Dennis Wilson : drummer, beach boy, songwriter

(To be submitted to the Songsmith. I acknowledge the influence of the following sources: Jon Stebbins The Real Beach Boy ; Adam Webb Dumb Angel : the life and music of Dennis Wilson ; Brian Wilson Wouldn't it be nice : an autobiography ; Endless Summer [film])

‘The Year that he was cool’. A song penned by ex-Cold Chisel keyboardist / songwriter Don Walker, appearing on his 1991 Catfish album Ruby. The song is a character expose of a young guy who back in the 60’s ruled his town as top surfer and ladies man (“…he could surf the curl on a barmaid’s lip, he could surf a yard of beer…”). Twenty years later as his mates have gone on to law degrees and the girls that were once his own have travelled overseas, he stands outside the bowling club “barfing like a mule” & “drinking in a rage”, and no-one wants to know about the ‘year that he was cool’.

It transpires that Walker’s song is an unintentional biographical pastiche of the life of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. Dennis, the middle brother of younger Carl and older Brian (each were separated by two years) was the band’s drummer and resident wild-man. In the summer of 1963 Dennis was hot shit, pummelling his drums with wild fury and reckless abandon – one only has to watch the live video to ‘Surfin’ USA’ and the 1964 hit ‘I get around’ to witness this. Dennis had the dream life, fast cars, fast women and a never-ending party. He was by far the best-looking of the Beach Boys and it was he who injected the band with the best of what rock had to offer, what with his seething expression, his muscular body and wild drumming (and this was before Keith Moon), and it was Dennis who persuaded & inspired his older brother to write songs about surfing. By mid-1963 going in ’64, lyricist & singer Mike Love was seen as the band’s spokesman & representor, an easy passage for Mike’s domineering presence and spirited ego. Brian of course, was seen as the musical leader and accomplished composer and arranger; it wouldn’t be long before Brian’s talent would flourish in full-glory leaving his peers in the music biz from all over the globe astounded by his abilities. Al Jardine has proven to be an excellent rookie for the Beach Boys, he’s a fine vocalist, and an able musician & performer with a firm and steady stage presence. The late Carl Wilson had one of the sweetest male voices in rock. Carl’s talent - unlike the relatively staid Al Jardine - would continue evolving and maturing over the years. He died in 1998 aged 51 due to complications from lung cancer.

Twenty years on from 1963 and Dennis Wilson was no longer hot property. That summer he could be seen hazily wandering around Venice Beach, “juice” bottle perpetually in hand. By 1983 Dennis’s once muscular physique had wilted to corpulent bloat, hopelessly and terminally addicted to alcohol was he. His face looked as if it aged to twice his then age, 38 years. He was taken to sleeping where he could, in cheap motel rooms, at friends’ places, or on street benches. He reached his 39th birthday in December 1983 and a few days after Christmas stayed at a friend’s boat at the marina where he once kept his beloved yacht ‘Harmony’, long since repossessed. Although in good spirits, Dennis was determined to dive down into the murky cold waters to retrieve treasures that were cast away from his old yacht. His friends did everything they could to dissuade him but Dennis couldn’t be swayed. In he dived, retrieving a gold frame photo of he and Karen Lamm, thrown out after an on-board argument some time during the mid-seventies. Dennis was shaking with cold on the boat and despite his friends’ best efforts to restrain him, Dennis dived back into the water determined to find more treasure. This time, perhaps, he may have well found it. Dennis’s corpse was retrieved an hour later by state emergency.

Dennis’s tragic ending notwithstanding, the man grew and evolved in those years since ‘Surfin USA’ hit the mainstream charts, particularly those central years 1968-1978. Despite his infidelities, his alarming use of drugs and alcohol, and his general recklessness, restlessness & rebelliousness, Dennis flowered as an artist. Dennis became a songwriter and producer, and he wasn’t merely a “good” songwriter; Dennis Wilson was an innately gifted composer and producer, of a different calibre to Brian Wilson surely yet no less significant or worthwhile.

