Saturday, October 18, 2014
Musicians You Should Know: Dennis Wilson
This might end up being a bit of a rant. So be it, and hang on to your seats. (Don't worry - not politics or economics for once.)
I was just taking a break from working on the novel I'm writing (and the writing of which is why I haven't been on here much lately). I'm over 300 pages in and getting close to the end of the first draft. That's a lot of hard work. Anyway - I digress. Taking a break, I was over on YouTube listening to a little music, and I decided to check out a cover of a song I like a lot. It's a Beach Boys song that never got onto any of their albums, but is floating around as an unreleased demo. It's called "Carry Me Home", and it was written by Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson. Really good song, but definitely not your average Beach Boys material. The cover was by Primal Scream (which I'd never heard of until I was tracking down some information on this song a few weeks ago).
At any rate, one of the comments on the YouTube page with the Primal Scream cover asked the question: who ever thought that the drummer of the Beach Boys could come up with a song like this. Words to that effect.
I was tempted to leave a comment saying, "Who would have thought? Anybody who's ever heard any of his other work, with or without the band, that's who. Idiot."
And that's the thing. Not that many people know Dennis Wilson's work - the songs he wrote and co-wrote, and the songs by others that he sang with the Beach Boys. I know I didn't, until about a month ago. And it's a damn shame most people don't, because as far as I'm concerned, he was as much of a genius as his brother Brian.
It also happens that I'm reading a book right now, Dumb Angel: The Life and Music of Dennis Wilson, and a lot of my contention is supported by what I'm reading, and by some other articles I've come across recently online. The title of the book comes, apparently, from a nickname that Brian Wilson had for Dennis. It was also the working title for the album "Smile", work on which and it's rejection by much of the band (except, apparently, for Dennis) and the record company, was the final straw that broke Brian's mind. Yeah, there were drugs involved, too, but it was the late 60s, when everybody was doing that.
At any rate, I'm digressing again. Where was I. Oh, yeah.
Dennis Wilson was a genius.
Maybe not a genius in the same way as Brian. No, definitely not in the same way as Brian, because they saw the world in different ways, judging from their music.
Except that nobody in music, and certainly not in the band, paid any attention to Dennis when he was alive, except to point out his shortcomings. He'd always been the bad boy of the three Wilson brothers - there was Brian, the Genius; Carl, the Boy with the Voice of an Angel; and Dennis, the Menace of the neighborhood from the time he was just a little kid.
And, well, once the Beach Boys started recording, Dennis was also The Cute One, who grew up to be The Hot One, and who pretty much knew it. That meant that nobody really ever took him seriously. He was The Sexy, Dumb One. Except not so dumb, it turns out. But he wasn't even much of a drummer, they said,. Which wasn't altogether true, either, when it comes down to it. But that's another post for another time.
Oh, yeah. There were the other things, too. Dennis was The One Who Hung Out With Charlie Manson - which was true as far as it went, except it didn't go as far as most people think and Dennis dropped Charlie and his Family after a few months of them sponging off of him (and occasionally threatening him or his adopted kid) when Dennis was all of 24 years old and probably not a little naïve in some ways. And there was Dennis the Fuck-Up: the alcoholic, the addict. And, yeah, he did fall down that rabbit hole and die a drowning victim at age 39 after a day of drinking and diving, but I suspect (not having been there, but having read and heard the testimony) his substance issues ended up being more a matter of self-medication that got out of hand than any evil intent. Because there was also the fact that by all accounts, Dennis was also The Generous One, The One With the Big Heart. The one who would give anybody anything, and pretty much did.
But I'm here to talk about the music. The man wrote, or co-wrote, some of the most beautiful, romantic, touching, haunting songs I've ever heard. He was also the first Beach Boy to release a solo album, "Pacific Ocean Blue", in 1977, which didn't sell huge amounts of copies, but sold more than any of the Beach Boy albums from the same era. It also got huge critical acclaim. It isn't "Pet Sounds", but only because it's different from Brian's masterpiece. Because by then, Dennis wasn't naïve any more - he'd had his heart broken by then, I think, just as much as he had broken hearts along the way - although still the melancholy romantic at heart. In contrast, what comes out on "Pet Sounds" is a sweet, naïve romanticism that marks all the best of Brian Wilson's work.
