Like heat from a blast furnace: The sheer raw force of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson
It is tough to reconcile Dennis Wilson no longer being among the living. The heart and soul of the Beach Boys emerged as their most undervalued songwriter, producer, and vocalist by 1970’s Sunflower. Born on December 4, 1944, to Murry and Audree Wilson in sunny Hawthorne, California, the primal, self-taught, open-handed drummer tragically passed away at age 39 after repeatedly diving while inebriated for family heirlooms in the chilly Marina Del Rey on December 28, 1983. The slip where Dennis accidentally drowned was adjacent to where the rocker’s prized sailboat The Harmony had been moored before being repossessed just over two years earlier. The mementos Dennis had been diving for had been heaved overboard during tempestuous arguments with former wife and Pacific Ocean Blue contributing lyricist Karen Lamm. Incredulously, 30 years later to the exact day, Dennis’s son Michael welcomed a new baby into the world. Guess who he was named after.
In a special commemorative profile, Beach Boy experts Andrew G. Doe, Craig Slowinski, Jon Stebbins, and Mike Eder examine the dichotomy of the tender-hearted, rabble-rousing musician.
Stebbins penned the first, ultimately definitive biography of Dennis, 2000’s out-of-print The Real Beach Boy, as well as David Marks: The Lost Beach Boy and The Beach Boys in Concert! The Complete History of America’s Band on Tour and Onstage with Ian Rusten. Doe is an English historian who co-authored Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys — The Complete Guide to Their Music and maintains Bellagio 10452, a tremendous Beach Boys reference site filled with little-known facts that the band even has trouble recalling.
Slowinski compiled The SMiLE Sessions box set sessionography with producer-archivist Alan Boyd and is guilty as charged for comprehensive essays exploring further Beach Boys albums at BeachBoysArchives.com. The trio served as key behind the scenes players in the 2008 deluxe reissue of Dennis’s only distributed solo album. Eder has a tome under his belt focusing squarely on the King of Rock and Roll’s mammoth discography, the 384-page Elvis Records FAQ.
The authors, who all foster close ties with the band, discuss Dennis’s less than ideal childhood, intended Pacific Ocean Blue follow-up Bambu, the group’s discouraging reaction to said solo albums, if Dennis’s unexcavated recordings are going to stay that way forever, the majestic “[Wouldn’t It Be Nice to] Live Again”, and how the drummer spent his last birthday.
Stebbins and Doe later document their serendipitous encounters with Dennis near the untimely end. In Stebbins’ case, the shaggy haired Beach Boy was sitting alone on a picnic style bench near a frozen ice cream stand in Westwood. His future biographer simply walked up, introduced himself as a struggling musician, and Dennis welcomed him with open arms.
Doe traveled to America in 1981 and visited Brother, the Beach Boys’ record label. While chatting with the office receptionist, in strode the scruffy cuddly bear delivering a bouquet of flowers as a token apology to the young woman. The researcher’s admiration for Pacific Ocean Blue, remarkably similar to Stebbins’ earlier experience, engendered a shocked reaction which you’ve gotta stick around for below.
The Andrew G. Doe, Mike Eder, Craig Slowinski, and Jon Stebbins Interview
What was Dennis’s childhood and relationship with his parents like?
Andrew G. Doe: I think “troubled” would be an understatement. He was the odd Wilson out, the loner, the troublemaker. His neighborhood nickname wasn’t Dennis the Menace for nothing — ask David Marks. His mother, Audree, loved him, and successfully petitioned — nagged — Brian to let him be in the band, but I think at times she also despaired for him.
As for Murry…that was always a recipe for trouble — two irresistible forces in one house. You begin to understand why Dennis spent so much time at the beach, or anywhere that wasn’t 3701 West 119th Street, Hawthorne. Oddly, in many ways they were much alike.
How did Dennis’s contribution to the Beach Boys gradually evolve?
Mike Eder: Most people don’t realize that Dennis did play on a good number of the early albums. Brian mainly had ace session drummer Hal Blaine replace Dennis on the Pet Sounds and Smile sessions [Blaine was used at times from 1962–1965]. However, Dennis would still play things like the organ on “Good Vibrations.”
From 1967–1971 Dennis did a lot of the drumming. Again, Hal or some of their stage players like Dennis Dragon would sometimes embellish recordings.
Though he had the period where he injured his hand in a freak accident — he put his hand through a glass door in his home — and couldn’t drum, Dennis could also play piano with a lot of soul, and did so periodically throughout the history of the group. He also could play guitar and bass harmonica, and I’m sure he dabbled a lot with various other instruments over the years.
