Wilson in a 1971 promotional shot for the film Two-Lane Blacktop
|Birth name||Dennis Carl Wilson|
|Born||December 4, 1944|
Inglewood, California, U.S.
|Origin||Hawthorne, California, U.S.|
|Died||December 28, 1983 (aged 39)|
Marina del Rey, California, U.S.
Dennis Carl Wilson (December 4, 1944 – December 28, 1983) was an American musician, singer, and songwriter who co-founded the Beach Boys. He is best remembered as their drummer and as the middle brother of bandmates Brian and Carl Wilson. Dennis was the only true surfer in the Beach Boys, and his personal life exemplified the "California Myth" that the band's early songs often celebrated. He was also known for his brief association with Charles Manson, a songwriter and cult leader who was later convicted of several murders.
Wilson served mainly on drums and backing vocals for the Beach Boys, and contrary to popular belief, his playing can be heard on many of the group's hits. He originally had few lead vocals on the band's songs, but starting with their 1968 album Friends, his prominence as a singer-songwriter increased. Unlike Brian's music, Dennis' is characterized for reflecting his "edginess" and "little of his happy charm". His original songs for the group included "Little Bird" (1968), "Forever" (1970), and "Slip On Through" (1970). Friends and biographers also say that Wilson was an uncredited writer on "You Are So Beautiful", a hit for Joe Cocker in 1974.
During his final years, Wilson struggled with substance addictions that contributed to tensions with his bandmates. His only solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue (1977), was released to warm reviews, but moderate sales. One writer retrospectively described it as "Kurt Cobain produced by Phil Spector." Sessions for a follow-up, Bambu, disintegrated before his death. In 1988, Wilson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Beach Boys. He died from drowning at the age of 39 in 1983.
Wilson was born in Inglewood, California, the son of Audree Neva (née Korthof) and Murry Gage Wilson. 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. Out of the three Wilson brothers, he was the most likely to get beaten by their strong-willed father Murry. Possessed with an abundance of physical energy and a combative nature, Dennis often refused to participate in family singalongs, and likewise avoided vocalizing on the early recordings that Brian made on a portable tape recorder. However, Dennis would sing with his brothers late at night in their shared bedroom, a song Brian later recalled as "our special one we'd sing," titled "Come Down, Come Down from the Ivory Tower." 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."
1961–1968: Career beginnings
Dennis' mother, Audree, 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, with Murry taking over as manager, and were immediately successful. Though the Beach Boys developed their image based on the California surfing culture, Dennis was the only actual surfer in the band. For the sleeve notes of their 1964 album All Summer Long, Dennis wrote: "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."
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-1960s 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. 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".
As Brian withdrew from the group, Dennis started writing songs for the Beach Boys. His first major released composition was "Little Bird" (1968), the B-side of the "Friends" single. These tracks, along with his "Be Still", were featured on the album Friends.
1968–1969: Manson episode
In late spring 1968, Dennis was driving through Malibu when he noticed two female hitchhikers, Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey. 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 recalled that he "told [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." Dennis then went to a recording session; when he returned later that night, he was met in his driveway by Charles Manson, and when Wilson walked into his home, about a dozen people were occupying the premises, most of them young women. They were later known as members of the "Manson Family".
Dennis was initially fascinated by Manson and his followers, referring to him as "the Wizard" in a Rave magazine article at the time. The two struck a friendship and, over the next few months, members of the Manson Family – mostly women who were treated as servants – were housed at Wilson's household, costing him approximately $100,000 (equivalent to $720,000 in 2018). Much of these expenses went into cars, clothes, food, and penicillin shots for their persistent gonorrhoea. In late 1968, he told the magazine Record Mirror that "when I met [Charlie] 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 [learned] from him." Some of Manson's songs were recorded at Brian's home studio. These recordings remain unheard to the public. Dennis also introduced Manson to a few friends in the music business, including the Byrds' producer Terry Melcher, whose home at 10050 Cielo Drive would later be rented by director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate. Less than a year later, Manson family members would murder Tate and several others at this home.
In September 1968, Dennis recorded a Manson song for the Beach Boys, originally titled "Cease to Exist" but reworked as "Never Learn Not to Love", as a single B-side released the following December. It was credited solely to Dennis. Angered by this, Manson threatened murder. When asked why Manson was not credited, Wilson explained: "He didn't want that. He wanted money instead. I gave him about a hundred thousand dollars' worth of stuff." 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 ... I heard about it, but I wasn't there."