As Brian slowly withdrew from music from about the period of the aborted Smile project circa mid-1967 it was expected by many that Carl Wilson would take his place as the band’s musical leader and songwriter. It transpired that Carl was a brilliant producer (listen to ‘I can hear music’) and a contemplative and able songwriter as his contributions to the Surfs Up & Holland albums from 1971 & 1973 attest. In many ways too, Carl was the ‘soul’ of the Beach Boys. As good a songwriter he was, Carl did not possess Brian’s compositional genius and nor for that matter, Dennis Wilson’s raw talent and inspired passion.

In the early days of the Beach Boys there was very little to suggest that Dennis Wilson would turn out to be an important songwriter, much less that in the new millennia Dennis would be looked-upon as one of the pivotal white soul singers of the 1970s. In the early sixties Dennis lived for cars, parties & women, and not much else was expected of him either. However it can be seen that Dennis, brought into the Beach Boys at Mrs Wilson’s insistence, learnt to play the drums real quick. And Dennis was always a damn fine drummer, his was a kick-arse rock’n’roll style of playing with an attacking snare that came right on or just a touch ahead of the beat. It is curious to note too that Dennis was easily the most natural performer in those early days, bashing his kit with raw excitement and passion, and totally absorbed in his music as he was creating it. His comrades up-front, replete with their striped caddy shirts, looked stilted and a little daunted in comparison. Dennis Wilson was rock’s first animal drummer!

A pioneering spirit himself, it was Dennis of all the Beach Boys who unequivocally championed Brian’s foray into the brave new musical worlds of Pet Sounds and Smile. Carl was impressed yet restrained and diplomatic, Al was unsure and Mike was outright dismissive. The Beach Boys fortunes and popularity were soon to drop like a heavy stone with the canning of the Smile project in 1967. Seen as unhip, passé and pro-establishment, the band were junked mercilessly by the underground press. Brian had begun his descent into schizophrenic hell and by 1968 the Beach Boys were left with Brian Wilson unwilling to fully devote himself to composing as he’d done before, although it would take Brian a few more short years before his withdrawal became total.

Dennis was keen to ingratiate himself to the emerging counterculture and was no stranger to love-ins, park festivals and Laurel Canyon where he befriended the likes of Neil Young. With his hair growing longer and the beard appearing, Dennis began the task of setting music to the lyrics of his friend, the Californian poet Stephen Kalinich. The results are ‘Little Bird’ & ‘Be Still’, appearing on the Beach Boys 1968 album Friends.

Friends is a fine album, peaceful and sweetly Californian in a sunny, laid-back kind of way. The title-track ‘Friends’ stands as one of the finest Beach Boys songs, signifying a suitable introduction to the music of their “middle period”. Nevertheless it is the two songs of Dennis’s, programmed back-to-back, that take the album from a collection of sun-filled, laid-back inanities and project it into something starker and truer. ‘Little Bird’ & ‘Be still’ suddenly darken the album’s mood with Dennis’s fragile vocal melody scarcely belying the sombre and apprehensive tones to this music. Dennis, without trying, commands complete attention and focus on these songs. With a huskier, deeper voice than his brothers, ‘Little Bird’ & ‘Be still’ astound the listener for their immediacy and intensity of expressive feeling, for the haunted tones surrounding the music and singing. ‘Little Bird’ features a four-bar bridge attributed to Brian Wilson and the band chime in with fine backing vocals that serve to make the song sound more indicative of the remainder of the album. ‘Be Still’ however, is pure Dennis Wilson. Supporting himself on organ ‘Be Still’ is something of a recititative, Dennis’s hymn or prayer to the power of love and joy. Sung in fragile, sensitive tones, that palpable element of haunted loneliness that characterises much of Dennis Wilson’s work cannot be masked. ‘Be Still’ is classic Dennis Wilson – a simple, pure & raw expression of song that speaks eternally in its simplicity and universality.

