Music

Sea of Heartbreak: Dennis Wilson's Majestic Solo Work

Tony Sclafani

Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue, released 30 years ago, is majestic and haunting, a work as rich and complex as almost anything the Beach Boys released. So why is it out of print?

Dennis Wilson was an outcast in the Beach Boys because he was a beach boy. Good looking, muscular, and free-spirited, he was the one who actually did go surfing now, and by all accounts, he really did get around.

So when Brian Wilson, the band's creative force, went into decline in the late '60s, few expected Dennis, his younger brother, to step up and regularly contribute songs. After all, wasn’t he just the drummer -- and not even a very good one at that? Heck, Brian and Mike Love, his cousin, didn’t even want him in the band in the beginning, despite the fact it was Dennis’s offhand suggestion to sing about surfing that helped the band snare a recording contract.

Nevertheless, many of the best songs of the band’s commercially fallow period (1970-73) were by Dennis, including the wedding-ready ballad "Forever." And on August 22, 1977, Dennis became the first Beach Boy to release a solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue,. The record was met with positive reviews and sold moderately. Three decades later, it has become something of a cult item for both its artistry and its rarity. It was out on CD for only a short time in the early '90s, and copies now change hands for hundreds of dollars. In March 1998, the album was featured in Mojo magazine’s Buried Treasure column, which looks at forgotten musical gems. This may have helped increase demand for the disc. The original LP can be had for around $30 in mint condition.

To understand the significance of Pacific Ocean Blue -- and why it remains out of print -- you need know something of the Beach Boys’ rocky history.

By all appearances the happy-go-lucky Beach Boy, Dennis Wilson lived out the proverbial live-fast-die-young motto. To some degree, that’s a fair assessment. Dennis did indeed drive fast cars, hang with hippies (including Charles Manson) and dated his share of beautiful California women. But like his older brother Brian, Dennis was bullied mercilessly by his father. His wild side masked an underside that was, by turns, brooding, self-loathing, sensitive, and anxious. Dennis’s music reflected his edginess and exhibited little of his happy charm, setting it apart from Brian’s music. Dennis never sang about fun, and no images of surfboards or surfer girls ever appear in a Dennis Wilson song.

Dennis sang lead on a handful of early Beach Boys songs, notably their 1965 Top 20 cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance.” He began contributing songs in 1968; Friends included his spooky, deceptively simple "Little Bird" By the time of the Beach Boys’ '70 release, Sunflower, it seemed as if Dennis was at the creative helm of the band. The album had four of his tracks, including the opening cut. The truth was less sunny: The original version of the album had been rejected by their new record company, Warner Brothers, as old-fashioned, and Dennis’s songs were said to have been considered because they sounded more modern.

As the band struggled commercially, the in-fighting within the Beach Boys’ camp grew more rancorous. When Brian was coaxed back into the role of main songwriter, Dennis retreated. His longstanding feud with Love worsened; his erratic behavior increased. Witness him in an altered state of mind on this YouTube video, and it’s understandable why the other Beach Boys lost patience with him in the '70s, eventually booting him from the band. This made the release of Pacific Ocean Blue all the more surprising. Unlike many solo efforts, it wasn’t an exercise in ego stroking and it was shockingly coherent and artistically ambitious. Pacific Ocean Blue is a deeply personal work filled with intense, mostly melancholy songs that ebb, flow and sparkle like the body of water for which it was named. Its cavernous, state-of-the-art sound placed it far apart from the Beach Boys’ work of the period, and the album became a minor hit, charting higher than the Beach Boys’ 1978 effort, the lackluster M.I.U. .

And yet 30 years after its release, M.I.U. remains in print, while Pacific Ocean Blue does not. Jon Stebbins, the author of the 2000 biography “Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy” says the reason the album remains unavailable is the Beach Boys themselves. “There are certain elements in the Beach Boys’ organization that would just as soon that his vibe be buried and forgotten,” Stebbins says. “There’s a competition between him and certain people in the band and that played out while he was alive, and it continues to play out to this day.” According to a spokesperson from BMG’s Legacy label, which holds the rights to the album, the company is “still researching this matter and may reissue this record at some point.”

“Put it this way,” Stebbins says. “If the Beach Boys were all championing Dennis Wilson, the stuff would have been out a long time ago. But they don’t see an upside for themselves.”

But wouldn’t rereleasing a critically-lauded, Mojo-approved album only enhance the musical reputation of the Beach Boys? “I think it would appeal only to the hardcore Beach Boys fans," says Bruce Johnston, who came aboard as Brian’s touring replacement in 1965 and eventually became an official sixth member of the band. Johnston was generally considered a neutral party among the band's infighting. "Most people don’t know it’s been out or what it’s about,” he says of Dennis's album.

