I can hear music: The Beach Boys lowdown with passionate wordsmith Mike Eder
In a far-reaching interview dropping below, Beach Boys chronicler Mike Eder convincingly argues why each member of America’s Band deserves accolades beyond Brian Wilson’s shadow, if the eccentric leader killed SMiLE, uncovers the reclusive genius’s mental state and largely ignored studio activity post-SMiLE, Mike Love’s massive ego and enviable determination to keep the band alive onstage, the artistic credibility that was lost when South African musicians Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar departed the Beach Boys just prior to Endless Summer, the underrated L.A. [Light Album], drummer Dennis Wilson’s devastatingly heart-rending compositions, the extraordinary love felt among Beach Boys audiences, and eons more. Eder is also an authority on Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and responsible for Elvis Music FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the King’s Recorded Works.
The Mike Eder / Beach Boys Interview
Tell us a little about your journalism background and hobbies.
I live in Illinois in a Chicago suburb called Naperville. I am 41 years old and have been a music fan since I was five. I am a vinyl record collector with around 4,000 LP’s and 45’s. I also love to watch DVD’s — stuff on music and comedy are my favorites — read mostly music or film biography, and I enjoy video games and Superman.
I have been writing since I was about 14, when I first got an article on The Three Stooges published in The Three Stooges Journal, a well-made fan club magazine. The editor encouraged my writing and actually part of one of my articles got quoted in a Three Stooges book.
They were about various radio shows, shorts, and TV shows they did as solo performers. Michael Jackson and David Letterman were actually in the club at the time, which was kind of cool to think they may have read it. I suppose the success of that was why I pursued writing afterwards.
Anyway, I continued doing media journalism. When I graduated college I began writing for a local publisher while doing other jobs on the side in the writing field. I left after 10 years as my career wasn’t moving ahead and almost immediately I began getting great offers. My name was now out there to some extent so it was a lot easier to get my work looked at.
What prompted your Beach Boys odyssey?
I saw a documentary on them on VH1. It’s called An American Band and it aired in 1988. I was 12 and already a big time record collector from the ’50s and ’60s. I had liked them before the movie okay, but once I heard the Smile-era and Sunflower cuts I was hooked. Brian and Dennis’s talent knocked me out.
What was the genesis of your unpublished Beach Boys manuscript, I Can Hear Music?
I felt the Beach Boys story hadn’t been told with balance. I first thought of this in 1994 actually when I was 18. I knew Brian had not stayed in bed for years at a time — I knew he did great work after Smile. This was not made clear by the many books and movies up to that time.
Even now his relative normalcy in the late sixties and early seventies is overlooked and dismissed. As the years went by I came to feel that not only had Brian gotten a raw deal, but also there was Dennis, who only in the last few years has gotten recognition.
The entire band has still not been given due respect. This includes Mike Love. I disagree with many of the creative decisions he made after 1973, but he was essential to the early blend.
I am not a blind fan and after 1974 I only really like Dennis’s stuff to any great extent, but I still feel from 1961–1973 they were the most important American band, perhaps the most important band period.
I chose the title I Can Hear Music as a lot of the manuscript was me playing Beach Boys’ records and reviewing them. The title also can apply to all eras of the group, and seeing Carl Wilson and the Beach Boys sing the song on September 6, 1993, at the Poplar Creek Amphitheater in Chicago was very uplifting. They were promoting the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys box set. “I Can Hear Music” came pretty early in the show, and it was the first indication that this was going to be a much better set song-wise than they had given in many years.
I also saw them with Carl on October 28, 1989, at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago, Illinois. They were playing with Chicago but I missed their jam as I took ill and went home early. It was a pretty dull oldies show that first time, but Carl did a great “God Only Knows” so he stole the performance [Brian was not present at either the 1989 or 1993 shows I saw]. I Can Hear Music remains my dream project, and perhaps one day a suitable publisher will come along.
Did you have an opportunity to meet any of the Beach Boys or their close confidants?
