He was the only real beach boy in the band. The songs his brother Brian dreamed in his head, he actually lived. Yet when the band was being formed, his mother had to intercede with his brothers and cousin to get him a place in the group. And when the brothers' violent father Murray dished out the beatings, he was most likely to be on the receiving end. Combative by nature, he challenged and stirred the ire of his father.
Known mostly as the Beach Boys drummer, who didn't play on most of their songs, or his brief notorious fling with the Manson clan, Dennis Wilson was a gifted, soulful singer and songwriter, whose brilliant brother Brian recognized a talent as large as his own.
In his excellent article on Dennis, Bill Bentley quotes Brian as saying "He might have looked out a different window than me and Carl, but he had the biggest view."
By the time he died in 1983 at the age of 39, worn out and unable to gain control of his spiraling life and substance abuse issues, Dennis Wilson was a near forgotten Beach Boy. But he left behind a rich, and incredibly soulful, body of work, both with the Beach Boys and solo, that has slowly gained recognition for its excellence, and spiritual depth - call it white, California, gospel surf music.
What follows is an overview, in chronological order, of some of the great moments in that body of work. I'm very fortunate to have had input from renowned poet Stephen Kalinich, who was a friend, and frequent collaborator, of Dennis'. Stevie, as he was known to the brothers, continues to work and produce excellent work, most recently in project with Peter Lacey (who's own work has been compared to Brian Wilson) called South Down Ways. Steve's fascinating life and art is also the subject of a new documentary, Shortcuts To Infinity.
So let's get to the songs.
1. BE STILL - FRIENDS - 1968
"Be Still is a way to live", says Kalinich, "to approach life. I received a card that said be still, and know that I am God. I put it on Dennis' piano, and from that I carved the poem out. It was a prayer song." The Beach Boys 14th album, Friends, shows the influence of Transcendental Meditation, which Dennis introduced the band to, and so its somewhat appropriate that his first major contributions as writer and singer make their debut here. The spiritual nature of Steve's lyrics for "Be Still", a rich vein that runs through all his poetry, is a perfect fit for Dennis, and would be a continuing theme in his songs. Sung over a solitary keyboard, it feels like Church of the Beach.
2. LITTLE BIRD - FRIENDS - 1968
The greatest element Dennis' songs brought to the Beach Boys, was deep soul. Here Steve Kalinich's lyrics bring out a clever, shifting melody that Teddy Pendergrass could have covered. Dennis' sprawling estate at 14400 Sunset Blvd. was the location for inspiration. Steve was waiting on his friend one late afternoon, when he saw a bird alight on the tree outside the window. The moment, like a Renoir painting as he describes it, is still vividly alive to him. He sat at Dennis' piano, and wrote the opening line - "Little bird up in a tree/looked down and sang a song to me" - and "the whole lyric poem came gushing out in what seemed like seconds, or was it minutes” Dennis came out of the shower, and liked what he saw. Later that night he excitedly called Steve and said he had a melody. The bridge was an uncredited addition by Brian, who said the song "blew my mind".
3. A TIME TO LIVE IN DREAMS - HAWTHORNE, CA - 1968 (released on Hawthorne, CA 2001)
To Steve Kalinich the sensitive side of Dennis was readily apparent. He saw the open soul that read to the homeless, and children in hospitals. He saw a side the brothers missed, because this gem of a song completely took Brian by surprise when it was discovered among demos in 2000. The collaboration between Steven and Dennis was unique, more friends then collaborators. “All my songs with Dennis I wrote the words first, and most of the times they inspired these great melodies”. This beautiful lyric of innocence and wonder, renewal, was originally a longer poem, and it inspired one of Dennis' most inventive melodies, and structures, reminiscent of some of Brian's greatest work.
4. FOREVER - SUNFLOWER - 1970
I first took note of Dennis as a songwriter on the Beach Boys excellent, and under appreciated, album Sunflower. He had four great songs on the album, including the funky "Got To Know the Woman", and rocking "Slip On Through", which was awarded the treasured opening slot. But "Forever", is perhaps his first truly great song. Love reigns supreme as the thematic underpinning for the lyrics of most songs by Dennis, and love permeates the grooves here. The circular melody returns back on itself, the backing vocals leaving the impression of a round. That melody sticks like glue, and the acapela version leaves little doubt of the efficacy of the vocals. Brian called "Forever" "the most harmonically beautiful thing I've ever heard. It's a rock and roll prayer." We agree.