Dennis, like the others, was slightly green on early TV clips, but was quite an exciting stage presence by the fall of 1964. Obviously he was very popular with the ladies, but he was also the “cool” one in the group who could connect to the guys.
By 1966 Dennis was singing impressive things like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and once he began to write more seriously, his songs were always set highlights. During the period he didn’t drum — mid-1971 to the fall of 1974 — Dennis sometimes blended into the background, but at other times literally made the show with his songs and charm.
The first couple of years he came back to stage drumming, he had a lot of power that almost made up for the fact that his voice was getting rough. After 1976–1977, Dennis is kind of hard to watch, but even as late as 1980 he really was what gave the group an edge.
Dennis was usually in the harmonic blend. He started out singing a bit like Dion, but by 1965 he had found his voice. I love his 1965–1973 vocals. What a unique voice he had! It was so expressive and conveyed a lot of truth. He continued to do just that from 1974–1980, but of course his singing had lost much of its technical ability and beauty.
Still he adapted to the vocal changes better than Brian did concurrently, and it gave his later work a nice moody feel. By 1981 Dennis could barely speak, let alone sing, and that’s pretty tragic for someone who could convey so much with their voice.
As a songwriter, Dennis was brilliant and was the only Beach Boy who never just cranked one out. Some of his songs are more complete than others, but all have a quality to them.
My favorite Dennis songs, in the order they were released, are “Celebrate the News,” “Slip On Through,” “Lady,” “Sound of Free,” “Got to Know the Woman,” “Forever,” “It’s About Time,” “River Song,” “Pacific Ocean Blues,” “It’s Not Too Late,” “Angel Come Home,” “Wild Situation,” and “All Alone.”
On which Beach Boys album did you grasp Dennis’s immense talent?
Doe: Dennis’s two contributions on Carl and the Passions — So Tough : “Make It Good” and “Cuddle Up.” The 1970 Sunflower material was excellent, but so was so much else on that album whereas on CATP, his two songs just stood out in stark relief. Definite precursors to POB. In turn, they made me go back to re-evaluate his contributions from Friends  on up.
How did you become a Dennis Wilson aficionado?
Craig Slowinski: I saw him sing “You Are So Beautiful” on It’s OK, the 1976 Beach Boys’ NBC TV special. Then I heard POB about a year later — that did it. “Be With Me”, “Slip on Through”, “Only With You”, “Dreamer”, “Rainbows”, “School Girl”, and “Wild Situation” are some of my favorite Dennis compositions.
What part of Dennis’s persona hooked you?
Jon Stebbins: I always liked Dennis’s persona — the surfer and wild drummer with long hair. I thought he was the coolest Beach Boy immediately back in 1963, and I never stopped thinking that. But the big surprise came in 1977 when Pacific Ocean Blue came out, and it just blew away anything the Beach Boys had done in years.
Come to think of it, the first time I was truly disappointed in the Beach Boys was hearing some of the material on 15 Big Ones . The singing was very rough, and to that point they’d never released a record where the singing was not at a very high standard.
Dennis was so far ahead of where his band mates were at the time — 15 Big Ones, Love You, and MIU. The production and arrangements on POB are very ambitious and mature. While Love You is a highly original and quirky record, its presentation is amateurish compared to POB.
Dennis’s performances on songs such as “River Song” and “Moonshine” sound like where Brian might have gone had he kept his confidence, and kept experiencing the world instead of staying in bed. I consider POB to be one of the top 5 or 6 Beach Boys’ records, period.
Why is “Thoughts of You” [Pacific Ocean Blue] possibly Dennis’s most gut-wrenching performance?
Doe: It’s the combination of a deeply personal lyric, a majestic yet delicate instrumental track, and a vocal so weathered as to be almost ravaged. The combination, coupled with the knowledge of what his life was like back then, is what makes it an emotionally wrenching experience. There are times I just can’t listen to all of it. Only Dennis could have composed and performed the song. It is ultimate resignation and heartbreak, minimalized. The man is bleeding onto the tape.
Did the other Beach Boys become jealous when Dennis unleashed debut solo album Pacific Ocean Blue to critical acclaim in 1977?
Eder: Mike was jealous, Al probably mixed, and Brian and Carl supported Dennis pretty much but had their own issues. From about 1973 onward, Dennis went downhill a touch each year, yet he was the most together Wilson brother in 1976–1977, so that in itself was strange.
Brian was no longer always coherent — there is film footage of Brian lying down on the ground at 1977 rehearsals plus he had to be constantly monitored — and Carl had a serious drug and drinking problem at that time.
As 1977 progressed, Dennis’s lifestyle began to really show in his face, and his onstage performances weren’t the same as they had been even a year or two before. By the end of 1978, Dennis really was lost. Fortunately, Carl pulled out of his decline that year.
