Drummers are always the weird, messed up, darkly intruiging ones doomed to live fast and die young. Dennis Wilson was exactly that to the Beach Boys – the doomed dark horse who died just as his vast array of talents, long unknown to even his bandmates, finally came to light.
In spite of being a member of a band whose back catalogue consists almost entirely of songs about surfing, Dennis was the only Beach Boy who actually surfed. He also rode motorbikes because look at that goddamn beard. He looks like he killed a bear and stsuck it to his face and spends his time fighting swordfish with his bare hands and chopping timber for that log cabin/mast castle he’s building out of nature, muscles and manliness. Basically, Dennis Wilson was the dude of the band. But a dude with a heart.And a bottle. Lots of bottles.
He was also that dude who was just kinda there for most of the Beach Boys early careeer. He was technically the drummer but they were a band who, instrumentally, were generally functional at best and were quickly replaced by session artists later on. His deep, gravelly voice/beard howl was also ill-suited to their early musical sensibilities, though it increasingly came to the fore later in their career. By the time his solo album Pacific Ocean Blue came out in 1977 it was pretty much shot from years of alcoholism though. With his actual role fairly limited so was his creative input. He wouldn’t dispute or disrupt the musical process(consumate douche Mike Love had that covered) and was pretty happy with Brian’s increasingly off-center creations, even if his comrades weren’t, preferring to keep his own ideas to himself. His reluctance masked the growing ability with a piano that would eventually form the backdrop to Pacific Ocean Blue and River Song.
On River Song he sums up the strange conflict between the brewski loving macho man who just wants to surf, and the tortured soul longing for more who cries at the sight of the city. He also shows off that he was seriously talented composer, producer and piano player – as well as an emotive and affecting, though undeniably rough, vocalist. The song, and the rest of the album, marries Dennis’ rockin’ness, his plaintive piano playing and the Beach Boys love of harmonising – the choral backing vocals on River Song are something really special – and it all creates a maelstrom of seemingly typical 70s rock mixed with something much more epic. The whole album is like that, mixing the simple and macho with the epic and heartfelt. Just listen to Friday Night, a song that is literally just about watching the game on a friday night but yet begins with an insanely lavish minute long introduction that segues seamlessly into straight up rock and Dennis howling about bikers and football. It’s a thing of beauty.