Though Johnston is thanked in the liner notes to Pacific Ocean Blue -- “I taught Dennis how to play the piano,” he explains -- he's no fan of the album. “It’s never really interested me,” he replied. “Dennis Wilson was a pretty talented character and a great guy to go surfing with. But some things work for my ears. I’m just kind of neutral. I really found Carl’s albums a lot more interesting.”

Johnston suggests that a smoother, more regimented sound would have racked up more units back in 1977: “I think Dennis could have used a really intelligent production person to make that album. He would have had a farther-reaching album.”

But the album’s iconoclastic production, unpredictable song structures, and rough vocals are now what help it transcend being a mere period piece. Vocally, it sounds nothing like what one expects from a Beach Boys record because Dennis’s voice, by 1977, had deteriorated into a Springsteen-esque rasp. Depending on what you read, his vocal problems were either caused by too much drinking, smoking, or fighting. Whatever the reason, by 1973’s Holland he was handing over his Beach Boys lead vocals to brother Carl. Yet it’s exactly Dennis's scorched-throat vocal timbre that gives Pacific Ocean Blue its power. He always sounds as though he’s on edge, making some sort of desperate last stand. Contrary to Johnston's view, it’s unlikely this gritty, soulful music would appeal only to hardcore Beach Boys fans.

Then there’s the production. One of the album’s most startling qualities is the way it juxtaposes quiet, claustrophobic piano-and-voice passages with massive, reverb-drenched layered interludes. The ballad “Time,” for example, moves along at a crawl, interpolating a jazzy trumpet for spice. Then, all of a sudden, all hell breaks loose at the end as a mini-symphony of timpani and horns come crashing in. The heartbreaking “Thoughts of You” starts and ends with a gorgeous piano riff but turns ominous in a bridge that employs an eerie backwards reverb effect. The opener, “River Song,” starts with harmony vocals from Dennis and an uncredited Carl Wilson and then a gospel choir -- yes, a gospel choir -- jumps in.

There are also lighter moments, like the bluesy kiss-off number “What’s Wrong” and the ecologically conscious title track. But the most memorable moments are the sad ones, in which Dennis comes up with some unexpectedly soul-bearing lyrics. “I never see the light that people talk about,” he confesses on the opening line in “You and I,” a Latin-tinged number.

It’s probably not a leap to conclude that the album's bipolar arrangements are a Rorschach of the composer’s mercurial personality. Dennis’s temperament is described as “an open nerve” in several Beach Boys books, so it makes sense that the music he made would spill over with emotion. This style is evident on such Beach Boys numbers as “Be With Me” and “Make It Good.” According to Brian Wilson biographer David Leaf, Dennis’s music is effective because it's “completely unfiltered. He didn’t have the immense creative gifts or artistic ambition of, say, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman or Neil Young,” says Leaf, who wrote The Beach Boys and the California Myth. “My contemporary comparison today might be Rufus Wainwright.”

Stebbins says his first impression of the album reminded him “of David Bowie and John Lennon…and a little of Bruce Springsteen. Dennis was experimenting more with modern textures and instruments. It just completely blew me away that this was coming from Dennis in the context of the Beach Boys -- and how far he was from the rest of them." Stebbins offers a surprising comparison to a '80s touchstone. "I was reminded of Pacific Ocean Blue when I later heard Cocteau Twins, with the blissful wash of synthesizer and deep drum sounds."

Obviously Dennis's music was far too visionary for a reactionary like Mike Love. “You knew if his head was at where that music was," Stebbins says, "then the things that Mike Love was pushing musically for the Beach Boys at that time must have been a depressing thing for him. And you can see why he walked off the stage a lot.”

But Dennis could never break away from the Beach Boys entirely. “Being a member of a group like the Beach Boys can be what in business terms might be called ‘golden handcuffs,’ ” notes Leaf. “It’s very hard to break away from the security blanket of walking out on a stage and knowing there’s going to be thousands of people screaming to hear the songs they know and love.”

Not being able to make that complete break is what landlocked Dennis Wilson’s follow-up to Pacific Ocean Blue. In 1978, he began work on a new record, tentatively called Bamboo. Working with a variety of collaborators, Dennis pushing the rhythmic and Latin elements of Pacific Ocean Blue further to the fore. But when the Beach Boys needed to fill up space on their patchwork L.A. (Light Album), from 1979, Wilson offered up two of the best tracks from Bamboo. The tracks, “Love Surrounds Me” and “Baby Blue” do not make much sense in the context of the ersatz surf and disco numbers that make up L.A..

