When Domenic Priore agreed to write this essay for the Dennis Wilson: Dreamer site, we gasped audibly. "This is going to be GREAT", we thought. We were right.
Domenic is a legend in Beach Boyology, and has produced some of the most unforgettable and influential books and essays available on the subject of Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, and the Southern California music and youth culture of the 1960s. His books include "The Dumb Angel Gazette" and the legendary and seminal piece of cultural anthropology "Look, Listen, Vibrate, Smile". It was THIS book that first took me, and countless others like me, back behind the seemingly inpenitrable curtain called SMilE, and gave us a peak into the inscrutable mystery that was Brian Wilson circa 1967.
Now, in this extensivly revised and len gthened version of an essay first published in "Denny Remembered", Priore sets his sights on, and makes a case for the peculiar genius and cultural touchstone that was Dennis Wilson, and in his own unique and memorable style brings us a little closer to his world."I don't do much surfin', no I don't. Actually, I don't even know how to surf, but one guy in the group is a real good surfer, he's a lot better than any of us, actually, all of us put together. His name is Dennis Wilson, of course, he's our drummer, and he's actually the inspiration behind this whole sort of surfing image for the Beach Boys. He encouraged me to write a surfing song a couple, 2, 3 years ago which started the whole thing moving."
Brian Wilson, St. Louis 1964
here are a lot of things one can say about Dennis Wilson. Having neverknown the man himself, I can only go on what it is that I got out of him.Actually, I may have never known Dennis, but I did know a lot of punks downhere in Southern California like him. While the Beach Boys form of rock 'n' roll music was heavily drawn from the L.A. Surf culture of the early '60s, Dennis Wilson was the only member of the band who actually participated in the act of surfing on a regular basis. Dennis, like his brother Brian, could also be the tinkering male hobbyist, fascinated by the process of construction. This aspect of their creativity saw Dennis building and racing a hot rod from scratch, while Brian wrote the band's songs and produced their records. During the prime, hitmaking period of the Beach Boys hedonistic Teenage Nirvana, the focus, direction and appeal of the band was based on Brian Wilson relaying a vicarious thrill to the listener by providing a window to the life his brother Dennis was enjoying, and living to the hilt.
In 1965, there was this ultra-hip Richard Lester Mod flick by the title of The Knack, And How To Get It. Dennis Wilson exemplified better than anyone what it was to "have it". The film title is misleading. There are those who can try to achieve "it", and others who may come close to getting "it" ... Come on guys, there ain't one of you who doesn't know just what it is could be that I'm talking about ... try as you may, there is really no way that you can actually "obtain" the magic of personal magnetism that your local Casanova seems to have been born with ... but hey, every neighborhood seems to have one, right? None other than Dennis Wilson, from Hawthorne, California, in the eyes of the world and in the spirit of Brian Wilson's most popular records, could best define "it."
Like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Dennis Wilson appeared to be a supporting musician on the surface. But inspiration counts for a whole lot in music, as does the sexuality of being a band's alpha male role model. Brian Jones was the folk blues musician who assembled, promoted and looked coolest as a Rolling Stone. After selecting the individual band members, he hustled to make all of their early breaks happen. He could also pick up any instrument and learn to play it reasonably well in a short time, giving the Rolling Stones a sense of dynamics sadly lacking after his demise. Marianne Faithfull even witnessed Jones come up with the melody of "Ruby Tuesday" on the recorder. Dennis Wilson surfed, raced cars, and was the most likely guy in the band to be surrounded by chicks. Dennis took his lifestyle home from the beach one day and asked Brian Wilson to write a song that became "Surfin'." And the rest is history.
What Brian Jones and Dennis Wilson gave to their respective bands was charisma. They formulated the concepts that people most identify with the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. Now, bein' a punk has a lot to do with "it." It's certainly the reason chicks perceive you as the kind of rebel that just might be fun to ride with ... and Dennis rode 'em all (or at least as many as he could). It would be a damn lie to say that Dennis Wilson didn't groove with his own nature. But it's not that easy, not a bowl of cherries as most of us outsiders can tend to believe. There are rights that you have to earn, and fights, attitude and will have everything to do with it. Man, Dennis played THE DRUMS ... did you hear me, man? HE PLAYED THE DRUMMMMSSSSSS!!!!!!! You people really don't get to hear those on the radio, or in music today at all. The recording engineers have taken them away from us by trying to put a microphone on every damn inch of the kit, until they decided it wasn't worth the time and just took human beings from behind the kit, and faked a beat on a keyboard instrument: I'll say it again: DENNIS PLAYED THE DRUMS !!!!! There are reasons a kid is drawn to play the drums. The kind of guy Dennis Wilson was, he did more than revel in the primitive desire to beat things for a loud, clean noise; he pursued it to the tenth power! And there wasn't a better avenue than surfing music to live it out with ... I mean, listen to "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris sometime, then you'll get the picture. Dennis was well aware of Dick Dale, and surfed Haggerty's with Dick's top rival, Eddie Bertrand of Belairs/Eddie & the Showmen fame.
