Dennis Wilson: Listening to the ocean

By David Beard

As far as the general public was concerned, Dennis Wilson was the ruggedly handsome Beach Boys drummer who missed the occasional beat while grinding his way through songs like “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Do You Wanna Dance” while shaking his head like a deranged mop-top. As he pounded mercilessly on the drums you had to wonder… Who is this guy?

Dennis Wilson, the artist

In the early stages of The Beach Boys’ career, the athletic, free-spirited and rebellious Dennis had an idea … he suggested that his older brother, Brian (a virtuoso on the piano and organ), write a song about surfing.

In short order Brian and cousin Mike Love created “Surfin’.” Inevitably, this song would define the band’s imagery, and Brian was trapped as a “Beach Boy.” Between 1962 and 1966 — with Brian at the helm — The Beach Boys released 12 albums.

Brian was living the California dream vicariously through Dennis, while his younger brother continued to fuel his own California lifestyle. The Beach Boys became the stuff that summer soundtracks were made of: surfing, drag racing, making out, going all the way, hanging out on the beach, etc. This was the life of Dennis Wilson.

For more than four years the group continued to churn out hit after hit with the recordings slanted towards Dennis’ pastimes. Slowly but surely, Brian gradually arrived at a place where he wanted to write about his state of emotional displacement. Dennis was no longer the muse. Brian redirected his musical canvas to the dynamic love evolution that became 1966’s Pet Sounds, and Dennis was paying attention.

Evocative music with subtle nuances was hardly the perception when it came to Dennis’ “style,” but then in 1968 something beautiful happened — he blossomed as a songwriter. Dennis debuted his compositions “Little Bird” (originally titled “Little Fish in a Brook”) and “Be Still” (both co-written with poet/lyricist Stephen J. Kalinich) on the Friends album.
Dennis’ tracks illustrated the obvious, that there was a very emotional human being underneath that tough (and usually wild) exterior. Dennis continued to grow musically over the next several years with recordings like “Be With Me,” “Celebrate the News,” “Forever,” “It’s About Time,” “Slip On Through,” “Lady,” “Sound of Free,” “Only With You” and “Cuddle Up.”

By 1973 Dennis had made significant advances in his musical development, collaborating with a variety of writers, including Beach Boys’ sideman Daryl Dragon (of Captain & Tennille).

“Dennis was physically so strong. Yet when he played the piano, it was as gentle as a child petting a kitten. That amazing sensitivity came out … Every note was like a morsel: unbelievable. That’s why I always compare him to Wagner,” recalls Dragon, “I’m guessing that if you heard Wagner playing his music on a solo piano, and then you heard that same piano music fully orchestrated, [it] would be then that Wagner’s music would certainly move the listener to a different dimension.”

“I think if you love what you do, it’s obvious. … It’s very obvious that some people love what they do and some don’t. It doesn’t necessarily have to be great to be loved. If you put your heart in it, that’s what the success is.”
— Dennis Wilson, 1977 (KOME interview)

In spite of Dennis’ tremendous gift coming through in spades, The Beach Boys were losing money at shows. The group needed to turn their fortunes around, and Dennis had another idea. He went to visit an old friend who would become an instrumental figure in turning the fate of Dennis and The Beach Boys’ careers around forever: James William Guercio.
Upon my recent interview with Jim Guercio (for the new Dennis Wilson Pacific Ocean Blue — Legacy edition) I learned a great deal of fascinating information. As the interview went deeper I was stunned at what I had always assumed had happened with The Beach Boys mid-’70s resurgence. In 1974, Mike Love purportedly came up with the name Endless Summer (as opposed to “Greatest Hits Volume whatever …”), for a new two-LP, million-selling set that would mark the rebirth of The Beach Boys.

Endless Summer

Here’s that story. In 1973 — after returning from Holland — Dennis went to Nederland, Colo. to visit his friend Jim (Jimmy) Guercio at his Caribou Ranch because of The Beach Boys declining popularity. The pair had met during the “Good Vibrations” tour that began in Texas in 1966 while Guercio was managing Chad & Jeremy. Guercio recalls, “When we were on the Texas tour I spent time with Dennis and became friends with him. That’s where we bonded.”

According to Guercio, Dennis came up to his Caribou Ranch and said, “Jim, we need your help. Will you come see the band? Is there anything you can do for us?” Jim asked Dennis what the problem was.

He recalls, “I flew up to Seattle to see the group in concert and the place was a third full and they weren’t playing any of their old stuff. They were playing a 10-minute medley of their hits. I said, ‘We’ve got to stop right here.’ We had lengthy discussions. Dennis was very supportive, Mike was very supportive and Carl was very supportive, too. Blondie wasn’t too happy about it, so he left. We rehearsed. Carl and I sat down and went through all these tunes. I agreed to run the band with Carl. We put the band together and that was the huge comeback in 1974. … After about a year we became the opening act and blew the following acts off the stage.”

It was during this period that Endless Summer went to the top of the charts, followed a year later by Spirit of America. While searching out Guercio’s assistance for the group’s financial success, Dennis inadvertently redirected his fate by the very concept that he helped initiate. Thankfully, that didn’t keep him from composing.

Jim remembers, “… We ended up doing our own stadiums, and then we added Chicago (in 1975). It was during that touring experience when I spent time with Dennis and encouraged him to finish his songs and complete the works. He didn’t really have them collated. It was during that tour that he played me songs during sound checks, after a show or during the day.”

So taken with Dennis and his music Guercio signed Wilson to a three-record deal on Caribou Records. However, in an effort to have new material match their formulaic packages, The Beach Boys (with Brian’s return to the studio) released 15 Big Ones in 1976, effectively quelling any artistic/expressive/creative music Dennis was working on.

