Written for the old blog.
Dow Mossman wrote one novel.
Dennis Wilson made one record.
I’ve been re-evaluating both lately, and in certain ways, they work well together.
Since most of my audience is made up of pop obsessives, I won’t go too far into the story of Dennis Wilson and “Pacific Ocean Blue.”
(OK, a short version for non-now people:
Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys’ drummer who was generally viewed as the musical lightweight of the Wilson brothers, got his act together long enough in 1976-77 to produce a surprisingly deep solo album. It sold respectably and got good reviews, but for various reasons, he never made another.)
As for Mossman, he was an Iowa-bred writer who capped several years of work by releasing his first novel, “The Stones of Summer,” in 1972.
The sprawling, impressionistic coming-of-age novel received a rave review in the New York Times.
But, when publisher Bobbs-Merrill went bankrupt, the book slipped out of print and into obscurity.
And Mossman — who spent a short stint in a mental hospital after “Stones”‘ publication — never wrote again, instead supporting himself as a welder.
Both “Pacific Ocean Blue” and “The Stones of Summer” were rediscovered and reissued in recent years.
And through the publicity surrounding both reissues, I discovered them both.
I didn’t tremendously care for either work at first.
But something about each of them compelled me to bring them back off the shelf; and I’ve found certain broad similarities that tie them together.
Both works are saturated in their author’s personalities.
Mossman’s main character is an all-American boy named Dawes Oldham Williams (D.O.W., geddit?) who lives in a city called Rapid Cedar, Iowa (Mossman is a lifelong resident of Cedar Rapids) and who enjoys writing (check) as well as deep philosophical thought (OK, I can’t vouch for that one, though Mossman certainly writes as though he enjoys deep philosophical thought.)
The book traces three eras of Dawes — boy, restless teenager and twentysomething burnout.
The teenage section is most vivid, one suspects because it’s made up of fictionalized versions of stories from Mossman’s own youth.
You don’t have to be a psychologist, or even own an armchair, to suspect that Mossman never wrote a second book because he sank so much of himself into the first one.
Pretty much anyone who ever recorded with Dennis Wilson, meanwhile, has been quoted about his desire to pour his own life and experiences into his music.
“Pacific Ocean Blue” comes with a lengthy booklet filled with former collaborators doing just that.
(It’s capped with a definitive Dennis Wilson quote: “Everything that I am or will ever be is in the music. If you want to know me, just listen.”)
The impression one gets is that Wilson could no more have written something oblique and impersonal — like, say, “A Horse With No Name” — than he could have performed open-heart surgery.
Both “Stones” and “Pacific Ocean Blue” wear their influences well.
Mossman’s style is distinctly Kerouwacky, but there’s something about it that sets it apart; you wouldn’t read a passage of “Stones” and mistake it for Kerouac.
Of course, the shortcoming of impressionistic writing is that when people shoot for an image and miss, they really whiff.
And there are plenty of cases in “Stones” when Mossman does just that.
But when he connects, he connects, taking something like a humid, black summer night and nailing it down on the page so the attentive reader can just about smell it.
There are enough of those moments to make “Stones” a worthwhile, if frustrating, read.
Dennis Wilson’s influences came from closer to home:
The creative vocal and instrumental arrangements on “Pacific Ocean Blue” are naturally reminiscent of the work of his brothers.
(Over the course of the album you’ll hear gospel choirs, orchestral chimes, banjos, bass harmonicas and any number of other embellishments.)
But it doesn’t sound forced; it doesn’t sound as though he found a banjo in the corner of the studio and decided it had to be on his album.
Rather than bury his music under baroque touches, Wilson chose a few flavors to make each song distinctive.
“Dreamer,” for instance, is a plodding blues-based number that occasionally erupts in Dixieland-style horn outbursts, then gives way to a placid, soaring bridge in which Dennis rasps: “Let the wind / Carry your blues away.”
For a guy usually dismissed as a self-taught pianist and third-rate drummer, it’s a surprisingly imaginative and effective construction.
“Stones” and “Pacific Ocean Blue” even share a thematic link or two, though I wouldn’t try to overstretch that comparison.
For instance, most of the people who know or understand Dawes Williams die during the course of “Stones.”
So when I heard Wilson’s song “Farewell My Friend” — a brief, simple, heartfelt elegy set near the album’s end — I thought of Dawes’ various fallen compatriots.
(“Farewell my friend / My beautiful friend / You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, and we’ll meet again.”)
I’m glad I reconsidered both “The Stones of Summer” and “Pacific Ocean Blue,” though I wouldn’t rank them as equal works of art.
I would heartily recommend “Pacific Ocean Blue” to any fan of the Beach Boys, or of ’70s pop, or of the singer-songwriter genre.
The songs are heartfelt, tuneful and creative.
And even though Wilson’s voice is gravelly and his lyrics sometimes weak, you’ll come away from the album feeling like you’ve made a personal connection to a complex, interesting person.
I consider “The Stones of Summer” to be less the work of a finished artist, and more of a first step.
Had Mossman found a topic beyond himself to sink his teeth into, and boiled a few of the words out of his prose, he would have been a writer worth noticing over the long haul.
It’s a little frustrating, perhaps, to read a book because of who the author could have been.
But for those who are willing to do so, and who are attuned to Mossman’s unique frequency, “Stones” is a rewarding read.