As ‘Be Still’ fades into immortality the cute circus of Friends resumes with its sweets songs and lazy Californian idle. It was almost as if Dennis’s two songs were merely the freak show, coming in the middle and quickly passed out of the way for the more typical music of 1968 Beach Boys.

Dennis’s songwriting, arranging and producing rapidly blossomed as is revealed on 1969’s, 20/20. The operatic intensity of ‘Be with me’ is matched by the song’s ominous lyric, attributed, but not credited, to Charlie Manson. Charlie, a freak and charismatic criminal who ensnared Dennis into his apocalyptic, orgiastic circle got mighty pissed at Dennis for changing a lyric to ‘Never Learn not to love’. Dennis was very lucky to be on tour when Charlie and his circle went on their demonic rampage around the LA hills in August 1969; his housesitter was given two bullets from Charlie prior to the August massacre, telling him these were “for Dennis”. The rocked-out, lewdly lascivious ‘All I want to do’ was sung with wild, coarse abandon and neatly exhibited Dennis’s performing and expressive talents. Whereas Dennis’s songs from Friends conveyed without a doubt that Dennis had tapped into an innate artistic temperament, 20/20 proved Dennis to be a major artist, singer and songwriter in the making, no question.

As the sixties morphed into the seventies things were looking good for Dennis. Scared by his experience with Charlie Manson he sought sanctuary in a new marriage and a bit-part in a cult-classic film, Two Lane Blacktop. As for the Beach Boys, they posted one of their finest albums in 1970, Sunflower, universally known as the best of the Beach Boys albums that featured less than full participation from Brian Wilson.

Sunflower succeeded for the following reasons: that Brian Wilson’s involvement was just enough to keep that sprinkle of magic alive in the mix, Dennis’s four songs were indicative of an great talent in full-flower, and, the remainder of the Beach Boys contributed adequately good compositions among themselves to fill out the album. The album barely sold, but slowly, the Beach Boys popularity slowly resumed its ascendency with the Surfs Up album of 1971. Surfs Up won faint approval with the underground music press, leading to mainstream love and acceptance by 1974.

Dennis’s ‘Slip on Through’ on Sunflower is classic stomping soul featuring an exalted chorus, sung with verve and spirit. ‘Got to know the woman’ continues from 20/20’s ‘All I want to do’ with its terrific, free-spirited rock’n’roll performance coupled to sexually heated lyrics, breaking into laughter as he sings “...c’mon and do the chicken!…”. As the studio recordings of 20/20 & Sunflower attest, Dennis is undoubtedly the most natural performer in the Beach Boys, injecting his songs and singing with soulful, joyous musical abandon. As Elvis Costello had to say, “… I saw the Beach Boys live once around ‘71/’72 in Liverpool and I remember Dennis Wilson coming up to the microphone to sing; that remains one of my favourite performances, of anybody.”

Sunflower also houses Dennis’s signature piece, the lush ballad ‘Forever’. ‘Forever’ is a beautiful song with a baroque harmonic flavour that is actually not too unlike the music of Brian Wilson, yet the heart and soul of the piece, that raw expressive quality is uniquely Dennis Wilson’s. ‘Forever’ remains to this day, a classic love song.

The sun could never shine on Dennis’s world for too long. Dennis smashed his hand when fisting it through a glass window late in 1970 (“passionate, intense, self-destructive” is the appraisal of Dennis given by his ex-wife Barbara). He was unable to play drums for three years, moving solely to keyboards and/or backing vocals when performing live. He withheld his songs from the next Beach Boys album Surfs Up, saving them for a solo project instead that would turn out to be Pacific Ocean Blue of 1977.