Catalyst for change

Dennis Wilson was inadvertently responsible for having created the imagery for the group’s genre-oriented name in 1961. He introduced his brother, Carl, and fellow band mates Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston to Maharishi in December 1967 at a UNICEF concert in Paris. He picked up two female hitchhikers and dropped them off in the desert at a compound run by Charles Manson (who, within short order, would show up unannounced at Dennis’ house and move in) in the summer of 1968. And he would sell out tours leading to the group’s resurgence as bona fide rock icons in 1974.
How is it possible that Dennis Wilson — the tumultuous drummer — was the catalyst for each of these events? It isn’t hard to connect the dots. Dennis Wilson was — in every aspect — a real “beach boy,” a guy’s guy, and he had America’s dynamically disjointed pastiche running through his veins. It was the very essence of Dennis’ soul that would drive him, which in turn led to the most significant event of all… his music.

It was August 1977 when Pacific Ocean Blue was released and found its way into record stores. The cover photograph — taken by Karen Lamm (Dennis’ on-again, off-again love interest/wife) — illustrates the strained and taxing relationship the couple shared. Looking into Dennis’ deeply weathered and consternated soul, you can clearly see a complex essence of humanity.

There was no way that anyone could have possibly imagined the depth and breadth of the music on the LP they were about to place on their turntables. Unlike Pet Sounds’ love evolution, Dennis’ emotional displacement was both hindered and exaggerated by his relationship with Lamm. His soul was damaged, and he unleashed it in the process.

“The experience of experiencing an artistic moment is — I guess — fantasizing.
Technically speaking, it took a lot of work.”
— Dennis Wilson, 1977 (KOME interview)

Pacific Ocean Blue is a personal travelogue of Dennis Wilson’s life in 1977. Like his brother Brian, Dennis composed by feel. Dennis required the finished product be honest and truthful; so it represented who he was.

As engineer Earle Mankey recalls, “When Dennis was working on Pacific Ocean Blue — from a musical perspective — he would always say, ‘All this song has to have is the truth.’ People would start talking about notes, parts, the melody or the rhythm, and he would say, ‘It’s the truth.’ That’s all that mattered to him.”

The end result was always the same with Dennis. You would hear his music, become emotionally connected and come away with a very real sense of his heart and soul. In most cases, (for a variety of reasons) it was a deeper and darker place.

Dennis — with all his faults and demons intact — tapped into using his lifestyle and relationships as the catalyst for the music that surfaced on Pacific Ocean Blue. Certainly, Brian’s influence can be felt, but Dennis grew independently as an artist.

Brian relates, “I never discussed songwriting with Dennis; he actually did it on his own. He was a great musician, a really good music maker. He could produce records — he could do anything.”

He could and he did, but he wasn’t about to stop. In a September 1977 interview with David Leaf (at the time David was publishing his celebrated Pet Sounds magazine) Dennis told Leaf, “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 … They (the record company) call it one, two, three. I just don’t stop recording.”

Bambu, Dennis’ ill-fated second album was a departure from his previous musical works, but it was still a unique extension of Dennis.

As Gregg Jakobson recalls, “Bambu was going to be the name of the production company. We went looking in Kauai for a studio location. The studio’s name was going to be The Sunset. We had architectural renderings with a San Francisco architecture firm. We probably spent at least a quarter of a million dollars on remodeling.

“We had these things in the studio, like a bed that you could lie down in on the North Shore, it had lights that you could turn up or down, and you could also hear the sound of the ocean. And there was a mirror above the bed, and you could change the position of the mirror so that it would pick up different parts of the sky. A lot of the rooms were going to be treated like a room on a boat — small, but very nice and warm. It could have been a wonderful thing, state-of-the-art technology in the studios. My idea was to treat a recording studio just like you would a tennis court or a swimming pool. The idea was to sell these to concert venues. It was an ambitious project, but the plans kind of fell apart at the same time the album did.”

Fortunately for fans of The Beach Boys and Dennis Wilson everywhere, Rob Santos and the team at Sony Legacy have compiled the new Dennis Wilson — Pacific Ocean Blue: Legacy Edition, which includes 19-plus new recordings (some previously bootlegged) culled together in a two-disc package to celebrate Dennis’ amazing musical libido.

From the Pacific Ocean Blue extract “Tug of Love,” the ultra-engaging “Holy Man,” the quiet sophistication of “Mexico,” “Common” and “Are You Real,” etc., we really get a sense of one man’s direction facing the sea. A musical insurgence that began in 1968 and developed into a unique one-of-a-kind sound — distinctive of The Beach Boys (and sadly muted in December of 1983) — has surfaced.

It was Jerry Schilling — The Beach Boys’ manager in the early 1980s — who succinctly said, “Dennis’ music, to me was hauntingly beautiful. That’s almost a contradictory term. Just talking about his music right now I can hear his music immediately. That tells the longevity and how powerful it really was. The haunting part that you could hear through his music, [pauses] phew … The troubled soul that he had. To talk about Dennis is pretty heavy.”
Dennis Wilson left us too early and no history book or image can possibly tell us the integrated details … But here it is, now, for you and me, Dennis Wilson: the truth.

*** Dennis and Carl both worked with Manson in the studio. The Beach Boys recorded Manson’s “Cease to Exist” in 1969 (with Dennis on lead vocal), but before it was published on their 20/20 LP they changed the song title to “Never Learn Not to Love.”

David Beard is the editor and publisher of the acclaimed Brian Wilson/Beach Boys fan magazine, Endless Summer Quarterly [ESQuartely.com].

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