Out of print for nearly two decades, the Beach Boy Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue has finally been reissued.
Return to the sea
The recording catalogue of The Beach Boys is littered with disregarded releases that are celebrated today by a new generation of listeners. Most of these albums languished in out-of-print obscurity until Capitol Records launched an extensive repackaging campaign eight years ago.
Now, at long last, attention turns to the late and largely neglected Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, on the occasion of the long-overdue reissue of his outstanding 1977 solo debut, Pacific Ocean Blue. Given a lavish double-disc treatment by Sony Legacy, the new edition generously couples the original album with material Wilson had intended for an unreleased follow-up, Bambu.
Pacific Ocean Blue received a fleeting CD release in 1991. In the years since, a paucity of legitimate copies have exchanged hands for ludicrous prices. The rarity of such a spectacular work has deservedly increased its appeal among music cognoscenti, but more importantly it has also helped redefine Wilson's legacy as a Beach Boy. Regarded as the irrepressible id of The Beach Boys, the tanned and muscular Dennis was the very picture of the group's identification with Californian youth culture. The group's only surfer, he had fatefully encouraged Brian to write the song about the surfing craze, Surfin', that set into motion the phenomenon of The Beach Boys. Afterward, his freewheeling appetite for women and drugs lent the group a credible rock 'n' roll edge, although its infamy would also present a liability. Wilson is notorious for having put up Charles Manson and his "family" of followers in his Sunset Boulevard home in 1968, before the Tate murders. He even adapted a song of Manson's for a Beach Boys b-side. By the time of his untimely death at the age of 39 in 1983, drowning while drunkenly diving for lost articles in a marina, Wilson was a bloated alcoholic and a cocaine addict, picking at the wreckage of the last of his five marriages - to his cousin and bandmate Mike Love's illegitimate teenage daughter. The revival of Pacific Ocean Blue thankfully precipitates a renewed appreciation of his musical brilliance, which, while stylistically distinct from that of his brother Brian, is worthy of comparison to it.
The leonine Dennis, the middle Wilson brother, was the first Beach Boy to release a solo record. In the years following Brian's nervous collapse in 1967, he had helped shoulder the group's musical responsibility by contributing a growing number of songs that showcased an unexpected dexterity. Originally the group's drummer, Dennis's yeoman-like rhythmic talents had been marginalised by Brian's reliance on studio musicians such as Hal Blaine (who would later drum on Pacific Ocean Blue), and he began to focus on the piano. As he and the other members returned to the musical fold, he unveiled a songwriting sensibility at once soulful and surprisingly tender, whose efforts of various hues soon outstripped the contributions of the rest. For example, on side one of the group's 1970 album, Sunflower was the unabashedly lascivious rocker, Got to Know the Woman; on the flip side, the shamelessly vulnerable and heartbreaking ballad, Forever, both given voice by the same gruff, expressive tenor. Seemingly overnight, the group's resident sex symbol displayed dynamic compositional range.
After starring alongside James Taylor in the 1971 road film Two-Lane Blacktop, Dennis Wilson renewed his focus on producing music for the group. Songs by Dennis and his brother Carl tried to expand the group's artistic direction, but this momentum was derailed by the release in 1974 of the Endless Summer collection, and a simultaneous effort to coax a depleted and mentally ill Brian Wilson back to the creative fore. The success of Endless Summer cultivated a nostalgia act that effectively isolated Dennis as a contributor, despite the fact that Brian was in no shape to helm the group's next album, the abysmal 15 Big Ones. Dennis had proposed a song called Pacific Ocean Blues for inclusion on the album, released in 1976, but it wasn't used. He was subsequently offered the chance to record an album of his own, consisting of a few older songs and new material that he would write and record on the fly, much of it with his friend Gregg Jakobson, who would co-produce the album along with Wilson. This was done mainly at Brother Studio, a refuge Dennis owned with his brother Carl, where he could come and go as he pleased. Over months of methodical recording, often at odd hours of the night, he would layer overdub upon overdub, sometimes playing nearly all of the instruments himself as the songs took shape. A year later, as Wilson put the finishing touches on the album's majestic closer, End of the Show, he knew he had completed a great record.
