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Boys Will Be Beach Boys
Al Jardine, front right, the Beach Boys zenmaster
I don’t know what it is like to be a member of a fractured 51-year-old rock n’ roll band.
I do know what it like to break up with someone you love.
That’s the feeling I get when talking to Al Jardine, a founding member of the Beach Boys.
You can’t stop talking about it. One of the greatest Beach Boy songs begins with “I may not always love you,” (from Brian Wilson and Peter Asher’s “God Only Knows”).
Beach Boy fans knew the band’s “50th Anniversary Tour” in the summer of 2012 was headed for an unhappy ending. Sure enough, founding member Mike Love dissolved the tour after a stop in London. Now Love and original Beach Boy Bruce Johnston tour as the Beach Boys as they did before the anniversary tour.
In March, 2008 Jardine settled a suit brought against him by Love and the estate of Carl Wilson in the use of the Beach Boys name. When Brian Wilson makes his Ravinia debut July 26, the show is billed as “Brian Wilson Co-Founder of the Beach Boys” with special guests Al Jardine and David Marks (who played on the first four Beach Boy albums.)
“The anniversary tour was beautiful and it clicked,” Jardine said Monday as his tour bus rolled out of Pittsburgh, Pa. “Yeah, it was great…It had completeness built into it, which is nice. And conflict. Of course you have all that, too, because there’s so many different players. We like to call this an extension of the anniversary tour. We may not be the Beach Boys, but we’re the heart and soul of the Beach Boys. We usually get a standing o on that one.”
“Unfortunately it starts to get to be about the messenger. And that’s just a product of the way we developed as a group. There’s one lead singer and the rest of us are a support team behind that particular arrangement. Now we have so much music we don’t have to go there anymore. It’s a more complete message now. We love Mike and we wish he was with us, we really do. He has the best baritone in the business and that’s what I miss about not having Mike on stage.
“The heart and soul of the Beach Boys come into your neighborhood.”
Jardine, 70, said song selection is now easier. “We have more latitude than we had on the 50th,” he said. “For instance, we won’t be so heavy on the medleys. We’ll do a car song here and there but it won’t be a medley. We added ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ last night and it sounds terrific. But it doesn’t have to be in the midst of four other car songs. We’re a team. We should behave like one.
“Okay, that’s the end of that.”
Jardine did say the heart and soul of the Beach Boys added a medley of “Old Man River” and “Cotton Fields.” Jardine has always been the folk sensibility of the Beach Boys and covered “Cotton Fields’ last July when the 50th anniversary tour came to the Chicago Theatre. ‘It’s pretty outside our lexicon of music,” he said. “For some reason it connects. It is a very American thing and has similar value that ‘Heroes and Villains’ trilogy has from ‘Smile.’ You would learn these great American folk songs in school, which is my milieu. I asked Brian why he liked ‘Cotton Fields’ so much. He said it takes him back to his childhood.
“Paul (Von Mertens, the band’s Chicago based musical director) discovered ‘Old Man River,’ and frankly I forgot about it. Brian and I were scratching our heads because it’s been so long since we heard it. We were just goofing around. There’s probably as much unreleased things as released. We were into the Stephen Foster and thinking of old mythology. Van Dyke Parks probably expressed that in his own way with his own lyrics, more contemporary of course. I liken it to the ‘Smile’ project in some ways.”
Von Mertens, 52, was a distant Beach Boys fan growing up in the Chicago area. “I was aware of the hits,” he said in a separate interview. “I remember where I was the first time I heard ‘Good Vibrations.’ I was six years old and there was a turquoise green plastic radio atop the refrigeratorr in our kitchen. I heard that cello and (never before used) Theremin coming out of the radio and I remember thinking I wasn’t sure it was a song. But it wasn’t until many years later when I was on tour with Poi Dog Pondering and Dag Juhlin gave me a copy of ‘Pet Sounds.’ I said I didn’t know that record that well. He said, ‘WHAT?’ So he sent a copy to my bunk with a Walkman.”
One of Jardine’s all time favorite Beach Boy tracks is “Don’t Worry, Baby,” made in 1964 with Brian Wilson on lead vocals “We did three songs that day,” he said. “We did ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ that day, I can’t remember the other one. We never gave enough credits to the engineers (the late Chuck Britz, who also worked with Jan & Dean in the mid-1960s). Because as you sit down and learn a song it develops, not only in front of the glass but behind the glass where the guys are listening and getting that good sound on the bass, which I played at the time. You can hear the bass and drums develop because of the engineering. We weren’t great players. But somehow it always ended sounding so terrific. It’s amazing what you can do in a professional studio.
“That’s why today a lot of music doesn’t sound so great because so many people have home studios. It lacks a professional touch.”
Von Mertens played clarinet and baritone saxophone on Mavis Staples recent “One True Vine,” recorded at Jeff Tweedy’s the Loft in Chicago. “I’ve toured with Wilco and it is really fun and interesting to work with Jeff,” Von Mertens said. “He thinks of things that I wouldn’t think of. He has unconventional ideas like mixing instruments together that aren’t ‘normal’ combinations. And even choosing notes. He would see a look on my face and say, ‘Is that a wrong note?’ I’d say, ‘No, I think I’m going to like it the more I hear it.’ And it’s true.”
Recording with Brian Wilson is a completely different experience.
“Brian gives me a good deal of leeway and I try to write things he will like,” he explained. “I do have an idea of how he writes and how he has written arrangements in the past. So I use that as a guide. A few times I’ve tried to do something a little out of the ordinary and he usually goes,” and Mertens pauses.
And continues, ““No funny notes.”
Brian works best in the moment,” he said. “When we did the Gershwin record I tried to prepare the band as much as possible for the songs by writing skeletal arrangements from my meetings with Brian. The band tracks were cut live in the studio. So the band would start playing and get the song up and walking around. Then Brian would start to do his thing. He’d hear what people were doing and say, ‘Can you play that up an octave?’ Bass drop out here…That’s how he works best. Or he has it completely done in his mind. He’s done that too, where he has come to a sound check and goes, ‘Here’s your vocal part, you play this.’ Since the Gershwin music was new material it was helpful to have the song in front of him so he could manipulate and move things around the way he wanted.
“GIve him something to play with and then get out of the way.”