Dennis should have just done some sort of solo tour to promote POB even if they did threaten to kick him out. By declining after that he got kicked out anyway. Of course, it was rotten to put him in that position, period.
Mike and Carl were soon to do solo tours so it never made sense to me that Dennis couldn’t. I think the threats against him were taken too seriously. If he hadn’t been a bit scared, and if the record company had allowed him to hire a string section, I think it would have come off.
That is, if Dennis had stayed sober. Perhaps this challenge would have allowed him to save the party for after the show.
Was Dennis the first Beach Boy you met?
Stebbins: Yes; I moved to L.A. in summer 1978 at age 20 to pursue my own musical endeavors. I had a band called the Point, and we made some indie records and played around Southern California. That’s when I met Dennis. It was September ’78 in Westwood Village.
My roommate — and band mate — knew I was a Dennis Wilson freak. I had sealed copies of POB that I used to give to people just to turn them on to Dennis’s work. I was a big, big fan of that record.
One day my roommate saw Dennis bringing his sons to a video arcade that was near where my friend worked in Westwood. Our apartment was just a few minutes away by car, so my friend jumped in his car and came running into our apartment, yelling “Come with me quick — Dennis is in Westwood!”
So I dropped everything and jumped in the car — with no shoes on. He drove me to where he’d seen Dennis and dropped me off. I turned around and there he was — sitting alone — on a picnic style bench near a frozen yogurt / ice cream stand.
I just walked up and introduced myself. I didn’t mention the Beach Boys, but I said I was a big fan of his solo album and asked if he was going to do another one. He told me he’d just finished it [Author’s Note: Widely bootlegged with unfinished sounding masters, Bambu remained officially unreleased for 30 years. When remixed and released as part of the 2008 Sony Legacy reissue of Pacific Ocean Blue, it was met with critical acclaim and impressive sales].
Anyway, this is a long story, but the bottom line is that Dennis was kind enough to sit and chat with me for quite a long time. He treated me like a person, and not like an annoying fan. He asked me about my music as much as I asked him about his.
It was a special day, and a conversation that continued to have meaning for me for many years. It still does today, and obviously it led indirectly to some interesting things for me. I’ll never forget the now famous Dennis quote that originally appeared in my book, Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy, and was subsequently used to promote the reissue of Pacific Ocean Blue — “Everything that I am or will ever be is in the music. If you want to know me, just listen.”
I’ve seen the Beach Boys about 12 times in concert. When I witnessed them in December 1976 at the Oakland Arena, it was a great show. Brian played bass, and Dennis sang “You Are So Beautiful.” I also remember attending the Universal Amphitheatre concert in Los Angeles in ’79. Mike and Dennis had a legendary onstage fight. Once Dennis passed away in 1983, I wasn’t that interested.
Did you meet Dennis or get to see him in concert?
Doe: I saw Dennis in concert twice, when all six members of the band — Brian, Carl, Bruce, Mike, Alan, and Dennis — played London in 1980. He’d just been readmitted to the band and, whilst not exactly on his best behavior — see the Good Timin’ — Live at Knebworth DVD — was patently pleased to be there, and was also a joy to behold.
The following year, on my first trip to the USA, I was in Los Angeles and moseyed on down to the Brother office on the off chance of meeting him. As I was making small talk with the receptionist, there was a commotion in the next room, and in walked Dennis, wearing a huge straw hat — he looked like a walking mushroom — and bearing a huge bunch of flowers, which he presented to the girl with, “These are for you — sorry about yesterday.”
She pointed at me and announced, “This is Andrew from England — he’s come all the way here just to meet you”, at which Dennis gave me an up and down look, head tilted back, before thrusting out a hand and informing me, “Hi, I’m Dennis Wilson”. My immediate and unthinking response was, “Yeah, I know that”, at which he roared with laughter, saying, “Yeah, guess ya do”.
He was there to organize his drums for an upcoming tour, but took maybe 20 minutes out to chat. We initially chatted about my impressions of the USA, then I asked him about Brian, and he replied with pain in his eyes, “Well…he’s Brian, ya know. We do what we can”.
To lighten the mood, I told him how much I loved Pacific Ocean Blue, and his eyes opened wide, his head snapped back, and he barked, “You know that album?” “Dennis”, I truthfully told him, “I bought it in England the day it was released, took it home and it blew me away”. He just stared at me and finally remarked, “Damn…you really mean that, dontcha? Thanks man, that means so much to me”.
With a crushing handshake, he was off to see to the drums. I never met him again, nor saw him in concert, and 26 months later, he was gone. My interaction with him lasted maybe 25 minutes, but during that short span, I felt I was the most interesting person in his life, and also the sheer raw force of his charisma — it radiated off him like heat from a blast furnace.
