The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson was a surfer, Lothario, maverick and drunk. But he was also the band's other song writing genius. Ben Edmonds charts the fast life and high times of a troubled soul.
With time to kill before sound check on a windy New York afternoon in 1971, the drummer of The Beach Boys had decided, on a whim, to scale a building that, though not yet complete, was already the tallest structure ever erected by man: The World Trade Centre. The bottom half of the first Tower was already occupied, and Dennis and his pal Gregg Jakobson went as far as they could and then switched to the construction elevator. In their jeans and T-shirts, the Californians blended with the workmen, and ascended unchallenged. Higher and higher they rode, past the welders, riveters and electricians, until they reached the 110th floor, which at this point consisted of nothing but skeletal beams. Dennis whooped with joy and triumph as he danced around all four corners, oblivious to the vicious winds whipping through non-existent walls, determined to admire the spectacular view from every angle.
This was Dennis Wilson: fearless, foolish, and willing to do almost anything to wring every last molecule of experience out of whatever the world gave him. No vertigo. As the member of The Beach Boys who defined the band’s image and embodied the California culture that produced them, he was given much. He attacked every moment with such gusto and abandon that his excesses might dwarf even major league drum lunatics like Keith Moon and John Bonham. But Dennis Wilson was also an artist – and his talent ran as deep as the ocean.
Dennis Wilson had no time for music. And music was the only thing that kept 3701 West 119th Street in Hawthorne, California from being a full-time house of horrors. At the head of this household was an over-bearing cyclops named Murry Wilson, psychologically cruel and physically abusive, whose administration of “tough love” could be diverted only by the sound of his wife Audree and their three sons harmonising around the family piano. A bitter tyrant who’d experienced the barest of brushes with music business success as a songsmith – proto-muzak bandleader Lawrence Welk had once performed one of Murry’s cornball concoctions – he took out his frustration on the four captives of the house.
Dennis would have none of this, neither the beatings nor the harmonies. The only time the middle son (born 1944) would sing was when he was trapped in the back seat of the family car between big brother Brian and pudgy younger brother Carl. The earliest memory many have is of a little tow headed terror with his face pushed against the screen door, itching to be part of whatever was happening on the other side. Or maybe it was just the desire to get away. Let loose, he ran as far as his legs would carry him, wreaking so much mischief in the neighbourhood that he was called ‘Dennis the Menace’, a nickname that never stopped being appropriate.
Dennis had to be tough. “He told me that practically his earliest memory was of having his father punch him full force in the solar plexus,” says long-time friend Ed Roach. “Murry had made him stand nose-to-nose and stare into his empty eye socket [the result of an industrial accident]. Dennis said he flinched once out of fear, and his father knocked him across the room and into the wall. He began to cry, which caused Murry to be on him like a bat out of hell, just whacking the shit out of him, screaming, ‘Stop your fucking crying – stop being a baby’ After that beating, Dennis swore he’d never cry in front of his father again. No matter how much it hurt, and how much more it hurt not to cry, he was never going to give Murry the satisfaction of thinking he’d broken him down.”
Behind the wheel of automobiles, which he began “borrowing” long before he was old enough for a licence, he discovered his ultimate destination, five miles south-west of Hawthorne: the beach. When Dennis Wilson beheld the infinite sweep of the Pacific Ocean he felt at once truly at home and completely free. In surfing Dennis found the release that the rest of his family found in music. In the other surfers, and the beach bunnies who ministered to their needs, he found his own family, his first band. The ocean was his rock'n'roll.
Some surmise from the boy’s inability to sit still a case of Attention Deficit Disorder. “Dennis was classic ADD,” asserts his friend and frequent co-writer Gregg Jakobson. “He may even have had ADHD, the hyper form of it. It’s like your brain is wired to pay attention to everything. You’re constantly being fed too much information. I was diagnosed with it myself in the early ’80s. That may help explain my compatibility with Dennis. ADD people make lousy farmers but great hunters.”