Since I had a rough idea of the book in 1994, I got a few interviews in the year or so after with legendary Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine, Brian’s first wife Marilyn Wilson, and Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean.
When I was in college I set it aside to some extent but did get an interview with Brian Wilson in 1999 that went really well. Honestly, it was just getting to him at the right time, and I appreciate him helping me out. During this period I really wasn’t a great writer, but the ideas were there.
By 2001, when I finished school, I was ready to begin my career but the book still wasn’t in good enough shape to publish, and I hadn’t done enough to get in any doors. I got the local writing job and in between those projects I kept working on I Can Hear Music.
In 2003 I had a big break and managed to get around a dozen more phone and email interviews, which was fine for a project where my questions were mainly specific.
Original band manager Fred Vail, Brian’s very good ’70s friend Debbie Keil, longtime engineer Steve Desper, poet and Dennis and Brian’s sometimes songwriting partner Steve Kalinich, Dennis’s buddy and group photographer Ed Roach, late Sunrays guitarist Eddy Medora, keyboardist Daryl Dragon of later Captain & Tennille fame, late veteran keyboardist Mike Meros, Jimmie Seiter [worked with Brian and Bruce in 1975 on the “California Music” single 45], and Al Jardine’s solo band keyboardist Tom Jacob all gave me considerable time.
To really get to the heart of your question, I have met Mike and Bruce long enough to shake hands or get an autograph. Although Johnston answered some questions on the Beach Boys Britain message board, I never did get to talk to them.
David Marks has answered one or two things through his wife. Al and I had a nice phone chat, but it was only to tell him what I was doing and to ask him a bit about “Loop De Loop” and Brian’s non-role in the recording [Author’s Note: Unreleased for nearly 30 years, this sound-effects laden production oddity has to be heard to be believed].
Carl sent me a personalized autograph a record dealer got for me, but I sadly did not talk to him. I think we would have connected at some point had he lived, as I understand he was really the historian of them all.
That said, I think I have gone out of my way to present all of their talents as individuals so the reader can discover what each of them added to the group. I also have tried to present all their different takes on things when possible. I try to be fair and make this less about “myth” and more about fact.
As an aside, I have talked to many other Beach Boys authors and must say that as people, and as writers, I rank Andrew G. Doe — Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: The Complete Guide to Their Music — and Jon Stebbins — Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy and The Lost Beach Boy: An Authorized Biography of Original Beach Boy David Marks — very high.
Domenic Priore — Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! and Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece — actually read my first manuscript and was very helpful with something that didn’t yet have much shape or polish. I don’t agree with everything Domenic has put forth on say Mike Love, but he taught me by example to always say what I truly think about the music, good or bad.
I can say honestly that a huge majority of the people I met through this have been very kind. It’s a great give and take usually, and I think people enjoy sharing the things they went through. I really do enjoy letting the artists whose work I admire know how much positivity they have brought to my life.
Even if I had never progressed in my chosen profession, that I can express to them some kind of gratitude makes it all very worthwhile.
How are dyed in the wool Beach Boys fans divergent than fans of other legacy artists?
I guess I have been in touch with most of the hardcore fan base, but this is kind of a hard question. Everybody is different and with anything people like, I don’t really think there is one description. It’s a wide audience age wise — many girl fans as well as guys.
My wife noticed when we went to see Brian that he is loved much more personally than many artists are. I think this is true at least to a small extent because Brian as well as Dennis wrote so personally about himself and has always been candid. Now sometimes that has worked against him, but really those who do get it, truly care about the man.
Carl and Dennis also seem to be loved as people very strongly. Again these things can be applied to most artists, but what makes the Beach Boys special for me is that I can relate to their lives and their music as being a real reflection of American life. Eccentric perhaps, but deep down most of us are.
To further that thought, I think most of us are lucky our worst moments aren’t broadcast to the world. On the other hand, our triumphs can’t be shared by so many either. While I was once concerned that the Beach Boys would be overlooked, I think that fear has been proven quite wrong.
