If aliens ever discover humanity, they’ll likely conclude that this absurd species created only three things of any lasting value: Emmenthaler, Machu Picchu, and Pet Sounds.
But “a bunch of dummies with a good idea” is how original founding member Al Jardine looks back at the band he and four friends, three of them brothers, assembled in 1961. That formula is basically the history of pop music writ small, you might say, but for The Beach Boys, it has more of a “Let there be light” quality than most. Virtually alone among American rock groups for not only surviving the British Invasion but putting out their best work in a magnificent dialectic with it, the quintessentially Southern California quintet began with harmonies over an upright bass the 75-year-old Jardine knew to rent from a music store, some 57 years ago.
“I rented a snare drum, but I forgot the sticks because I’d never played drums in my life,” he says.
Although Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983 and Carl Wilson succumbed to lung cancer in 1998, the Beach Boys have fallen prey to some bad blood and litigious impulses. That’s probably why Jardine’s April 8 show at The Chapel carries the lawyerly, hyper-cautious name “Al Jardine – A Postcard from California – From the Very First Song with a Founding Member of the Beach Boys Tour.” It almost sounds as though there’s an unsmiling suit waiting in the wings with a vaudeville cane, ready to drop the curtain if someone breaks into an unauthorized jam.
But from Jardine’s perspective, things couldn’t be better.
For starters, A Postcard from California is his 2010 debut solo album, and joining him on the tour are his eldest son, Matt — who sings many of Brian Wilson’s falsetto parts — and Jeff Alan Ross, a former member of the onetime Paul McCartney protégé band Badfinger. The lineup allows Jardine a different access point to cuts off the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds.
“For me, it’s very comfortable to be around Pet Sounds now because it’s very complete,” Jardine says. “We’re able to interchange the parts. [Matt] will pick up my part, and I’ll pick up a Carl Wilson part — but we’ll know instinctively when to jettison a part and when to pick up another. Matt sings ‘God Only Knows’ just Carl Wilson-perfect. We have that in the set — and we do ‘Good Vibrations’ pretty well.
“You wouldn’t think so!” Jardine insists, possibly because of the presence of three voices instead of five. “I strap on an electric guitar for that one. I play acoustic for most of the show. But I may play more electric this time than before because it sounds better. It’s a well-balanced show.”
It wasn’t always. As a night of songs and stories, it originally ran for more than three hours until Jardine realized he had to trim it down. (Going long doesn’t seem to rankle the superfans, though. After that opera-length performance, which included “Vegetables” from 1967’s formerly misunderstood Smiley Smile, he found himself signing carrots.) They also play the original Kingston Trio version of “Sloop John B” before replicating the Beach Boys’ version, and the “mind-boggling musical experiment” that is “Heroes and Villains.” And Jardine still sings “Help Me Rhonda” in the original key.
“Brian is a keyboardist, so he likes its sharps and flats,” Jardine says. “It’s not guitar-friendly, but it feels right. C-sharp, by the way.”
I’d been instructed not to bring up Mike Love, whose difficult temperament has been well-documented and who has legally licensed the Beach Boys name. (It’s Jardine who broaches that subject, but only to reminisce about the 1986 show at Jones Beach Amphitheatre for the Statue of Liberty’s centennial, during which Love tossed his sax into the moat and someone fished it out and pawned it.) But his relationship with Wilson remains good.
“I didn’t know this year whether or not we’d be doing extensive touring because we’ve played just about every market a band can play,” Jardine says of his erstwhile bandmate. “But it’s already booked, the whole year already. Over Christmas, I called him up and said, ‘Hey, Brian, how ya doin’, man? Hanging in there?’ He says, ‘I miss being out on the road.’ I said, ‘I couldn’t agree more.’ In the winter, you taper off. You don’t work much in November, December, January, February. For the Beach Boys, it used to be Memorial Day to Labor Day.
“Brian was never part of that, so it’s really funny to hear him say, ‘I can’t wait to get back out on the road,’ Jardine says of Wilson’s history of health issues. “It’s like he’s changed his entire lifestyle, gone from the recording studio to the stage, which is great for him and me — especially me, because that’s where it’s most fun.”
For all the talk of Wilson’s fragility, he’s a resilient musician. Jardine compares their relationship to being passengers together in a Maserati, where once you hit the accelerator it “just carries you away.” But being 75 and still able to “go out there and be a Beach Boy” is a real gift for both of them, he says.
As it happens, The Chapel is less than two blocks from a certain women-owned, non-judgmental retail shop known for radiating sex positivity. Jardine briefly lived in San Francisco when he was a kid, but has he ever set foot in Good Vibrations?
“I’ve heard of it,” he says. “It’s a great name. I remember laughing about that.”
Al Jardine: A Postcard from California, Sunday, April 8, 7:30 p.m, at The Chapel, 777 Valencia St. $65; thechapelsf.com