I remember the early days of my Beach Boys fanaticism. I had but one CD– 20 Good Vibrations– because I really liked “I Get Around” and “Good Vibrations” and maybe “Dance, Dance, Dance.” I flipped through the liner notes and found B. Wilson/Love next to almost all of the tracks and began to assume, since Brian Wilson was such a boring name, that this Mike Love was really in charge. In pictures they all looked the same to me, except the one with the bucket hat, Mike! He was the less ugly of the little guys in the group, the scrappy type who kept them all in line, taught them all the chords and harmonies and laid down the law, I imagined. Most of all, he was the only one I could remember singing in any concert video I had seen. Yep, Mike Love had to be the main force in the Beach Boys!
Brian and Mike in the early days
When I think how wrong I was, I scarce can believe it. It’s like when I hated “Seinfeld” as a kid and thought the show was about George. Mike, it turns out, was a problem child without the good looks or carefree nature of Dennis Wilson; the front man who couldn’t dance; the litigious square who said, “Don’t fuck with the formula,” but who has since made millions heavily breathing out both formula and non-formula hits for the last several decades. Murry Wilson, Mike’s uncle and a real turd himself, could not stand him. Neither could his cousin, Stan Love, who has taken Brian’s side in various lawsuits between former members of the band. He was the picture of a non-artist; a crusader for the bottom line; a Judas to Brian’s Jesus. Just look at the Google search suggestions:
You can browse the “Top 22 Pictures of Mike Love Looking Like A Douche.”
Then peruse, “Why I Hate Mike Love.”
And finally, join the cause on Facebook at the Mike Love is a Douchebag community page.
All of this hate is understandable, even fair. And it’s often funny. Eventually, though, it’s just tiresome. In fact, I got so tired of the narrative that I began thinking positively about Mike. Since then, I’ve gone from hating Mike to trying to forget him to tolerating him to accepting him. I don’t like him, and probably never will, but I think it’s too easy to pick a villain in a story about a hero.
The positive thinking was difficult. When I was finished lauding his above average voice with all its terrific bass moments (see “The Little Girl I Once Knew” or “Help Me, Rhonda”), I was suddenly grasping. Where to turn? I got into some of the Smile bootlegs and was all like, “How could someone not like this stuff? It’s Stephen Foster, Gershwin, Berlin, even Tchaikovsky in some parts! It’s the American answer to the British Invasion– the banjos, the harmonica, the talk of bicycles and pilgrims and Indians and God and water and vegetables. How strange! How sublime! This was the way forward. This is better than the Beatles, bigger than the Beatles, and this little twerp couldn’t handle it so he had to stop it all?!” It wasn’t looking good for Mike.
Then I heard a version of “Cabin Essence” (alternately “Cabinessence”) on which Mike sang the tag:
Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield/
Over and over the thresher and hover the wheatfield
That’s not a typo: it’s “the thresher and hover,” not “they thresh and hover” or even “the threshers hover.” This was the big controversy, the funny line that started the demise of Smile when Mike refused to let these words end up on the record. The words were written by Van Dyke Parks, a new lyrical collaborator for the new direction the Beach Boys were to take, and one can appreciate how difficult it must have been to jump into the abstract, if not the absurd just months after Pet Sounds gave us “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” But Mike sang the lines, and he sang them well, and who knows how many times he had to sing them? Listen to the whole song, and listen especially well on the “Grand Coulee” section at the end, starting around 2:20, when Mike hits those verses. Hear how every time he sings “-field” it sounds as if molten metal is pouring out of his mouth. (Sorry, but the embedding process is suddenly a pain in the ass so I gave up and had to hyperlink it like a slob.)
Brian and Van Dyke Parks working on Smile
He seemed to be a part of the team, at least for a little while, and I can believe him when he says in interviews that he wasn’t against experimentation; I mean, he was right there making animal noises with the rest of them on “Barnyard.” I stopped hating him because of that. I realized just how very small he was, like a brooding teenager who can’t see the point of household chores.
Suppose he had been neutral or supportive of the album– he wasn’t the only one who wasn’t ready for it. Just think of Capitol Records and the pressure for a single. Imagine the tepid reception the American public would have given it in early 1967. If “God Only Knows” only made it to number 39, what could “Surf’s Up” do? I imagine it would have made Brian King of the Music World According to Musicians In The Know for about six months, when Sergeant Pepper would have come out and trumped its popularity and acclaim anyway. Or maybe the Beatles would have put Pepper off a little longer and included “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” on that album, as they had planned to do, and then they couldn’t afford to put much effort behind Magical Mystery Tour and the psychedelic era would have gone on even longer and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, blah blah blah– it doesn’t matter. The rest can be chalked up to the failure of Brian Wilson to push for his way and stand up to Mike and say, “Mike, damn it, we’re gonna do this!” Plus maybe lay off the drugs just a little so as not to succumb to wild paranoid fantasies.
Brian and Mike, much more recently
In summary, yes, Mike Love should thank any available god that he is related to Brian Wilson. Yes, Mike Love would be some sort of mid-level management retiree if not for the Beach Boys. Yes, Mike Love is a prick and a hack, but acting grateful and giving praise and denying your own immediate self-interest in every moment is exhausting. And so is blaming and hating and vilifying Mike Love. So I’m done.