Would Brian Wilson have succeeded without the Beach Boys?
I don’t think he would have been what he became. First, he had a regular group of singers to work with who happened to all sing in amazing harmony with him. Second, I don’t think Brian would have thought of something like “Surfin’“ without Dennis and Mike.
Carl and Dave gave the music an edge, while Al is just an all around great entertainer. They compliment each other very well. Another thing to consider is that Brian’s work with other artists in the sixties and seventies mainly failed to catch on with anybody.
Now that stuff to me is better than any solo Brian albums, but it didn’t catch on. That is, excepting his work with Jan and Dean who already had a good track record, and in Jan you had a producer who could teach Brian a few things very early on.
Brian didn’t like to tour and would have had to — he did help Mike emcee the show early on — but I can’t see him wanting that through a whole show. So in short, no, I don’t think Brian could have been what he was alone.
Name some of your favorite Beach Boys records before Pet Sounds. And do you hold a soft spot for the hot rod and surfin’ tunes?
Well, I like their early stuff quite a bit. Debut Surfin’ Safari  wasn’t the best album, but it has a period charm. Surfin’ USA  is probably one of the most important rock LP’s of the sixties in that it really introduced surf music to a large audience vocally and instrumentally. Also, it was already a huge leap forward in their sound.
Shut Down Volume 2  is another big leap forward because despite some filler, the Beach Boys were now issuing tracks that were superbly vocalized and produced.
All Summer Long  is their first great LP start to finish with only “Our Favorite Recording Sessions” slightly marring it. I mean, who else was singing like that? Not even their best contemporaries could match them by the middle of 1964. Beach Boys Concert  isn’t brilliantly played technically but what excitement and power it has!
Both distributed in 1965, The Beach Boys Today! and Summer Days [And Summer Nights!!] are simply two of the best rock LP’s ever issued. They show a lot of growth production-wise and also lyrically. Today is as good as anything anyone ever did in the rock field.
Beach Boys’ Party!  is filler I suppose, but it’s a really unique concept, plus the genuine fun they had making it comes across.
I suppose the only problem I have with these songs is that they weren’t always revived with care in later years. “Be True to Your School”  was a fine single, but it didn’t work in the later shows because it became cynical with all the cheerleaders.
However, the last time I saw Mike and Bruce in 2007, the surf songs sounded more garage-like and raw. They managed to make them come alive in a way that they hadn’t since 1975–76.
It’s too bad that those early songs limited their appeal to some or kept certain people from taking the group seriously later, but they are all valid. Making new music playing off that image was a huge mistake from 1976–92, but the originals are wonderful.
Twenty years ago the general public didn’t really know the Beach Boys progressed beyond that. Fortunately, people have a better idea of the Beach Boys’ artistry beyond their initial hits courtesy of Today, Pet Sounds and now Smile.
Now the 1967–72 material needs to be addressed, and I hope it will become as well known one day. In Europe, of course, this has never been an issue as the 1966–72 material did very well in general.
After 44 years, Smile was finally unleashed to universal acclaim. How does it stack up?
To me The Smile Sessions is the final word, and I am knocked out. I doubt it would have been exactly the same as in 1967, but that’s okay because Smile is a bigger thing now than it ever could have originally been.
Things happened the way they were meant to, and the circle of the whole thing feels complete. I get the whole creative objective in a way I didn’t before. It sounds complete as possible, and very good sonically on vinyl. I don’t think I will listen to the solo version much again.
I realize singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Darian Sahanaja helped Brian get it into a more coherent form on Brian Wilson Presents Smile , one that this version riskily — but thankfully brilliantly — used as a guide.
However, I feel the real magic of Smile went down in 1966–67. And I wasn’t crazy about the new lyrics, though some that originated from 1966 were interesting. I guess I don’t even need to mention the difference in Brian’s voice. I did love seeing BWPS live, but as a record I would rather play the vintage stuff, as much as I can admire the quality and effort in the later version.
