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Al Jardine put off making a solo record as long as he could. After 50 years, the rhythm guitarist and occasional lead vocalist for The Beach Boys finally caved, releasing A Postcard from California in June. Jardine's first record as part of an ensemble? The Beach Boys first single, "Surfin'," on which he plays upright bass — in 1961.
Jardine is the last Beach Boy to go it alone. Dennis Wilson struck first with Pacific Ocean Blue and finished another record, Bambu, before his death, though it wasn't officially released until 2008. Mike Love put out three forgettable records in the '70s. Carl Wilson put out an eponymous solo record in 1981. Somewhat counter-intuitively, Brian Wilson, the group's creative force, didn't dispense his own record until 1988.
Still, Al, the only non-relative in the original group, sat on the sidelines.
"I don't have an egocentric position to take — I'm a Beach Boy first and a solo artist second," Jardine says. "But now that The Beach Boys aren't recording anymore, I kind of missed it."
As you might guess, given the amount of time he'd been stewing on the songs, Postcard is an intimate — though certainly not emotionally overwrought — record sewn together using pieces from Jardine's bandmates and contributors like Neil Young and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. The first song, "A Postcard from California," is about his parents migrating from Ohio to the coast with their young children. California imagery is thick through tracks like "Looking Down the Coast" and "San Simeon." The album art is framed by a map of the Pacific Coast Highway, which begins in Capistrano Beach and travels north along the coast to Big Sur, where Jardine lives now. In the liner notes he thanks his wife for "doing with less" so he could make his "dream" record.
Still, he wishes he hadn't been in the position to do it. Calling from Kentucky, where he's playing the state fair, it's obvious he's proud of his record. But conversation always comes back to The Beach Boys.
"We're pretty much not working together musically, which is what bothered me, which is why I did the solo record."
It's not just that The Beach Boys aren't recording — they're not doing much besides sitting in conference rooms, usually with lawyers. Most of the animosity concerns the legal battle over who can use the band's name. Jardine is currently touring with his Endless Summer Band while nemesis Mike Love uses the Beach Boys moniker. The fight over the name is a bitter little twist, given how much the band hated it.
"It's hard to believe. In fact, none of us really liked the name when we started. We couldn't figure out a name for ourselves. We started with The Pendletons as a working title, and the label didn't like that so they stuck this name on us and people were like, 'What? The Beach Boys? What's that all about?' And it became kind of a millstone around our necks because it typecasts you, because you're expected to look and feel and sound like that when, in fact, we had other musical aspirations."
The name fight is what now keeps everyone in communication, Jardine says. Good things may come of the squabble, too. Al, Mike, and Brian, who survives his two younger brothers, jealously guard their legacy. Maybe even enough to agree on a small-scale reunion to mark the band's anniversary.
"I'd like to see 50 concerts — like 50 on the 50th, something like that. If you're going to go through that much trouble to do a show, and work together, we should take it out and play it for everybody," Jardine says. "But right now it looks like it's just five."
Even those five shows required a monumental détente between Jardine and Love. The two have been in and out of court for years, though their animosity goes back to the beginning of the band.
Things are cooled out now — to the point that Love makes a subtle cameo on A Postcard from California. Actually, his voice appears on what is probably the album's strongest track, a rehashed Beach Boys song from 1978 that, unsurprisingly, has a certain "Free as a Bird" quality.
"Earlier this year he agreed to put his voice on the ecology track, 'Don't Fight the Sea,' and that was cool," Jardine says. "He identifies the situation, Mike does, and he acts on it. He's not one to dilly-dally, and when he realized there was no longer any reason for hostility or for whatever the term is, he's quick to let it go, and I admire that. I think that's great. I wanted all the Beach Boys on that song. It needed it — it'd be like an artist without all his colors, it wouldn't be right. And even though he had to do it from a laptop computer in Toronto, I still wanted it on there."