Al Jardine has been on the road with Brian Wilson since March, for The Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour, billed as the farewell tour for the Beach Boys’ creative leader. A few moments before their show in Dubai, a jetlagged Jardine spoke to Esquire about the remarkable history of a band that helped shaped 20th Century popular music.
[Nov 3, 2016, 9pm backstage at the Tennis Stadium, Dubai, 15 minutes before show time]
ESQ: Welcome to Dubai. You landed this morning?
Al Jardine: No. Yesterday.
Did you have a chance to look around?
No wait, it was the day before that... We went to the old town where they have the souks and spice bazaars and we took a, uh, a jitney… that little boat, whatever you call it, there’s a name for them?
Yeah, that sounds about right. And we went to the other side. It was really cool.
Nice. Do you still enjoy seeing new places?
Yeah, this is pretty cool. It’s a really new town. It’s literally expanding every minute. But unfortunately it takes a while for us to adjust to the time changes. We’ve already experienced the European section of the tour and this is yet another leap into time, or lack of it, so it all gets blurry. We’re all trying to figure it out, because we’re exhausted, basically.
Do you still get a buzz up on the stage?
Oh, once you’re on stage it’s a whole other world. It doesn’t matter where you are, you’re immersed in the music. It’s kind of like a little time capsule in itself. So, yeah, it’s just the physical travelling that’s crazy. We should really be coming here for a week, adjusting to it and then launching a tour. That would be my suggestion in future.
What makes you still go out on the road?
Brian [Wilson]. I had absolutely no plans to be here, but then I got the call.
So if he calls you up and says, “Al, I want you to do this” you say “Yes”?
We thought the touring was done with for this year, but then these extra dates came in and it became clear to me that I had to finish with Brian because, frankly, we have a rapport. It just wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t show up. He’d have to restructure the whole show. I sing a lot of the leads and do a lot of the conversational introductions and all kind of things that we do synergistically, so I couldn’t let him down. I just thought I better do it because…
He’s a brother?
Well, once you’re established in the music it’s always great. Just the other day our band was rehearsing “California Girls” and we were listening. Brian turns to me and says, “Isn’t this great? It’s like the first time we ever played it!”
That’s beautiful. And you just answered my next question, which was why you both still make music.
Well, he loves the band, and I agree. They’re the best band we’ve had the honour to play with in my opinion.
It’s very big of you to say that about them because I’m sure they feel that way about working with legends.
Well, I imagine.
It’s a mutual respect
Oh yeah, yeah… They love having us together because it’s the real voices. They hear Pet Sounds in a more complete way. You know, if we had Carl [Wilson, who died of lung cancer in 1998] and Dennis [Wilson, who drowned in 1983] it would be great, but they’re gone. Mike [Love, who tours separately under the Beach Boys name] is unfortunately not available, so this is the most complete it can be.
You met at school in the 1950s and formed the Beach Boys in 1961. What’s it like having decades of memories to draw upon?
Oh, we often talk about it. We’ll say, “Hey, remember when we did so and so?” “Yeah, that was great!” We were at the airport recently and Brian suddenly goes, “You know, Al, that ‘California Saga’ song, we went right in the studio and we just did it!” And I said, “Yeah, you hadn’t even heard the track.” Cause I wrote this one song on an album we did called Holland . He loves that song for some reason. Maybe it’s just become this little capsule for him. Because he’s gotta deal with Pet Sounds. I mean, that represents a lot of memories and a lot of things. But that song, “California Saga” brings him happiness.
Because there are no strings attached to it?
No attachments, that’s right. I remember in the studio he just locked into it and it was like, woah! It just clicked when he sang, “I’m on my way to sunny Californ-i-ay” which sounded so classic. I was like, “How did you come up with that?” and he replied, “I don’t know. As soon as I heard it I just knew it.” He’s that amazing. It was the perfect opening statement ’cause we’d been away for months and were all homesick as hell. We’d pretty much finished the album – that was the last thing I needed to do on that particular recording – and he more than filled it up and made it complete.
Wow, what a memory
Yes, and it came back to me full circle. And this was just the other day at the airport, coming over here.
You guys, the Rolling Stones, McCartney… it’s just great that you’re still bringing joy to people
Well, in our case it’s Brian. There’s just no one like him. It’s the term “endangered species” [laughs]. It’s like hanging out with Picasso if you were an artist.