In my book I used Smile to make two points. One, that Mike Love didn’t kill Smile. Brian’s word was law then and Mike simply didn’t have the kind of power he later obtained.
Second, Brian did not change overnight into a drug addled recluse who refused to work. That has no basis in reality, but you still hear that myth. I don’t like myths because the truth is less dramatic, but more interesting because Brian and the Beach Boys went on in the next half decade to make some of the best music of their lives.
Sticking to 1966–67, in short Smile is a special achievement even if every last vocal didn’t get finished. Brian Wilson had a unique gift and in the Beach Boys he had a special vehicle. Anybody who was around them that has said different at the time or now had their own political reasons to further the “Brian and the five a-holes” view that so many seem to need to latch onto.
Perhaps it’s more exciting to have real “Heroes and Villains”, but really these falsehoods are what tore the band apart later on. How this happened my book will explain.
So Brian killed Smile?
Absolutely. Maybe he got bored, or maybe the lawsuit with Capitol meant he had to hold the album back long enough to have moved on. There are a million things you could suppose.
Van Dyke Parks’ wavering commitment didn’t help. Many people side with Parks, but the fact that he didn’t stick around once he got offered a solo album is a big factor in this.
It wasn’t malicious of Parks, but I have a feeling Brian was never completely sold on everything Van Dyke did himself. Perhaps Van Dyke didn’t need to convince Mike Love as much as Brian Wilson.
Brian was in on the mocking Lei’d in Hawaii session, a “live-in-the-studio” recording from September 1967 where Mike Love overdubbed a self-deprecating dialogue onto “Heroes and Villains.” What does that tell you? Maybe Brian loved Smile in 1966, and maybe he does now, but in 1967 he went through a phase where he wasn’t happy with it.
What about the oft-repeated claim that Brian became a total recluse after Smile’s failure?
Listening to the records and looking at the photos and film footage of Brian from 1967 to about 1971 says more than I can. Simply put, he stayed very active professionally and went out on a regular basis. Even in 1974–75 Brian attended parties and actually flew to James Guercio’s Caribou Ranch in Colorado for the 1974 band sessions.
The fact that Brian was still making music is there for all to hear. The unreleased material that has either been recently made officially available or has been bootlegged from the era shows him there. He was around and participating pretty much non-stop until 1972 and even after that there never was a year until 1991 that he didn’t do something with the group.
There is simply no basis that Brian at any time in his life completely stopped functioning on the level of say a Syd Barrett. That’s not to downplay his mental issues, but I’ve come to understand they were there even in 1963–64.
The “Brian the recluse” thing sold papers, and it made a good story. However, there is some truth to it. After Murry died in 1973, Brian did undergo a bit of a metamorphosis and stay in his room more — he had always liked to do that.
Brian previously went through a brief rough patch in 1968, and by 1972 he was worse off emotionally than before, perhaps due to getting heavier into cocaine, but not after Smile.
Did Mike Love’s massive ego contribute to the band splintering?
If Mike has had a problem over the years, it’s with his ego. At times he simply hasn’t been a team player. On the other hand, sometimes he was doing 90% of the work.
I also keep in mind things he did out of the kindness of his heart like looking after David Marks all these years. Yet Mike is not unique in the group for letting his head get too big during certain periods. He is a person both good and bad just like everyone in the group.
I don’t agree with everything he later did personally or creatively for many reasons, but in the pre-Endless Summer history of the group I find him to be anything but a negative force. I really didn’t get the feeling that Mike was a villain of any sort.
Mike definitely filed a few too many lawsuits, and did take over the band somewhat by force after the brief 1977 breakup, but by the same token I don’t think any of the Wilsons wanted to run the band then.
Carl later regained control of the live band to a certain degree, but he was just as responsible for the music going downhill as Mike or Brian. Mike made it go downhill by going for cheap nostalgia, while Brian simply didn’t have the vocal dexterity nor mastery of a more modern studio compared to his ’60s prime.