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, he left a bullet with Dennis' housekeeper to be delivered with a threatening message. In August 1969, Manson Family members perpetrated the Tate/LaBianca murders. Shortly afterward, Manson visited Wilson's home, telling him that he had "just been to the moon" and demanded money, which Dennis gave. That November, Manson was apprehended and later convicted for numerous counts of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Dennis refused to testify against Manson. In 1976, he commented that "I don't talk about Manson. I think he's a sick fuck. I think of Roman and all those wonderful people who had a beautiful family and they fucking had their tits cut off. I want to benefit from that?" According to biographer Mark Dillon: "Some attribute [Wilson's] subsequent spiral of self-destructive behavior ― particularly his drug intake ― to these fears and feelings of guilt for ever having introduced this evil Wizard into the Hollywood scene."
1960s–1970s: Artistic growth
Dennis continued writing songs for the Beach Boys' subsequent albums, including 1970's Sunflower, which featured the single "Forever" and three other songs written by Dennis. Their inclusion was said to be at the insistence of the label, claiming that his songs sounded more contemporary than other rejected Beach Boys tracks. On December 4, 1970, Dennis released his first piece of solo material, an obscure single released only in Europe and the UK under the credit "Dennis Wilson & Rumbo." The single featured "Sound of Free", on his usual theme of freedom, on the A-side with the romantic "Lady" (also known as "Fallin' In Love") on the B-side. The song was later covered by American Spring and released as the B-side to their single "Shyin' Away".
In 1971, Dennis starred alongside James Taylor and Warren Oates in the 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. That same year, he injured his hand badly enough to prevent him from playing drums for some time. Ricky Fataar took over as the group's drummer between 1972 and 1974. During this period Dennis acted as a co-frontman 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.
During the three-year recording hiatus following Holland, Dennis' 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' biographer, Jon Stebbins, it was this year that he co-wrote the lyrics and modified part of the melody of "You Are So Beautiful" at a party with Billy Preston.
Pacific Ocean Blue
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 James William Guercio, owner of Caribou Records, who stipulated "a structured recording process" before signing Dennis to a two-album contract. According to Guercio: "My discussions with Dennis were along the lines of, 'You just tell Gregg [Jakobson] 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.
Pacific Ocean Blue's follow-up, Bambu, began production in the year 1978 at Brother Studios in Santa Monica with the collaboration of then Beach Boys keyboardist and Dennis' close friend Carli Muñoz as songwriter and producer. The first four songs that were officially recorded for Bambu were Muñoz's compositions: "It's Not Too Late", "Constant Companion", "All Alone", and "Under the Moonlight". The project was initially scuttled by lack of financing and the distractions of simultaneous Beach Boys projects. Bambu was officially released in 2008 along with the Pacific Ocean Blue reissue. This material was also released on vinyl in 2017 without Pacific Ocean Blue for Record Store Day.
Two songs from the Bambu sessions, "Love Surrounds Me" and "Baby Blue," were lifted for the Beach Boys' 1979 L.A. (Light Album). Dennis and Brian also recorded together apart from the Beach Boys in the early 1980s. These sessions remain unreleased though widely bootlegged as The Cocaine Sessions.
1970s–1983: Personal struggles
In succeeding years Dennis abused alcohol and heroin. Following a confrontation on an airport tarmac, Dennis declared to Rolling Stone on September 3, 1977, 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 Dennis rejoined the group. At some time, Brian's then-girlfriend and nurse Carolyn Williams accused Dennis of enticing Brian to purchase about $15,000 worth of cocaine. When Brian's bodyguard Rocky Pamplin and the Wilsons' cousin Stan Love learned of this incident, they physically assaulted Dennis at his home; they were fined about $1,000, and Dennis filed a restraining order.
As the Beach Boys pressured Brian to readmit himself into Eugene Landy's Twenty-Four Hour Therapy program, Dennis was informed by friends that he would be the band's next target, to Dennis' disbelief. He was proven wrong as the rest of the band gave him an ultimatum after his last performance in November 1983 to check into rehab for his alcohol problems or be banned from performing live with them.
By November 1983, Dennis was homeless and living a nomadic life. 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, three weeks after his 39th birthday, Dennis drowned at Marina Del Rey 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 earlier. Forensic pathologist Michael Hunter believed that Dennis experienced shallow water blackout just before his death.
