Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue – Caribou/Epic/Legacy 88697 07916 2, (2 CDs) 54:14 & 57:53 *****:
(Dennis Wilson – keyboards, drums, percussion, harmonica, vocals; plus about 65 other instrumentalists and vocalists)
This deluxe reissue edition of Beach Boys’ founding member and drummer Dennis Wilson’s classic solo release of 1977, Pacific Ocean Blue, takes its place among the great lost or forgotten rock classics. These include such records as the Beach Boys’ Smile, which has never been released in its original version (though a “recreated” version was issued in 2004); Byrds’ founding member and drummer Gene Clarke’s 1974 classic, No Other, often compared to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, rereleased in 2003 as a remastered import featuring outtakes and alternate versions; Johnny Darrell’s 1970 masterpiece, California Stopover, which featured first recordings of tunes by Jackson Brown and Lowell George and has never been properly rereleased, although all 11 of its tunes are included on Singin’ It Lonesome, The Very Best . . . 1965 – 1970 issued as an import in 2001 and still in print; Graham Parson’s first release featuring The International Submarine Band, Safe at Home; and Longbranch Pennywhistle, the 1969 rarity by John David Souther and Glenn Frey (the latter was a founding member of the Eagles and both collaborated on several Eagles hits), and which also has never been rereleased.
A great deal of care went into Pacific Ocean Blue: Legacy Edition—everything from an elaborate and beautiful package, to carefully remastering, which greatly enhances the original lush and highly structured sound image. But the real discovery here is the previously unheard Bambu (or Bamboo), a never-released follow-up recording to Pacific Ocean Blue, which got caught up in the blowback of Dennis Wilson’s personal life and unfortunate financial difficulties. Five short years after recording Bambu he died in 1983 from an alcohol-related drowning.
Dennis Wilson’s vision was certainly darker than his brothers’ Brian and Carl’s. It’s worthwhile to recall that Dennis had been deeply involved with Charles Manson’s clan (the Beach Boys’ “Never Learn Not to Love” being a Dennis-sponsored reworking of a Manson tune). Dennis was a rather tortured soul, unlucky in love and possessed of a large wild streak. Yes, Brian had his problems with drugs and Carl tended toward terminal sappiness, but neither had slipped so desperately and hopelessly over to the dark side as had Carl. By the time of Bambu whatever vocal chops Dennis had had badly deteriorated on account of his dissolute lifestyle. Some have tried to transmute his rough vocal efforts here into some kind of apotheosis of his internal chaos, but I’m not buying it. Sadly, there’s a kind of vocal/instrumental grandiosity that annoys as much as it enlightens. The effort to lionize Dennis’ weak-sauce vocalizations says more about the desire on the part of many critics and fans to establish once and for all his pop-icon status as it does to accurately assess his true strengths and weaknesses as a singer.
Now we all know that tortured genius often makes for, if not great art, at least provocative art. And I think that’s the case here. Dennis’s demons are plaguing him full-bore on this remarkable two-set disc. And the music increasingly reflects that. It’s not always great, but it’s more often than not quite interesting and even astonishing, achieving a high-water mark of Beach Boys recordings, overwrought as it is, right up there with Pet Sounds. Take the opening track on Pacific Ocean Blue, “River Song”: It’s got just about everything we love about the Boys—soulful vocal, gorgeous harmony, lush instrumentation. But it’s got something more—almost a Phil Spector-ish wall-of-sound thing plus a darker palette of colors and an ominous lyric vibe completely lacking in typical Beach Boys songs. “What’s Wrong,” a cynical little ditty almost certainly written about Karen Lamm-Wilson, his on-again, off-again wife and love interest, joins a typical Beach Boys sound with disturbing words. The relationship detailed in the previous song has further deteriorated in “Moonshine,” where his love says she “loves me now in another way,” and the song ends with “gone away, gone away, gone away, gone away . . .” “Dreamer” is another bit of sarcasm aimed at those who think the California Dream coincides with that first-century carpenter’s dream. “Thoughts of You,” a sorrowful ballad about lost love, “Time,” a kind of confession about messin’ around despite the singer’s deep love for his one and only, and “You and I” form a kind of trilogy—two of the three co-written with Lamm-Wilson—expressing hope for a lasting love.
The mood abruptly shifts with “Pacific Ocean Blues,” a lament about the slaughter of seals and ocean otters. It’s very catchy, despite its somber topic. “Farwell My Friend,” another huge production number, very evocatively laments the recent death of close friend and associate, Otto Hinsche. “Rainbows” ties in thankfulness for the beauty of the earth with the glories of man/woman love, and although it tries to evoke an up mood, there’s a vein of sadness and longing deeply running through it. “End of the Show,” the final number on Pacific Ocean Blue (not counting bonus tracks), with its luxuriant soundscape, firmly announces that it’s all over—his career? his love relationship with Karen? his life? Maybe all of that.
Turning to Bambu the stunner here is the poignant and irony-drenched soul-ballad, “It’s Not Too Late”—because it really was too late for many things: for Dennis to stop his precipitous personal decline; for him to continue his special relationship with Carl and Brother Studios; for him and Karen to get back together. “Love Remember Me” and “Love Surrounds Me” belong to a period between his and Karen’s breakup and his falling heavily for Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie (and she for him). About halfway through the disc, this new relationship becomes the backdrop for much of what follows: “Wild Situation,” “Are You Real,” “I Love You,” and “Constant Companion.” “All Alone” sounds like a song of regret addressed to Karen Lamm-Wilson, expressing his sorrow for not being able to remain with her. The disc ends with a very poignant vocal rendition of “Holy Man” by Taylor Hawkins, drummer of the Foo Fighters, that fits into the vibe so effortlessly it’s scary. Although Bambu, because of the circumstances of its recording—lacking the warmth and friendliness of Brother Studios and recorded in a sort of catch-as-catch-can fashion—fails to achieve the seamlessness of Pacific Ocean Blue, it nevertheless is a remarkable snapshot of Dennis Wilson’s tragic genius.
Certainly Dennis Wilson was the unsung hero behind the Beach Boys’ brilliance. Overshadowed by brother Brian’s sheer pop genius and Carl’s angelic voice, he added grit and poignancy to what always threatened to devolve into maudlin silliness. Sadly, the very thing that added a certain toughness to the Beach Boys increasingly saccharine music—Dennis’s walk on the wild side—is what eventually did him in. We should be thankful that we have this musical testament to his prodigal talent.
TrackList, Disc One, Pacific Ocean Blue: River Song, What’s Wrong, Moonshine, Friday Night, Dreamer, Thoughts of You, Time, You and I, Pacific Ocean Blue, Farewell My Friend, Rainbows, End of the Show, Tug of Love, Only with You, Holy Man, Mexico
Disc Two, Bambu (The Caribou Sessions): Under the Moonlight, It’s Not Too Late, Love Remember Me, Love Surrounds Me, Wild Situation, Common, Are You Real, He’s a Bum, Cocktails, I Love You, Constant Companion, Time for Bed, Album Tag Song, All Alone, Piano Variations on Thoughts of You, Holy Man
– Jan P. Dennis