Persistence pays off: Beach Boy Al Jardine spills the beans on ‘A Postcard from California’ and ‘SMiLE’
Founding Beach Boy Al Jardine delves into debut solo album A Postcard from California, tracking vocals at Big Sur with Neil Young, why he originally left America’s favorite band, and Murry Wilson, the perpetually pissed off early band manager and abusive father of Brian Wilson, in a free-spirited interview excavated below. The contented, unassuming Southern Californian also shocked fans as well as Capitol Records executives by announcing the excavation of SMiLE, a Holy Grail for sixties pop aficionados controversially abandoned for nearly half a century.
The rhythm guitarist and unabashed folk aficionado joined the Beach Boys in 1961 and sang, adapted, or wrote “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Cotton Fields,” “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)”, “California,” “Honkin’ Down the Highway,” “Peggy Sue,” “Come Go with Me,” and “Lady Lynda.” He has inexplicably not shed any tenor vocal deterioration compared to his erstwhile band mates. Jardine sounds like a 30-year-old trapped inside a septuagenarian’s body. It’s uncanny.
A down-to-earth, accessible gentleman genuinely interested in spending time with fans, Jardine retains a burning creative passion, whether studio tinkering, staging Pet Sounds worldwide with Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson and Carl and the Passions-era lead guitarist Blondie Chaplin, encouraging environmental safeguards, or tending Big Sur property on his vintage John Deere tractor. There’s little resting on his laurels.
Jardine deserves accolades for his meticulous craftsmanship on Postcard, as the record easily falls among the best Beach Boys or solo member projects of the past 40 years [Dennis Wilson’s masterpiece Pacific Ocean Blue, Brian’s That Lucky Old Sun, and the briefly reunited Beach Boys’ That’s Why God Made the Radio rank higher]. Not finished until Jardine’s 49th year as a working musician, Postcard was distributed quietly but gained momentum two years later in an expanded reissue coinciding with the Beach Boys’ universally acclaimed 50th Reunion Tour. Essential selections range from “Drivin’”, a punchier and more guitar heavy “Honkin’ Down the Highway” [the sixth selection on The Beach Boys Love You], the Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley harmony-assisted “San Simeon,” the title cut featuring the late Glen Campbell, to “Don’t Fight the Sea,” pretty darn close to serving as a Beach Boys tune since Brian, Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks all contribute.
The Al Jardine Interview
How have things been going in Big Sur?
Believe it or not, I’m going to a branding tomorrow. We have cattle ranches in California, and I’ve been invited to this branding in Casa Robles. It’s cookin’ around the office this morning. We’re cookin’ with gas, so let’s go.
What do you enjoy doing in your down time?
I love driving — exploring the California coastline is the best drive in the world. I also like riding my John Deere tractor. Mine’s a 30-year-old 2040 diesel with a front-end loader. My family and I reside on a non-working farm, although we have a couple of horses and the usual stuff like pigs, cows, and chickens. We really don’t have an honest-to-goodness farm, more of a hobby farm.
I read a lot of trash. My older brother Neal is the brains in the family — he has 1,000 or 2,000 books in his collection. He’s an inveterate reader and a lawyer in Los Angeles, so that makes me the dummy in the family. In all seriousness, I really do enjoy factual material.
Music is more of a hobby to me than my hobbies, if that makes sense. I love music. My dad [Donald] and Neal were very musical, and music just happens to be one of my hobbies that became my vocation.
My brother never went professional, although he and my dad both had great voices, which is probably where I get my singing voice from. We were similar in that we both played clarinet in school. They were smart and went on to real work, although I must say pursuing my “hobby” has been a lot of fun.
I was flabbergasted to learn that your grandfather pioneered the sale of the electric car.
Can you believe that? My grandfather actually worked with Thomas Edison on the electric car, and he sold electric cars at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The Nissan LEAF, an electric car manufactured in Japan, intrigues me immensely. I’m fascinated by electricity — it must be in our blood. My undergraduate work involved a lot of science, although botany was tough. I didn’t enjoy those courses in botany very much. Biology, as a system, was enjoyable.
Why did you temporarily leave the Beach Boys just as fame was within reach in February 1962? And do you feel any sympathy for Brian, Dennis, and Carl’s abusive manager-father Murry Wilson?
I quit the Beach Boys to go back to college and become a dentist — what a goofy deal that was. Brian was very upset with me and couldn’t figure out why I made that decision. He finally called me one day and said, “Will you please come back and help us out?” Thinking it over, I replied, “You know what, I sure will.”
It was tough for Brian to write, arrange, and tour. And his dad was constantly on his case. I thought I’d give it one more chance, and it definitely worked out. Murry was a completely overwhelmed father who wasn’t cut out to be a dad. He wasn’t prepared for fame, and he got himself deeper in trouble when he became our manager.
Murry was a pretty pissed-off guy, having to deal with his “ungrateful children,” “ungrateful nephew,” and “ungrateful neighbor” [laughs]. In his eyes, we didn’t earn it. I can still picture him complaining about “these ungrateful kids, they don’t even know what it’s like to earn an honest day’s wages.”
