Music Reviews

Dennis Wilson

Pacific Ocean Blue


Kudos to Sony for making available one of the last great infinite sadness records – alongside Lou Reed’s Berlin, Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos, Skip Spence’s Oar, Gene Clark’s No Other – available in a gorgeous reissue package. Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue has for too long been a cypher, a legend, one piece in the puzzle of a puzzlingly tormented musician.

I have to admit, guiltily, that at times, the sheer sadness and self-pity that overwhelms the crystal clear sounds of Pacific Ocean Blue makes you want to give him a good shake beyond the grave, or wonder why the hell it was so hard to be Dennis Wilson. Dennis Wilson, the most ruggedly handsome and ladykilling of the internationally famous Beach Boys, the only Beach Boy who could actually fucking surf, the star member of a musical fraternity in LA that produced some classic albums (and some ubiquitous cokehead nonsense), lover of Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac… I assure you I could go on. Dennis Wilson reminds me of Rick Danko, in terms of this hidden soul and songwriting genius on the inside, while appearing dumb/pretty and mischievous on the outside. But when you think about the fraught and violent Wilson family drama, his own struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction, his terrifying brush with Charlie Manson and friends, broken relationships, trapped in a bubble of fame and drugs, it starts to make sense. Man, everyone has their torments, private and not, even beautiful people like Dennis Wilson, and some are just better at expressing it than others. Who the am I to deny him his sadness?

And Wilson indeed expressed the hell out of his personal demons. Pacific Ocean Blue is a beautiful, vast sound, built around Wilson’s scarred but plaintive voice (a voice that would NOT be singing “Little Deuce Coupe”) and piano. Without the bouncy, nostalgic Americana of his brother’s compositions to fall back on, Wilson could craft his own sound, one that was rougher, sadder and more naked; but vulnerability was a strength for Dennis Wilson. He was able to feel more deeply and hope more fully and live madly. As his brother composed teenage symphonies to God, Dennis composed his own vast, filmic, widescreen hymns, but they were those of a man praying for forgiveness. Listen to the gospel beauty of “River Song,” Wilson lends his gruff voice to a soaring gospel choir, leading them in an entreaty for a “country life,” an escape from the city that you figure he really didn’t want at all, even with a greek chorus urging “got to get away” over and over amidst crashing piano, percussion and strings like the sun coming through a cloud.

The nausea, tension and paranoia of “Dreamer” – one of the great cocaine songs, surely – paints a vulgar picture the likes of which even the jaded voyeurs of Steely Dan would be proud. The tune also cops a good deal of their jazzy strut, with smoking electric piano and horn interplay, all cocky swagger. The more upbeat tunes resemble the Dan, Fleetwood Mac’s darker moments or Bob Seger, but it’s the fragile piano ballads that form the pulpy, beating heart of this record. There’s this raw, manchild vulnerability where Wilson sings with sadness and uncertainty, like he doesn’t even know what he wants in love or life, and if he found it, he sure as fuck wouldn’t be able to keep it. So he’ll just pen these exquisite love poems to an unquenched longing deep inside and all the lovers and friends he knows he’s going to burn.

This kind of loss seldom sounded so wondrous. “Moonshine” is a lush burst of white heat, lavishly orchestrated and multi-tracked, Wilson’s voice sounding heavenly on stoned “na-na-nas” and whole choirs burst in at the end. “Thoughts of You” starts with a simple piano line, while Wilson narrates waking up after one too many Saturday nights and remembering that his love is gone and whispering that he’s sorry and wants her back. His voice literally cracks with longing, before the song rises to this huge pinnacle of strings and piano and a buzzing synth chord, and then settles back down into that shades-drawn solitude. On “Time,” Wilson mutters to himself that he’s the “kind of guy who likes to mess around” before pleading and begging, “I love you, I really do” only for one soulful horn to answer quizzically, and then the song explodes into a turmoil of talkbox guitar, swaggering horns and martial drumming.

Elsewhere, “You and I” is a yacht-rock prefiguring, smooth and sultry promise of Bonnie-and-Clyde-ish love. Jesus, that’s smooth. “Farewell My Friend” tries to redeem the Jimmy Buffett white-tropical template, but Wilson’s in a darker mood, over burbling kettle drums, shakers, and ocean swells, he’s not waving, he’s drowning. “End of the Show” is the ideal closer, the last dance, the final furtive meeting in a movie or a musical. A tired and emotional Wilson slurs that “it’s wonderful to know we’re alive/at the end.” Two lovers ready to walk off together into the sunset, after the curtain has fallen? If only it were that easy. Even if emotive piano chords, strings, and choruses of backing singers try to convince him that it’s going to be okay. Wilson tries his hardest to believe, but there’s just too much old hurt that won’t go away. “Doo-doo-doo” and falsetto, along with the adoring screams of the audience take us out, until…. Fade to black.

How could you not take this guy back in again and again?

I feel compelled to mention that these richly layered tracks are generally punk rock in length, two minutes and we’re out; this is like the perfect hybrid of LA sprawl and punk’s impatient focus. Also included in this package – for the first time as a proper release – is the working tapes that formed the spine of Bambu, the unfinished follow-up. It’s a more earthy, rough-hewn album than Pacific, but having reached these heights, how much further inside could you feasibly go? Still there are some weepers. Wading through the other extra bits and bobs, one can’t help but wonder if the unreleased Brian Wilson/Dennis Wilson recording sessions will ever see the light of day. Tantalizing thought. The only sour note on this package is having that goofball drummer from the Foo Fighters sing a Wilson number herein. Lame. I can think of sixty more fitting singers.

The songs are fucking great. The packaging is fucking great. MORE. Kill surf city, indeed.

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