by Paul Freeman [Our 2008 Feature]

Beach Boys fans thought of drummer Dennis Wilson as the cute one, the athletic one, the wild one, the womanizing one, the self-destructive one. But a new release of his solo work will remind them that his under-appreciated musical talent rivaled that of his brothers, Carl and, yes, even the celebrated Brian.

“Pacific Ocean Blue: Legacy Edition” resurfaces as a double-CD package. It features Dennis’ long out-of-print, treasured by collectors, 1977 solo debut, the now gorgeously remastered “Pacific Ocean Blue.” Also included are dazzling, previously unreleased tracks, including material for the follow-up “Bambu” album, thought to have been lost.

Among the artists/friends heard in the background are Dean Torrence (Jan & Dean), Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston, Billy Hinsche and Ricky Fataar (Beach Boys), Karen Lamm-Wilson (twice married to Dennis, once to Chicago’s Robert Lamm), Gerry Buckley and Dewey Bunnell (America) and Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac). Taylor Hawkins (Foo Fighters adds a newly recorded vocal.

But it’s Dennis’ distinctive personality and gifts that power these tracks. He achieves an epic, spiritual quality, revealing his own troubled soul and passion for nature.

Having his own studio gave Dennis the time and freedom to explore the thoughts, emotions and sounds deep within him.

Dean Torrence, close friend and photographer for the “Pacific Ocean Blue” project, says, “It gave Dennis the opportunity to wait until he felt ready creatively and psychologically. So he really flourished.”

Torrence is one half of those other surf music legends, Jan & Dean. He continues to perform that fun and influential duo’s hits to adoring fans, though Jan Berry passed away in 2004.

Torrence first encountered the Beach Boys when the band opened for Jan & Dean and served as their backing musicians. He bonded with Dennis.

“I was one of his action buddies. We used to love to take Brian’s Rolls Royce to the beach and get sand in it.

“Dennis liked craziness. He always felt more comfortable when there was some sort of chaos going on. He was an adrenaline junkie in almost anything he did, whether it was playing music or playing outdoors.”

Dennis had contributed the occasional composition or soulful lead vocal to Beach Boys records. But the brilliance of “Pacific Ocean Blue” caught most critics off guard.

Torrence says, “I figured he probably had the genes. I would have been surprised, if he didn’t have some of that. Had he not come from a family that was dominated musically by Brian, he probably would have gotten a lot more attention and kudos than he did.

“Everything that you do would be compared to ‘Pet Sounds’ or something. It’s hard to beat that. As an artist, you’re usually pretty objective about stuff. I’m sure that he could look at something and go, ‘It’s pretty good, but it’s not exactly ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice.’”

The majesty of “Pacific Ocean Blue” didn’t surprise Torrence. Neither did its lack of commercial success. At the time, he was running an innovative, award-winning company called Kittyhawk Graphics, designing many memorable album covers.

“I was doing a lot of work for some very talented people at the time, people like Harry Nilsson, Michael Nesmith and others. And they weren’t getting the attention either. It ends up having nothing to do with what you do in the studio. It’s all about marketing. That was the frustrating part.”

The new Legacy Edition features Torrence’s striking photos of Dennis Wilson, which capture the man’s sensitivity, complexity and inner torment. This isn’t the carefree Beach Boy with the charming grin. Like the music on the solo album, these pictures reveal the real Dennis.

“The record company would always try and steer us in some sort of other direction, because they knew better, of course,” Torrence says with a dollop of sarcasm. “But we did try to just be the fly on the wall, the day in the life of Dennis Wilson.”

He knew that Dennis battled emotional turmoil, but didn’t often experience its full force. “I don’t think he would have called me, if he was brooding. I might see him in a bit of a bad mood, depending on his chick situation at the time. But if we went out sailing or surfing or go-karting, he’d soon be into that activity and forget about his chick problems.”

Nevertheless, Torrence sensed that the dark side might overtake Dennis eventually. “Yeah, there was always that worry, especially if there was drugs or alcohol involved. That would just exacerbate things.”

Dennis Wilson died in 1983 in a drowning accident. He was just 39. At least his great solo work can now be rediscovered, thanks to the fine new Caribou/Epic/Legacy package.

As Torrence says, “Nice to see that Dennis is getting his due, finally.”