Being the drummer of a touring rock’n'roll band would probably be another perfect occupation for such a person. Dennis got the job only because his mother insisted that room be made for him in the musical group consisting of brothers Brian (bass) and Carl (guitar), cousin Mike Love (vocals) and schoolmate Alan Jardine (guitar). An alien within his own family, he was the outsider of the band before he’d played a note. It was the position he’d occupy in the family business for the rest of his life. But without knowing it, his disgruntled and sceptical band-members had acquired one of their most valuable assets as well as a royal pain the ass. It wasn’t simply that surfer Dennis suggested the subject of the song that launched their career. When they became The Beach Boys upon release of that single ‘Surfin” he gave them their entire identity. He was what the band was singing about, what the rest of them were only pretending to be. He was the only Beach Boy who surfed, leaving Brian at home to write songs about it. When the group was singing about cars, it was Dennis who was out racing them. Sometimes, as with ‘Fun Fun Fun’, his exploits inspired songs, his life was a movie and The Beach Boys were recording its soundtrack.
At first Dennis Wilson seemed to be all image – the handsome, fun-loving, sun-smacked, God-favoured California boy whose main function, according to one Beach Boys associate, was to “look good and attract the chicks”. He found that he loved performing, where he could ride a crowd’s energy like a surfboard, sometimes even controlling the waves.
“In the beginning he was easily the most popular guy in the group,” Al Jardine says. “On-stage, all he had to do was stand up to stretch and the crowd would go nuts. Mike would be trying to sing, and he’d have to turn around to find out what was going on. Oh, that used to piss Mr Love off so much. It was a little disconcerting, because there’d be these sudden eruptions that weren’t tied to the music. It was for Dennis. He was a star without even trying.”
Still, if there was any substance to this heart-throb it wasn’t apparent. Dennis seemed to do his best to ensure that nobody would look beneath the surface. Initially, he drummed like a guy whose mom got him the job, and the group frequently resorted to studio musicians. The songs he was given to sing on the early albums are throwaways, a sop to the member all the girls screamed for, and his vocal performances didn’t suggest he was worthy of too much more. Musically, he was the equivalent of a dumb blonde.
The first hint that there might be more was buried on side two of the 1965 album The Beach Boys Today! ‘In The Back of My Mind’ offered the most intimate glimpse of Brian Wilson’s fearful psyche, dressed up in orchestration that foreshadowed his musical maturity, and he chose the somewhat ragged emotionally right voice of Dennis to deliver it. Denny backed his big brother unconditionally in the fight to fuck with the Beach Boy formula over the next two years, though with genius auteur Brian directing and dominating vocally as time went on, there was even less for Dennis to do than there had been before. But when Brian, having circled the sun with Pet Sounds, crashed and burned under the weight of the unfinished masterpiece he called Smile, the other Beach Boys suddenly found themselves with unaccustomed creative slack to pick up. And nobody expected the tour drummer to make much of a contribution. So fans, family and bandmates alike were shocked when two songs Dennis had written with poet Steve Kalinich, ‘Little Bird’ and ‘Be Still’, not only made the 1968 album Friends, but were actually among the highlights. The discovery of an artistic voice may have surprised Dennis as much as it did everyone else.
“It was not our intention to write songs when we first got together,” explains Kalinich, “and I don’t think he could even see himself as a creative entity apart from the band. But we sparked each other personally, and then creatively. I left the words to ‘Little Bird’ sitting on his piano one night, and the next day he had the music. Dennis had an amazing talent; I could read him a poem once, and he’d then play it back to me as a musical melody. It was unschooled and unedited – he was in awe as this music came pouring out of him. Dennis was all passion. But having made this incredible personal breakthrough, his first impulse was to try and set me up to write with Brian. That was Dennis: generous even when it might not be to his advantage.”
Everyone, from brother Brian to guys he’d known for five minutes, all said the same thing: “Dennis had a big heart.” Debbie Holtsclaw knows this. She was 17 and fresh off the bus from Kansas when The Beach Boys hired her to answer fan mail. “One of the managers sent me out on an errand in his car,” she remembers. “Well, I cut a corner and bashed in one of the doors. I had no way of paying for the repairs, so I was actually making arrangements to go back with my parents while I raised the money. When Dennis heard this, he took me to the manager, who confirmed the amount I owed him. Dennis said OK, took a big wad of cash out of his jeans and threw it across the desk. ‘Is this enough to take care of it?’ When I worried how I was going to pay him back, he said, ‘Your eyes light up when you do something for us, that’s payment enough.’ I’ve treasured every one of those words, but that’s only one of 10,000 good-hearted Dennis Wilson stories. He was open to everybody, but I guess Charles Manson proved you can go too far with that.”
