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Beach Boys still look at sunny side of life

The Beach Boys' song "The Warmth of the Sun" has nothing to do with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The lyrics, like so many of the group's classics, deal with the simple theme of a romance gone awry.

Nevertheless, through a coincidence, that mournful ballad has been linked for half a century with one of America's most infamous days. And singer Mike Love, who cowrote the song with his cousin Brian Wilson, had it on his mind last month when America observed the 50th anniversary of Nov. 22, 1963.

In the pre-dawn hours that day, Love and Wilson had sat up finishing "The Warmth of the Sun," which paints a lyrical portrait of a man clinging to the memory of a woman who deserted him ("I dream of her arms, and though they're not real / just like she's still there is the way that I feel"). Not long after, the songwriters woke to the news that had America riveted to the television for days after.

"Needless to say, when we recorded that song about a month after that happened, it was charged with a lot of extra emotion," said Love, who recently contributed a Huffington Post essay about his memories of Kennedy's death. "It's beautiful. It's a beautiful song, beautiful harmonies, great melody, and the lyrics are very sad, but sweet in a way."

Did Love listen to the song again on Nov. 22 this year?

"Well, I hear it in my head all the time."

As pundits reflected on 1963 and the words "JFK" and "innocence" graced countless headlines, it felt only appropriate to hear from the coauthor of the songs that helped define a simpler time in America. And that time, however glossed by memory, may come alive again when Love's Beach Boys visit Costa Mesa this week.

On Dec. 7, for the first time, the band will perform at the Segerstrom Center of the Arts. In addition to delving into Christmas tunes and Top 40 hits, Love plans to play "The Warmth of the Sun" in a medley with "God Only Knows," another classic ballad that ponders life without a loved one.

"I think it'll be a really nice transition and a very emotional period of our show," Love said.

*

The beach and the bedroom

"Innocence." Like so many others, Love invoked that word in his Kennedy remembrance piece. Still, the 72-year-old takes that concept with a grain of salt.

"You know, we say it was an innocent time, but still, there were civil rights issues," he said. "There were the Vietnam issues. So it wasn't all so innocent. I mean, maybe we were innocent, we as individuals, growing up at that time.

"We were thinking more about surfing and cars and girls than civil rights and the Vietnam War, but as we matured a little bit, we certainly could not escape the fact that the geopolitical stuff was how it was and all the inherent problems of society.

"We weren't separate from that. We were part of it as well as everybody else was affected, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, probably, too. But the thing is, we've always accented — I, in particular, have always accentuated the positive. You know, thinking that everybody's life is challenging enough already without having to dwell on the negativity."

That's only part of the picture, of course. The band's landmark 1966 "Pet Sounds" album set a new standard for melancholy, introspective pop, and individual tracks like "In My Room" and "'Til I Die" provided glimpses into Wilson's fragile emotional state. The final ballads on last year's comeback album, "That's Why God Made the Radio," revisit the same territory with the added context of facing mortality.

But whether it's an escape to the beach or an escape into solitude, the Beach Boys have usually provided just that: an escape. Apart from a brief early-'70s period when the band tackled student demonstrations, water pollution and other concerns, Love and his cohorts have stayed almost entirely away from topical issues.

To some casual listeners, they'll always be the purveyors of sunny pop — and Cindy Cross, the director of the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach, has seen firsthand the allure the band has for visitors. Her museum has several bits of memorabilia related to the band, including album cover art and a 50th-anniversary poster signed by the members.

A year ago, the museum displayed a platinum record awarded to "Pet Sounds," and according to Cross, it quickly became a center of attention.

"Every single person — I don't care what country they're from — knows who the Beach Boys are," she said. "Everyone went over to that album, oohed and aahed and took their pictures with it."

*

Building Orange County's image

The Beach Boys, who formed in Hawthorne, may not have been an Orange County band, but they did their part to brand the area as a surfing mecca. One of the band's first hits, "Surfin' Safari," name-checks Huntington, Laguna Beach and Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.

According to Love, who disputes the oft-reported claim that Dennis Wilson was the only surfer in the Beach Boys, those Orange County spots were favorite haunts for him and some, if not all, of his bandmates. (Brian Wilson's lack of affinity for hitting the waves has been well documented.)

"We were what's known as South Bay surfers — meaning L.A., that area, so Palos Verdes on up to Malibu and north," Love said. "But, yeah, I remember going down to Trestles and Swami's and, of course, Huntington and Dana Point. So we were intimately familiar with that whole area as of high school days. If the surf was up, we might miss that afternoon class or two."

In terms of personnel, that early-'60s group bears just a passing resemblance to the current touring Beach Boys. Love, who founded the band with cousins Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson and friend Al Jardine, is the only original member left; Bruce Johnston, who joined in 1965, is the second-oldest.

Last year, the band's surviving vintage members — Love, Johnston, Brian Wilson, Jardine and David Marks, who played guitar on a few early albums — reunited for the "Radio" album and a worldwide tour, making a stop at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine. (Dennis and Carl Wilson, both deceased, appeared through video segments.)

When the reunion tour ended, Love and Johnston returned to small-market dates that their band had already scheduled without the other three members — a transition that led some to question if the famously fractious group had had another blowup. Ultimately, Love and Wilson each submitted op-ed pieces to the Los Angeles Times, with Love explaining that he hadn't fired his cousin and Wilson conceding that point but expressing sadness about the reunion's finish.

As to whether the full band will reunite again, Love said merely, "Never say never." Still, for Segerstrom President Terry Dwyer, two veteran Beach Boys are better than none.

"The previous tour, seeing Brian Wilson, would be like going back in time, and that would be a different kind of thrill," he said. "But I think the band will sound just as good."

As good as in 1963, before America changed forever? God only knows.

If You Go

What: Beach Boys Christmas Show

Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7

Cost: Starts at $69

Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.scfta.org

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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