Introduction: A Bloggy Anniversary
Today marks the one-year anniversary of my very laid-back, sun-addled blog, “Pacific Ocean Blue,” and so I thought it appropriate to mark the occasion with some thoughts about what, exactly, is the point of this thing.
To begin with, you should know that Pacific Ocean Blue was the result of two factors. First, I had a growing desire to get back to blogging following the demise of two, highly rewarding, somewhat doomed-from-the-start blogging projects that had, for reasons related to the great Chinese finger trap that is the current American economy, came to an unceremoniously premature end. Second, the book agent who had agreed, on March 30, 2012, to represent me in my quest to publish a manuscript on the art of Los Angeles in the 1970s told me I needed to start a blog that would “assist in finding [an] audience and encouraging a publisher’s interest.”
But why “Pacific Ocean Blue,” you ask? Well, the simple answer is this: The name, and attendant design sensibility, comes from the 1977 album by Beach Boys’ drummer Dennis Wilson, which I happened to be fixating on throughout the winter leading up to the agent’s suggestion. For those of you not in the know, Pacific Ocean Blue was the only solo recording project that Dennis Wilson ever released, and, as such, it is the definitive statement of what the man was all about.
The Meaning of Pacific Ocean Blue
Going a bit deeper, the Pacific Ocean Blue connection between this blog and Dennis Wilson’s only solo album comes from more meaningful associations. Partially thanks to the oft-told story of how Audree WIlson, the mother of three Wilson boys, had forced Brian to include his middle brother in the original lineup of the band, Dennis Wilson had always seen himself as an afterthought in the Beach Boys. Even today, most observers suggest Dennis’ only real importance to the band was the fact that he, among all the Beach Boys, was the only member who actually surfed.
Thus overlooked and underappreciated, Dennis didn’t even attempt to compose music for the band until 1968. By then, it was more out of necessity than anything else. After Brian Wilson had failed, in 1967, to realize his original vision for the album that would’ve been Smile (but that was eventually released unfinished as Smiley Smile), he had stepped down from his role as the primary musical leader of the group. In order to keep the Beach Boys going as a creative (and financially viable) enterprise, then, other members of the band were forced to step into the creative void. The Beach Boys’ 1968 album Friends was the first to include songwriting credits by Dennis—on the songs “Friends,” “Be Still,” and, most notably, “Little Bird.” (About “Little Bird,” which his older brother had helped write without taking a songwriting credit, Brian once said: “Dennis gave us “Little Bird” which blew my mind because it was so full spiritualness. He was a late bloomer as a music maker. He lived hard and rough but his music was as sensitive as anyone’s.”)
After this first taste of success, starting in 1970 Dennis Wilson tried for several years to realize his own solo project, but it wasn’t until he sequestered himself, between the fall of 1976 and the spring of 1977, in the Beach Boys’ private Brother Studios that he was able to complete his album at last. The result of his labors, collectively called Pacific Ocean Blue, was a refreshing, and seeming out-of-the-blue surprise—an album of songs that were soulful, heartfelt, appealing, and deeply personal. Starting from its soaring, gospel-like first track, “River Song,” the album seemed to encapsulate the particular melacholy-meets-majestic beauty of Southern California at the time. Released in August 1977, Pacific Ocean Blue received fairly glowing reviews from music critics (“Its cavernous, state-of-the-art sound placed it far apart from the Beach Boys’ work of the period,” wrote a critic in 2007) and sold moderately well—charting higher than the Beach Boys’ concurrent release, 1978’s M.I.U. Album, which critics generally tore apart (said Rolling Stone in 1978: ”M.I.U. Album seems contrived and artificial right from the start. The tracks strive to recapture the dreamy, adolescent innocence of the Beach Boys’ earliest hits, and fail not so much because the concepts are dated but because the group can’t infuse the new material with the same sense of grandeur that made the old songs such archetypal triumphs.”)
On Pacific Ocean Blue, Wilson made a point of eschewing the smooth production techniques that Brian and the band had perfected through the years, choosing to alternate quiet, simple piano-and-voice passages with massively reverb-drenched and layered sections. On “Thoughts of You,” for example, Dennis tinkles the keys at first with a simple riff as he sings softly of his memories of an absent lover. Then, after he sings “I’m sorry. I miss you,” the music swells, and ominous piano chords merge with an eerily backward-reverbed voice that sings “All things that live one day must die you know, even love and the things we hold close.”
Then there is the matter of Dennis’s voice on the album, which, in 1977, sounds nothing like you’d expect from a Beach Boy. Hardened perhaps by time, and made raspy by his notorious hard living, the voice that sings on Pacific Ocean Blue is from a older, wiser, more seasoned vantage point. In many songs, in fact, Dennis sounds like he’s at the end of his rope, his voice is exhausted and gritty, and there are tinges of dark soul. It all adds to the power and strangely sad loveliness at the heart of the album.
So what’s the point of all this? Why is Pacific Ocean Blue a fitting name for a blog about a lost California childhood?
Well, the story of Pacific Ocean Blue, and of Dennis Wilson, who, because of his ongoing struggles with substance abuse, would die in 1983 and never finish another solo album, is an inspiration—not only to this blog, but to any creative endeavor. To anyone who has felt that their own, idiosyncratic and unappreciated creative efforts might never find an audience, or never even see the light of day, there is always Dennis Wilson, the afterthought of the Beach Boys, the one weak link of the band who, after years of feeling like a forgotten sore thumb, decided to make some music in his own particular way and produced a work of real beauty and gritty grace.
Pacific Ocean Blue, the album, is in the end a surprise throughout, a nearly-lost treasure that went out of print, thanks to internal band politics, a few years after its release. The album is readily acknowledged today as the fine musical effort that it is (included in Robert Dimery’s book 1011 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, in Mojo magazine’s list of “Lost Albums You Must Own,” and GQ magazine’s 2005 list of ”The 100 Coolest Albums in the World Right Now!”), and, in my opinion, it stands as the one work that has outshone all other work made by anyone associated with the Beach Boys between the 1971 release of Surf’s Up and the 2004 release of Brian Wilson presents Smile.
In sum, Pacific Ocean Blue is something all creative people can identify with—a work of art that, against all logic and expectation, came out of nowhere and made the world a better, more beautiful place.