Considering all that he’s had to deal with [Brian has suffered from schizoaffective disorder since the mid-60s], he’s pretty tough
He’s more durable, mentally, than you think. He’s got his act together. He comes off like he’s maybe not entirely all there, but he’s there for a reason, and that’s because he is there. But he wants you to think he’s not there so he doesn’t get badgered or you don’t ask him for an autograph. He’s a solitary person. Very solitary.
So we journalists pick on you instead?
We’ve been doing this forever, so we know how each other thinks and it just works. And that’s why I couldn’t abandon him on this particular leg of the tour. [Whispers conspiratorially] I was hoping it would just go away. Cause a lot of the time that happens. Things get moved. But for some reason this one persisted and... ahhh, jeez, another set of time changes, our third time across the Pond this year – and a few other seas that I can’t even name. So, yeah, we’re tired. But we’re okay. It’s all good as soon as you hit the stage... What’s the term for the planks on the stage?
Treading the boards
The boards! There you go. As soon as you hit those boards… Boom!
The smell of the greasepaint
Then you hear the strings of “California Girls” begin to waft into the air and you’re transcended. Doesn’t matter how tired you are.
What an amazing thing to experience
It works, it really works. And the Pet Sounds concept still works. In fact, it works better now than it did 50 years ago when we released it.
How long did it take you to figure out that you’d recorded a masterpiece?
It took a while. It took us all a while. Brian, of course, was passionate about it, but no one knew how to market it. And we didn’t know how to sing it really well at that time... [Laughs] I shouldn’t say that.
You’re the Beach Boys, you cannot say that!
Well, we knew it wasn’t a commercial product. And therefore spending six months and huge sums of money to produce an album that was probably not going to sell was not something the record label could understand. Plus we couldn’t possibly reproduce it on stage at that time, because we were just five guys with a few guitars, bass and drums. And, of course, the audience were trying to understand what it was. But now they’re the driving factor and we’re the passengers on the bus. Isn’t that interesting?
[An assistant interrupts]
You’ve gotta be dressed in the next 15 minutes. We’ve got till 9:30 probably? Well, yeah but you still have some things to do.
Honey, do you mind ironing the shirt? Could you just check to see if it’s okay?
[A band member interrupts]
Just real quick, Al, there’s no banjo today.
We’re doing the song but the banjo’s outta commission.
It didn’t travel.
Ah shame… [Turns back around] There’s this song on Pet Sounds, “I Know There’s an Answer”…
I play banjo and sing. I haven’t played guitar on it before, but I think I can figure it out.
Are there any common misconceptions with the way people tell the Beach Boys story?
The myths that surround the band were so numerous that I can’t even think... “Good Vibrations” was supposed to go on Pet Sounds but due to an overzealous Brian Wilson, he absolutely disagreed with me and with the guys and our understanding of what was going to be the leadoff single. Well, why not? It’s only the best thing we ever did, right?!
The best thing anyone ever did!
… And he says, “Oh no, it’s not going on the album. We’re gonna save it for the next one. And of course that album [Smile] never came out. And that just sort of unravelled our careers in a way. I’ll have to put that in my book. I need to work on that later! [Laughs] But that was truly a turning point.
What’s taught you more about long-term relationships – being in a band or marriage?
Yeah, it did prepare me for marriage [Al has been married to Mary Ann Helmandollar since 1983]. Well, other than my first wife [Lynda Sperry, from 1964 to 1982]. She didn’t like rock and roll and that was tough for me because I had to live in two different worlds. I mean, we weren’t really rock and roll anyway, but the perception was that we were a rock and roll band, and, well, we did rock a little bit.
You know, we had some pretty big hits. The band was really the place where we had to learn to make peace with one another, just like a marriage. And that was fortunate otherwise we wouldn’t have stayed together as long as we did. And being a family helped. The family respected each other and they respected me and my values so that was nice.
How was it being back on stage with the guys for the 50th Anniversary tour in 2012?
Great, we had more of the voices. But that’s a whole other story [the tour ended in some confusion with Mike Love resuming his own shows under the Beach Boys moniker]. We’ll go into detail on that stuff later. Right, I gotta go get ready. You’ve got everything you need?
Yes, thanks for sparing the time. When do you all fly home.
Tonight, right after we’re done with the show.
Give my regards to Californ-i-ay!
I will do.