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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.