Brother Dennis Finally Gets His Due

Dennis Wilson didn't sing very well in the conventional sense of the word: his pitch was frequently off, he warbled, his vocal timbre was raspy and calling his range 'limited' would be an overstatement.

Yet his commitment to communicating his feelings, which were often downcast but ever hopeful, overcame has limitations. Still, in order to enjoy this tribute you'll need to come to grips with the fact that Wilson's singing abilities were limited and his mood was bluer than the ocean.

The only Beach Boy who personified the Beach Boy image of sun, surfing, girls, cars and sex (the screaming at Beach Boy concerts was all aimed at Dennis) was the least talented in the conventional sense of the word, yet the artistry that coursed through the Wilson family's genes was present in Dennis who, because of his limited musical training and his troubled temperament, found expression in its rawest, most pure form, as this set demonstrates.

Listen to 'Fairwell My Friend' and you'll know. It's a song dedicated to a friend's father, who had been a member of the fragile singer's support system.

There wouldn't be a Dennis Wilson solo album (the first Beach Boy solo album, released in September of 1977 on James William Guercio's Caribou Records, distributed by Columbia) without the support of his many friends, who participated and contributed not out of pity or sympathy, but because they genuinely believed in his talents. They also knew that without their support there wouldn't be a Dennis solo album: he was simply too broken.

Now this record review will become personal: I met Dennis Wilson once, but before getting to that, looking through the credits I found many familiar names of people I'd not thought about in decades.

Among the guitarists was Ed Tuleja. He had the first Telecaster I'd ever seen live. It was at Cornell in the basement of University Halls #3 my freshman year, 1964. Tuleja was in a group called Oz and the Ends fronted by another freshman, Ozzie Ahlers. The first song I heard them rehearse was called '(Everybody learn to) Master the Bate.' In fact, I recorded it (in stereo) but the damn tape disappeared from my apartment around 1977. I wish I still had it!

I was the first floor's resident audio dweeb and lived across the hall from the group's bassist Peter Truitt, who asked me to help them with their P.A.. They had meager resources and couldn't afford a decent horn-based speaker system. All they could afford was a really crappy Radio Shack dynamic driver-based system that barely cut the vocals through the instrumental din. I felt I'd let them down, but that was all they could afford.

Anyway, Ozzie and Ed were really good players, even back then at 17 or 18, so I'm not surprised they both stayed in music. My most vivid memory of Ed Tuleja was walking down the stairs at the student union, Willard Straight Hall, into the Ivy Room, which at the time was the cafeteria and lunch-time hangout for the entire campus, and hearing for the very first time, The Byrds' version of 'Turn, Turn, Turn.' Both of us melted on the spot as the tune played on the jukebox, barely audible above the noisy cafeteria din. Then we parted and went to our assigned segregated tables in the rigid fraternity hierarchy.

Keyboardist Ron Altbach also was at Cornell and hung around the Oz and the Ends rehearsals. He plays accordion on this Wilson album and his name can be found on other Wilson family projects.

Oh, another familiar name was the late arranger Jimmie Haskell's. Haskell wrote and arranged all of the musical links on the animated film 'Animalypics' that I'd co-written and on which I did voices along with Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal and Harry Shearer.

So how did I meet Dennis Wilson? Well, that's a long, somewhat sordid and embarrassing story that puts no one in a good light, but here goes: I had this troubled friend I'd met at a poker game in L.A. in the early '80s attended by, among others, the rock critic and cultural commentator Richard Meltzer, who I'd met years before in New York.

Meltzer memorably wrote an autobiography, the first sentence of which was 'I wouldn't fuck my mother with a ten foot pole.' Meltzer kept a parrot in his New York apartment that liked to perch on the fireplace mantle. The parrot would just sit there and of course left droppings. The droppings formed a massive (and disgusting!) stalactite that clung to the side of the fireplace, eventually making its way onto the hearth.

Rather than cleaning it up, Meltzer chose to put newspaper paper down on the hearth. Eventually, the guano overflowed onto the wood floor. Meltzer spread more newspaper on the floor to catch the growing guano flow. Why bring up the parrot? Why not? It's not something you see every day and Meltzer wasn't someone you met every day either.

Flash forward a few years to the poker party and this guy I'd never met needed a ride home to Santa Monica, which was near Venice, where I lived. We got back to his place and after looking through his record collection I realized we'd end up friends, which we did, despite his many eccentricities and oddities that I won't go into here.

One night he killed himself in his car (a real Mini-Cooper, of which he had two) in the parking lot at Will

Rogers State Park by putting the barrel of a 357 Magnum in his mouth and pulling the trigger—not before injecting his two dogs with poison.

I found out the next morning because he left a package on my porch before driving to the Pacific Ocean beach front park, containing a long suicide note in which he thanked me for our friendship and instructed me to call all of his friends and inform them of his demise and for us to all meet at his house where we'd find all of his possessions labeled as to who would get what. Not surprisingly, I got all of his records, including his rather extensive Hendrix bootleg collection.

He also left me, in that package containing the suicide note, an ounce of cocaine. Now, back in the early 1980's cocaine was all over Los Angeles (and New York and Boston and') and I'm not going to try and tell you that I'd never seen it or done it because I had.