At a Surfer Stomp in the early '60s, the dancing was like a primitive sabbatical rite. There was something "like a wild Indian" about it for sure. Dennis Wilson took to this spirit and added his appeal, his hair, his physique, his sway, his bravado, and his zest for living. He was a guy who was used to gettin' all sandy and salty from the surf on a daily basis, and that adds a devil-may-care elegance to your style for sure. He took this unassuming style to The T.A.M.I. Show in late 1964 and helped to make that the greatest filmed rock 'n' roll concert of all time. He also brought it to Shindig! and The Ed Sullivan Show... check it out, every time Dennis is on camera, the wild screams hit peak levels ... that's because the chicks in the studio audience are watching the monitors, and they had every reason to scream, because Dennis gave it to them ... he knew what excited them, and you could just witness how the screams of Beatlemania triggered the rabid energy in Dennis' full throttle drumming attack ... Dennis took those screams and stepped on the gas! He knew it was him, Brian & Carl on instruments, and Carl & Brian knew what it was to keep up with Dennis.
Perhaps this and no other combination of players should legally bear the right to be known as "The Beach Boys." Because, let's face it, no other combination in the world could be that inherent to hyperactive motion, to rock 'n' roll in its truest form; High-Spirited! I can accept no other form as the real thing, because the real thing, it's too damn clear, is too darn good! Unfortunately, Dennis' highly talented rhythm section partner (and brother), Brian, was overwhelmed with being responsible for songwriting, production, singing and performing everything that made the Beach Boys a viable artistic act. Therefore, he had to drop the least necessary element to coming up with fantastic records and quit "the road". The Beach Boys would never be the frantic rock 'n' roll act they were with the three brothers hittin' it.
Had Dennis Wilson never written a single tune on his own, his importance to music history would have already been set in stone. Articulated by Billboard pop scribe Gene Sculatti, "as anthem and background score, the splash and pit blast of Surf 'n' Drag accompanied what was essentially the first in a series of solidified moves toward the building of authentic generation consciousness."
However, there is a place for musical stretching and growth. As Brian's music became more complex and intricate, so did Dennis' drumming style on stage. By now, Dennis was no longer playing drums on the records, but it's as if he was translating, in live performance, the shifts and moods that Brian was layin' on the music world by sibling telepathy. More than the rest of the group, Dennis held Brian's feeling on stage in check, by exalting the cool that was feeding between himself and the master. With Carl's graceful voice keeping the singing together, the road version of the Beach Boys were able to please a more scrutinizing audience for the next 6 years, while Brian laid down everything from Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations" to Friends and "Break Away" out in Hollywood.
It was during this creative time that Dennis was able to get his feet wet in the areas of composition and production as well, and on Friends, Dennis came up with "Little Bird", a rather unassuming title, but nonetheless a record that showed best the true values in the free spirit of Dennis Wilson. He was the type of guy who dug surfing, skin and scuba diving, fishing, the drums, hot rods, dune buggys, gardens, beautiful girls and skateboards the same as he dug music in itself, and it's here where it all begins to come together in his art. Dennis had been singing lead on some of the better Beach Boys album tracks over the years, as far back as "Little Miss America" on Surfin' Safari, and right on through to "Surfer's Rule", "This Car Of Mine", "The Wanderer", "In the Back Of My Mind" and "Do You Wanna Dance", bringing a conviction to the vocals that could hardly be equaled in terms of a west coast "show me" grit. Just check out the line "tight" in "Kiss Me Baby" ... why do you think Brian chose Dennis to sing that one part, that one word? In "Little Bird", it all comes together in one song, and that's Dennis. From here on in, there are probably more Dennis Wilson creative outbursts than can be accurately accounted for in the pages of a photo book, but let me tell you the highlights ... take for example the flip side of the Beach Boys last Capitol 45, "Celebrate The News", (his most fully realized recording with the group), or on 20/ 20, where Dennis had the spine tingling "Be With Me" and the full-force feeling of "All I Want To Do", which more than simply states the honesty of man's emotion ...