Carl went MOR, but mostly where he went wrong was when he gave up fighting the notion of being an oldies band. They all gave that up, so to place the decline solely on Mike is unfair. Still, Mike was central to the musical standards lowering as the seventies wore on and later into the eighties and nineties.
Mike’s best features are his enthusiasm when he works, his sense of humor, and a solid commitment to what he believes to be right cause-wise.
I had no idea sixties pop-rock band Kenny Rogers and the First Edition of “Just Dropped In [To See What Condition My Condition Was In”] fame covered the Beach Boys.
Terry Williams, who after the other two original members left ran the First Edition with Kenny, loved the Beach Boys, knew them, and wanted to cover them on Rollin’, a television variety series hosted by the group.
Show arranger and Calico co-writer Larry Cansler often came up with creative variations on a wide variety of different songs, and he helped put a Beach Boys’ medley together. It was based on Pet Sounds, which in 1971 did not have the status in the USA it does today. A cover from that Beach Boys’ era was anything but common then.
Another notable moment is the cover of “Disney Girls” Terry performed later that year. He considers it his favorite thing he ever did. The First Edition was always tremendous boosters of The Beach Boys at a time when it wasn’t cool.
In fact, today the First Edition hold up so well because they didn’t care about transient things that the underground seemed to demand of its favored stars. That they didn’t care about what was “cool” can now be seen to have benefited them creatively over and over again.
How did Dennis’s contribution to the Beach Boys gradually evolve?
Most people don’t realize that Dennis did play on a good number of the early albums. Brian mainly had ace session drummer Hal Blaine replace Dennis on the Pet Sounds and Smile sessions [Blaine was used at times from 1962–1965]. However, Dennis would still play things like the organ on “Good Vibrations.”
From 1967–1971 Dennis did a lot of the drumming. Again, Hal or some of their stage players like Dennis Dragon would sometimes embellish recordings.
Though he had the period where he injured his hand in a freak accident — he put his hand through a glass door in his home — and couldn’t drum, Dennis could also play piano with a lot of soul, and did so periodically throughout the history of the group. He also could play guitar and bass harmonica, and I’m sure he dabbled a lot with various other instruments over the years.
Dennis, like the others, was slightly green on early TV clips, but was quite an exciting stage presence by the fall of 1964. Obviously he was very popular with the ladies, but he was also the “cool” one in the group who could connect to the guys.
By 1966 Dennis was singing impressive things like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and once he began to write more seriously, his songs were always set highlights. During the period he didn’t drum — mid-1971 to the fall of 1974 — Dennis sometimes blended into the background, but at other times literally made the show with his songs and charm.
The first couple of years he came back to stage drumming, he had a lot of power that almost made up for the fact that his voice was getting rough. After 1976–1977, Dennis is kind of hard to watch, but even as late as 1980 he really was what gave the group an edge.
Dennis was usually in the harmonic blend. He started out singing a bit like Dion, but by 1965 he had found his voice. I love his 1965–1973 vocals. What a unique voice he had! It was so expressive and conveyed a lot of truth. He continued to do just that from 1974–1980, but of course his singing had lost much of its technical ability and beauty.
Still he adapted to the vocal changes better than Brian did concurrently, and it gave his later work a nice moody feel. By 1981 Dennis could barely speak, let alone sing, and that’s pretty tragic for someone who could convey so much with their voice.
As a songwriter, Dennis was brilliant and was the only Beach Boy who never just cranked one out. Some of his songs are more complete than others, but all have a quality to them.
My favorite Dennis songs, in the order they were released, are “Celebrate the News,” “Slip On Through,” “Lady,” “Sound of Free,” “Got to Know the Woman,” “Forever,” “It’s About Time,” “River Song,” “Pacific Ocean Blues,” “It’s Not Too Late,” “Angel Come Home,” “Wild Situation,” and “All Alone.”
Did the other Beach Boys become jealous when Dennis unleashed debut solo album Pacific Ocean Blue to critical acclaim in 1977?
