March 01, 2009

Moment in the Sun

By Jon Stebbins

Beach Boy DENNIS WILSON'S brilliantmusic shines under a new light

Dennis Wilson (right) is pictured in the studio with Gregg Jakobsen

Dennis Wilson (right) is pictured in the studio with Gregg Jakobsen

It isn't common knowledge, but it is a fact that pop genius Brian Wilson was not the first member of The Beach Boys to release an acclaimed solo project. That honor went to Brian's younger brother Dennis, the band's sex-symbol drummer, who shocked the industry in 1977 with a gorgeous solo LP titled Pacific Ocean Blue. Dennis was, and is, mostly known for his bad boy persona and wild lifestyle choices, which unfortunately led directly to his tragic death in 1983 at age 39. But to a loyal cult of fans, Dennis Wilson represents one of the most passionate songwriters of alltime. And finally, 2008 saw the long awaited re-release of his truly magnificent Pacific Ocean Blue in a deluxe package that also includes Dennis's legendary unreleased follow up Bambu. The double-disc package was released on the Caribou/ Legacy label last year.

Dennis Wilson was living proof that The Beach Boys' iconic California image was no myth. Born the middle child in a family of gifted singers, musicians and songwriters, Dennis was undoubtedly the square peg. Early on, Dennis rarely hung around the Wilsons' piano and harmonized; instead he became a constant seeker of action and fun. Dennis lived in constant motion and celebrated freedom as if he'd invented it himself. Once the Beach Boys were formed, he gamely pounded the drums with passion if not precision. More importantly, it was Dennis who inspired his big brother Brian to write songs about surfing, hot-rods and California girls, and of course, the rest is history. As the Beach Boys evolved into stars, Dennis became a living symbol of the freewheeling west-coast lifestyle. That was Dennis Wilson the "Beach Boy"...which made what came later all the more intriguing.

Even before the cultural euphoria of the 60's had peaked, the perceived sunny innocence of The Beach Boys and their summer dream had already become part of yesterday. After crafting dozens of era-defining hits, an increasingly troubled Brian Wilson withdrew into semi-seclusion while the Beach Boys looked elsewhere for new songs. Few would have predicted wild-child Dennis would be the one who emerged from Brian's massive shadow as a prolific source of composing talent, but the lessons of Brian's incredible artistic gift, one that generated what many consider the greatest pop LP ever in Pet Sounds, were not lost on Dennis. He developed a soulful style that retained some of Brian's harmonic sense while simultaneously breaking new ground with his introspective and intimate balladry. Dennis drew much inspiration from the classical inventions of 19th century German composer Richard Wagner, from whom he adapted a penchant for dramatic orchestrations and chromatics.

With a maturing confidence, Dennis Wilson composed a string of impressive titles like "Little Bird," "Be With Me," "Cuddle Up" and "Only With You," which were standouts in the 1968 - 1973 era Beach Boys catalog. One song in particular entitled, "Forever," which graced the group's LP Sunflower, has become something of a timeless romantic favorite, covered in recent concerts by none other than Brian Wilson himself. The song was co-written with Dennis's longtime friend and collaborator Gregg Jakobson. When it came time to develop a Dennis Wilson solo project, it was Jakobson who served as Dennis's co-producer and who also contributed lyrics to many of his amazingly diverse tracks. "Dennis had a gift that was similar to Brian's," says Jakobson. "He just had a great instinct for melodies and chords and he was always at the piano trying to find that next song."

Grammy-winning producer James Guercio was one of the first to recognize Dennis's potential beyond the Beach Boys and signed him to a solo record deal on his Caribou label in 1976. "Dennis was one of the greatest artists I ever had the honor of working with," recalls Guercio who is best known for producing piles of hits for Chicago as well as an album-of-the-year for Blood Sweat and Tears. "Dennis' style was unique. I think some of the things he did are musical masterpieces. It's an absolute tragedy that he died the way he did considering the promise his talent showed." Upon its release in the late summer of 1977, Pacific Ocean Blue proved to be a decent seller and a surprisingly strong critical favorite. As a songwriter, Dennis was compared to John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, and Brian Wilson; however, the music of Dennis Wilson possesses an absolute one-of-a kind fingerprint. It shows little favor for trend or particular genre, while exploring nearly all of them in a fresh way.

The Beach Boys' founding free-spirit and cultural spark plug Dennis Wilson has been gone for nearly a quarter of a century, but in a way he's just arriving. The recent Pacific Ocean Blue/Bambu set includes about 20 previously unreleased songs, many of which rank with his greatest works ever. A mysterious lost song titled "Holy Man," left behind as a complete and typically magical track but with no vocal, has been given special treatment with the addition of a new Jakobson lyric sung by Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters. For purists, the original bare track is also included in the package. Jakobson feels the new version is something Dennis would have loved. "There were several attempts at finishing "Holy Man," when Dennis was alive but he was never happy with the lyrics," remembers Jakobson. "I think this finally comes close to the way he would have wanted it."

With the ego of a lamb
The Holy Man can
Calm the swaggering lust
That is the ego of man
The one you love is everywhere

"Holy Man" lyrics copyright Dennis
Wilson/Gregg Jakobson used
with permission