On the Beach Boys relatively lightweight 1972 opus So Tough there appeared two Dennis Wilson compositions, ‘Make it good’ & ‘Cuddle up’, that were quite different to what had come before. The Wagnerian influenced ‘Make it good’ is a heavily orchestrated piece with Dennis’s voice barely reaching out of the mix. ‘Cuddle up’ is yet another Dennis Wilson masterpiece with soft piano accompaniment to Dennis’s frail vocal that builds in orchestration and intensity. These difficult, yet sublime pieces shone light on Dennis’s troubled psyche. By this point his marriage was in trouble and these songs are seen as a subtle cry for help. In themselves, they are magnificent musical expressions, adventurous and highly emotive.

As the Beach Boys were brought back into mainstream acceptance with their 1974 compilation album Endless Summer it appeared as though the original songs would not be playing an important role for the band for the foreseeable future. Dennis would now begin to concentrate his creative energies more fully into creating and realising a solo album. When it was finally released in September 1977, Pacific Ocean Blue came out to glowing reviews and sold 100,000 copies in the USA. Only in 2008, incredulously, has this great album been finally re-released along with the unfinished post-POB project, Bambu, and with all unreleased tracks & demos etc. Celebrate the news!…to quote from the title of one of Dennis’s songs.

Pacific Ocean Blue has rightfully earned its accolade as the finest solo Beach Boy record (it was also the first). Lush, aqueous arrangements feature throughout the album and with that, a terrific, loose 70s soul feel. There is a rightful element of boogie, laid-back do-wop, dense balladry and rock’n’roll wrapped by great arrangements and compositions. No wonder Dennis, in deference to his older brother, has also been tagged a ‘genius’. Dennis used a variety of lyricists for this album including cousin Mike Love, and Carl’s voice could be heard in the grooves despite contractual restrictions. Another element of Dennis’s performance came to the fore on Pacific Ocean Blue, and that’s his gravely, wayward, cigarette-infested voice. His next batch of songs that would comprise the unfinished Bambu project would evince further deterioration of his voice with a batch of songs that were generally looser in approach, yet more starkly haunting, listen to ‘Love surrounds me’ and in particular ‘All alone’ as examples, the latter being the closest approximation in song of a heart breaking apart in a thousand pieces, and you being in the room to witness it (“…if I could live my life again, I could never do you wrong…”), surrounded of course, by a brilliant musical backdrop.

Two factors during the second half would serve to downplay the success of Pacific Ocean Blue. One is that the Beach Boys split into two unhealthy factions in 1977, with Carl and Dennis splitting with Mike and Carl over management issues and their treatment of Brian in regards to the whole ‘Brian is Back’ fiasco and the hastily-released albums that came from this. Dennis of course, made matters worse by rubbing the jealous noses of Mike & Al into the dirt with the success of his own solo album.

The second factor of concern is that Dennis increased his already considerable drug & alcohol intake and by the dawn of 1978 he and Karen Lamm tried heroin for the first time. During a January / February Australia & New Zealand tour in 1978, the Beach Boys were a travelling mess. Brian was a lost case, Carl was drunk and sloping around every city’s stage while Dennis was perpetually hunting hits, causing much ruckus with the band’s minders for doing so. Credit goes to Al & Mike for holding up some semblance of normality & professionalism throughout the tour.

Dennis continued to record during 1978 and 1979, working on his new solo project Bambu and recording with the Beach Boys on a couple of very mediocre albums (save for Dennis’s contributions on the otherwise terrible The Light Album, “…that album is an embarrassment to my life”, quote DW). His relationship with Karen Lamm dissolved and he was now seen with Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie. Somewhere along the line his use of heroin abated but by 1979 he was consuming large amounts of cocaine and alcohol, usually vodka and orange. By 1980 Dennis was terminally alcoholic. His behaviour became increasingly erratic (he charged on Mike Love at one concert in LA in June 1979) and was barred from the Beach Boys touring band many times. Dennis had begun to age significantly and by the early-80’s any hope of new music became a thing of the past. Dennis could not be cured from his rapid descent and decline into alcoholism and cocaine addiction.