Mike was jealous, Al probably mixed, and Brian and Carl supported Dennis pretty much but had their own issues. From about 1973 onward, Dennis went downhill a touch each year, yet he was the most together Wilson brother in 1976–1977, so that in itself was strange.
Brian was no longer always coherent — there is film footage of Brian lying down on the ground at 1977 rehearsals plus he had to be constantly monitored — and Carl had a serious drug and drinking problem at that time.
As 1977 progressed, Dennis’s lifestyle began to really show in his face, and his onstage performances weren’t the same as they had been even a year or two before. By the end of 1978, Dennis really was lost. Fortunately, Carl pulled out of his decline that year.
Dennis should have just done some sort of solo tour to promote POB even if they did threaten to kick him out. By declining after that he got kicked out anyway. Of course, it was rotten to put him in that position, period.
Mike and Carl were soon to do solo tours so it never made sense to me that Dennis couldn’t. I think the threats against him were taken too seriously. If he hadn’t been a bit scared, and if the record company had allowed him to hire a string section, I think it would have come off.
That is, if Dennis had stayed sober. Perhaps this challenge would have allowed him to save the party for after the show.
Was there any resentment within the band when South Africans Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar joined in 1971?
No, I don’t think resentment was the feeling. Dennis, having hurt his hand, was considering a solo career and had briefly left. Bruce was on his way out, and Brian was more interested in Spring, a pop music duo consisting of Marilyn and her sister Diane Rovell.
So it was a good time for them to come in, and I feel they gave the band a very cool new dimension. Perhaps it wasn’t the original Beach Boys anymore, but for that time — due to the circumstances — I feel it was positive.
When Blondie [December 1973] and Ricky [October 1974] left, the Beach Boys lost their credibility as artists. By going back to the 1961 band, it made it that much easier to hop on the oldies train, also buoyed by the runaway success of the Endless Summer compilation.
Musically, The Flame — an album by the Flames featuring Blondie and Ricky produced by Carl in 1970 — Carl and the Passions So Tough , and Holland  are all solid, forward-thinking albums. That’s largely due to Ricky and Blondie, plus Carl of course.
L.A. [Light Album] was arguably the Beach Boys’ last gasp of artistic relevance until That’s Why God Made the Radio, distributed 33 years later. Coincidentally or not, L.A. contained Dennis’s final songwriting contributions to the group.
The Light Album is pretty good for something that came after 1974. Dennis makes the album because his songs — ”Love Surrounds Me,” “Baby Blue” — were as good as ever. “Good Timin’” was done mostly in 1974, so it still has the old quality with amazing vocal work.
“Lady Lynda” isn’t my taste, but I admire it as a record. I like “Angel Come Home” due to Dennis’s soulful lead, but Carl’s other songs don’t match what he had composed with Jack Rieley, who managed the group during the early ‘70s.
Mike was writing some good songs in 1978 for his unreleased First Love album. “Sumahama” wasn’t one of them. “Shortenin’ Bread” was pretty goofy to my ears, but I would rather have something quirky than “Here Comes the Night”.
I don’t like disco much and that record has all the worst qualities of the genre. That they used a long version that took up a good third of the album makes it worse. Even an unreleased outtake like the hilariously dirty cover of Dion’s “Drip Drop” would have done less damage.
To me, Light Album was half great and half terrible. It was the last album that had any real sense of quality, but compared to the standards they achieved from 1961–1974, I think it falls short.
How did Dennis spend his last birthday?
After a very rough day involving his estranged wife, he went to his friend George Hormel’s house, shot pool and they baked him a cake. Stebbins said that apparently Dennis spilled a glass of wine all over Hormel’s ultra-high end mixing console. Though in a somewhat bad state, the fuss made over him lifted his spirits.
What is Dennis’s legacy?
Dennis would be very gratified that his work is held in such high esteem. My guess is that he would like to be remembered for his love of life, his personal kindness, and as an artist who told the truth. Dennis was the soul of the Beach Boys, and when he declined and died, so did the band — at least until the short-lived 2012 reunion.
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