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Bad Vibrations: More Beach Boys agita, this time over Mike Love’s trophy hunters gig

[The president with Mike Love]

Brian Wilson is the best-known member of the Beach Boys, the 60s hit group with which he has had a contentious off-and-on relationship for years. Recently a petition was forwarded to him asking people to boycott the Beach Boys, and not even buy their old recordings any more. Wilson signed it, and passed it on to his social media followers urging them to sign as well.

He was angered that “The Beach Boys touring group licensed by Mike Love” (as Wilson phrased it in his tweet) would be performing at the February 5-8 convention of the Safari Club International in Reno, Nevada. The Safari Club International with 50,000 members and $15 million in assets is the largest organization in the world lobbying for trophy hunters.

Wilson is 77 now, and his cousin Michael Love is 78. It was back in 1958 that Brian pressed his brothers Carl and Dennis into singing harmony with him. The boy-band formed by the Wilson brothers with cousin Love and high school friend Al Jardine was called the Pendletones in a pun on Pendleton plaid shirts, a fad at the time. But in 1961 when their demo tape of two songs Brian had written, Surfin’ and Surfing USA, impressed Columbia Record execs, they were told to lose the brand-name reference (and change out of the plaids into stripes), and were redubbed the Beach Boys. None of them knew how to surf at the time, and while some tried it later they confessedly never became very good.

Despite scoring a lot of hits writing “bubble-gum pop” songs about hanging out on the beach, driving fast cars, and picking up girls, Brian aspired to break out of this stereotype and show that he could be a serious innovative musician. Brian suffered the first of the mental breakdowns that would keep him involved with therapists for decades at the end of 1964 and stayed in the studio for the next few years. The 1966 Pet Sounds album was a departure, and Paul McCartney later acknowledged that he “nicked a few ideas” from it for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (also influenced by many other musicians). Brian wanted their next album Smile to respond in turn and keep the Beach Boys up in the top tier with the Beatles and Rolling Stones, while Love urged that they return to the kind of music they had started with.

Love denies the quote “don’t f*ck with the formula” that has often been attributed to him but acknowledges “To those who think that Brian walks on water, I will always be the Antichrist.” The band moved on to other projects while some tracks from Smile leaked; Uncut magazine called it “the greatest bootleg of all time” (a form of the album was finally released in 2004). Like many bands of the time, the Beach Boys were sucked into litigation with their record company, political controversies, heavy drug use, and involvement with fringe religious movements. They broke with Capitol to start their own label Brother Records. Carl Wilson defied the draft and was in legal trouble for years. The band skipped the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where they were originally slated to headline, out of fear that Carl would be arrested onstage (or fear that better musicians would show them up, less charitable critics opined). Mike Love made the pilgrimage to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, and brought the yogi to tour with them, until Maharishi ditched them after five shows to pursue film opportunities.


Then Dennis Wilson had a brush with a much worse group when he picked up Manson Family member Patricia Krenwinkel (now the longest-serving female inmate in California, in prison since 1971) hitchhiking, and was introduced to Charlie Manson himself. At first he liked Manson’s music, let him use their recording studio, and wrote some lyrics to a tune of his. He became disturbed after a visit to Manson’s Spahn Ranch property (rumors that he actually saw Manson commit a murder on the ranch have never been confirmed), rewrote the tune somewhat and deleted Manson’s name from the credits. Manson sent him a bullet with the message “Every time you look at this feel grateful that your kids are safe” and sent his Family to the former house of the Beach Boys’ producer, Terry Melcher, who had delivered the news of the snub. It was now the house of director Roman Polanski, who was lucky not to be at home, but his 8-months-pregnant wife actress Sharon Tate was not so fortunate. She was murdered along with four others in the house. Learning that Melcher was not among the dead, the next night Manson delivered the Family to a wrong address in Los Feliz, next door to a house where he had partied with Terry and Dennis and hoped to find them, and there Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered despite having nothing to do with Manson’s grudges.

