Sunday, July 25, 2010

March 31, 2009: The Coolest Beach Boy

Brian Wilson was the group’s undisputed genius, but younger brother Dennis may have been the coolest Beach Boy. With his male-model looks and the Meg-White simplicity of his on-stage drumming (session drummers were generally used in the studio), Dennis Wilson seems like the Beach Boy that might be easiest to dismiss on first glance. When one really examines what he contributed to the group, a totally different story is revealed. As far back as The Beach Boys Today!, Dennis was asserting himself as a genuine asset, taking lead vocals on two of the album’s best tracks (several months before brother Carl, who had a more traditionally sweet voice, made his vocal debut on “Girl Don’t Tell Me”). He lends gruff but poignant sensitivity to the breath-taking “In the Back of My Mind” and boyish, come-hither sexuality to a cover of “Do You Wanna Dance”. When Brian began fully exploring the most outré levels of his creativity in the mid-‘60s, Dennis was the only Beach Boy that supported and encouraged him, while the rest of the group harangued Brian with such fervor that he abandoned his would-be masterpiece, SMiLE, just when it was close to being completed. “Don’t fuck with the formula,” asshole Mike Love would assholely repeat without fail like an asshole. The (temporary) death of SMiLE sent Brian into artistic and emotional retreat, making it necessary for the other guys to pick up a good deal of the slack. During this time, Dennis developed into one of the band’s best songwriters, contributing such fine songs as “Little Bird”, “Be With Me”, “Celebrate the News”, “Slip On Through”, “Forever”, and “Steamboat” to the Beach Boys’ late ‘60s/early ‘70s records. Famously, Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy who actually surfed. He also starred in the cult hot-rod flick Two Lane Blacktop, and while he was no Brando, he acted rings around chump-ass James Taylor.

On the downside, Wilson’s ballads could veer toward the sickeningly maudlin (“Barbara”) and some of his rockers were dumb (“Got to Know the Woman”). He also allowed his super-charged libido to lead him into a dubious, and potentially dangerous, association with Charles Manson (Wilson liked hanging around with Manson at first because the Crazy-One always had plenty of ready-for-anything chicks on hand). Wilson also had a weakness for drugs and booze, which would destroy his expressive voice. This, combined with a misguided passion for singing Joe Cocker’s awful “You Are So Beautiful” on stage, resulted in some pretty painful performances. Ultimately, Dennis’s chemical weaknesses resulted in his demise. He took a drunken dive off his boat in Marina del Ray, California, in 1983, and never resurfaced.

Six years before his death, Dennis Wilson recorded his only solo album, and the double-disc deluxe edition of Pacific Ocean Blue was one of the most ballyhooed reissues of 2008. I’ve dragged my feet listening to it because of dubious descriptions of the record as a coke-fueled indulgence awash in synthesizers and recorded when Wilson’s voice was declining from rough and rougish to raspy and ruined. So, would Pacific Ocean Blue indicate the Dennis Wilson of “Little Bird” or the Dennis Wilson of “You Are So Beautiful to Me”? Now that I’ve heard it, I have to say that the hype isn’t quite justified, but this is still a genuinely fascinating record that blows away what the Beach Boys were doing in the late ‘70s. The synths are pretty subtle, and Wilson’s voice is still an interesting instrument. The songs tend toward the modal, but they are rarely dull, and capable of taking very unexpected shifts. “Dreamer” begins as a moody, one-chord groove before flitting off into the ether during its rhythm-less bridge. Dixie-land horns and a buzzing bass harmonica make the track a strange but perfectly coherent fusion of late ‘70s light funk and Pet Sounds-era instrumentation. The good-timey “What’s Wrong” would have fit nicely on Holland. “River Song”, the album’s acknowledged masterpiece, is chugging and majestic. “Pacific Ocean Blues” is a hurky jerky soul number that sounds like a white-boy response to Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On. “Rainbows” drives along on a lazy Bo Diddley rhythm decorated with banjo, mandolins, and choral “aaahs” and “ooohs”. The lyrics are generally of the simplistic “I Love You” or “Save the Earth” variety, but such is pretty par for the course for all ‘70s Beach Boys records. I’ve only given Pacific Ocean Blue a few spins at this point, so it may very well prove to be a grower. I do like it a bit more with every listen.

Listen to "River Song":

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