On January 4, 1984, the U.S. Coast Guard buried Dennis' body at sea, off the California coast. The Beach Boys released a statement shortly thereafter: "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 had wanted a burial at sea, and brothers Carl and Brian did not want Dennis cremated. At the time, only veterans of the Coast Guard and Navy were allowed to be buried in US waters without being first cremated, but 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.
Legacy and musicianship
PopMatters writer Tony Sclafani summarized in 2007:
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' 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.
In 1967, Dennis was cited as "the closest to brother Brian's own musical ideals ... He always emphasises the fusion, in their work, of pop and classical music." Dennis said his brother Brian was an "inspiration", not an influence, and that "Musically, I'm far apart from Brian. He's a hundred times more than what I am musically."
Wilson's first wife was Carole Freedman, with whom he had a daughter Jennifer and adopted son Scott. His second was Barbara Charren, with whom he had two sons, Michael and Carl. Dennis was then married twice to actress Karen Lamm, the ex-wife of Chicago keyboardist Robert Lamm, in 1976 and again in 1978. He also had a relationship with Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac.
At the time of his death, Wilson was married to (but separated from) Shawn Marie Love (born Shawn Marie Harris on December 30, 1964), who claimed to be the daughter of his first cousin and bandmate, Mike Love while Love always denied being her father. Wilson and Love had one son, Gage, born September 3, 1982.
|Year||Album details||Chart positions|
|1977||Pacific Ocean Blue||96||16||5|
|Date of release||Title||Label||Chart positions|
|December 1970, UK||"Sound of Free"/"Lady"||Stateside Records||never charted|
|September 1977, Europe||"River Song"/"Farewell My Friend"||Caribou Records||never charted|
|October 1977, US||"You and I"/"Friday Night"||Caribou Records||never charted|
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- Leaf 1978, pp. 16–19.
- Leaf 1978, p. 19.
- Doe & Tobler 2004, pp. V, 9.
- Bugliosi, Vincent Bugliosi (March 1975). Helter Skelter. p. 338.
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- Doe, Andrew Grayham. "Unreleased Albums". Bellagio 10452. Endless Summer Quarterly. Retrieved October 16, 2015.
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- Gaines 1986, p. 219.
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- Goldberg, Michael (June 7, 1984). "Dennis Wilson: The Beach Boy Who Went Overboard". Rolling Stone.
- Swenson, John (October 20, 1977). "The Beach Boys - No More Fun Fun Fun". Rolling Stone.
- Gaines, Steven (October 21, 1986). "Beach Boy drummer 'goes for it' and ends up beat up". The Spokesman-Review Spokane Chronicle.
- Jerome, Jim; Buchalter, Gail; Evans, Hilary; Manna, Sal; Pilcher, Joseph & Rayl, Salley (January 16, 1984). "Death of a Beach Boy". People Magazine.
- "Autopsy: The Last Hours of Dennis Wilson." Autopsy: The Last Hours of.... Nar. Eric Meyers. Exec. Prod. Ed Taylor and Michael Kelpie. Reelz, 18 Mar. 2017. Television.
- "Beach Boys drummer buried in rites at sea". The Day. January 5, 1984.
- Death of a Beach Boy
- "Reagan Helps Get Approval For Musician's Burial at Sea". nytimes.com. UPI in The New York Times. January 3, 1984. Retrieved August 20, 2014.
- Ginny, Dougary (May 31, 2002). "After the wipeout". The Guardian.
- Grant, Mike (October 11, 2011). "'Our influences are of a religious nature': the Beach Boys on Smile". The Guardian.
- "Christine McVie Keeps a Level Head After Two Decades In the Fast Lane". Rolling Stone. p. 2.
- Doe, Andrew; Tobler, John (2004). The Complete Guide to the Music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Omnibus Press. ISBN 978-1-84449-426-2.
- Gaines, Steven (1986). Heroes and Villains: The True Story of The Beach Boys. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306806479.
- Leaf, David (1978). The Beach Boys and the California Myth. New York: Grosset & Dunlap. ISBN 978-0-448-14626-3.
- Stebbins, Jon (2011). The Beach Boys FAQ: All That's Left to Know About America's Band. Backbeat Books. ISBN 9781458429148.
- Webb, Adam (2001). Dumb Angel: The Life and Music of Dennis Wilson. Creation Books. ISBN 978-1-84068-051-5.