5. LADY - DENNIS WILSON & RUMBO - 1970
Dennis was blossoming in 1970. He started working with Beach session keyboardist, Darryl "Rumbo" Dragon, who would go on to form the Captain and Tenille with his wife, on a prospective solo record. Dennis' second wife, Barbara Charren, inspired many of his great songs ("Forever"), and "Lady" is one of them. The drum machine gives it an 80s feel, and the string arrangement is reminiscent of early Left Bank, "Lady" was released as a single, in the UK only, with the positive, rocking "Sound of Free" on the other side. It marked the first solo material released by a Beach Boy. Unfortunately, the single didn't make an impact. Another wonderful song inspired by Barbara is "I've Got a Friend"" which is sadly only available as a live recording. Apparently a version was documented in the studio, though it may be without vocals. We won't know until they release it.
6. (WOULDN"T IT BE NICE) TO LIVE AGAIN - BEACH BOYS - 1971
Dennis insisted that this song be the last track on the Surf's Up album, but brother Carl overrode him. Angry, Dennis pulled all his songs from the record, and the album suffered as a result. I think "Surf's Up" is the perfect closer for that record, but its still hard to believe that this beautiful song, with one of Dennis' best ever vocals, escaped release for 42 year until it appeared on the box set Made In America.
7. BE WITH ME - 20/20 - 1968
This dense ballad, with its Baroque arrangement, marked a sharp rise in Dennis' learning curve as a songwriter. In the wake of Brian's absence, he was on his way to becoming a main songwriting contributor for the band, along with brother Carl, . The big vocal swell in the chorus could have come from the pen the missing Wilson brother.
8. CUDDLE UP - CARL AND THE PASSIONS - 1972
Written, and originally recorded, with Daryl Dragon for his intended solo record, "Cuddle Up" marked the end of that ambition when he submitted the song for the Beach Boys upcoming album, Carl & The Passions - So Tough. With the Beach Boys starved for quality songs, many of the songs Dennis intended for the solo record ended up being contributed to the band, effectively killing this first solo outing. The song's dynamics, and vocal arrangement, show a songwriter willing to explore, grow. But it's the passionate, emotional vocal, a staple of nearly all the Dennis songs, that are the key element in yet another song inspired by Barbara.
9. ONLY WITH YOU - HOLLAND - 1973
Unquestionably my favorite song from Dennis. Mike Love and Dennis had a problematic, and contentious relationship. Once, on a chartered plane, Dennis opened the door to a cabin Mike was using to meditate in, put his head through, and vomited. Mike contributed the perfect lyric here, proving they could still pull together for the greater good. A hushed ballad, in which the singer is overwhelmed by his emotion. The lyric isn't complicated, but Dennis' calling card was open nerve truth, straight from the heart. This vocal is one of my two favorites by Carl, a man who delivered many perfect ones. There is also a version with Dennis singing, and there is no fall off in quality.
10. YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL - 1974
At a party one night, Dennis and Billy Preston were seated at a piano, messing with song ideas. Or was Dennis messing with song ideas, and did Billy (the true keyboard man) sit down and help him out? Before the night was out they had written one of the all-time great monster hits. Dennis never took credit for the song, and few knew he deserved any. But if you listen, it seems so obvious. It's hard to find musical links between this song, and Billy's excellent body of work, but the similarity to Dennis' work is obvious. The melodic hooks are not much different from "Cuddle Me" or "River Song". The lyric, direct and from the heart, with love as its theme, is pure Dennis. Of course, Joe Cocker scored an enormous hit, followed by many others, and the Preston coffers were soon overflowing .Hearing It for the first time on the radio, having forgotten all about it, Dennis recalled, "Oh, yeah, that's my lyrics!" The song became a staple at the end of Beach Boys concerts, Dennis singing the it with full ownership, as he deserved.
11. MORNING CHRISTMAS - ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS - 1977
Dennis idolized his older brother, and was his strongest, most loyal defender. He also internalized a lot of lessons from watching Brian write songs (or was it just DNA?) But as he grew as a writer, he showed a willingness to push into new, virgin territory for the Beach Boys. This beautiful, spiritual, rumination on the holy was written for a proposed 1977 Beach Boys Christmas record (even though it doesn't mention Jesus or Santa). When plans for that record were dropped, he slated it for the follow up to his first solo record. But fate intervened and it didn't see the light of day until 1998's Ultimate Christmas. Dennis wrote some good rockers, but it was in the ballads that he found his sweet spot.
