A lost treasure from the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson resurfaces BY SARMISHTA SUBRAMANIAN
There’s no deficit of tragedy in the story of the Beach Boys, the band of brilliant disappointment artists who emerged in the golden California sun
in the early 1960s, topped every chart and heralded a new rock ’n’ roll sound before receding ignominiously into a fog of drugs, alcohol, and psychological breakdowns. These days most people know them as authors of fluffy surf hits about cars and girls, not as who they really were: visionary musicians who reimagined American song and helped invent the psychedelic aesthetic alongside their rivals in those days, the Beatles. Brian Wilson, the band’s erstwhile leader, remains one of pop’s great recluses, having somehow survived a death wish that spanned decades.
Even against this tragic tapestry, Dennis Wilson stands out. The life of the group’s drummer and wild man is the stuff of rock mythol-
ogy: the only Beach Boy who surfed, he was the one with the idea, at 16, to get his brothers to start a band, and who lived the California ethos that earned the group its place in music history. But within 15 years of the hit Good Vibrations, he was broke and often homeless. He’d been barred from playing with the band several times and arrested at least once. Handsome and charismatic, he was also profligately self-destructive and three weeks after his 39th birthday, he was dead. He left behind a teenaged wife (his own niece, and marriage number five), his often underappreciated work on the Beach Boys records, a smattering of unfinished and unreleased songs, and one legendary solo record: Pacific Ocean Blue.
That album, released in 1977, has become something of a buried treasure for serious pop music fans. Out of print for more than two decades, it was impossible to find except on file-sharing networks and auction sites, where a hard-won copy could fetch a couple of hundred dollars or more. Fans clamoured
for a reissue, but even with the critical reappraisal of the band 10 years ago—which rescued them from Kokomo-era self-parody and introduced a generation of fans and musicians to the genius of Brian—Pacific Ocean Blue remained out of reach. Now, in a generous and fitting tribute to the lost Beach Boy, the cult record is being re-released by Sony’s Legacy imprint, with Caribou Records (which put out the original), in a special 30th anniversary package that includes what was meant to be its follow-up, the unreleased Bambú, as well as extensive liner notes from Beach Boy scholars. Caribou’s owner, James Guercio, hopes it will satisfy fans but also bring Dennis’s music to an audience who never knew the drummer for the Beach Boys could even sing.
Nobody expected much from Dennis. Including, probably, Dennis. Only at his mother’s insistence did he join the band he helped start. Carl was the heavenly voice heard on
songs like God Only Knows, and Brian was the band’s creative life force, leading them to ever more experimental sounds. Dennis —well, Dennis sang, but more notably he streaked onstage, had sexual encounters in the meditation room at Brother Studios (which he co-owned with Carl), played host to Charles Manson and his Family (pre-murders, it must be said), and was the subject of a restraining order from his bandmate and cousin,
Mike Love. Early in the band’s career, he was replaced in recordings by Hal Blaine, the legendary drummer from Phil Spector’s band of formidable session pros—and was fine with it, Blaine said a few years ago. “When I was making records during the day, he was out surfing.”
And yet there was more. Dennis was a surprisingly beautiful singer, the most emotionally expressive of the three. He’d entrance audiences just by showing up and singing a few bars of You Are So Beautiful (a song made famous by Joe Cocker that Dennis often performed and, some believe, co-wrote). “He
was a guy that was not recognized for the gift that he had,” sometime Beach Boys keyboardist Daryl Dragon (the “Captain” in Captain & Tennille) said on the documentary accompanying the 2006 reissue of the influential Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. But in the early 1970s, as Brian retreated from the spotlight, Dennis came to the fore, contributing more songs and arrangements. The pretty and melancholy Little Bird, on Smiley Smile, and the ballad Forever, on Sunflower, both sung by him, are signature Dennis.
