scare him. “Not scary, we are just so into our harmonies.”
He gets quiet for a while. “I wouldn’t have thought we would all be together again,” he says. “I never thought it would happen. But when we sing, those feelings go away. We sound good.”
‘Those are nice pants,” says Brian Wilson to a woman sitting next to him on the flight from Tampa to New York. “Are they cotton or something?”
“Cotton blend, I think,” the woman responds, hesitantly.
“What are you drinking?”
“Vodka? Is it good?”
“A little strong.”
Wilson laughs, a little too loudly. “That’s good,” he says. “Those are really nice pants.”
Then he closes his eyes and munches some nuts. After a while, he tries to pick up the conversation.
“You keep stirring it!”
“It’s too strong if I don’t.”
“How you feeling? A little woozy?”
“It takes more than one. Do you drink?”
“Not really. Do you feel relaxed?”
Then, after another long pause, Wilson says, “What day is it?”
“Sunday. [Laughs] Have you been flying a lot?”
“Yeah, we’re in a band. We’re called the Beach Boys.”
In first class this afternoon are four of five principal Beach Boys (Love flew earlier) and “vice principal” Jeff Foskett. Flying makes Wilson anxious. “It’s so cumbersome,” he says. “You gotta take your shoes off, put your shoes back on, you gotta bend over.” When he flies, Wilson has to be first on the plane and the first off. “That makes it easier,” he says. “But still not easy.”
The trip is nerve-racking for the other guys as well: There is a lot of pressure on two New York shows at the Beacon, plus an intense schedule that includes Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Charlie Rose. “I have so many memories of coming to New York,” Johnston told me. “Playing our shows, getting dressed up in our suits, women everywhere, nightclubs.” He pauses. “You have to wonder, how many more times are we going to get to come to New York?”
There are also still questions about the set list. Since Wilson proposed adding “Marcella” and “Add Some Music to Your Day” in Fort Lauderdale, not much has happened. During soundcheck in Tampa yesterday, Wilson pushed the issue.
“ ‘Marcella,’ please,” he called out to the band.
“We can’t do it,” responded co-musical director Scott Totten, Love’s guitar player. “We don’t know it yet.”
“My guys know it,” Wilson replied. “We can do it.”
Instead, they take a stab at “Add Some Music to Your Day.” But Totten cuts it off in the middle of the first take, because no one remembers the words.
So, the first night at the Beacon, no new songs are added. To make matters worse, at least to those who want the Beach Boys reunion tour to differentiate itself from Mike Love’s tour using the Beach Boys name, John Stamos is in the house and jumps onstage for several songs – including one awkward moment when he pulls a petrified-looking little girl from the audience and dances with her on his shoulders. Later, several band members mull around glumly at the afterparty. One calls the show a “travesty.” He says, “If they want theater, we can do theater. But I thought this was a rock & roll show.”
The next night, the bandmates manage to get together a gorgeous version of “Add Some Music to Your Day,” which they sing standing around Wilson’s piano, and Wilson finally introduces a rocking version of “Marcella.”
With or without those two new songs, and with or without Stamos, watching the Beach Boys perform in 2012 is a rare thrill. Each of the three shows I see is filled with fun and joy and something deeper, too. In the best moments, when the group harmonizes on “Please Let Me Wonder” and “Forever” and “I Get Around,” or when Wilson sings his fragile, prescient “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” it’s impossible not to be moved by these guys who, night after night, put aside huge personal differences and ancient hurts to create music full of radiance and hope – music no one else but them can create. “We took a risk trying to pull this off,” says Love, riding through New York in the back of a black SUV the day after the Beacon shows. “And I think we proved the mathematical equation: The whole really is worth more than the sum of its parts.”
This story is from the June 21, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.