I don’t think any of the Wilson children had a real job. I’m probably the only one in the band that did. Mike Love pumped gas for awhile, but I wouldn’t call that a real job. I actually worked in a chemist’s lab as a paint chemist as a summer job. We just mixed paint, but I had to go to work every day.
I was not real thrilled being a paint chemist, since it wasn’t what I wanted to do. It was very boring, but I wanted to sing again after having our first hit record, “Surfin’” [December 1961, Candix Records]. I definitely missed the singing.
I still miss not being to sing with Dennis, Carl [both deceased], Bruce Johnston, and Mike Love. Brian graciously asked me to join his solo band in the aftermath of the Beach Boys’ much too short 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour in 2012, and it’s a blessing to hear his voice every night that we are on stage together.
In 2010 you finally unleashed your debut solo studio album, A Postcard from California, 12 songs thematically detailing your admiration for California.
That’s why I put A Postcard from California together. I thought, ‘I’ve gotta do some recording.’ So, I put all my best friends — the Beach Boys, Neil Young, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell of America, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Steve Miller, Alec Baldwin, the late Glen Campbell, and my two sons, Matt and Adam Jardine — on the project.
I think it sounds pretty close to the Beach Boys. Persistence pays off. I just got lucky when it came to all the wonderful guest musicians and singers. I would call someone, and they’d be on tour or too busy. After awhile, if you’re persistent, and you believe in something, you can get it done.
I also had the right songs, and a good idea of how each artist was suited to their respective song. That part was easy. Getting them to the studio, that’s like getting the horse to the water.
One song that turned out really well was my cover version of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’”. Glen Campbell [also on the title cut] and David Crosby [also on “Campfire Scene” and “A California Saga”] sing backup vocals [Author’s Note: A stand-out Beach Boys recording of the 1980s, “California Dreamin’” contains a shockingly breathtaking Carl Wilson lead vocal and chiming 12-string Rickenbacker guitar break from Roger McGuinn of the Byrds which oddly did not propel it any higher than No. 57 on the pop chart in September 1986].
How did the concept of A Postcard from California emerge?
I often watch CBS Sunday Morning [the original host was Charles Kuralt, succeeded by Charles Osgood, and currently presided over by Jane Pauley]. One time a journalist named Roger Welsh was a guest, and he wrote a postcard from Dannebrog, Nebraska, every week for the show. It was so charming. I thought, ‘What a great title for a show…but California sounds a bit better,’ so that became the title of the album.
Do you notice any similarities between A Postcard from California and Brian’s acclaimed 2007 record, That Lucky Old Sun?
Frankly, I influenced Brian. I had him come up and sing on some tunes [“Drivin’” and “Honkin’ Down the Highway”] before he recorded That Lucky Old Sun. Brian got a good listen to everything and probably thought, ‘You know what, that’s a pretty good idea.’
That Lucky Old Sun is autobiographical in a way, but mine comes more from the heart. Brian painted a travelogue of Southern California. Postcard is an actual driving experience where you visit the cities for the first time, as if you were driving up Route 1 to various coastal towns along the way.
With backing vocals from Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, and the late Carl Wilson, “Don’t Fight the Sea” obviously received the lion’s share of media exposure from A Postcard from California. First attempted but discarded in April 1976 during the Beach Boys’ 15 Big Ones sessions, a re-recorded 1989 version saw Carl’s vocals added with intermittent vocal overdubs occurring into the new millennium. How complicated was the tracking process?
“Don’t Fight the Sea” was originally intended to be part of an ecological album with Mike Love. The lyrics were a challenge. I wanted to express my rage about plastic pollution in the ocean, but I settled on global warming issues and the polar bear — the canary in the coal mine.
It was difficult to edit but not to sing. I had to edit out the double between the first and second verse and then add just a single chorus before the bridge. After that, it’s all double choruses.
How can we be more environmentally friendly?
We can recycle plastic in all forms, especially the bags. Take your bags with you to the market — you save plastic and avoid paper pollution. My co-writer on “Don’t Fight the Sea,” Terry Jacks, says not to buy white paper towels, as they are bleached, and the bleach gets in the waterways.
Did you record any songs for A Postcard from California that did not make the final track listing?
One that immediately comes to mind is a very poignant ballad I wrote called “My Plane Leaves Tomorrow.” I may have originally published it via Al Jardine Music as “Au Revoir,” the French word for “until we meet again” or “goodbye.”
It’s about a young guy who joins the military, and then he goes, “I’m not sure why I joined, but I had nothing else to do with my life,” which is probably the story of half the guys serving our great nation. The young soldier feels like, ‘Jeez, I’m out here fighting, I’m kinda afraid to die, but don’t say goodbye to me ’cause I’m coming home.’ I really like it.
I adapted “My Plane Leaves Tomorrow” to an old folk song standard called “All My Trials” [Author’s Note: Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Mickey Newbury shrewdly transposed a verse from “All My Trials” into “An American Trilogy” in 1971, which Elvis Presley soon covered to worldwide attention on the historic Aloha from Hawaii live satellite telecast].
