During a 2018 radio interview, the surviving original members of the Beach Boys were asked what still held them together. “It’s love,” said frontman Mike Love, 79. “The love of getting together and singing those harmonies, without thinking about any money, and about any fame…. It’s the sheer joy…that is the essential ingredient.”
After nearly 60 years, the surviving members of the group — Mike, singer-songwriter, Brian Wilson, 77, and guitarists Al Jardine, 77, and David Marks, 71 — belong to a rare musical brotherhood that has withstood fame, tragic deaths, drug addiction, mental illness, lawsuits and even a brush with an infamous mass murderer.
“Bands are relationships and relationships change over time,” said Brian in 2011. “The Beach Boys [started as] a family — three brothers, a cousin and a friend — which gave us a cohesiveness. Each guy had his own part to sing.”
At first, harmony came naturally to the original members of the group. David Marks grew up in the same Hawthorne, California, neighborhood as brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson and their friend Al Jardine. He remembers attending Sunday sing-alongs at the Wilson home. “Their dad, Murry, would play organ, with mom Audree on piano and the boys would all sing,” David tells Closer.
On holidays, the Wilson brothers’ cousin Mike would join in the music. “We all sang very naturally together,” Al recalls to Closer. “Our natural ranges helped a lot because we all dropped in like the right-hand keys on a piano.” After Brian received a reel-to-reel tape recorder for his 16th birthday in 1958, he taught himself to overdub and began writing songs.
Carl and David took guitar lessons together. “We were playing music at school and in the living room, so we were kind of already a band,” recalls David. Murry, who had been a record producer, helped the nascent group record a demo. “Singing professionally came one day when we got the idea of singing about surfing,” said Dennis, the drummer and only actual surfer among the gang. “My dad said he knew a guy with a garage [that] we could tape-record in. That’s how we got started — very hokey. Just a couple of guys singing about what they liked.”
Yet this “California Sound,” redolent of summer, tanning lotion and the promise of good times, struck a chord, even with listeners who had never seen a real beach. David recalls the first time he heard “Surfin’ Safari,” their 1962 first hit on Capitol Records, on the radio. “The song came on and I got all giddy — like a little girl,” he recalls. “I put my face in a towel and screamed!”
Overnight success brought the Beach Boys money, recognition and opportunities, but there was a dark side. “I was too young for the pressures of traveling,” says David, adding that Murry, who became the band’s first manager, was a difficult taskmaster. “He was like a second father to me, but he also rode me so hard that I couldn’t take it.” David quit the Beach Boys in 1963 after playing on five albums. The pressure also got to Brian, the group’s main songwriter and studio whiz.
He stopped touring with the band in 1964. “People say that Brian went crazy,” says David. “Capitol wanted two albums a year. The real reason he stopped touring is because he had to stay home, write songs and produce records.” After leaving the band to attend dental school, Al returned to play guitar and take over Brian’s high parts in the harmonies on tour. “During the early ’60s we were on fire,” Al says. “Everybody respected everybody else. The dynamic stayed the same until we began recording Pet Sounds.” In 1966, the Beach Boys released this seminal album, which would cement Brian’s reputation as a musical genius. A departure from feelgood music, its songs are more mature and lushly orchestrated, laced with feelings of yearning and loss. Today Brian insists the album, often ranked among the greatest of all time, was a collaboration. “The musicians helped me achieve what I heard in my head, and that’s what made Pet Sounds so special to me,” he says.
By the late ’60s, the Beach Boys’ personal issues threatened to split the band. Mike stopped drinking after being introduced to meditation by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was also the Beatles’ guru, but Brian and Dennis descended into excessive drug and alcohol abuse. “At first, my creativity increased more than I could believe,” says Brian, but his long term use of psychedelics also likely caused irreparable harm.
The Beach Boys’ 12th studio album, Smile, was shelved in 1967 after Brian began suffering from depression, irrational fear and hearing disembodied voices. It would be another 15 years before he would finally be diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder. A different sort of madness touched the group in 1968, when Dennis struck up a friendship with Charles Manson.
The cult leader and his “family” moved into the musician’s rented L.A. home and Dennis even helped Manson, a wannabe rock star, record songs. Their relationship soured after the cult spent $100,000 of Dennis’ money and wrecked his uninsured Mercedes. One night Dennis quietly moved out and let his landlord handle evicting the Mansons.
The original members of the Beach Boys waged a long struggle to reclaim their careers and secure their place in pop history. Brian would go in and out of treatment for decades — and was victimized by a rogue psychotherapist in the 1970s and 1980s. Dr. Eugene Landy’s unconventional therapy seemed to help initially, but he was accused of ethical violations after he began running Brian’s life and demanding songwriting credits.
Dennis drowned in a 1983 accident while brother Carl, who also had been a successful record producer, was felled by cancer in 1998. “I miss hearing him talk,” says Brian. “I miss hanging with Dennis.” In the 1990s, Mike, who cowrote their 1988 hit “Kokomo” and still tours as the Beach Boys, sued Brian for songwriting credits on some of the group’s early hits. “I wrote every last syllable of the words to ‘California Girls,’ ” says Mike, who blamed Murry for attributing the song only to Brian.
Yet beyond the bitterness and heartbreak, the Beach Boys persevere. Al, whose most recent solo album is called A Postcard From California, had plans to tour with Brian in Japan and Europe this summer before the coronavirus caused them to cancel. Both childhood friends, along with David, who performs with the Surf City Allstars, reunited with Mike in 2012 for a Beach Boys tour. Another reunion event is being planned. “It’s not a done deal but we’re talking about it,” Al says. “Our 60th anniversary is in 2021 and we’re probably all going to get back together for a little show or two.”
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