(By Kingsley Abbott, from the March, 1998 issue of Mojo Magazine.)|
Dennis was never allowed the level of involvement in the early Beach Boys successes that he might have liked. Indeed, he had only been grudgingly allowed into the band at the insistence of his mum. He was given a few lead vocals on the early albums to supplement his live drumming, once his role of band heart-throb and scream generator had been established, but, such was his wayward and unreliable nature, it seems that the others became increasingly happy to keep Dennis at arm's length.
Nevertheless, to the outside world, Dennis - who hung out with the cooler end of the LA rock scene - was as involved as anyone, keenly championing Brian's experimentations with Pet Sounds and the abandoned Smile. Dennis the composer began to emerge in the late '60s when he collaborated with poet and lyricist Steve Kalinich on two songs for the Friends album, the delightful Little Bird and Be Still. While his singing wasn't as sweet as his brother's, there was a distinctive, tender quality to his fragile vocals, suggesting that under the rakish exterior lurked a sensitive soul. "Dennis and I used to sit up in his tree-hut and talk about how we would like to change and help influence the world towards peace, and helping all the sick kids," Kalinich recalls. "Despite all the things you read about Dennis, there was that side of him that wanted to give."
Dennis's emerging ideas and poetic concepts were not given strong support within the group. As early as 1970 it become clear that he would eventually have to produce a solo project. However, with Brian's increasing unreliability, The Beach Boys needed any decent songs they could get. Dennis's Be With Me on 20/20, Slip On Through and Forever on Sunflower, Celebrate The News (on the B-side of Breakaway), Make It Good and Cuddle Up on Carl And The Passions, Only With You on Holland and his Sound Of Free solo single all served to build his confidence, but also to postpone any solo album. Finally, in 1977, he recorded his masterpiece.
Pacific Ocean Blue allowed Dennis to bare his soul magnificently. The songs were given expansive, dreamy settings in delicately complex arrangements, taking in orchestral and choral passages. The opener, the mighty River Song was a dense and dramatic plea for a simpler, more natural life co-written with brother Carl Wilson: "You know it's rough gettin' round this place, so crowded I can hardly breath/You can only see a block or two in LA, that's the truth."
After this majestic beginning, the bulk of the songs dealt with the theme of love, though, being Dennis, it was love from a more wistful, almost metaphysical viewpoint than The Beach Boys' adolescently optimistic take on affairs of the heart. The Dennis version of romance was fatalistic, mordant even. The title song, however, was no less than a love song to the ocean, co-written with Mike Love.
The musical landscape was oceanic too: powerful, emotive and uplifting. The spirit that Dennis brought to The Beach Boys comes shining through, especially on some of the vocal codas, which recall the band at their best, even though Bruce Johnston is the only other Beach Boy to contribute to the sessions. Two of the aIbum`s most chillingly lovely songs - Time and You And I - were written with Dennis's wife, Karen Lamm Wilson. Most of the others were composed with co-producer and longstanding friend Gregg Jakobson (the co-writer of Forever).
"There was never any talk about money or success or death," remembers Kalinich, who collaborated on Rainbows with Dennis and Carl. "There was only talk about the work, about the creativity." The pair also collaborated on a song dedicated to Helen Keller which didn't make it onto the album.
It's quite easy to imagine that the warm, critical reception which welcomed Pacific Ocean Blue wouId have given rise to mixed emotions in The Beach Boys' camp. The album represented the first major individual work by a band member, and it certainly might have put some noses out of joint. Its release came only five months after the official band album, The Beach Boys Love You, and in terms of coherence, sound, and a mature sense of purpose, it beat the band's release hands down.
Although the album didn't sell well, Dennis was suitably buoyed by its reception to begin preparing tracks for a second set which had the working title of Bamboo but never made it to the finishing line. Two of the best songs, Baby Blue and Love Surrounds Me were used for The Beach Boys' LA (Light Album) in 1979. Several others showed strong new directions, but, as Dennis let his life drift into more excesses than he could handle, plans for the second release petered out.
Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983. This album is undoubtedly the pinnacle of his sadly undervalued legacy.
Kingsley Abbott is a respected music jouranlist who has written extensivly about the Beach Boys in books and various publications. His books include "Back to the Beach: A Beach Boy Reader" (editor) and "The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds: The Greatest Album of the Twentieth Century". You can learn more about these books by folowing this Amazon.com link.