IF I WAS TO NAME A FAVORITE BEACH BOY, IT WOULD BE DENNIS WILSON. He was the only Beach Boy who actually surfed, who truly lived that life. He burned white-hot and burned out, far too soon, becoming a lost soul, driven to a too-early-demise essentially by excess.
Beach Boy fans know: Dennis was a prodigious music talent and for years nobody knew it. How could anyone know when Brian Wilson, let alone Carl Wilson, and your brothers are in the same band? When their mom insisted Dennis join the group and play drums? It wasn’t until the late 60’s, that Dennis started getting some songs on Beach Boys records and surprising people – his songs had soul as well as hooks. For proof, check out my personal favorite, “Slip On Through” which kicks off the fantastic Sunflower album.
But it wasn’t until 1977 when the world really could hear Dennis’s talents, thanks to his one and only solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue. It’s a stunning album, so soulful and so often…painful. The happy and sunny image that the Beach Boys tried to keep front and center belied the fact that Dennis had a lot of pain in his life (as did each Wilson brother) – failed marriages, musical failures with the Beach Boys, and the omnipresent pressure of Brian Wilson’s state of mind and mental health. Plus, Dennis’s own growing and prodigious appetite for drugs and alcohol. But before it all completely spiraled all out of control, Dennis Wilson delivered a musical masterpiece.
Every song is filled with lush production, with layers of wonderful harmonies (as you’d expect), but it all sounds so organic, not over-produced. Its white man, California gospel, really. When I hear Dennis’s voice, so often I hear a broken man, haunted by regret, and loss. And yet, there’s such a soulfulness to his singing (even in later years when his vocal cords were ravaged by years of cocaine and alcohol abuse) and that shines through on every track on Pacific Ocean Blue.
It’s not all sadness and pain however. My two favorite songs from the album are uplifting and joyous. First, “Rainbows:”
How do you simply describe the joy and the feeling this song brings? The first word that comes to my mind is, “warmth.” The simple lyrics say so much: \”Love I really want to be with you/I don’t have a reason/I could never tell you why I know/But I do/Hon I love you I love you so”
My other favorite is “River Song,” the song that most critics and reviews laud as the standout track from Pacific Ocean Blue (and co-written by younger brother Carl Wilson) Again, its soulful – almost gospel-like in places – as Dennis sings about the importance of water to his spirit. He was a Beach Boy after all.
No one could foresee that the best Beach Boys album of the 70’s would be the drummer’s solo album. Back in 2008 Sony Legacy released the definitive re-issue of Pacific Ocean Blue. fully remastered, with the added bonus disc being Bambu – the album that was supposed to follow Wilson’s first solo album. Alas, it was never to be, as not long after Pacific Ocean Blue was released Wilson’s demons took control of his life, and he died in 1983.
For more on Dennis, check out this great feature.