“He was moving forward,” Stebbins notes of Dennis’ aborted second LP. “It wasn’t just like he did Pacific Ocean Blue and fell off the face of the earth. He was evolving.”

Unfortunately, Dennis entered a troubled period beset by personal problems which ultimately resulted in his death at age 39. According to Stebbins, any rerelease of Dennis Wilson's recordings would have to be authorized by James Guercio, the producer who started the Caribou label to which Dennis Wilson was signed. Stebbins says Guercio had looked into putting the two albums out as a single package but got “hung up” on legal issues.

“They’ve been trying to work out who owns what regarding that unreleased stuff. It took them several years to untangle the legal mess," Stebbins says, "because Dennis recorded some of it under contract to Jimmy, some of it under contract to the Beach Boys and with the Beach Boys and some of it was recorded in people’s houses. Then there was publishing and deciding who wrote what.”

It’s sadly ironic that Pacific Ocean Blue would remain out of print during the past decade. Because that’s when The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson in particular have finally come to be appreciated as genuine innovators, not the clan of empty-headed surfin’ choirboy hacks that '60s in-crowders thought them to be. Would-be fans who peruse e-Bay or used record shops could probably locate a copy if they’re willing to spend the bucks. But Pacific Ocean Blue deserves better than to be unceremoniously beached.

Music
Music

Chewing the Fat: Rapper Fat Tony on His Latest Work From Hip-hop's Leftfield

Fat Tony proves a bright, young artist making waves amongst the new generation of hip-hop upstarts.

Music

The Bobby Lees Strike the Punk-Blues Jugular on Jon Spencer-Produced 'Skin Suit'

The Bobby Lees' Skin Suit is oozing with sex, sweat and joyful abandon. It's a raucous ride from beginning to end. Cover to cover, this thing's got you by the short hairs.

Music

Khruangbin Add Vocals But Keep the Funk on 'Mordechai'

Khruangbin's third album Mordechai is a showcase for their chemistry and musical chops.

Music

Daniel Avery's Versatility Is Spread Rather Thin on 'Love + Light'

Because it occasionally breaks new ground, Daniel Avery's Love + Light avoids being an afterthought from start to finish. The best moments here are generally the hardest-hitting ones.

Music

Buscabulla Chronicle a Return to Puerto Rico in Chic Synthwave on 'Regresa'

Buscabulla's authenticity -- along with dynamite production chops and musicianship -- is irreplaceable, and it makes Regresa a truly soulful synthwave release.

Music

Why Australia's Alice Ivy Doesn't Want to Sleep

Alice Ivy walks a fine line between chillwave cool and Big Beat freakouts, and her 2018 debut record was an electropop wonder. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, she tries to keep the good vibes going with a new record decked out in endless collaborations.

Music

12 Essential Kate Bush Songs

While Kate Bush is a national treasure in the UK, American listeners don't know her as well. The following 12 songs capture her irrepressible spirit.

Books
Featured: Top of Home Page

'Breathing Through the Wound' Will Leave You Gasping for Air

As dizzying as Víctor Del Árbol's philosophy of crime may appear, the layering of motifs in Breathing Through the Wound is vertiginous.

Books

'Perramus: The City and Oblivion' Depicts Argentina's Violent Anti-Communist Purge

Juan Sasturain and Alberto Breccia's graphic novel Peraramus: The City and Oblivion, is an absurd and existential odyssey of a political dissident who can't remember his name.

Books

Five Women Who Fought the Patriarchy

Whether one chooses to read Square Haunting for the sketches of the five fascinating women, or to understand how misogyny and patriarchy constricted intellectual and public life in the period, Francesca Wade's book is a superb achievement.

Reading Pandemics

Parable Pandemics: Octavia E. Butler and Racialized Labor

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, informed by a deep understanding of the intersectionality of dying ecologies, disease, and structural racism, exposes the ways capitalism's insatiable hunger for profit eclipses humanitarian responses to pandemics.

Film
Film

The Cyclops and the Sunken Place: Narrative Control in 'Watchmen' and 'Get Out'

Hollywood is increasing Black representation but Damon Lindelof and Jordan Peele challenge audiences to question the authenticity of this system.

Film

Director Denis Côté on Making Film Fearlessly

In this interview with PopMatters, director Denis Côté recalls 2010's Curling (now on Blu-Ray) discusses film as a "creative experiment in time", and making films for an audience excited by the idea of filling in playful narrative gaps.