Some examples of Dennis Wilson's work.
For my money, Dennis Wilson wrote the most perfect love song ever written, "Forever", with Gregg Jakobson, who co-wrote many of his songs. Even Brian Wilson has reportedly called this song "the most harmonically beautiful" thing he's ever heard. With Dennis singing lead, this song appeared on The Beach Boys 1970 album "Sunflower" and on the B-side of their single "Cool, Cool Water", as well as on a Beach Boys anthology album "Hawthorne, CA", in an a capella version.
This song, "Cuddle Up", written by Wilson and Daryl Dragon, appears on the 1972 album "Carl and the Passions - 'So Tough'" (Carl and the Passions is a band name used by the Beach Boys for a short time before they became The Beach Boys - and it really isn't a bad name for a band). In a review at allmusic.com, Matthew Greenwald calls "Cuddle Up" an "emotional masterpiece", attributing that to the lyrics and to Wilson's vocals on the track. And, yeah, the first time I heard this song I had to go back and listen to it a couple of more times just because it was so beautiful, which is attributable to the vulnerability and fragility in Wilson's delivery of the song. Given his reputation, which has often been characterized in the media as "macho", this song is a revelation.
"Wouldn't It Be Nice To Live Again" was recorded in 1971 but didn't turn up on record until 2013, when The Beach Boys released the 6-disc box set "Made in California" in 2013. Another beautiful, emotional song, it includes the lyrics "Who ever said a man can't cry/I know I can cry", and is another vocal performance from Wilson that is shot through with vulnerability. A man who is macho to the core (and I've known more than a few men like this) would not sing that lyric. So, while he might have engaged in macho behavior, that clearly didn't define him.
Another song that didn't turn up on record until "Made in California" was released, although it was recorded in 1974, is "My Love Lives On". Wilson co-wrote this one with Stephen Kalinich. It takes on an added poignancy considering Dennis Wilson's early, tragic death, but even absent that, this is a simple but powerful song about the potential of love to endure. This is another song that I had to listen to several times through when I first discovered it because I couldn't not listen to it again. It is, simply, a gorgeous song.
All of this is not to say that Dennis Wilson did not write songs about sex, because he most certainly did, and in a much more straightforward manner than was true of most rock of the time. He and Mike Love (and there's an unexpected writing partnership, considering that theirs was a difficult relationship, according to most sources) wrote "All I Want To Do," which appeared on 1969's "20/20" with Love singing lead. "All I Want To Do" sounds remarkably punk for the time and even more so for a Beach Boys tune. Among its lyrics are the lines, "Come on baby/I just wanna make it with you". And those noises you hear at the end of the track, if you listen really closely, with the volume up loud? Rumor has it that those noises are Dennis Wilson "making it", so to speak, with an "unidentified woman" in the studio. Rumor further has it that the girl was either a hooker that he went out and coaxed into the studio, or perhaps one of Charlie Manson's girls (although that seems unlikely considering the 1969 recording date). So, yeah, Dennis Wilson was no angel. On the other hand, this song is also living proof that Wilson was a versatile writer who could work in more than one style.
There's also "Got to Know the Woman", from 1970's "Sunflower, which is also blatantly and explicitly sexual, especially for the time and for a Beach Boy's record, written and performed by Wilson, in which he tells the story of meeting a woman who he just has to "get to know". It's more than clear from the lyrics that he means that in the Biblical sense. The thing is, this isn't just a song about sex; it's a funny song about sex. How many of those do you know?
So, how do you reconcile the two impulses here, the Romantic and the Dirty Young Man? I don't think you have to. I think you just have to recognize that at the age Dennis Wilson was at the point when he was writing these songs, he was at an age (middle twenties) when most young men are capable of both impulses; he was just more adept than most in expressing these feelings, and he had a bigger platform from which to express them. You also have to remember that when these songs were written, HIV and AIDS had not yet appeared. These songs might not be politically correct here, now, in the 21st century. But, damn, they're good songs.
