By all appearances the happy-go-lucky Beach Boy, Dennis Wilson lived out the proverbial live-fast-die-young motto. To some degree, that’s a fair assessment. Dennis did indeed drive fast cars, hang with hippies (including Charles Manson) and dated his share of beautiful California women. But like his older brother Brian, Dennis was bullied mercilessly by his father. His wild side masked an underside that was, by turns, brooding, self-loathing, sensitive, and anxious. Dennis’s music reflected his edginess and exhibited little of his happy charm, setting it apart from Brian’s music. Dennis never sang about fun, and no images of surfboards or surfer girls ever appear in a Dennis Wilson song
Dennis Carl Wilson was the son of Audree and Murry Wilson. (Murry was an egotistical monster that often would beat the boys and force them to humiliate themselves by taking a dump on the kitchen floor and then clean it up) He spent his family years with his brothers and parents in Hawthorne, California. Dennis’ role in the family dynamic, which he himself acknowledged, was that of the black sheep. Though anxiety-filled and aggressive at times he was also sensitive and generous.
He was the most often beaten of the Wilson brothers, by their cruel father. Possessed with an abundance of physical energy and a combative nature, Dennis often refused to participate in family sing-alongs and likewise avoided vocalizing on the early recordings that Brian made on a portable tape recorder, but Dennis would sing with his brothers late at night in their shared bedroom. Brian noted of the late night brotherly three-part harmonies: “We developed a little blend which aided us when we started to get into the Beach Boys stuff
Dennis’ mother forced Brian to include Dennis in the original lineup of the Beach Boys. Urged by older cousin Mike Love, Dennis had approached Brian to form a group and compose a song about surfing. The Beach Boys formed in August 1961 and were successful immediately. (Murry had taken over “guidance” of the group as manager.) Though the Beach Boys were named for, and developed, an image based on the California surfing culture, Dennis was the only actual surfer in the band.
In the early years of the Beach Boys, Brian gave him the role of the drummer. Dennis quickly learned the basics of drumming at school lessons and, like the other members; he picked up more on the job. Brian took note of Dennis’ limited drumming technique early on and, as the mid-60s approached, often hired session drummers, such as Hal Blaine, to perform on studio recordings (additionally substituting all other players at one time or another, under the demand for the band members on tour). Dennis accepted this situation with equanimity, generally giving high praise to his older brother’s work, as Brian’s compositions became more mature and complex.
While it is often said that Dennis’ drumming in the Beach Boys’ recordings was filled in exclusively by studio musicians, this is a common misconception. In 1970, at the height of the band’s UK popularity, a New Musical Express writer used the phrase, “as crisp as a Dennis Wilson rim shot.”
Though given few important lead vocals on the early Beach Boys recordings he sang lead on “Do You Wanna Dance?,” the group’s February 1965 hit. Later that year on Beach Boys’ Party!, Dennis sang a rendition of The Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” He accompanied himself on guitar and, like the other Beach Boys, became a multi-instrumentalist.
Early in 1963 Dennis teamed with Brian’s former collaborator Gary Usher, a neighbor in Hawthorne who became a prolific creative figure in surf music recording and, later, folk. As a duo writing, producing, and performing, and calling themselves the Four-Speeds, they released the single “RPM” backed with “My Stingray.” Both sides got top four-star ratings in Billboard reviews, in mid-March 1963, and were popular enough locally and in spots cross-country to earn Dennis a Chevy Corvette sports car, which he totaled in a drunk-driving crash.
In 1968, Dennis was driving through Malibu when he noticed two female hitchhikers. He picked them up and dropped them off at their destination.] Later on, Dennis noticed the same two girls hitchhiking again. This time he took them to his home at 14400 Sunset Boulevard, He then went to a recording session. When he returned at around 3 a.m., he was met in his driveway by a stranger, Charles Manson. When Wilson walked into his home, about a dozen people were occupying the premises, most of them female. Dennis became fascinated by Manson and his followers; the Manson “Family” lived with Dennis for a period of time afterwards at his expense, costing Dennis up to $100,000 in money, cars, clothes, food and penicillin shots for the Family’s persistent venereal disease. In late 1968, Dennis reported to journalists,
I told them [the girls] about our involvement with the Maharishi and they told me they too had a guru, a guy named Charlie who’d recently come out of jail after 12 years. … He drifted into crime, but when I met him I found he had great musical ideas. We’re writing together now. He’s dumb, in some ways, but I accept his approach and have learnt from him.
Initially impressed by Manson’s songwriting talent, Dennis introduced him to a few friends in the music business, including Terry Melcher(the son of Doris Day), whose home would later be rented by director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate. (The Manson family members would later murder Tate and several others at this home in August of 1969.) Manson held recording sessions at Brian’s home studio. As of 2015, the recordings remain unreleased. The Beach Boys released a Manson song, originally titled “Cease to Exist” but reworked as ‘Never Learn Not to Love”, as a single B-side and on the album 20/20.