Why could Dennis never finish Pacific Ocean Blue’s intended follow-up, Bambu?
Slowinski: I believe Dennis suffered from attention deficit disorder [ADD], which resulted in lots of songs not being finished. But the main reason for Bambu’s incompletion was, in producer James Guercio’s words, “drugs and alcohol”. Andrew concurs but feels Dennis’s situation with third wife Karen Lamm and his fellow Beach Boys didn’t help any, either.
L.A. [Light Album] was arguably the Beach Boys’ last gasp of artistic relevance until That’s Why God Made the Radio, distributed 33 years later. Coincidentally or not, L.A. contained Dennis’s final songwriting contributions to the group.
Eder: The Light Album is pretty good for something that came between 1976–1996. Dennis makes the album because his songs — “Love Surrounds Me” and “Baby Blue” — were as good as ever. And I like “Angel Come Home” due to Dennis’s soulful lead. Of course, the disco “Here Comes the Night” was pretty bad, but Dennis took a stance and would not sing or play on it.
How many Dennis compositions remain under lock and key?
Slowinski: There are maybe a dozen or so still-unreleased solo recordings that I’m aware of — dating back to the early ‘70s — but many — most probably — are unfinished, and sometimes even fragmentary. I haven’t heard many of them, unfortunately…really only the stuff he did with Daryl Dragon of later Captain and Tennille fame.
Surf’s Up outtake “[Wouldn’t It Be Nice to] Live Again” remained in the Brother Records archives for over 40 years until it belatedly appeared on the all-encompassing box set Made in California. Why did “Live Again” stay unreleased for so long, and what are some other Dennis outtakes that deserve to be heard?
Doe: “[Wouldn’t It Be Nice to] Live Again” was going to be on the DVD–A of Surf’s Up which never happened even though it was mastered, and also allegedly on The Warmth of the Sun 2007 CD compilation. I’m told someone vetoed it from the latter. The good feelings engendered by the whole 50th Anniversary media blitz demanded its release.
For years, “Live Again” was simply the greatest track in the archives, hands down. A classic Dennis composition featuring his best ever vocal — yes, better than “Forever” — and stellar background vocals from his brothers. Totally majestic, and I’m so thrilled the public can finally hear it.
There’s also the incomplete track “I’ve Got a Friend.” Sadly, no vocals were ever cut but even so it’s a superb early ’70s Dennis Wilson song. Maybe Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters could spin his magic once more.
While “I’m Going Your Way” [aka “California Slide”] isn’t in the same class as the other two, it’s a fine enough little track. Similarly, although it has vocals, “California Slide” feels unfinished.
“Ecology” would also be nice to hear, even though it’s unfinished and contains the genesis of some POB tracks — i.e. the famous “All of My Love” section where Dennis’s voice goes from single track to about 350 in the space of two beats. I would love to hear that in master quality.
Incidentally, none of the tracks claiming to be “Ecology” on YouTube or elsewhere are anything remotely close to how it actually sounds. Even though some contain elements of it, they’re just fan edits of unconnected material.
Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy has been out of print for years. Is an update forthcoming?
Stebbins: I have been working on a revised and expanded edition on and off. The new version will have longer text with new interviews and new stories about Dennis, plus a bunch of new photos and a larger format.
The book will also have a behind the scenes look at the making of the Sony Legacy edition of Pacific Ocean Blue / Bambu Sessions CD that was such a success back in 2008, and will also recount the making of the Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy documentary I co-produced for BBC TV in 2010. It will be available in a limited edition print version and as a digital download sometime in 2018. Incidentally, an updated edition of The Lost Beach Boy: The True Story of David Marks will also be dropped in 2018.
I have yet another recent Beach Boys related book, The Beach Boys in Concert! The Complete History of America’s Band on Tour and Onstage. I co-wrote it with Ian Rusten. Ian and I have been pleasantly surprised by the coffee table tome’s strong reaction.
How did Dennis spend his last birthday?
Eder: After a very rough day involving his estranged wife, he went to his friend George Hormel’s house, shot pool and they baked him a cake. Stebbins said that apparently Dennis spilled a glass of wine all over Hormel’s ultra-high end mixing console. Though in a somewhat bad state, the fuss made over him lifted his spirits.
What is Dennis’s legacy?
Eder: Dennis would be very gratified that his work is held in such high esteem. My guess is that he would like to be remembered for his love of life, his personal kindness, and as an artist who told the truth. Dennis was the soul of the Beach Boys, and when he declined and died, so did the band — at least until the short-lived 2012 reunion.
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