12. RIVER SONG - PACIFIC OCEAN BLUE - 1977
Dennis began working on a first solo album early, around 1970. But songs invariably found homes on Beach Boys albums, which needed populating, and the solo record was continually delayed. Work on the project became focused in late 1976, when an artistically confident Dennis started recording new songs. Years of hard living had ground his voice to a gravelly coursness, but it still held its abundance of emotion. Carl, his most loyal supporter, not only played guitars, but joined in on co-lead vocals, filling in the places where Dennis' voice could no longer go. He does so here, on the album's opening track, lyrics co-written by the brothers. Dennis began work on this song in 1970, but didn't finish until sessions for Pacific Ocean Blue. Carried on Dennis' circular keyboard riff, that plays like a flowing river, it seems to capture the essence of Dennis, a man of nature, with a nature like a turbulent, unpredictable river. Backing vocals by the Alexander Hamilton's Double Rock Baptist Choir give the funky masterpiece added size and depth. Another excellent song, from an album full of them, is "Farewell My Friend", written for Otto "Pops" Hinsche, father to brother Carl's wife, as well as Beach Boys side man (and former member of teen pop band Dino, Desi and Billy), Billy Hinsche. The easy going Pops became something of father figure for Dennis, replacing the less then desirable one he was born with. His feelings for the man are obvious in the lyric, sentiment boldly worn on his sleeve.
13. LOVE REMEMBER ME - BAMBU - 1978
Dennis never finished the follow up to POB. The Beach Boys studio, Brothers, had been an anchor for him. When he felt something, had an inspiration or was confronted with some wrenching despair, he would go straight to the studio and lay it down on tape, like a therapy session. But the studio closed due to financial reason, and Dennis found himself musically homeless, scurrying about with arms full of master tapes. Money for the sessions also evaporated with his lifestyle, so he was forced to record where he could, with any engineer who would help out. Steven Kalinich's lyrics inspired a particularly beautiful melody here. Steve says: "Creating with Dennis was a wonderful experience. He embraced me like a brother, encouraged me. He really emotionally felt the words and thoughts, and could give them life, like he was waving a wand, and the handwritten words would jump off the page, and into his notes, The rush, the dervish quality, the spirit, entered, and it was like white gospel."
14. BABY BLUE - L.A. (LIGHT ALBUM) - 1979
A beautiful song which was originally intended for the second solo record, as was "Love Surrounds Me". Both songs were released a few years ago on a compilation reissue that featured both POB, as well as songs intended for Bambu. Dennis' solo version of this excellent, with its fantastic co-vocal from Carl, but I also love the Beach Boys' release, with those glorious harmony vocals, melded over four decades. Hearing it on L.A. left little doubt that Dennis was now the premier songwriter in the band, taking what Brian had been doing and pushing it further, in a different direction.
15. HOLY MAN - BAMBU - 1978
"Holy Man" sat on tape, in a case, on a shelf, gathering dust, for over 30 years. It's a song that had special meaning to Dennis, but he could never get the lyric as he wanted it. He laid down a vocal, but erased it. It stuck in the head of his engineer, who finally found the missing master tape that held the instrumental version of the song. Fast forward to the reissue. Dennis' great friend, as well as producer and sometimes writing partner, Gregg Jacobsen, knew Foo Fighters' drummer Taylor Hawkins from when Taylor dated his daughter. He'd given Taylor a copy of POB and Taylor, who already felt a great connection with Dennis as a drummer, fell in love with it. By now "Holy Man" had lyrics that had been reworked, and Jacobsen remembered that Taylor had a voice similar to Dennis', soulful and gravelly, and approached him to sing it. The result is stunning. Heard within the context of the record, amid other songs sung by Dennis', you could easily assume its him singing. A beautiful melody, a lovely keyboard motif, and this is without question one of his greatest songs.
There is so much more in Dennis' catalogue, and yet more buried in the vaults, collecting dust while waiting for release. In a family with one certified genius, he was an artist of great craft and talent, which he delivered with unadulterated passion.
Dennis' life story can't fit into this blog. Luckily Jon Stebbins has written a complete, and thoroughly absorbing, biography on him titled "Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy". I highly recommend it. He quotes Dennis in the book: "Everything that I am or will ever be is in the music. If you want to know me, just listen.”
Take the Spotify playlist below with you, for further listening. Feel free to comment in the section below that. Please stop by and give a listen to the Picnic Tool record, which sounds nothing like Dennis, and take a look at our Jordan Ellis directed video.