Al Jardine was a founding member of The Beach Boys, and apart from a year off in the early days, he was a key member of the band up until 1998. He was also part of the 50th anniversary reunion tour that visited the Santa Barbara Bowl in the summer of 2012.
You can hear Jardine’s harmonies and/or playing on many classic Beach Boys recordings including “Surfin’ Safari”, “I Get Around”, “California Girls”, “Barbara Ann”, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Good Vibrations”, and many more. His best-known lead vocal is on the Number One hit “Help Me Rhonda”. He also brought the song “Sloop John B” with Brian Wilson’s attention, and helped to arrange The Beach Boys’ version. His songwriting credits include “California Saga: California” and “Susie Cincinnati”.
This interview was for the performance by musical genius Brian Wilson and Al Jardine on 9/27/14 at the Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles. It was done by phone on 9/16/14, and has been edited slightly for continuity.
Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming show?
Al Jardine: Well, you’ll get quite a mixture of things. We’re kind of all over the map, actually. We do some hits from the 60’s, some very interesting songs from the 70’s, and a smattering of stuff from the 80’s. It’s just a heckuva show. Every show is different – you never know what you’re going to get! The song selection’s really interesting, with different eras of The Beach Boys.
JM: Given how rich The Beach Boys catalog is, how do you choose a setlist for something like this?
AJ: It’s been pre-established for all of these years. Pretty much it’s Brian’s show. I’m really there to support him. I don’t have any input [on the setlist], except for the ones I sing, of course. You know, Mary Ann [AJ’s wife, listening to the conversation], we probably ought to do “California Saga”. It’s a song that I wrote about the Central Coast area of California, our area in other words. But I don’t involve myself in the setlist too much.
This reminds me of something funny. I was looking at a picture and talking to Jeff Foskett, who used to sing Carl’s parts onstage with us during the late 80’s and 90’s. We used to write our set on our hand. The whole set could be written on our left hand. So we would look at our hand and we’d know exactly what the next song was. That’s how few songs we actually did play. Forty-five minutes was a normal set for us, actually. Sometimes we’d do four forty-five minute sets, but they’d all be the same songs. Now it’s like double that, at least. There’s no more room on our hands [laughs], unless you go down your forearm. Actually, we did start writing them on there, when we added too many. Now we have them at our feet onstage, and I can’t read them because I can no longer see that well. It’s always a challenge. Now they finally figured out that Brian and I need really large print [laughs].
JM: If you don’t mind going way back, can you tell me about when you first met Brian Wilson?
AJ: Whew… We played football together. The first time I met Brian was on the team, football practice. We chatted a little bit. We didn’t know each other personally, other than we’d pass each other on campus and shared some of the same classes. But we didn’t actually strike up a friendship until after we began The Beach Boys. My second year of college we hooked up and started singing together, and then he introduced me to his family, and that’s when everything started taking off.
AJ: It was instantaneous. He was so into the Four Freshman, and he was showing me all of these fabulous songs on the piano, and I was showing him a couple of folk songs like “Sloop John B”, for instance. And he was showing me a Four Freshman tune. We were all over the map. Man, we were having a ball. He said, “You’ve got to meet my cousin Mike [Love]. You’ve got to meet my little brother Carl”, you know.
I rented some instruments for the first record. I went over and rented all of the equipment and we made our little song called “Surfin'”.
JM: And the rest is history, as they say, right?
JM: The first song that you sang lead for was “Help Me Rhonda”. How was it decided who would sing the lead on the different songs?
AJ: That was Brian. And that wasn’t my first song, by the way. “Christmas Day” was my very first song, on the Christmas Album. But I think his instinct was, hey, the guys are going out 150 days a year. We’d better spread the leads around [laughs]. That would be my guess. I never really asked Brian about it, to be honest with you. He gave Carl, of course, the lead to “Good Vibrations”, which he could easily have done himself. He was smart. That way he kept himself off the road. He didn’t like to tour. I think that was his way of keeping us all working [laughs] and him off the road. He knew what keys we all sang in and what best would suit each singer. You know, Mike had those early hits, but that was a certain quality of song, a certain kind of presentation. And then as you grow musically you want a different kind of presentation.
AJ: Nah, I don’t think we need to go there. It was an episode between a father and a son, and the ultimate breakup of that relationship of the two competing… there’s probably a Greek term for that, one of the Greek tragedies. You know, it was unfortunate, but we had to move on without him, without Murry. He was getting too involved, you know, too many cooks in the kitchen. It was challenging. We got through that session alright. We had all of the ammunition we needed, and didn’t need the distraction of a conflict like that, but we got through it.
JM: The members of The Beach Boys obviously had different personalities and different strengths. What do you feel that you personally brought to the band? What was something unique that you brought?
