“He Was Just Starting to Scratch the Surface”: Dennis Wilson, Remembered

In popular culture, Dennis Wilson is likely best known for a variety of different personality characteristics. Within the surf realm, perhaps, he is recognized as the only Beach Boy — in the world’s most famous surf music band, no less — that actually knew how to surf. But sadly, this beach-friendly musician also ended up drowning to death. To others, especially women, he might be remembered as the cute Beach Boy; no doubt, many girls must have thoroughly enjoyed watching Wilson — with his long, flowing hair — pounding away at his drum kit while playing in the band. Yet what is rarely ever discussed when the man’s personality traits are brought up, is Dennis Wilson: the Musician. Hopefully such artistic amnesia will greatly dissipate with the recent re-release of Pacific Ocean Blue, Wilson’s lone solo album, and Bambu, which was to be that special release’s follow up.

Dennis Wilson’s untimely death came in 1983, before he could even release Bambu, which — it is said — he believed to be superior to Pacific Ocean Blue. Sony/Legacy has just released these two albums; his sadly small solo catalogue. But at least fans can finally judge for themselves the level of Wilson’s talent. PopMatters had a chance to catch up with two men who knew Wilson extremely well; two men who each also contributed to Wilson’s artistic output. Gregg Jakobson produced Wilson’s recorded work, while Dean Torrence (of Jan & Dean fame) took the cover photograph and accompanying photos for Pacific Ocean Blue.

“God, what would it be like if Dennis had lived these last thirty years?” wonders producer Jakobson, “because he was just starting to scratch the surface, musically.” What Jakobson says next, however, may come off like rock & roll blasphemy to many: “I’m convinced he would have gone well past his teachers, his brothers and so on,” Jakobson continues. “You couldn’t ask for a greater teacher than Brian Wilson, of course, but I’m sure he would have gone past Brian.”

“It would be hard to beat Brian Wilson, unfortunately,” Torrance responds, when asked to comment on Jakobson’s bold assertions. “Unfortunately, Dennis was Brian’s little brother, so he will probably forever be compared to Brian. You’re talking about somebody — Brian Wilson — that gets compared to Lennon and McCartney. That’s just conjecture. I would expect that from Gregg; Gregg and Dennis were very, very close and I know Gregg totally believed in Dennis’ music.”

In his favor, nevertheless, Dennis did not experience the same tortured upbringing Brian endured. “He didn’t have to suffer with all the rules and regulations that Brian lived with,” Jakobson elaborates. “Dennis was a much freer spirit, and that would always reflect in his music, of course. I can’t imagine another thirty years in the studio with Dennis writing and creating. I don’t know where it would have gone. It would have gone out of this world.” And as an aside, Jakobson adds, “I suppose, maybe, that’s why he’s gone.”

While Dennis never fought to please his father, he did, however, live in the mighty big shadow of Brian. Perhaps thoughts of how he might be compared to his older brother prevented Dennis from making his own music sooner in life.

“Well, think about,” Jakobson begins, “you grow up in the shadow of somebody like Brian Wilson, your big brother who is considered a musical genius. We all travel at our own speeds, so Dennis had a lot of things to live with. And that would certainly be one of them. In the meantime, that music was just sitting there kind of on the backburner, like good stew or a soup, it was just coming along. And when it finally came out, I mean there was no shortage of it. When we would write, if I came up with a lyric idea or a song idea, [such as] “I looked at her and I though she should/She looked at me and I knew we would,” Dennis would say, ‘Oh yeah, great. Let’s find a piano.’ The nearest one, even if we had to go into a music store to find a piano. And in ten or fifteen minutes we’d have a song. He was never short of a melody line; it was like melody line after melody line. It was amazing to me. I’ve worked with other writers, but they’d have to think about it for a while. But with Dennis, it was always right there, and more than one. He would say, ‘Ah, that didn’t work. Let’s try this one.’ He would always have two or three melodies that would pop right out at him.”

Jakobson says he witnessed Dennis’ artistic birth as though it was happening overnight. “It was like, one day he couldn’t play the piano — you know, he could plink on it like I do — and the next day he could sit down and play you a whole complicated melody line of blues or a jazz or a rock & roll influenced melody line,” Jakobson says, amazed. “The Captain, of Captain and Tennille — and he’s a trained classical pianist. His father’s Carmen Dragon — it used to blow his mind watching Dennis. He’d say, ‘Where’s that stuff come from?’ And it just came. It was just there. All of a sudden it was ready to come out. It’s like when the peaches are ready, they’re there. You don’t have to worry about them.”

Unlike Jakobson, Torrence never foresaw all of Dennis’ amazing musical output coming. Nevertheless, he did have his suspicions. “I suspected that whole family was pretty damn musical,” Torrence says. “I would have been surprised if he didn’t have some sort of talent. I was very happy for him that he was able to go [and make his own music] even knowing that people would try and compare him to the Beach Boys and/or Brian, and that was going to be a hard one; everybody kind of knew that. I was very pleased for him that he went ahead and did it. And God, here we are some thirty years later actually still talking about it. That’s pretty cool.”

Sadly, Dennis’ friends were not shocked when he died. “I was really sorry to hear about it, but I wasn’t surprised,” Jakobson admits. “I don’t think anybody — that knew Dennis — who was really surprised. Sad, but not surprised.”

“You’re always somewhat surprised,” Torrence adds. “But if you had to bet on something, Dennis — in that group, of the guys that were most at risk — Dennis would probably be at the top. But then Brian would be close behind. I wasn’t really surprised, but I was really still sad.”

Jakobson has many fond musical memories of Dennis, whereas Torrence also has quite a few non-musical remembrances as well. “Well, they all had to do with the beach or the water or his boat,” says Torrence of his Wilson recollections. “Also, in relationship to the photography on Dennis’ album; that was fun. That was something tangible that fans will be able to see. Hopefully, they’ll be able to see Dennis in his element, having a good time. I remember I was trying to keep it looking like it was snapshots, not really poses. He didn’t like to pose, anyway. We tried to keep it as spontaneous as we could; it being a couple of guys in Hawaii, old friends that are traveling Maui together looking for great beaches and pretty landscapes — and there just happens to be a camera. That’s kind of how we went about doing it. I would say we had one heck of a good time. We absolutely loved being in Maui and having Jim Guercio [Caribou Records owner] pay for it; I mean, that was even better.”

We’re left now with only photographs, memories, and — of course — the music. And hopefully, many music fans will get to experience the artistic blossoming Jackobson and Torrence witnessed firsthand. This is because Dennis Wilson created music just as beautiful as the Pacific Ocean Blue he so dearly loved.