Sea of Heartbreak: Dennis Wilson’s Majestic Solo Work

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.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.