Then came Pacific Ocean Blue. The first of the Beach Boys solo efforts, it was a revelation to those who didn’t know the scope of Dennis’s talents—and vindication for those who did. Compositionally, the songs were very sophisticated. And like Brian, Dennis used the studio as an instrument, layering complex sounds and textures, only he could be even more adventurous. “He’d grab people off the street and ask them to sing,” recalls
Gregg Jakobson, who produced the record and co-wrote many of the songs. He’d be tapping his jeans and he’d use that, says Guercio. “Dennis had a sound in mind,” he says. “He couldn’t always articulate it, but he could hear it.” Brian called the record a work of genius.
For years, the material for both records languished in dusty boxes in the Beach Boys archive. There was speculation it would never re-emerge, given legal tangles over who owns what in a body of work written under contractual arrangements with various people. Guercio signed the first cheques and launched
Nobody expected much from Dennis the wild man: the album was a revelation
the mammoth project of releasing it, which involved a kind of musical forensics. There were days of painstaking cataloguing, listening, selecting, as the tapes had no sheets tracking what had been recorded. Mixing Bambú’s songs, in particular, was laborious: Jakobson recalls sifting through 70 tracks of guitar parts for one song. “It was a labour of love,” says Guercio—one shared by people like the Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins, who sings on Holy Man, the only song for which new material was recorded. (Brian May and Roger Taylor, of Queen, contributed arrangements for a version of the same, not yet released.)
It must also have been an emotional task. Created at the peak of both Dennis’s alcoholism and his musical evolution, the two records are a haunting document of a downward spiral. Wilson seemed to use the studio as a diary, and to listen to the songs is to watch a man break down before your eyes. When he sings, on Time, “I’m the kind of guy who loves to mess around,” you know he means it. There’s a brutality, and an almost impossible fragility, in the line-a man whispering the truth to himself. Thoughts of You is music you’ve never heard before, an affecting ballad that suddenly turns on itself, enveloping the singer in a wash of angry synthesized sound. “He had this horrible absence inside of him,” says Peter Ames Carlin, the author of the well-regarded Brian Wilson biography Catch A Wave. “It inspired him to write and be brilliant, and it tore away at him. So you get this great record, but it’s his last will and testament.”
The songs are anguished, oddly spiritual hymns to love and loss, the roar of the ocean
somehow palpable in the distance over the warm arrangements of piano, oboe, pipe organ, bass harmonicas (and, on River Song, a full gospel choir). And Dennis sings them in a voice that is itself like sand—a voice ravaged by time and far worse, and on the brink of collapse. This is not the Beach Boys of Four Freshmen harmonies; in places it’s outsider music with a budget and a cast of wonderful musicians (though Dennis played many of the parts himself). Even the bluesy funk-inflected numbers with bleating horns and discomfiting titles like Schoolgirl have a certain ineffable sadness. Dislocation
was a motif in Dennis’s life—he seemed to pull away instinctively from the concrete ugliness of L.A., from roots anywhere. Musically, he was not one for listening to other people’s work, and his songs reflect that, too, floating islands in their own strange sea.
It’s always difficult to know what makes a cult classic, to separate music from legend. Dennis certainly had all the requisites for tragic hero status, including the pathos of what could have been. Carlin and Jakobson both
muse that had he overcome his vices and survived, he might have surpassed the band. Even before Pacific Ocean Blue was completed, Dennis, irrepressibly spontaneous, had moved on to the next thing. “I’ve done it, you’ve heard it. Bambú’s going to be even better!” Guercio recalls him saying.
But six years after the album came out, wowing critics and selling respectably, Dennis died, on a drunken December afternoon spent diving off the Marina del Ray pier looking for odd baubles he’d tossed off his old boat, Harmony. He had promised to go into rehab and was full of hope for the future when he slipped for the last time into the ocean that so inspired him. He was buried at sea a week later. His fans would wait 30 years to hear some of the music he created in those last years, which could have been a beginning but proved to be the end. “Wouldn’t it be nice to live again?” Dennis sang on another heartbreaking song, cut from Surf’s Up and never yet released. In a sense, he now will.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.