AJ: Well, I brought my voice, obviously. My instinct and my musicality, I guess. Also, I played several instruments – that helped. I played bass on the first record and switched over to guitar to support the rhythm section. When Brian worked with us he would play the bass. So we were pretty versatile. Plus my love of folk music. Brian’s love of jazz and mine of folk music was an interesting combination. I brought “Sloop John B” to the band, the iconic, legendary song “Sloop John B” – my idea. I helped Brian arrange that. It was pretty amazing when I think about it. We were pretty versatile. It was a Number 3 hit world, and went to Number 1, probably, around the world. That would be my role. We were constantly evolving as a band, and we had to support one another. You know, Brian couldn’t do it all, but he tried [laughs].
JM: I’m happy that the original sessions from Smile got released a couple of years ago, and of course you were a part of that. When you listen to that now, do you think it lives up to its legend as the great lost Beach Boys album?
AJ: Oh definitely, I think it did. There are sparkling gems in there. I would love to have finished “Heroes and Villains” the way we do it onstage now. It took a while to figure out how to actually finish the song. We recorded it several different ways, and ultimately we deconstructed it, put it back together, and released a single. And it flopped. It didn’t do well, unfortunately, because we changed studio systems. We didn’t have all the great gear that we were accustomed to at the great studios. We started recording in Brian’s living room, and it didn’t afford us the edge. We had the edge with “Good Vibrations”. And so that single release was the end of the Smile era for us. That’s when Smile kind of went into the can, unfortunately. It just happens that we didn’t appreciate the integrity, I guess, of the studio system. We’d been in it for so long, we just wanted to get away and try something different. So we kind of deconstructed ourselves. We got it back about thirty years later [laughs]. That’s Why God Made the Radio is a pretty good production. When you listen to “Heroes and Villains” on The Smile Sessions, you’ll hear the difference qualitatively in many phases of the song. For the show in Paso Robles you’ll hear it in what I think is its best completed take.
JM: Here’s a question based on the name of that song. In the story of The Beach Boys, who do you think were the “heroes” and… maybe you don’t want to say who the “villains” are.
AJ: Is this a leading question? [both laugh] We’re all heroes. I think all of us. Mike and Brian were first cousins, and they had a relationship which helped cement the musical and lyrical direction of the band from the beginning. Carl was a hero because he was the moral center of the band, also a hell of a guitar player. And Dennis [Wilson], who didn’t even play an instrument, learned to play the drums. He gave me a lot of trouble over the years. He said, “I hate this song” – “Help Me Rhonda”. I said, “What do you mean?” “I have to hit the drums every quarter note. It’s gonna put me in the hospital.” Just kidding, I’m overdoing it. But the hardest song he said, on the stage, was “Help Me Rhonda”. Because he played the drums kind of backwards. He was an untrained drummer, but had really great time, and great energy. You know, we’d always kid around about “Help Me Rhonda” because that was the one that gave him the most trouble. All of them are heroes.
JM: I saw the 50th anniversary show a couple of years ago in Santa Barbara. What are your reflections on that tour?
AJ: It was great, and unfortunately came to a close too soon. I would have loved to have seen it go into another year, which is so pragmatic, so logical. But due to certain members of the band it just wasn’t to be. We kind of were hobbled. We added dates, we added up to 74 dates – we added 24 extra dates. It was great while it lasted. We were just getting our motors going, you know, and I would have loved to have seen it continue.
JM: Do you think there’s any chance that the group of you will get back together to tour or record any more?
AJ: I don’t know. It was great working with Mike, when we were on tour. It was just great. It was complete, you know. It’s really up to him [laughs].
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
AJ: Do it for fun. Enjoy it, and enjoy those weekends at the roadhouse or wherever you play. Have fun with it. Somehow if it does evolve into something more serious, it can be a rocky road [laughs]. Just stay within yourself and don’t try to be something else, don’t try to be something else that you’re not. And enjoy it, whatever level you’re at. Sometimes you don’t even know what level you’re at, but you get lucky and you happen to find yourself in a band that’s going somewhere. That’s when things get kind of strange, because of the business management part. I would recommend people just [appreciate] the joy it gives you. Make sure it’s your favorite hobby, because then you can escape whatever it is you do that you don’t really want to do.
Music is a forever thing for me. I’m constantly… and Brian of course, and all of us. Sometimes it is an obsession with people, and that’s good, too. If it’s an obsession, you’re probably going to be fairly good at it, hopefully. You’ll know soon enough. But it’s the money part of it that’s the rough part. It’s something that most of us aren’t trained to deal with, and publishing and things like that.
JM: This may be an interview in and of itself, but is there anything you want to set the record straight on about yourself or the history of The Beach Boys? Something that you’re always annoyed that people get wrong, perhaps?
AJ: Is this the Wall Street Journal or is this the Santa Barbara paper? Oh gosh… You know, Mike used to live there. 101 Mesa Lane.
