Classic Rock Review

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Dennis Wilson Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)


If you ever nurtured any naive theories about the Artist’s Art reflecting the Artist’s Personality, forget about it with this album. In real life, Dennis – at least that’s the way he’s always depicted – was a pissin’ nightmare, and by the time he had his infamous drowning, bankrupt, thrown out of his home, unable to deal with his booze problem in any way, and having lost most of his friends, you almost cease to have any pity for the swine: he deserved this, pure and simple.

But then you take a listen to this album and you find another Dennis: a loving, gentle, immeasurably subtle and touchin’ artistic being, spilling his heart out on record in a way the Beach Boys would already never be able to do collectively since the sterilization of their image with 15 Big Ones. How could such a disgusting person make such a beautiful album? The one true answer, of course, is that it’s one thing to elevate yourself to the level of abstract beauty and Love, and another thing to practice the same on your everyday level. But you knew that, didn’t you?

In any case, Pacific Ocean Blue is indeed a weird, crazy, and beautiful album. I would personally place it together with these “crazy-o” half-confession, half-delirium albums by artists like Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, or Alex Chilton in his Third/Sister Lovers period; meaning it has a very unusual, rather inaccessible charm of its own, no or next to no instantly memorable tunes, atmosphere a-plenty, and unique playing or instrumentation by somebody who either doesn’t know how to play his instruments, or has forgotten how to play them due to extreme mental conditions, but still wants to play them passionately and sincerely. That’s Pacific Ocean Blue all right.

Most of the songs sound like home recorded demos with a few special effects splurged randomly as an afterthought – with Dennis himself responsible for all of the keyboard parts and a large part of the drumming. although, to be honest, there was quite a bunch of other musicians helping him to get along (no Beach Boys, though: apparently, Dennis’ contract prevented any other Wilsons from assisting the guy, and knowing Dennis, I’d warrant he wouldn’t let Mike Love within ten miles of his studio – not that Mike ever felt the urge himself).

If you are well familiar with Sunflower, the one album where Dennis almost came close to having total creative control over the band, you will notice the overall style hasn’t changed much since then: Dennis still likes bleepin’ robotic synths poppin’ in in all the wrong places (which then later on turn out to be all the right ones), simple, but pretty piano melodies, and still sings in the same rough, but sincere and loveable voice. Only you have to multiply all this by ten, because on Pacific Ocean Blue Dennis runs wild with this stuff – add to this the ever growing booze problem, the ever growing woman problem, the death of a friend or two, and constant bickerings with the band, and you start vaguely getting the idea. It’s a strong, hard-hitting album, and that’s important to realize, considering that not a single song on here is truly memorable.

There are a couple “brighter” numbers, where it seems as if Dennis wants to pull out something in the ‘don’t worry be happy’ manner of contemporary Beach Boys, but even these turn astray, considering Dennis’ misuse of major chords and inability to sing cheerfully, like Mike does. ‘What’s Wrong’ has him chanting ‘I believe in rock’n’roll’ to a merry accompaniment of slow boogie piano and exuberant saxes and trombones, yet the results are rather confused than uplifting – as if the song were performed by a disillusioned druggie (well, Dennis pretty much was one) instead of a light-headed saturday-night-rocker. ‘Rainbows’ shines in a whole sea of acoustic guitars, mandolins, and pianos, but once again, for some reason I see Dennis delivering the song from out of the nearest gutter, a bottle of brandy still clutched in hand.

So you can see: if even the “happier” songs tend to confuse you, then the “unhappier” songs will be more depressing than contemplating the entire area of XXth century global politics. ‘Dreamer’ rolls along with so much struggle and so much pain… not a single other Beach Boy, not ever, has expressed so much pain on record. Which reminds me – all of the Beach Boys had their ups and downs, but only Dennis ever had the gall (or the madness?) to take some of the actual pain and suffering and put it on record; even brother Brian used to wrap his pain up in a glossy package and deliver it as a gift of religious beauty, regardless of what was actually hidden deep inside. But when the insane brass section explodes at the climactic moments of ‘Dreamer’, it’s painful – and really cathartic in a way Brian never ever dared to try. Or listen to the “psychedelic” midsection in ‘Thoughts Of You’, with Dennis’ tortured voice sort of rising out of the depths of Hell to drag you back there with him.

The funky title track, with all of its cosmic synth bleeps, disjointed backing vocals, and another magnificent vocal delivery, is a major highlight as well; but arguably the guy is at his very, very best when toning down and doing stuff like ‘Farewell My Friend’ – a dirge for a real departed friend of his, so achingly sincere it’s impossible not to sympathise. It’s a classic case of a song where a professional, well-attuned, flawless vocal delivery would kill off ninety per cent of the excitement; only Dennis’ hoarse, stuttering, heartfelt voice feels right at home here (although I’d bet you anything Dylan would do the song justice). And for closers, let’s not forget the opener – ‘River Song’ is a country-western-meets-gospel-and-soul number that kicks the shit out of The Band even, not to mention lesser candidates; it’s so good Brian even “sampled” the ‘rolling, rolling, rolling on’ motive later for his ‘Rio Grande’ suite.

In short, this is not a must for Beach Boys fans: the record is way too out-of-tune with what we usually think of the Beach Boys, and I’m not just speaking of the surf image. But the open-minded Beach Boys fan will certainly look past that, and learn to treasure this kind of musical approach. It’s fun to know the record was released the same year that Love You came out – both are similar in that they’re honest, rough, and somewhat crazy confessions of the heart, one by Dennis, and one by Brian.

But Dennis’ album is undoubtedly the darker and more depressing one, in fact, the darkest album to ever come out of the whole Beach Boys environment, and deserves attention for that alone.

April 30, 2013 Posted by | Dennis Wilson Pacific Ocean Blue | , | Leave a comment