Neil Young has a prominent vocal on it and does a beautiful job. He sings at a little higher pitch with that lonely-sounding voice of his. In fact, the chorus of “au revoir, don’t say goodbye” is where you’ll hear Neil. He put a whole day’s work into that song and is such a generous guy. I’m still trying to get the darn song finished. It’s pretty darn close, but my extensive touring with Brian and just life in general have interrupted my plans.
Several versions of A Postcard from California were distributed at retail.
Postcard originally came out on my own label, Jardine Tours, digitally and as a limited edition, burn-on-demand CD sold through Amazon. Jardine Tours is just my holding company, plus the avenue that I do my entertainment business through.
It was difficult getting wider distribution for the album because of the bad conditions facing the record industry, and I considered the independent CD Baby service, where I did quite well with my first solo album, Al Jardine, Family & Friends: Live in Las Vegas .
But we struck a good deal in 2012 with Waterfront Entertainment / Robo Records. Being a perfectionist, I slightly altered the cover art and tinkered with the order of songs towards the end of the album, adding three bonus cuts [“California Dreamin’”, “Sloop John B (A Pirate’s Tale)”, and “Waves of Love” that had a wonderful vocal flown in from Carl]. On the song “Drivin’” I didn’t hear enough bottom — driving bass — so when I remastered the record I brought the bass up.
I’m pretty satisfied with how Postcard turned out. Everybody did a fantastic job. The album’s unfortunately out of print and is no longer available digitally on iTunes or Amazon. We are working to remedy that.
What would you like to see happen for the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary?
I would like to see us doing the Grammys as a Lifetime Achievement-type situation [the Beach Boys received an official Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2001], but unfortunately that’s not gonna happen because the group would rather wait until 2012. So I have awhile to prepare.
[Author’s Note: On February 12, 2012, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles Maroon 5 opened the Grammy tribute with a delicate “Surfer Girl,” followed by Foster the People cutting loose on a retro “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Host Ryan Seacrest finally welcomed the reunited Beach Boys for a triumphant “Good Vibrations”].
Everyone has agreed in principle to do a worldwide tour. You’ll get a chance to see us live, because it will be quite a coming-out party. Brian’s team has been very encouraging. We just have to figure out how to do it — who will the players be, who will be involved, etc.
[Author’s Note: From April 24, 2012, until five months later on September 28, 73 concerts were played to worldwide critical acclaim and robust ticket sales. The Beach Boys found themselves commanding prestigious, larger-capacity venues such as Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre and London’s Wembley Arena that would never have considered booking either Wilson’s solo band or Love’s licensed touring Beach Boys. On September 17, the day before the unveiling of the Good Vibrations: 50 Years of the Beach Boys retrospective exhibit at the Grammy Museum, Wilson, guitarist David Marks, and Jardine were blindsided by a press release approved by Love and Johnston which read, “The post-50th anniversary configuration will not include Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and David Marks. The 50th Reunion Tour was designed to be a set tour with a beginning and an end to mark a special 50-year milestone for the band.” Multi-million dollar offers to play Madison Square Garden and an extended Las Vegas residency were obviously scuttled. Major news outlets pounced on the tersely worded statement and declared that the trio had been fired unceremoniously by Love. As Wilson and Jardine are equal shareholders in the band’s Brother Records (BRI) corporate entity along with Carl’s estate and Love, the latter could not terminate his band mates. Following Carl’s death from lung cancer in 1998, Love was granted an exclusive license to tour as the Beach Boys by the other shareholders. For any concerts performed by Love and Johnston’s Beach Boys, a licensing fee is divided among Wilson, Jardine, and Carl’s estate. Love and Wilson have not spoken since the dissolution of the 50th anniversary].
Are there plans for a Beach Boys archival project?
Capitol Records plans to issue a Beach Boys version of SMiLE sometime this summer to begin the celebration of our music. SMiLE is the Holy Grail for Beach Boys fans, so it’s gonna be good.
I don’t have many details on it, although we didn’t do any new recording. I’m happy to see it finally come out. Brian’s changed his mind about releasing the material, but it was inevitable, wasn’t it? [laughs].
[Author’s Note: Capitol executives were none too pleased when Jardine inadvertently let the cat out of the bag regarding the impending SMiLE set, ruining a carefully planned media blitz. After my February 3, 2011, Examiner.com article was picked up by Billboard, Gibson, and other prominent news sites, Jardine was undoubtedly coerced to appear on a local radio station, halfheartedly backtracking what he had told me. Five weeks later amid burgeoning hype Capitol confirmed that Jardine’s statements were accurate in a press release containing exclusive comments from all of the Beach Boys. Delayed several months to Halloween, various configurations of The SMiLE Sessions were unleashed. Debuting at No. 27 on the Billboard 200, the long-gestating album was hailed by Rolling Stone as the best reissue of the year and won a Grammy for Best Historical Album. The Jardine interview remains my biggest story].
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