According to Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks: “One day, Charles Manson brought a bullet out and showed it to Dennis, who asked, ‘What’s this?’ And Manson replied, ‘It’s a bullet. Every time you look at it, I want you to think how nice it is your kids are still safe.’ Well, Dennis grabbed Manson by the head and threw him to the ground and began pummeling him until Charlie said, ‘Ouch!’ He beat the living shit out of him. ‘How dare you!’ was Dennis’ reaction. Charlie Manson was weeping openly in front of a lot of hip people. I heard about it, but I wasn’t there. The point is, though, Dennis Wilson wasn’t afraid of anybody!”
As Dennis became increasingly aware of Manson’s volatile nature and growing violent tendencies, he finally made a break from the friendship by simply moving out of the house and leaving Manson there. When Manson subsequently sought further contact (and money), he left a bullet with Dennis’ housekeeper to be delivered with a cryptic message, which Dennis perceived as a threat. For the remainder of his life, Dennis rarely discussed his involvement with Manson, and in 1976 told journalist David Felton: “As long as I live, I’ll never talk about that.
As Brian, experiencing mental health and addiction issues, withdrew more and more from active participation with his group, Dennis stepped up as a major creative force of the Beach Boys, having learnt production techniques from observing his brother. At least two of his songs were included on all but one of the six albums released in that five-year period, peaking with four songs on each of 20/20 and Sunflower. When certain territorial jealousies arose within the band over his growing role, he began to hold back songs for his own projected solo albums.
Several of Dennis’ compositions were included in Beach Boy albums throughout the late 60’s and 70’s. Their inclusion was said to be at the insistence of the label, claiming that Dennis’ songs sounded more “modern” than other rejected Beach Boys tracks.
In 1971, Dennis starred alongside James Taylor and Warren Oates in the critically acclaimed film Two-Lane Blacktop as “The Mechanic”. The film depicts “The Driver” (Taylor) and “The Mechanic” driving aimlessly across the United States in their 1955 Chevy, surviving on money earned from street racing.
In 1971, Dennis injured his hand badly enough to prevent him from playing drums for some time. . During this period Dennis acted as a co-front man alongside Mike Love, as well as playing keyboards and singing. The 1973 live album The Beach Boys in Concert features only Dennis onstage among thousands of fans on the album cover; however, none of his songs were included in the lineup.
During the three-year recording hiatus following Holland, Dennis’s voice deteriorated markedly. By then his onstage antics (including streaking) occasionally disrupted the Beach Boys’ live shows. In 1974, concurrent with the success of the ’60s hits compilation Endless Summer, Dennis returned to his role behind the drums. According to Dennis’s biographer, Jon Stebbins, it was this year that he co-wrote “You Are So Beautiful” at a party with Billy Preston.
By 1977, Dennis had amassed a stockpile of songs he had written and recorded while factions within the Beach Boys became too stressful for him. He expressed: “If these people want to take this beautiful, happy, spiritual music we’ve made and all the things we stand for and throw it out the window just because of money, then there’s something wrong with the whole thing and I don’t want any part of it. He then approached the owner of Caribou Records, who stipulated a “a structured recording process” before signing Dennis to a two-album contract. According to Guercio (the owner): “My discussions with Dennis were along the lines of, ‘You just tell the executive producer what you need – you have the studio and your job is to finish the dream. Finish the vision. Trish Roach [personal assistant] will do the paperwork and Gregg’s the co-ordinator. It’s your project… You’ve got to do what Brian used to do. Use anybody you want – it’s your decision and you’re responsible.
Dennis released his debut solo album Pacific Ocean Blue in 1977. The album sold poorly, peaking at No. 96 on the US Billboard album chart. Dates were booked for a Dennis Wilson solo tour but these were ultimately cancelled when his record company withdrew concert support in light of poor sales of the album and a perception that he was becoming increasingly unreliable He did occasionally perform his solo material on the 1977 Beach Boys tour. Despite Dennis claiming the album had “no substance”, Pacific Ocean Blue received positive reviews, later developing status as a cult item.
The album remained largely out of print between the 1990s and 2000s. In June 2008, the album was reissued on CD as an expanded edition. It was voted the 2008 “Reissue of the Year” in both Rolling Stone and Mojo magazines, and made No. 16 on the British LP charts and No. 8 on both the Billboard Catalog chart and the Billboard Internet Sales chart. It is a most beautiful album and well worth a listen,
Succeeding years saw Dennis abusing alcohol and heroin. An alleged bar fight which resulted in some damage to his throat at some point in the early to mid 1970s – after which he was instructed not to speak for some time – had taken a toll on his voice, although it gave him a more gravelly tone.
