The new Brian? In some ways, it was an inevitable development. Four years ago, when Brian Wilson finally finished work on the daddy of all lost masterpieces, Smile, it was only natural that the world would need to anoint a new Great Lost Beach Boys Album to replace the other one.
With his only completed solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, long deleted and its mythical successor Bambu never released, Dennis Wilson was something of an entire lost Beach Boy – feted only by fans who had checked the credits of post-Pet Sounds albums and realised that the hirsute, handsome one on the drums had a surprisingly keen strike rate. Cuddle Up from Carl & The Passions/So Tough? That was his?! Forever and several more from Sunflower? That was Dennis too?! Who knew?
Well, The Beach Boys did, of course, but it wasn’t as though they did much to nurture him. “He was under-appreciated in our band,” said Al Jardine, perhaps remember how intensely Dennis railed against The Beach Boys’ mid-70s transformation into an oldies act. Using Dennis songs could have helped them out of a spot, just like it did with Sunflower – but when the cynical retro-dreck of 15 Big Ones came out in 1975, he took the songs he had co-written with old pal Gregg Jakobson to Jim Guercio, head of Caribou Records. In doing so, he became the first Beach Boy to release a solo album. When Pacific Ocean Blue went head-to-head with The Beach Boys’ next album Love You, the one regarded by his tyrannical father as the talentless one stole it hands down, outselling his brothers by two-to-one.
In the interim, decades of unavailability have done sterling work to ratchet its stock further up, earning it plaudits from fans such as The Verve, Primal Scream and The Charlatans.
Well, during key moments of the newly remastered Pacific Ocean Blue, certainly not. It’s hard to talk about the Carl Wilson-assisted River Song in anything other than the very terminology it deploys: rising torrents of gospel harmonies, the freshwater piano trickle that starts the thing off; and the unstoppable current of Wilson’s voice, blurring nature and love into an irresistible all-consuming force. Rainbows is a love-drunk paean to life lived large carried effortlessly by the pistons-hissing chug of its own backing track. Farewell My Friend is a requiem to just-deceased Beach Boys’ associate Otto Hinsche, apparently written at the piano in a single rhapsodic outpouring to the astonishment of all present.
These are songs you could live your life to, were it not for the fact that its creator expired doing just that. You can guess what kind of a husband Dennis was to his four wives by cocking an ear to Time. “I’m the kind of guy who loves to mess around,” sings the sad miscreant more out of regret than pride. If Wilson’s ex-wives still seem anguished by his passing, Thoughts Of You goes some way to explaining why. Moving from hair-shirt minor chords and hushed, penitent assurances into a major-chord sunburst of temporary resolution, he sings “All things that live, one day must die” – and his voice hurts like you’ve never heard a Beach Boy’s voice hurt before.
On Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis’s two sides – the boozy bon viveur and repentant child – often co-exist within the same song. Not so the songs from Bambu. The hoarse, hungover croak evokes Harry Nilsson, whose recreational habits mirrored Dennis’s own. And like Nilsson’s underrated 1972 album Nilsson Schmilsson, Bambu veers wildly between ribald, roister-doistering and achingly tender declarations of love. The reasons were simple enough here. The former songs – School Girl He’s A Bum, Wild Situation – were mostly written with Gregg Jakobson (although I Love You is tender exception). But what really sets Bambu apart is the arrival of jazz guitarist and sometime Beach Boys sideman Carli Munoz as a writer of songs that nailed Wilson’s mile-wide romantic streak.
Collectors will be familiar with tunes like Under The Moonlight and All Alone from bootlegs. But, by God, have they scrubbed up well. Bereft of the damp, flatulent drum thwacks of the bootlegs, It’s Not Too Late is like a bedraggled refugee from Dion’s Born To Be With You – Dennis’s sandpaper croon groping for love like a infant feels around for its mother at night. Also from Munoz, an ultra-vivid burst of Latino jazz-pop Constant Companion benefits from a rich dimension of choral harmonies hitherto unheard on unofficial recordings.
Nearly 25 years after Dennis’s death, we’ll never know if this version of Bambu corresponds to the album that he confidently predicted would surpass Pacific Ocean Blue. There’s no doubting the lengths gone to by those around him to realize Dennis’s dream. Original engineer John Hanlon has helped oversee the completion of the previously half-written Holy Man – a lovely idea, but surely less totally arbitrary singers than Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins might have sprung to mind? Did brother Brian not oblige?
Whatever the reasons, in the final analysis, it feels churlish to pick nits – especially bearing in mind the fact that this was an album that had been left abandoned a full four years before Dennis Wilson died in 1983. In death as in life, Dennis’s closest friends seemed to hold his vision in higher regard than he did. In his words, “They say I live a fast life. Maybe I just like a fast life. I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. It won’t last forever, either. But the memories will.” They will now.