A Conversation with The Beach Boys' Al Jardine
Mike Ragogna: So, you're sending A Postcard From California.
Al Jardine: Indeed. This is my little message to the world. It's a postcard, as it says in the title, and it has a lot of stories about the beautiful coastal environment of California. All of the songs relate to cities along that little highway there called Coast Route 1. If you were to take the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles or the other way, you would drive through the cities that are in the first six cuts of the album along the way.
MR: It seems to utilize the traditional album sequence with a side one and a side two, one batch of songs dealing with one theme followed by a second set that's topically about another.
AJ: Yeah, that's how I thought about it too. The first set of songs is segued to appear united with one another so they tell a story. I love stories, we all do. We love that beginning, middle, and end kind of thing. It's just charming, and it's really California circa '50.
MR: And obviously, it's musically a trip through the eyes of a Beach Boy, especially on tracks like "Don't Fight The Sea."
AJ: Well, thank you so much. I can't take all the credit because the guy that actually wrote it is a Canadian who is really a staunch environmentalist. But in this case, it became a template for a Beach Boys song that never actually happened because we never recorded it until, of course, after the fact. Mike Love literally put his voice on a laptop computer from Toronto, Canada. Thanks to technology, even though we're not a group anymore, we can still record together.
MR: Yeah, and it sounds amazing. The credit list is impressive--Brian, Carl, Mike, Bruce, Matt, and Al.
AJ: Yeah, we're all on there, isn't that amazing? Carl put his vocal on in '88. The song was pitched to Mel Gibson, I think, for the movie Tequila Sunrise. The producers didn't like it because it was a pretty dark film and this is not what they wanted. But the point is, it's been around for a while, and the Beach Boys are all now part of the legacy, I guess you could call it, for this particular song.
MR: Al, as you know, this conversation, in addition to appearing in the Huffington Post, will be aired on "Solar-Powered KRUU FM." Solar-powered, man! What do you think?
AJ: Well, I love the name of the station, and I love the idea of your solar-powered medium. It's just fascinating.
MR: What's weird to me is that we're the only solar-powered station in the Midwest. Considering this country's need to break its dependence on oil, isn't it obvious we all should be heading this way? Like, at least every station in California should be solar-powered by now?
AJ: Or in Arizona, or anywhere else, for that matter. But don't you require a lot of wattage, or whatever you call it?
MR: No more power than any other station. And actually, yeah, if it had a ginormous energy need, that would be the argument, wouldn't it.
AJ: I guess the sun has enough to do it because we're on air.
MR: Yes sir, compliments of the sun! Okay, let's get back to your new album, A Postcard From California. You re-visit a couple of songs that you are very famous for. You were the lead vocalist for "Help Me Rhonda," right?
AJ: I was the lead singer. I invited my good friend Steve Miller to participate, and he literally diverted his plane. He was on his way back home to Idaho from Los Angeles after filming, and he diverted his entire plane and crew through the Monterrey Peninsula in order to be on this record. I'm incredibly grateful to him and his crew, it's just an amazing thing. You make a phone call, and the next day they're in your studio from wherever. He and Carl Wilson were actually really good friends, and we all kept in touch over the years. So, we were all very happy to see him and the late, great Norton Buffalo, who is on the record as the lead harmonica player.
MR: Another Beach Boys song that gets revisited on A Postcard From California is "California Saga" that features all sorts of guests--Neil Young, David Crosby, Stephen Stills...
AJ: ...don't forget Matt Jardine and Adam Jardine!
MR: And Matt Jardine and Adam Jardine. I was just working my way up to that.
AJ: Those names you mentioned are luminaries from my generation. They are probably the best talent that our country has ever produced, and Neil graciously took an entire day out of his life to get the second and third verse with me on this song. All we have is time anymore, if you think about it, and I was just amazed by his determination to get it right. A lot of people don't think of Neil as a great lead singer as much as a great writer, but he said, "I want to get it right. I want to get it the way you want it." And David helped me kind of refine the background vocals, and it just came together perfectly, I think.
MR: Yeah, it's really beautiful. "California Saga" has, personally, always been one of my favorites. I love Surf's Up and on because I grew up in the singer-songwriter era, and all those somewhat later records really touched me in a different kind of way than the early records. The early records were more fun and functional, you know?
AJ: Yeah, they were a little more structured and geared toward the hit generation. Everybody needs a hit record, obviously, but in this day and age, we need music that gives us a little tranquility. We need music that makes us feel good in a different way because we're not going to make hits the way kids make them today. There's a whole different kind of structure in Top 40, but there's still room for good music, and we all could sure use a lot of good vibes right now.
MR: There's an interesting musical segue on the album called "Tidepool Interlude." It's credited as a moment of reflection with Alec Baldwin.
AJ: Yes. A good friend of mine, Steve Kalinich, gave me an insight into his genius, into his poetry. I thought, "You know? That would really be nice to segue out of 'Don't Fight The Sea' into a poem about the ocean." So, this is literally a poem about the ocean speaking to us or, maybe, God speaking to us through the vision of the ocean. It starts with, "The sea breeze rises up out of me..." That's Alec Baldwin's voice sounding very God-like, and he has this vocal range that just hit it perfectly. It's Steve's poetry, which we call spoken word in the recording industry. But it does have music to it, so technically, it's a song. It's the relationship of man to the ocean, and the ocean to California; the way it affects all of us, and the way it is.