"All I Want To Do With You, I Just Want To Make Some Love To You Come on Baby! I Just Want To Do It With You!"
Dennis never lost track of the primitive, even in the dippy existence of 1969.
But that was only a start. On Sunflower, Dennis and Brian carry the album, a record full of wonderful harmonies, great songs, brilliant production and a "true" Beach Boys / Wilson Brothers spirit. Believe it or not, Dennis, Brian and Carl were artistically vindicated on this record much in the same way that they proved their greatness on stage during 1961-1964. "Forever" will stand as perhaps Dennis' most famous ballad, "Slip on Through" his best example of songwriting exuberance. The cruncher is "It's About Time" and the best way to describe what happened here can be seen on a video of the TV special Good Vibrations from Central Park from 1971 ... it's here that Dennis performs "Forever" with the group live, a stirring and heart warming rendition indeed. It's followed by Carl busting into "It's About Time" ... the Beach Boys performance of this number in front of an excited, post-Woodstock New York City throng, and the crowd's impulsive reaction to back to back performances of new Dennis Wilson music is absolutely astounding ... when the group launches into "I Get Around" as a finale, it is anti-climactic.
But in no way was Dennis selfish as a member of the Beach Boys. Sunflower is full of the majesty that could only come from the touch of Brian Wilson. This is the last great Beach Boys album, and Dennis always knew how to let the master do his thing. For Dennis, to instill his feet all over the work of the group, as has been the case for the other members in more recent times, would be sacrilege. Therefore, his greatest personal achievements remained just that: Dennis carried his muse and boundless creativity into solo recordings, which began to reach fruition in 1970.
His first record was only released in Europe, because Dennis wanted to feel what the vibe would be like as a solo recording artist in Europe. The post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys LPs from decade's end had found an appreciative audience in the old world, and the opportunity was ripe for creativity. Released as Dennis Wilson and Rumbo, the Stateside 45 "Sound of Free" b/w "Lady" was done with a member of the Beach Boys touring group, Daryl Dragon ("Rumbo"), also known in the band as "Captain Keyboard." It was with Dragon that Dennis Wilson began to chart a wonderful creative course in unreleased recordings such as the chilling "All My Love", "I've Got A Friend" and "Barbara", which are only the tip of the iceberg as to what could possibly be the greatest missing treasure chest in the musical chronology of Dennis Wilson, the artist. It is certain that in "Lady" and "Barbara", we are dealing with some of the most beautiful and emotional music that ever came from the wide scope of the Beach Boys canon, and that's saying quite a lot from a group that brought us Pet Sounds... but that isn't all, and it's a real crime if someone doesn't do something about these Dennis Wilson/Daryl Dragon tapes so that all of those in love with such a landmark record as Pet Sounds can hear the beauty in these prime-era recordings of Dennis Wilson.
During this time, Dennis' voice was at a timbre that was the perfect realization of his artistic potential. By Pacific Ocean Blue, his singing had gone through some major changes, and the vocal stylings of his unreleased early '70s recordings were never matched again. The cadenza at the end of "Barbara" is enough to tell the true story of Dennis Wilson's artistic peak, and we'll be waiting to hear a collection of this material when a label with some brains and sensitivity to this great man and his many fans gets on the ball and releases a few definitive compilations of his work.
A further extension of this artistic flowering at the dawn of the '70s was Dennis Wilson's role in the Monte Hellman film Two Lane Blacktop. In the wake of the landmark cinematic turnaround represented by Easy Rider, Dennis took to the road with James Taylor in one of Hollywood's few big-budget forays into the couterculture. Dennis comes across great by doing what came naturally, playing the auto mechanic for Taylor's illegal, cross country drag race against a character named "GTO" played by Warren Oates. Two Lane Blacktop became one of those films that received its due years after its release. Slacker director Richard Linklater paid tribute to Two Lane Blacktop with a character in his film named "GTO," and Hellman went on to become the Executive Producer of Quentin Tarantino's first, Reservoir Dogs. In life, Dennis Wilson had an appreciation for work in film that eluded the other Beach Boys. Interviewed by 20/20 in 1980, Al Jardine claimed his experience working in beach movies as "ghastly," while Dennis embraced the artistic opportunity: "I loved it. I felt something that I never felt before, ya know, an area I wanted to go into."