That’s a pretty vast, open question. I can’t really think think of it, other than maybe Carl and Dennis. People should have a look at their music and appreciate what they did. I’m aspiring to do a tour of their music. I was told that we wouldn’t get probably a whole lot of attendance, due to the fact that there is no star power there, because they’re gone now. I wanted to call it “The Long Promised Road”, which encompasses many of their songs from the 70’s period, from that second era, 1970 on. Wonderful tunes that Carl and Dennis wrote – they’re amazing. That’s a legacy I think needs to be looked at. I mean, with Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, these rather amazing South Africans that joined us for that period. But it’s tough getting the buyers to buy it, you know what I mean? We’ll see, who knows?
JM: Going back to Smile, when you were recording “Vegetables”, I understand that Paul McCartney showed up. So Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson are sitting there. What was going through your mind when you have two of the greatest songwriters ever listening to you sing?
AJ: Well, actually Paul took over the production on that particular song. It was pretty late, and I was really anxious to get home because we had to go out and tour the next morning. So my memory of it is exasperation that Brian and Paul couldn’t seem to get on with the song, so I said a couple of probably nasty words. [In annoyed voice] “Can we get this thing over with, please? We have to get up and go to work tomorrow.” Like that [laughs]. Oh, I remember what I did Mary Ann – I’m talking to my wife. I whistled really loud into the microphone. And I can really whistle, ask anybody. I can bring the dogs in from the hill. And both of them just stopped and jerked and looked up at me. They were just… you can only imagine the two of them talking about music. And they’re not going on tour. They’re both hanging out in L.A., and the rest of us have to do a 25, 30 day tour. So anyway, oh man, I got their attention [laughs], then Paul took over.
Then he played us a song at the piano, which I missed because I was listening to the play back. You know, I wanted to make sure I got my lead right. So he and Brian are out at the piano with Carl and Dennis. It was “A Day in the Life”. So I came out and I said, “Hey, can you play it again?” And by that time Paul was gone. I must’ve been wonderful to hear, but I had my “Vegetables” song. And that was not the one they did on Smile. That was a post-Smile production. Or maybe that was a single, I don’t know. Maybe that was the flip-side of “Heroes and Villains”. I’ll have to go check the single. By the way, I played the water bottles on that, or soft drink bottles. I filled them up at different levels to get a perfect triad. [Sings] Da-da-da.
[JM: Thanks AJ for doing the interview]
AJ: My wife wants me to add something and I don’t know if I should.
JM: I usually listen to my wife, but it’s up to you [laughs].
AJ: What was that other question you asked me, that I didn’t really answer, did I? [about setting the record straight] It’s just not very well known by the general public. I’m not allowed to use The Beach Boys name in my own way. I’m legally – what’s the term – injuncted from using The Beach Boys name. Did you know that?
JM: I didn’t know that, no.
AJ: So Brian and I [laughs] are both under suspicion. This concert, even.
JM: I noticed how it was billed, as Brian Wilson with Al Jardine. So I guess that explains that.
AJ: Well, Mr. Love has imposed an injunction that prohibits either of us, but mostly me. We’re kind of a threat because we do look like The Beach Boys [laughs].
JM: There’s a resemblance, actually [laughs].
AJ: Yeah, there’s a resemblance [laughs]. “So watch out you guys, you’d better not call yourselves The Beach Boys.” It’s very strange. I don’t know if you want to publish that or not. But maybe it’ll bring people in?
JM: You tell me, if you don’t want me to publish that I won’t.
[Mary Ann in the background: Write that – “Don’t call us The Beach Boys”]
AJ: Your article should say, “Don’t call us The Beach Boys”. You’re right, Mary Ann. It’s a strange oxymoron, is that the right term?
Mary Ann: He fired you, remember?
Mary Ann: Oh yeah…
AJ: Oh you mean the reunion? He claims he didn’t, that he fired us after the reunion…
Mary Ann: During…
AJ: Or during, whatever, but that’s not even the point. You asked me a poignant question and I evaded it. And, you know, there’s nothing wrong with the truth.
JM: Well, as far as I know I can still use The Beach Boys name. Of course, I won’t say it’s a Beach Boys concert, but obviously you and Brian are from The Beach Boys, and you’ll be singing songs from The Beach Boys.
AJ: We are the founding members, yeah.
JM: It’s too bad that you guys aren’t getting along better.
Mary Ann: He [Mike Love] loves legal tactics.
AJ: He’s a brilliant songwriter, and unfortunately he has brilliant lawyers. We wish him all the best, but doggonit, you know, we’d like to be Beach Boys, too. There you go.
JM: I feel that the natural place is for all of you to be together.
AJ: OK, well maybe we’ll get some positive results. Who knows?
JM: Well, I’m sure that this upcoming show will be wonderful. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
AJ: You’re very welcome. My pleasure.