Dennis declared to Rolling Stone on September 3 that he had left the Beach Boys: “They kept telling me I had my solo album now, like I should go off in a corner and leave the Beach Boys to them. The album really bothers them. They don’t like to admit it’s doing so well; they never even acknowledge it in interviews.” Two weeks later, disputes were resolved and he rejoined the band.
At some time, Brian’s then-girlfriend and nurse accused Dennis of enticing Brian to purchase about $15,000 worth of cocaine. When Brian’s bodyguard and the Wilsons’ cousin Stan Love earned of this incident, they physically assaulted Dennis at his home; they were fined about $10,000, and Dennis filed a restraining order.
As the Beach Boys pressured Brian to readmit himself into Eugene Landy’s 24 Hour Therapy program, Dennis was informed by friends that he would be the band’s next target, to which Dennis replied, “No, they’re not going to do anything. He was proven wrong, and by 1983, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, and manager Tom Hulett had banned Dennis from performing with the group. Dennis was then told that he would be allowed to rejoin the Beach Boys only if he admitted himself to a detox program.
For a month prior to his death, Dennis had been homeless and living the life of a nomad. In November 1983, he checked into a therapy center in Arizona for two days, and then on December 23, checked into St. John’s Medical Hospital in Santa Monica, where he stayed until the evening of December 25. Following a violent altercation at the Santa Monica Bay Inn, Dennis checked into a different hospital in order to treat his wounds. Several hours later, he discharged himself and reportedly resumed drinking immediately.[
On December 28, 1983, 24 days after his 39th birthday, Dennis drowned at Marina del Ray, Los Angeles, after drinking all day and then diving in the afternoon, to recover items he had thrown overboard at the marina from his yacht three years prior.[On January 4, 1984, the U.s. Coast Guard buried Dennis’ body off the California coast. The Beach Boys shortly released a statement stating: “We know Dennis would have wanted to continue in the tradition of the Beach Boys. His spirit will remain in our music.”His song “Farewell My Friend”” was played at the funeral.
Dennis’ widow, Shawn Love, reported that Dennis desired a burial at sea, while brothers Carl and Brian did not wish for Dennis to be cremated. As non-veterans of the Coast Guard and Navy are not allowed to be buried at sea unless cremated, Dennis’ burial was made possible by the intervention of President Reagan. In 2002, Brian expressed unhappiness with the arrangement, believing that Dennis should have been given a traditional burial.
At the time of his death, Dennis was married to (but separated from) Shawn Marie Love (born Shawn Marie Harris on December 30, 1964), the daughter of his first cousin and band mate, Mike Love. Wilson and Love had one son. Shawn Marie died aged 38 in September 2003, of liver cancer.
Dennis was previously married to Carole Freedman, with whom he had a daughter Jennifer, and whose son, Scott, he adopted; and Barbara Charren, with whom he had two sons, Michael and Carl] Dennis was also married twice to actress Karen Lamm, the ex-wife of Chicago keyboardist Robert Lamm, in 1976 and again in 1978.
Dennis also had a relationship with Christine McVie of the band Fleetwood Mac he had just divorced when he and Christine McVie fell wildly for each other in 1979 while Fleetwood Mac was making the “Tusk “album.
Christine referred to the drummer as “a multifaceted jewel…Dennis has thrown me into the deep end, literally and figuratively.” For two years, the couple more or less commuted between Wilson’s ketch at Marina Del Rey and Christine’s house in Coldwater Canyon– they had even made ‘definite’ plans to marry. Although he was adored by Christine as well as other members of Fleetwood Mac (Dennis and John McVie, even used to have drinking contests after Mac gigs), the Beach Boy eventually proved to be too eccentric for Chris to handle. Lindsay Buckingham recalls, “I knew him pretty well. . . . He was a good guy. He was kind of lost, but I thought he had a big heart. I always liked him. He was crazy just like a lot of other people, but he had a really big heart, and he was the closest thing to Brian (Wilson) there was, too. He was halfway there.
Mick Fleetwood, who had introduced the pair, wrote that Chris “almost went mad trying to keep up with Dennis, who was already like a man with twenty thyroid glands, not counting the gargantuan amounts of coke and booze and pills he was always shoving into himself.”
He surprised McVie once by having a beautiful heart-shaped garden planted in her backyard (shown at right); she later learned that he’d charged it to her.
Wilson crashed Christine’s Rolls Royce so many times that finally the vehicle had to be written off. He would storm through her house in a drunken rage, breaking things, before leaving for a few weeks to get himself together, at which point the two would reconcile yet again.
Needless to say, Christine soon tired of this and called an end to the relationship. The couple did not part on very amiable terms and had not seen each other for about two years when she received news of his death; “My secretary called me up at eight in the morning. I knew something was wrong. She said, ‘Dennis drowned today.’ And my first reaction was to say, ‘My God is he all right?’ Sheesh!