Beach Boys' Mike Love Vs. Brian Wilson: Battle of the LA Times Letters

Brian Wilson Mike Love Performing - H 2012
Getty Images

Brian Wilson Mike Love Performing - H 2012

The decades-long fight between bandmates heats up as a 75-date 50th anniversary tour ends and three members are relieved of future involvement in the group. Writes Wilson: "It sort of feels like we're being fired."

The song “Heroes and Villains” certainly wasn’t written about Brian Wilson and Mike Love. But has any pair of comrade-combatants ever understood their respective Superman and Lex Luthor roles so effectively as these perpetually battling Beach Boys? At this late date, it’s almost as if Love has grown so comfortable being vilified by the group’s hardest-core fan base that he actually seeks out opportunities to be characterized as a mustache-twirling opportunist… leaving beatific Brian as the guileless swashbuckler/victim yet again. Who needs a writer for this stuff when the actors know their roles so well?

And now it’s come down to a battle of the Los Angeles Times essays. First, Love went to the paper, penning an Oct. 5 piece (or letter to the editor so long it needed to be bylined) explaining his position on the end of the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary tour. “I did not fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys,” Love wrote.

Four days later, Wilson responded with his own LAT op-ed, also speaking on behalf of fellow disenfranchised Boys Al Jardine and David Marks: “It sort of feels like we’re being fired.”

PHOTOS: When Hippies Ruled Hollywood

In rock & roll, apparently, a pink slip is in the eye of the beholder. And at the end of a 75-date tour, there’s enough pink eye to go around for everybody, clouding tired judgments. But fans were stunned at just how quickly the band members fell into their old separatist ways. Before it was even officially over, in fact, since Love issued his supposedly clarifying statement about Wilson, Jardine, and Marks not continuing with the band the day before they all assembled at the Grammy Museum for one last gig.

Love has rarely been a sympathetic figure among Beach Boy-aholics. In what may or may not be a play on “Get Christie Love,” the catchphrase “F--- Mike Love” has caught on and endured among the Wilson Brothers-loving intelligentsia. He’s even been blamed for Brian’s masterwork, Smile, taking 40 years to come out. That was unfair, and fans began to reassess Love’s role (or lack of it) in the scotching of Smile when a boxed set of the sessions finally came out last year. But, having been somewhat vindicated by his part in allowing that to come out in 2011 and his participation in a reunion album and tour this year, it’s as if Love couldn’t resist re-snatching moral defeat from the jaws of victory.

Some would ascribe Love’s motivation in going back to flogging the Beach Boys’ name on the road without most of his fellow living band members as hubris.

A better explanation? Fear. And it may be the same terror that armchair analysts assume motivates far less villainized road hogs like Bob Dylan.

It’s not just about the money (although, of course, it’s always about the money). But if there’s a key to developing some sympathy for Mike Love -- which, for Wilson worshippers, is admittedly a tall order -- it may be useful to think of him less as the world’s least mellow TM advocate and more as one of the last of a breed of performers rooted in a Depression-era mentality where not to tour is to die.

Love’s lengthy explanation for why he needs to keep touring under the Beach Boys’ name without Wilson, Jardine, and Marks (but with Bruce Johnston) is fascinating. First of all, there’s the legal right to continue with the Wilson-less “configuration that had been touring together every year for the last 13 years.” As Love reminded readers, “The name ‘The Beach Boys’ is controlled by Brother Records Inc., which was founded by the original members of the Beach Boys and whose sole shareholders voted over a decade ago to grant me an exclusive license to tour as ‘The Beach Boys.’” If only Love would use air-quote gestures every time he went on stage with this ringer-filled lineup and said “We’re the ‘Beach Boys’.”

But beyond having the legal permission, Love puts his penchant for non-stop touring under the names in terms of a righteous moral obligation. “I’ve felt a great responsibility to uphold, honor and further our legacy. For better or worse, I’ve been a constant link to the history of the Beach Boys through every live performance -- bar none,” he wrote. And with the full reunion lineup as expensive baggage, the “Beach Boys” couldn’t take their legacy to every lesser regarded town in America, he maintained. “It is not feasible, both logistically and economically, for the 50th anniversary tour to play these markets. It’s vitally important for the smaller markets to experience our live shows, as this is how we’ve maintained a loyal fan base for 50 years. You can’t sustain a fan base on a great catalog alone. You must take your music directly to the people.”

PHOTOS: Elvis Presley: His Life and Career in Pictures

Mike Love, defender of the people’s populist right to see some incarnation of the Beach Boys at the county fair? Well, it is a case.

Look at it from Love’s mantra-fueled point of view: His downscale version of the Beach Boys “averag(es) 150+ shows a year.” The upscale reunion version was originally set for just 50, but added 25 more when things went so well. Sure, Brian says he wants to take the reunion tour to international markets now, but he’s a delicate man in many ways, and originally was only going to do select markets on this tour before he was all in.

You can sympathize with the plight that Love can’t really publicly articulate. What, realistically, are the odds of keeping Brian happy and in tow for further scores of dates, let alone as an ongoing concern?

Answer: Better than the odds of not being painted as the big old jerk-face who pushed Brian Wilson back out of the spotlight in order to play Provo.

But maybe it really is a generational thing. “Let the fields lay fallow” is not an operational phrase for the old school of show business that Love represents. If you can be loved 150 nights a year instead of 50, regardless of the prestige or finances involved, that seems like a no-brainer for most performers of a certain age. Mike Love is the shopkeeper who’s still deathly afraid, even well into his would-be retirement years, to take Mondays off. In that, he’s hardly alone in the entertainment business.

Twitter: @chriswillman