“I don’t have that many influences on my work. Of course, my brother Bri, but it’s got to come from your own heart…I ‘d never just get by or cheat. That’s my heart out there.”
-Dennis Wilson, 1977
The story of the Beach Boys is a tragedy. It’s full of Shakespearean themes like oppressive parental figures, power struggles, and iambic pentameter. Okay, maybe not the last one, but the reason I find their story so fascinating over any other band’s is that it’s the story of a family, first and foremost. It just so happened that this family recorded some of the most complex and nuanced pop music the world has ever witnessed. Brian is the most famous and the recognized genius, with good reason, but so often overlooked is his brother Dennis, who at his peak, was out-Wilsoning even big brother Brian.
Released in 1977, Pacific Ocean Blue can be painful to hear sometimes. This was the middle Wilson brother’s debut album (the first Beach Boy to go solo), but he left not a shred of his soul off of this record, and it shows. Much of the album is devoted to the stormy relationship with his third wife, Karen, who provides backup vocals on many of the tracks, and even shares some co-writing credit on a few.
The album opens with a composition that Dennis began some five years earlier, “River Song”. The opening piano intro displays”Denny” showing off his piano chops, no longer just the drummer that the Wilsons’ mother Audrey had to force her other two sons to accept into the band. Dennis taught himself piano during the late ’60s and by this time, he’d developed a knack for finding unique sounds on the ivories that impressed players like collaborator Daryl Dragon (later known as the “Captain” of Captain and Tennille).
Soon after the intro, the in-unison chorus punches in the opening vocals, Dennis’ voice not discernible until his pained “Oooh” works in between the male and female vocals that maintain throughout the track.
An embarrassment of riches in the hooks department is where I think the best BW and DW compositions set themselves apart. Many pop composers will build a song around one hook, with the rest just filler or set up. Not here man, Dennis doesn’t need it. The whole song is one bright bass-grabbing Rapala with multiple barbs just begging to pull you in. That piano track alone is enough to pull in a casual listener, but by the first chorus, we’ve already shifted into a totally different motif, the “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin on… river!” in a low register. What is really cool here is that the backup singers hang out for every change. Next up is the bridge “…breaks my heart to see the city…”, where the backup choir now shifts to angelic before Dennis backs himself up, getting down and dirty again with the ending tag of “you’ve got to do it, do it…”
Environmentalism in song is a given these days, but POB was one of the first albums to make a statement on this theme. The Beach Boys first ventured into those waters with 1971’s Surf’s Up. In River Song, Dennis laments the state of his hometown LA in the ’70s. “You can only see about a block or two, in LA that’s the truth.” He talks about wanting to get away from the city, but it also “breaks his heart” to see it choking under a gray cloud of smog. It’s easy to project lyrics like this into Dennis’ own battle with personal demons. When he sings lines like “You’ve got to run away, you’ve got to do it do it do it.” I hear him not just seeking respite from the city, but also from everything destructive it offers that he can’t turn down.
Dennis’ life ended tragically in 1983, as he drunkenly dove into Marina Del Rey, looking for items his now ex-wife Karen had thrown off their boat. All that’s left is this rugged voice, soaked with years of abuse, but also pure talent. This is one often overlooked artist that no music lover should miss.Preview Dennis Wilson - River Song