Anyway, if you want to try to reconcile the romantic and the frankly sexual impulses that appear in Dennis Wilson's songs, you need to also reconcile that the same man who co-wrote "All I Want To Do" also wrote the gorgeous Christmas song, "Morning Christmas" (1977). This isn't just a Christmas song, it's a reverent Christmas song.
So, yeah, if you want to do that sort of reconciliation, go ahead. For me, it's enough to enjoy the diverse work of this talented man.
One of the things that seems to always be brought up when discussing Dennis Wilson's career is the way in which his addictions robbed him of his looks and his voice. And, God knows they did that. And yes, he was a good-looking man. Make that an extremely good-looking man
Or, if you prefer less facial hair:
But, you know, that's beside the point. The man died at least partially due to his excesses. In that context, the loss of his looks really doesn't matter. It was what was inside that was the important thing. And while some of his ex-wives have been quoted as saying he was "empty" inside (and they would know better than I), the feeling I get from the songs he wrote, the way he sang them, and some of the clips of interviews with him that I've seen and heard, I have a suspicion that the opposite was true - he had too much in him in a culture that is often empty. But, like I said, I wasn't there. That's just my impression, and I might have the slightest tendency to romanticize the tragic. But there it is, and I think there is evidence that there was, a lot of substance to Dennis Wilson and his work.
The issue of the loss of his voice is more important to the point I'm trying to make here. And he did lose his voice, the range of notes he could hit when he sang, to a significant degree. This is illustrated by two clips of him performing the same song live, four years apart, in 1976 and in 1980. The song is "You Are So Beautiful" - a song credited to Billy Preston and someone called Bruce Fisher. However, the story is told that it was actually written by Preston and Dennis Wilson at a party one night with Wilson, who was notorious for his generosity, as I mentioned earlier, and then he gave the song to Preston. There is, as I understand it, no way to document this, since both Wilson and Preston are dead now, but part of the story is that virtually everyone who knew Wilson swears that it sounds like something he would write. considering his body of work, it does sound like it.
Whatever the case, for years Wilson sang the song live as an encore at Beach Boys concerts, and he certainly sang it as if he owned it. Some of those performances were captured on videotape. They are a graphic way of illustrating the effect of his excesses on his voice.
Here is a live performance of "You Are So Beautiful" from 1976:
And here is a live performance of the same song from 1980:
The thing is, as much as he struggled with the song by 1980, as much as his voice was gone by then, his voice was still amazingly expressive, and I have to confess that the 1980 performance is actually my favorite because to me, this is a haunting, heartbreaking, heartfelt performance.
But, back to my original point, way back there when I started writing this. If the person who had written that comment about the Primal Scream cover of "Carry Me Home" was actually familiar with Dennis Wilson's music, he would not have been surprised at all at the cover, or at the stark beauty of the demo of this song that was never released on a Beach Boys' album (it should have been on 1973's "Holland") because it was, in Wilson's own words "too negative" for the band's image and style. The song tells the story of a soldier, injured in war, lying near death in a ditch, as he realizes he "won't grow old" and begs God to spare his life. Wilson voices the words of the soldier as he shares vocals with Blondie Chaplin. The fear and tears in Wilson's voice are palpable. This is quite easily the most moving performance of a song I have ever heard.
In truth, it is understandable that The Beach Boys have never released "Carry Me Home", even on the far-ranging compilation "Made in California". Considering how Dennis Wilson's life ended, it's hard to hear him on the song, singing about being afraid to die. It would be harder for those who knew him, worked with him, and loved him - and there is evidence that they loved him even if they didn't take him seriously when he was alive - to listen to it. On the other hand, it is an amazing song, and needs to be heard.
And here we are, at the end of a very long post, and i haven't even gotten to Dennis Wilson's solo work yet. Not that there is a lot of it that has gotten out into the world. But what there is, is an indication that he had a whole lot more to do, and it's a damn shame that he didn't live to do it.