1983 proved to be a most significant year for the Beach Boys. Earlier in 1983 Brian was whisked away to Hawaii by a team of psychiatrists and carers under the auspices of Eugene Landy. This endeavour was funded by the Beach Boys enterprise in an attempt to wrestle Brian from his own life-threatening addictions to cocaine, cigarettes and alcohol. Eugene, during this period when he was actually useful, managed to slowly but surely manipulate Brian into wellness. Most imperatively, it signalled the end of his drug and alcohol use. Today, Brian stands as the torch-bearer for his late brothers, succeeding for himself and they by forming a touring band that has performed Pet Sounds around the world and more recently and triumphantly, the completed Smile album.

Dennis however, aggressive and prone to attack, could not be cajoled into such therapies. Attempts made by the Beach Boys management to curb Dennis’s alcoholism continually fell through. Dennis died in December of 1983, exhausted and defeated. According to Brian, Dennis was obsessed with their dad Murry in the final year of his life, always saying “Murry did this, Murry did that…”. The dysfunctional relationship between dad & first manager Murry Wilson and his sons has been well-documented. Needless to say much of Dennis’s troubles stemmed from his confrontational relationship with his abusive father.

The music of Dennis Wilson however, lives on, and with it, his tremendous spirit and inherent vitality. Dennis Wilson was a raw, free and passionate spirit. He may not have known it in his lifetime but he was a gifted communicator, he was always a great live drawcard. He was the fire, base chakra, the mojo and primal driving force of the Beach Boys. His songs are our passage to a music that is real, utterly present, and true from the heart. They are of the pioneering spirit, they speak from a place where mountains roar and rivers gush with pure, vibrant life, free from the restrictions of a materialistic society. The raw, biting heartfeltness of Dennis’s songs, coupled with their inspired originality, will ensure they never date, instead growing in value with each passing year.

Dennis, you were a terrific guy, a kick-arse rock’n’roll drummer, surfer, a man of great heart’n’soul. You were an amazing talent, an amazing songwriter, an amazing composer.

Dennis Wilson, YOU ROCK!!!


Polydora said…
Ah hem, this will take me a moment. be back with a real response. just wanted to say, "i've dropped by."

This looks real good from what I've read so far. Nice style...
ross b said…
Hey, thanks for the feedback, to be honest I'm never sure how it reads, I feel my style is almost too convoluted but the edits have brought it up alright.

Having said that one of my biggest faults is I'm always a little hard on myself!

I've learned to lighten up a lot, over the years. ;)
Polydora said…
I find it's hardest to edit my own work. I'm much mightier with the pencil when editing/proofing others' work. I still haven't gone through this whole post yet, but will. I don't think you've got anything to worry about, you write much better than 95% of the people out there who think they can write.

ross b said…
Anne-Marie, that is very kind of you and your words are very encouraging to me. I very much appreciate it, thank you. I find you to be an amazing writer so I'm chuffed by your confidence in my work.

Do you or have you written much over the years? I assume at uni/college you would written a lot of papers. Is writing something you'd like to explore further over the years? Like you I find it much easier to edit other people's work than your own.

Writing doesn't come quite as naturally to me as making music although I do enjoy it and find it fulfilling. A bit like what sk said in a recent blog...i have to 'grok' at it!!

Have a great day! r
Polydora said…
BTW Scaught Five (fellow blogger) is a huge Beach Boys, more specifically Brian Wilson, fan.
ross b said…
That's cool, I've just linked up with Scaughty on myspace, added his band Doll Test to my friends list!
martina said…
Good job.Thank you for your nice post.I feel very happy to visit your post.

Josh the Kook said…
Dennis Wilson was not only a great drummer, but the greatest rock star that ever lived- the epitome of cool in every respect.

Mediocre crap like the beatles get too much hype- the beach boys were superior on countless levels. And dennis was a fucking killer drummer compared to ringo.

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