Dennis went into a mental tailspin and there were fears he would end up like Brian, who was having such delusions as thinking that his obsessive retakes of the track “Fire” had caused a nearby building to burn down. Glen Campbell, the famously cheerful musician who was one of the substitutes for Brian on tour, could not take it and left to pursue a solo career and TV variety show. But Bruce Johnston, who also filled in sometimes during the early years, is still with the Mike Love faction of the Beach Boys to this day. In 1973 the use of their music in the movie American Graffiti to evoke a more innocent time, and an agreement with Capitol Records to release greatest-hits albums, allegedly led Brian to wonder “Have we become an oldies band, already?”

The Beach Boys, or subsets or solo members of the group, have occasionally returned to the charts over the decades but are more famous for the controversies. In 1982, after Brian ballooned to over 300 pounds, was arrested for vagrancy sleeping in a park, and overdosed on cocaine plus alcohol and other drugs, Love refused to let him have any more of his share of the money unless he returned to Dr. Eugene Landy, a therapist Brian thought was manipulating him. Dr. Landy kept Brian in strict isolation until he was restored to health. In 1983, Interior Secretary James Watt said he would ban the Beach Boys from their now-traditional 4th of July concert on the Mall because they “attract the wrong element”: Mike Love sought the personal intervention of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who he had heard were fans. He was accused of going over to the conservatives but insisted he was still a “progressive” and started contributing to environmentalist groups.

Meanwhile tensions were growing with Dennis over his escalating drug addiction, leading to a similar ultimatum that Dennis go into rehab or be expelled. Dennis and Love even took out restraining orders against each other. Then in December 1983, Dennis in a state of drunken remorse dived into a marina to recover items belonging to his ex-wife, which he had thrown into the water during their divorce three years earlier, and drowned. Subsequent litigation included Brian suing his own father for making him sign away his royalties, when he was not mentally competent to do so; Brian suing Dr. Landy for taking financial advantage of him; Love suing Brian for not giving him co-credits on many songs, going all the way back to Surfing USA; Love and Al Jardine and some Wilson family members suing Brian for defamation over things he said in
his memoirs; and the rival bands around Love and Jardine suing each other over who had the right to use the “Beach Boys” name on tour. It was not until Carl Wilson, never as much of a drug user as the others but a heavy cigarette smoker from the age of 13, died of cancer in 1998 that the group started burying the tomahawk, somewhat. The survivors appeared together in 2006 at a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Pet Sounds, recorded a charity single in 2011 for victims of the Fukushima earthquake, and in 2012 went on a “50th anniversary” tour with a new album That’s Why God Made the Radio which made it to #3, giving them a world record for hitting the Billboard charts over a span of 49 years. Predictably, Brian and Love had a falling out and went their separate ways before the reunion was supposed to be over, and disagree about how to characterize this breakup.

Love’s Beach Boys were among the many musicians who declined to perform at Trump’s inaugural but they did consider it before accepting a gig instead at the Texas State Society’s Black Tie & Boots Inaugural Ball which happens every four years regardless of which party wins, though the attendees tend to be more enthusiastic about Republican Presidents.

Still, this willingness to get along with conservatives did not prepare some long-time fans for Love’s willingness to appear at the Safari Club convention, where the keynote speaker was Donald J. Trump Jr. It did not seem consistent with Love’s prior devotion to green causes. The petition in protest originally read

Dear Beach Boys Manager Elliott Lott,

We the undersigned pledge to stop buying or downloading all Beach Boys music, going to Beach Boys concerts, and purchasing any Beach Boys merchandise until the Beach Boys withdraw from the SCI Convention and publicly state their opposition to this sick ‘sport’ of killing animals for ‘fun’. We will call on the Beach Boys’ record label, agent and publicists to disown the Beach Boys, and on members of the public to protest at forthcoming Beach Boys concerts, unless they do so.

However, the band was undeterred. “We look forward to a night of great music in Reno, and, as always, support freedom of thought and expression as a fundamental tenet of our rights as Americans,” Love said in a statement, and the band performed as scheduled.

The petition has now been repurposed to ask the UK to adopt a proposed ban on hunting trophies.

Robert Eckert is a longtime member of the Underground Bunker community and author of the historical novel The Year of Five Emperors.

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