Ah, Charlie, there was no greater illustration of Denny’s accessibility, bottomless generosity, and the destructive lengths to which he’d permit people to take advantage of him, than his celebrated involvement with the murderous ‘Family’ of Charles Manson. By all accounts these murderous leeches in love beads took Dennis for $100,000 worth of clothes, cars, food and lodging, not to mention doctor’s bills for the Family gonorrhoea. All Dennis got out of it was a plentiful supply of diseased pussy and the mediocre Manson lyric ‘Cease to Exist’, which he rewrote, to Charlie’s eternal displeasure, as the Beach Boy track ‘Never Learn Not to Love’. But, as he told the district attorney, “At least all I lost was my money.”
He had also been the first in his group to join The Beatles in embracing transcendental meditation (the first to drop it, too, though Mike and Al stuck with it). What little hip credibility The Beach Boys had left after their disastrous 1968 tour with the Maharishi, whom The Beatles had already publicly repudiated, was completely wiped out by the waves of paranoia in the aftermath of Manson’s arrest. It was as if The Beach Boys were somehow to blame for this unmasking of the dark side to the sunny California myth. In 1969, with Brian Wilson headed for total retreat, The Beach Boys hit what may be the lowest point of their 40 year roller coaster career.
Consigned to the pop culture scrap-heap, the group was forced to reinvent itself, and this is where the dumb blond drummer really began to shine. All the other members stepped forward creatively, struggling to compensate for the absence of Brian. Dennis – the perennial outsider of whom little was expected – was free to create his own music without this burden. What emerged was something more than simply a unique voice within The Beach Boys. Most of his favoured collaborators in this process – Gregg Jakobson, Steve Kalinich, Stan Shapiro – were word guys. But Dennis and Daryl Dragon, the classically trained pianist and Beach Boy side-man, were like the odd couple – the most accomplished musician in the band’s organisation, and the least.
“I was sitting out in the bleachers during a sound-check when I heard these amazing piano chords coming from the stage,” said Dragon, whose band nickname was ‘Captain Keyboard’ and who would later find his own fame in The Captain & Tennille. “I looked up and it was Dennis, which kind of shocked me. I only knew him as [this] wild-man drummer. I didn’t even know he played piano! When I asked him who’d composed the gorgeous music he was playing, he said, ‘I did.’ I was floored. Dennis had none of the formal training I’d had, but these were chords my instructors would’ve killed for. He didn’t know the names of notes, nothing. He just played around until he found the notes that matched what he was hearing in his head. The richness and instinctive innovation of his chords reminded me of Richard Wagner, whom Dennis had never heard of.
“My real function with Dennis was to give him encouragement. The band didn’t see the value in his writing because they didn’t see it as commercial. They were looking for the next hit, because this [1969-72] was when the hits had stopped coming. Dennis didn’t think on those terms. My contribution to his songs has been somewhat overstated, to be frank. My relationship with him was more like Salieri’s with Mozart. I’d sit there and try and write down what was coming out of his head. There was never any thought but that we were shaping his musical inspiration. If I did anything, it was really just to help him commit to his ideas, which was not always easy for a guy with his constant energy overload.”
The peak of Dennis’ creative contribution to The Beach Boys was the 1970 album Sunflower. In the absence of Brian, Dennis carried the record. ‘Slip On Through’ and ‘It’s About Time’ were not only his best rock songs, they were maybe the last real rock the band can lay claim to. Though never a hit, the gorgeous ‘Forever’ has become a perennial, its ballad form and romantic sentiments were the artistic territory he staked out for himself in the coming years.
But instead of being the beginning of a new respect and equality within The Beach Boys, it turned out to be Wilson’s high-water mark with the band. On the group’s 1971 “comeback” Surf’s Up he had no songs at all. As the ’70s progressed he’d be indulged for a track or two per LP, but despite the quality of material like ‘Cuddle Up’ and ‘Only With You’, they were really nothing more than the bones he was thrown on the band’s earliest albums. Because he wasn’t writing to formula – and the formula was now to reference the group’s own history – he was invisible. (Except, of course, when he was making trouble, and these things are not unrelated.)