Film

Rediscovering Japanese Director Tomu Uchida

A world-class filmmaker of diverse styles, we take a look at Tomu Uchida's very different Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji and The Mad Fox.

Film

Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in 'New Jack City'

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"

Recent
Music

Chewing the Fat: Rapper Fat Tony on His Latest Work From Hip-hop's Leftfield

Fat Tony proves a bright, young artist making waves amongst the new generation of hip-hop upstarts.

Music

The Bobby Lees Strike the Punk-Blues Jugular on Jon Spencer-Produced 'Skin Suit'

The Bobby Lees' Skin Suit is oozing with sex, sweat and joyful abandon. It's a raucous ride from beginning to end. Cover to cover, this thing's got you by the short hairs.

Books

'Perramus: The City and Oblivion' Depicts Argentina's Violent Anti-Communist Purge

Juan Sasturain and Alberto Breccia's graphic novel Peraramus: The City and Oblivion, is an absurd and existential odyssey of a political dissident who can't remember his name.

Music

Daniel Avery's Versatility Is Spread Rather Thin on 'Love + Light'

Because it occasionally breaks new ground, Daniel Avery's Love + Light avoids being an afterthought from start to finish. The best moments here are generally the hardest-hitting ones.

Music

Khruangbin Add Vocals But Keep the Funk on 'Mordechai'

Khruangbin's third album Mordechai is a showcase for their chemistry and musical chops.

Music

Buscabulla Chronicle a Return to Puerto Rico in Chic Synthwave on 'Regresa'

Buscabulla's authenticity -- along with dynamite production chops and musicianship -- is irreplaceable, and it makes Regresa a truly soulful synthwave release.

Film

The Cyclops and the Sunken Place: Narrative Control in 'Watchmen' and 'Get Out'

Hollywood is increasing Black representation but Damon Lindelof and Jordan Peele challenge audiences to question the authenticity of this system.

Featured: Top of Home Page

'Breathing Through the Wound' Will Leave You Gasping for Air

As dizzying as Víctor Del Árbol's philosophy of crime may appear, the layering of motifs in Breathing Through the Wound is vertiginous.

Music

12 Essential Kate Bush Songs

While Kate Bush is a national treasure in the UK, American listeners don't know her as well. The following 12 songs capture her irrepressible spirit.

Music

Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish Replace Form with Risk on 'Interactivity'

The more any notions of preconceived musicality are flicked to the curb, the more absorbing Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish's Interactivity gets.

Music

Martin Green's Junkshop Yields the Gritty, Weird Story of Britpop Wannabes

Featuring a litany of otherwise-forgotten budget bin purchases, Martin Green's two-disc overview of coulda-been Britpop contenders knows little of genre confines, making for a fun historical detour if nothing else.

Reviews

Haux Compellingly Explores Pain via 'Violence in a Quiet Mind'

By returning to defined moments of pain and struggle, Haux cultivates breathtaking music built on quiet, albeit intense, anguish.

Reviews

'Stratoplay' Revels in the Delicious New Wave of the Revillos

Cherry Red Records' six-disc Revillos compilation, Stratoplay, successfully charts the convoluted history of Scottish new wave sensations.

Reviews

Rising Young Jazz Pianist Micah Thomas Debuts with 'Tide'

Micah Thomas' Tide is the debut of a young jazz pianist who is comfortable and fluent in a "new mainstream": abstraction as well as tonality, freedom as well as technical complexity.

Music

Why Australia's Alice Ivy Doesn't Want to Sleep

Alice Ivy walks a fine line between chillwave cool and Big Beat freakouts, and her 2018 debut record was an electropop wonder. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, she tries to keep the good vibes going with a new record decked out in endless collaborations.

Books

Five Women Who Fought the Patriarchy

Whether one chooses to read Square Haunting for the sketches of the five fascinating women, or to understand how misogyny and patriarchy constricted intellectual and public life in the period, Francesca Wade's book is a superb achievement.

Film

Director Denis Côté on Making Film Fearlessly

In this interview with PopMatters, director Denis Côté recalls 2010's Curling (now on Blu-Ray) discusses film as a "creative experiment in time", and making films for an audience excited by the idea of filling in playful narrative gaps.

Music

Learning to Take a Picture: An Interview With Inara George

Inara George is unafraid to explore life's more difficult and tender moments. Discussion of her latest music, The Youth of Angst, leads to stories of working with Van Dyke Parks and getting David Lee Roth's musical approval.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.