The Dennis Wilson solo recordings from the early '70s remain in the can, 30 years on. In the meantime, his fans can search the swap meets and record stores for a copy of either Carl & the Passions: So Tough or Pacific Ocean Blue. On the former are two examples of intended Dennis Wilson "solo" recordings from the early '70s, "Make It Good" and "Cuddle Up". It's on "Cuddle Up" in which the Beach Boys manage to achieve their most angelic sound of all time, with Dennis as your warm and loving host. Pacific Ocean Blue, the first "official" solo album from a Beach Boy (unless you count Pet Sounds) more than impressed every level of rock writer and critic, and therefore was in good company with the 1988 Brian Wilson album as the only Beach Boys related release since Sunflower to receive such just critical praise. My theory is that there is good reason for this reality: artistically, the Beach Boys have been D-E-A-D since their popular revival behind the strength of Capitol's Endless Summer reissue package. Since that time, the attempts at creativity within the Beach Boys have been something less than half-hearted, and they're still cruisin' by their own admission. It was Pacific Ocean Blue that addressed this reality in the face of stagnation during the mid-'70s. The strength of "The River Song", "Rainbows" and the many others on this magnificent album are living proof that the Beach Boys sure have wasted far too many years as a traveling carnival, and have repressed the continuation of the music that could have come from both Brian and Dennis Wilson.
It's not as if the will for it to happen didn't exist. On the unreleased Adult/Child album, the simple, pure joy of "It's Trying To Say" may best sum up what this kind of creative continuation could have meant. The unreleased Merry Christmas from the Beach Boys features a tremendously moving Dennis Wilson performance in "Holy Evening". By 1981, it must have felt so futile for both Dennis and Brian that they actually began to hold recording sessions together, with Dennis producing this time, and Brian going for the guts in his music on a demo of "Oh Lord", that for the trained ear, has to be the most unrestrained emotional and spiritual plea that I've ever heard from Brian. With Dennis' intense keyboard "answer" moods backing it up, you can hear exactly what the true artistic direction of the Beach Boys might have been had the two most talented members of the group been able to penetrate the surface of the living circus that surrounded them. When Brian and Dennis were laying this down, you were probably happy that "The Beach Boys Medley" was on the charts. Too Bad, but even more that that: What A Shame.
It must have been even more frustrating for Dennis, though. There were times when he could only do the logical thing, and that was to beat up Mike Love right on stage! A lot of people would like to have seen this happen: Dennis, in his integrity made it happen, in the early '60s, the late '70s and into the early '80s. In 1979, when the Beach Boys obviously didn't have enough good material for their debut album on a new label, CBS, the band nicked some of the better stuff ("Baby Blue" and "Love Surrounds Me") that was slated for Dennis' proposed second solo album, Bamboo. His other great works from that project ("Companion," "Wild Situation", "He's A Bum" and more) remain unreleased to this day, having never been realized as a part of their original project. This kind of frustration played hard on Dennis, who was being artistically abused by the Beach Boys in much the same way that they have been abusing Brian since Pet Sounds. Remember, it was Dennis, who in 1966 spoke the classic line about Smile: "In my opinion, it makes Pet Sounds stink, that's how good it is."
In the wake of Smile, 17 years of battling the backwards artistic negligence of the Beach Boys became too heavy of a cross to bear for a man of the caliber of Dennis Wilson. I'll put it to you straight: Dennis got wasted, lost his voice, lived awhile in distressing futility, and drowned in his beloved Pacific Ocean at the end of 1983, where The United States of America gave him an honorable burial at sea. Such an honor is usually reserved for members of the militia. However, no American nor planet earth civilian could possibly come to represent the free spirit of the open sea in the eyes of the world more fully than Brian Wilson's inspiration in writing the great rock 'n' roll records that became internationally accepted as such by the Beach Boys: the reckless innocence and wild abandon that was Dennis Wilson.
...By Domenic Priore
Domenic Priore is currently putting the finishing touches on his next book: Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock 'n' Roll's Last Stand in Hollywood which is about the 1965/1966 scene. To order Look, Listen, Vibrate, Smile, click here.
Photos 3, 7, 10 and 11 in the above essay courtesy the Joel Muhvic archives. Photos 1, 2, and 9 courtesy Domenic Priore.