The rhapsodic chords made a quite a contrast to the raspy coda that punctuated and garnered such frenzied teenage screams when lone-wolfed at the tail end of “Graduation Day” on 1964’s Beach Boys’ Concert.
“'I was sitting out in the bleachers during a sound check,'” recalled Daryl Dragon, the classically trained son of composer/conductor Carmen Dragon, half of Captain and Tennille, and touring keyboardist with the Beach Boys, “'when I heard these amazing piano chords coming from the stage. I looked up and it was Dennis, which kind of shocked me. Like a lot of people, I only knew him as a wildman drummer. I didn’t even know he played piano! When I asked him who’d composed the gorgeous music he was playing, he said, "I did." I was floored. Dennis had none of the formal training I’d had, but these were chords my instructors would have killed for. He didn’t know the names of the notes, nothing.'”
But such startled surprise as Dragon’s over the only surfing and often dismissed Beach Boy turns out to be a variation on a theme in Ben Edmonds flip-through but thorough and enthralling section of liner notes, entitled "Love Remember Me: Dennis Wilson’s Dreams Delivered," niftily provided in the accompanying booklet from the 2008 two-CD Legacy Edition of Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, the bolt from the blue solo masterwork from 1977 marked by Dennis’ wistful, brooding balladry and gruff but affecting vocals. (More pages of liner notes are offered by Jon Stebbins and David Beard, while the reissue itself also contains unreleased tracks from his subsequent Bambu album which remained unfinished at the time of Dennis’ 1983 drowning death.) As Edmonds notes, James Guercio, who paved the way for Wilson to record the first Beach Boy solo album, was also unexpectedly overwhelmed by his raw talent when Wilson sat at the piano and played “'these changes, incredible harmonic progressions, that were far ahead of most musicians I’ve worked with. There’s also a spiritual side to his music that touched me. His is some of the most personal, heart-wrenching music I’ve ever heard.'”
Edmonds extends a thematic approach to his commentary that, as a subhead — and life — would have it, “Nothing much was expected from Dennis Wilson.” Edmonds pegs the perception right on target when he says that the second Wilson brother was “destined to be the perennial Beach Boy afterthought,” content to be forced into the family band and be assigned the drums because that was the only instrument left. In recording sessions he was content to be replaced by studio musicians, and to cruise along with success, providing inspiration for surfing and car songs, while cashing the checks and going along for the ride.
Beyond the natural ability rarely displayed, there is much observation within the liner notes about Dennis’ sense of intuition and reliance upon immediacy – and the need to get this aspect of his talent nailed down before productivity can slip away. Because there were few precedents, says Edmonds, and no musical agenda beyond honest expression, "his music was free to become what it would.”
It is guided by instinct: interludes rise abruptly before dissolving back into the body of the song, new sections navigate unexpected turns. This was not self-conscious sonic architecture or compositional device. The effect is akin to experiencing the thoughts as they cross his mind. You feel the inspiration, not simply its painted memory.
One compares this impulsive shifting and spontaneity to big brother Brian’s reflective artistry and more conceptual mindset, especially as the mid- and late-sixties hit and pop music began to be reconsidered as art. The Beatles’ experimentalism and constant metamorphosis into concept albums seemed to spur on Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations,” other groups’ art rock, rock operas, progressive rock, no matter how pretentious.
But Dennis may have had his limitations. “'Dennis was never a long-range thinker,'” says Gregg Jakobson, who co-produced Pacific Ocean Blue, co-wrote many of the songs, and somehow managed to keep Wilson on track. “'Dennis was the most present person I’ve known. He was so focused on each song that he hardly thought of it as an album.'” As Edmonds observes, “'these songs are frozen in the moment Dennis last worked on them, but mixed as the masterworks-in-progress they surely were.'”
In one telling passage, jazz musician Carli Munoz, who once played keyboards in the Beach Boys touring band, had an astute observation:
'Dennis wasn’t that fast when it came to mastering technique. He had to work hard at it, and he did. But he was very quick to get the feel, the soul of the music. He wanted to get down to the bone, and then to the marrow. He took chances. He had no brakes, and he didn’t think about consequences. He went for it right now. That makes for passionate music, but it can be a hard way to live.'
Perhaps being a "perennial Beach Boy afterthought" gave Dennis the time for study and reflection that allowed him to develop his musical soul and passion away from the group, making his accomplishments all the more stunning when he brought his gifts and ideas to the boys and the recording studio, both to such Beach Boys gems as Sunflower and to his solo projects. And on a more personal front, there are many melancholic clues and lyrical cues a listener can speculate upon as to the solace his music gave him from ongoing family, relationship, and self-reflective concerns driving or inspiring him. Whatever the source, Edmonds tells us that "every note bears his spiritual signiture."
Or even more to the point are Dennis Wilson's words: “Everything that I am or will ever be is in the music. If you want to know me, just listen,”