In fact, when Eric Clapton's Slowhand album was released, the one with J.J. Cale's song 'Cocaine' on it, one of the record label's promo tchotzkes was a cigar box containing a razor blade, a cut off plastic straw and a gram vial with the obligatory chain and coke spoon attached. That's from a major record label!. That's how crazy it was.

Most everyone I knew in the record biz (and out of the record biz) was tooting away on a regular basis. That said, I'd never before seen an entire ounce of the stuff. I told a few friends of mine about it because the last thing I wanted to have sitting around my apartment was an ounce of cocaine, yet I couldn't bring myself to just flush it. I'm not going to lie to you: I did some and in small amounts I enjoyed the lift. I never really got my kicks from the stuff and never got heavily involved. I'm jumpy enough as it is!

I started giving it away to people I knew who would enjoy it. Within a few days of making known to a few friends that I had the stash, I got a knock on my door and there was Dennis Wilson. If that doesn't show you how fucking dangerous and addicting that stuff is—that a well-known guy would knock on the door of a total stranger and humiliate himself to get some free toot—I don't know what would!

I'll never forget the encounter: Wilson charmed his way into my apartment as if we were best friends. I immediately knew why he was there, of course, but he didn't ask for it right away. He began by pouring through my record collection. We played some tunes and talked about music for a while. It was bizarre, it was fun and of course it was pathetic for both of us. Couldn't I have met this charming, vital, terribly lost person some other way? Apparently not.

How could someone who had talent, fame, money, good looks and a lifetime's worth of adventure and had probably screwed more beautiful woman in his life than I could even imagine, end up humiliating himself at my door in search of something as lame as cocaine?

Wilson wasn't feverish about it. He didn't act desperate, though of course, the act of just showing up at my door was desperation. We played tunes for a while and talked about music and then he did something I'll never forget: I had this cheap Casio keyboard. I mean, it was a two and and a half or three feet long toy with a limited range keyboard fitted with tiny keys and a cheesy built-in drum machine. I'd 'played' it for years and gotten less than zero from it.

In Wilson's hands it became a grand piano, a pipe organ, an instrument capable of great musical expressiveness. He played with that Casio for a good ten or fifteen minutes, during which time I stared at his fingers trying to figure out how he managed to wring so much from so little. It was musical alchemy.

I hadn't paid much attention to Pacific Blue when it was first released, thinking of Wilson as the non-talent in the Wilson family, nor had the music-buying public at the time: the record only made it to #96 on the Billboard charts.

In those few minutes during which Dennis Wilson played the Casio I went from thinking of him as a good looking oaf living in his brother's shadow, to thinking of him as someone possessed of great (if woefully unfulfilled) spirit and musical talent.

I also realized he was performing, not out of generosity, but in the hopes of a reward. I obliged by laying out some lines. I wasn't about to have him leave my apartment with anything that could come back to haunt me, but of course I was wrong.

A year later, on December 28th, 1983 he was gone, the victim of an accidental drowning. He was already lost and drowning when I met him and I know that my tiny 'contribution' had little impact on where he was headed, but it haunts me nonetheless.

This three record, triple gatefold set collects the original Pacific Blue album along with two records' worth of un-issued tracks, some from the Pacific Blue sessions but mostly from a follow up album, Bambu that was never completed. Wilson's support system had crumbled with the sale of Brother recording studio and brother Carl Wilson's estrangement.

While the unreleased Pacific Blue tracks and all of Bambu were mixed recently by John Hanlon, a former studio tech at Brother, who went on to become an engineer, the Bambu material is as Dennis Wilson had left it. Rather than being unsatisfying snippets they stand as testament to both Wilson's talents and his darkness.

This reissue is six sides of mostly sadness, regret remorse and confusion. What made Dennis Wilson such a sad soul? Beats me. Perhaps like his talent and that of his brother, his emotional difficulties were entwined in his genes.

Who was Dennis Wilson? Start with 'Piano Variations on Thoughts of You,' the final track on the final side of this triple LP, six side set. As with those few minutes I spent listening to Wilson play that little Casio keyboard, by the time the final notes fade out at the very end of the three minute piece, you'll begin to know.

Both Brother and Caribou (which eventually burnt down) were studios known for producing great sound. You'll hear it in these recordings.

While Wilson's friends were so eager to help him realize his musical dream that they occasionally overwhelmed his vocal contributions, hearing these tracks all these years later is like opening a time capsule out of pours Dennis Wilson's soul, and if you're of a certain age, some of your own that's been locked away in that very perilous time of deep disillusionment and disappointment for a generation that came of age with so much hope in the air.

TMink's picture

I really enjoyed your looking back. God bless you and have a wonderful New Year.


storym's picture

Great story Mikey! I've always been intrigued by this album , maybe I'll finally fork out and purchase it.

MicallefK's picture

What a fascinating, illuminating remembrance. And how tragic.

andyo5's picture

A very interesting and touching story about Dennis Wilson.
I have read elsewhere that cocaine use had reduced his vocal range to one octave. and gave it a rough gravelly quality. This is the same guy who sang lead on 'Do you wanna Dance' at the dawn of his career. I have considered getting the album covered in this story, but stayed away because I was afraid that listening to it might be depressing. You are so right when you say that many of us have suppressed memories from that time period. Mine are best left buried where they are.
Thanks for a great story!