It begins with the album's single most accomplished recording, an environmental spiritual entitled River Song. It's also the song most redolent of The Beach Boys. Dennis had worked on it with his brother Carl as a potential Beach Boys recording as far back as 1970.
Over a sinuous piano melody, Carl's uncredited voice can be heard in a blend of sweet vocal harmonies that are quickly overtaken by choral bursts from the Double Rock Baptist Choir. Dennis, his ragged growl tamed to a croon, extols the virtue of country life and laments the wretchedness of Los Angeles, as a flawless production of interweaving pianos, strings, and innumerable voices builds to monolithic intensity. The rolling rhythm subsides as he sings, "It breaks my heart to see the city / I wonder why it ain't pretty / Oh I want to cry". The song is a powerful expression of Wilson's elemental nature, and a fabulous start to the album.
After the rollicking boogie of What's Wrong, just about every song is an imaginative standout. Moonshine momentarily brings to mind Tom Waits before swelling with rich orchestration and a sublimely textured drumbeat. It's the first of a handful of songs documenting the dissolution of Wilson's marriage to the model Karen Lamm; they would divorce following the album's release. Two of these songs, Time and You and I, had been written with her, and they comprise with the others the melancholic core of Pacific Ocean Blue. Time undergoes an especially remarkable metamorphosis halfway through, from an achingly gorgeous piano ballad to a downright avant-garde mixture of jazz and classical elements. After a wistful trumpet passage, the song turns sharply to an extended coda of sharp piano syncopation, vocal chants, quick horn runs, and stinging electric guitar. A similarly experimental jazz leaning features prominently on Dreamer, where boozy horns punctuate the song's spacey R&B with what sounds like a mutant take on Dixieland swing.
The album's most hair-raising moment, however, belongs to the beautiful Thoughts of You. Another sonic subversion of the plaintive love ballad, Dennis begins accompanied solely by his piano. As he sings, "The sea air, it's flowing through my room again / Like the thoughts of you, fill my heart with joy again / I'm sorry / I miss you," a string arrangement, slowed to half speed, froths up. The arrangement pulses with sudden life as the song veers into an ominous, reverb-soaked bridge, and a chilling backwards effect shadows Wilson's voice as he intones, "All things that live one day must die, you know / Even love and the things we hold close". After a brief crescendo, the bridge dies away as easily as it surfaced, leaving Wilson back at his piano, singing of loneliness, the strings smoothly shying away.
Bonus tracks include the harmony-laden Tug of Love and the mysterious symphony in miniature, Mexico. The entire second disc is given over to a wealth of material from the Bambu sessions, adding considerable heft to an already momentous release. Dennis had high hopes for the album, boasting in a 1977 interview, "The next album is a hundred times what Pacific Ocean Blue is. It kicks. It's different in a way. I think I have more confidence now that I've completed one project, and I'm moving on to another."
Although recording would persist for many months, the confidence was short-lived. A solo tour in support of Pacific Ocean Blue was abruptly cancelled. He pursued the Bambu project between touring stints with The Beach Boys, as his lifestyle spiralled increasingly out of control. Financial difficulties led to the selling of Brother Studio, further unmooring Wilson. Still, he was capable of producing striking music. Some songs, like Under the Moonlight and School Girl, deliver the promised kicks, heavy on sinewy groove. Others are jaw-droppingly exquisite, such as the incandescent Are You Real and the unfinished Common. Still others trace the middle ground, notably Wild Situation.
If Pacific Ocean Blue found Dennis Wilson better capable of re-articulating the California essence of The Beach Boys than the group itself, the Bambu recordings prove the flash of genius was no fluke.
Wilson sounded the project's death knell when he yielded two Bambu songs for inclusion on The Beach Boys' otherwise dreadful L.A. (Light Album). He was fired from the group shortly after its release in 1979. While he rejoined The Beach Boys afterwards for intermittent performances, Dennis never again contributed a song. His last recordings can be heard on the so-called "Cocaine Sessions" of 1981 with his brother Brian, noteworthy for the spine-tingling Oh Lord. By the time of his death in 1983, Bambu had been left abandoned for four years.
Dennis Wilson was given special dispensation for burial at sea after his death. This scrupulous package by Sony Legacy is no less reverent a tribute to his exceptional talent. Twenty-five years after his drowning, listeners can now comprehend the full weight of his loss.
Scott Staton is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.