MR: In addition to those guests we discussed, you feature America and Flea.
AJ: I toured with (America) for years. They were our opening act in the '70s, and had all those great hits. So, I incorporated some of their lyrics into one of the songs on the album called "Drivin'" which is, again, about going up Coast Route 1, and experiencing all of the travails. It's sort of a spoof on running out of gas, and being with your friends. I put some lyrics about the horse with no name in there, and Daisy Jane. I just incorporated their songs into the background parts, and it sounds great.
MR: Nice. You also have Flea on here.
AJ: Oh, Flea. He's amazing...he's like bottled energy. If you ever want some energy, go see Flea. He put a bass part on "Help Me Rhonda" that just kicks it up a notch, you know? He's even a brilliant musician as a trumpet player, a vocalist; he can do it all. In fact, he very generously spent a day with me in the studio until his lips got blue from playing the trumpet. He's really quite an accomplished musician.
MR: One of the greats.
AJ: They (Red Hot Chili Peppers) are rehearsing at my place, they're working on their new album very shortly.
MR: So, "side one" winds up very touching because of all the nuances of the arrangements. "Campfire Scene" is a real highlight, especially given its subject matter.
AJ: Thanks. We wanted it to sound really lonely, and really forlorn in "Campfire Scene." It's kind of where guys are just sitting around out of work, kind of like it is today. What do you do with yourself? You sit around, sing songs, and hop a freight west. This is kind of a story about migration also. The first song, "A Postcard From California," is really about my family's trek westward from upstate New York in the early '50s, and how we got work out there and eventually migrated to Los Angeles in the mid-'50s.
MR: Speaking of migration, what's the tour like this summer?
AJ: Well, we're touring across the Midwest and the Southwest. My next show is in Scottsdale, Arizona, on the fourth of September, and then we go out near Des Moines, Iowa, with a group of guys from my generation on the 5th of September. And I forgot about our August 25th Kentucky State Fair date. I want everybody from the South to come up to the Kentucky State Fair because that's going to be a lot of fun.
MR: Your sons are touring with you, aren't they?
AJ: They are. They're on all these tours, and they're also on the record. They're my Beach Boy parts. When I was making records with the guys, in the old days, we could always ask each other, "Hey, could you come over and do something for my record." Or, "I've got a good idea for a song, can we meet over at the studio?" Everybody would always show up, and put their voices on. Without that help, we would never get anything done. So, Matt and Adam are my Beach Boy parts, and that's how I got this thing finished.
MR: Nice. Now, earlier, we discussed the timeliness of songs such as "Don't Fight The Sea." Are there other issues out there that concern you?
AJ: I would say global warming is a key issue. The last verse of "Don't Fight The Sea" addresses that, not in a preachy way, but more like a dream sequence. He falls asleep, and is transported to another place where he envisions the polar bear going, "Hey, I'm desperate." "Please don't fight the sea," is what he says in that last verse. It kind of gives me chills thinking about it--that we're on the cusp of something big here, and we don't want to blow it.
MR: Or we don't want to acknowledge it, that's the scary thing right now. You have all these people that are either denying global warming or they're thinking it's just a natural cycle of the planet.
AJ: I'm very interested in science because that's what my educational background is in, and there is a natural global warming. But having said that, we're contributing to it. We have to be aware that if we don't contribute, it won't be so severe, and we have to be aware of it.
MR: The hard thing is that people of a certain age probably won't see the total effect of what we're doing right now, but our kids will and their kids will.
AJ: Exactly. You guys are doing your part right now by having a solar-powered radio station. I think that's just cool.
MR: Thank you very much. Another guest question. In addition to "Drivin,'" America is on another track on this album, right?
AJ: Yes they are. They're on a beautiful tune called "San Simeon," about the castle on the hill down there on the western coast of California...it's just a gorgeous song. That's one of my favorites, and I encourage people to listen to that one, especially when they're driving the coast, they should stop by and check out the Hearst castle.
MR: And speaking of beautiful songs, another one of my favorites closes out the album, "And I Always Will."
AJ: Thank you. I think it might be the best song I've ever written, though that's not saying a lot. I got a lot of help from Frederic Chopin, who inspired me with the brilliant compositional melodies he came up with. I can't remember which etude it is, but it's just me with an orchestra, and Chopin, and I just think it's beautiful. It's very romantic, and it's about renewing our commitments to each other.
MR: Well Al, it's been very, very special to have you join me today to talk about A Postcard From California. Do you have any closing thoughts?
AJ: I would just love to see everyone look forward to this big legacy anniversary of my team mates from the old days, and there's going to be a big, free concert sometime next year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beach Boys.
MR: Very nice. Thank you once again, Al.
AJ: Thank you so much.
1. A Postcard From California
2. California Feelin'
3. Looking Down The Coast
4. Don't Fight The Sea
5. Tide Pool Interlude
6. Campfire Scene
7. A California Saga
8. Help Me Rhonda
9. San Simeon
11. Honkin' Down The Highway
12. And I Always Will
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)