Weighing the band’s cold shoulder against the stockpile of songs Dennis was composing has led to the conventional wisdom that the drummer was already plotting a solo breakaway. Not so, according to Daryl Dragon, who says that the songs they worked on together were always envisioned as gifts to his group – even ‘Sound of Free’, which saw limited release in 1970 credited to Dennis Wilson & Rumbo and which Rumbo (Dragon) says he can barely recall. At this point he paints Dennis as pathologically incapable of seeing himself as anything but a Beach Boy, a fundamental frame-work for his scattered life. If so, this makes the band’s indifference to his offerings all the more egregious. “He was not only under-appreciated in the rock world,” Al Jardine says today, somewhat ruefully, “he was under-appreciated in our band. We didn’t know what we had.”
A game of pinball would tell you all you needed to know about Dennis Wilson. The guy attacked the machine, alternately caressing and banging it, all exaggerated body English as if his physical exhortations could will the direction of the ball, convince the machine to do his bidding. He was also the sort who changed the rules as the game went along, but it was so much fun that you didn’t really mind. I had the pleasure of losing a few such pinball matches to Dennis on the machine at Brother Studio, and being made to pay up with a couple of late-afternoon breakfasts. In the mid-’70s I was working for The Beach Boys’ former label, Capitol Records, in Los Angeles, and with a group called Crane, who happened to be recording at the band’s Santa Monica studio. Though my contact with Dennis was fleeting, it was enough to understand his profound gift for making each person he encountered feel they were the centre of his universe.
On one of our meal breaks, he stopped to talk with a homeless man and gave him everything that was in his pocket. “I like to spread the wealth around,” he said. As we ate he rhapsodised. He was thrilled to be making a record at the behest of James Guercio’s Caribou Records, obviously proud that of all The Beach Boys it was the fucked-up drummer who was cutting the first solo album. He was over the moon about a boat called Harmony he was restoring, expressing a desire to permanently live on the water. He was also one of those who could check out the female action in the room without diverting any attention from his conversation, chortling about the cum stains he made a point of depositing regularly in the studio’s “meditation room” – a gift for the group’s TM contingent. When we passed another homeless person on our way back to the studio, he made me empty my pockets of cash. “Cough it up!” he barked. “You work for Capitol, don’t you? Well, I helped build your fucking office.”
The time he spent recording Pacific Ocean Blue was perhaps the most satisfying of his life as a musician. “This was when he fully accepted himself as an artist,” reckons Gregg Jakobson, whom Dennis drafted as co-producer. “Brian had shown him chords on the piano, but as he’d become more proficient the music that came forth was not derivative of that. Having his own studio helped tremendously. With a little encouragement, and the right tools, Dennis took off.”
“He didn’t talk much about what he wanted to do, he just did it,” says John Hanlon, a studio technician who made the leap to engineer – and a career that would include work with Neil Young and R.E.M. – on these sessions. “He needed an engineer, pointed at me and said, ‘You’re it.’ When he wanted to record, it was right that very second. Spontaneous. You had one chance, and you better get it. He was very much like Neil Young in that way.”
The album was considered complete and its running order set when Otto Hinsche died suddenly. The father of extended Beach Boy family member Billy Hinsche, he had provided Dennis with lifesaving emotional support following Murry’s death. “Dennis came in and announced that the album might not be finished,” Hanlon remembers. “He began fooling around on the piano until this wonderful melody emerged. I’ve never seen Dennis so focused. We recorded it right then. ‘Farewell, My Friend’ is his send-off for Billy’s dad.
“There’s some sadness, but what you feel more is how much Dennis loved this man, celebrated his life. Dennis had the ability to go right to the heart of the matter and then put that feeling on tape.”
Not only does Dennis Wilson’s album sound almost nothing like The Beach Boys – though the rock gospel of ‘River Song’ is what the band could have sounded like had it not been so concerned with chasing its historic tail – Pacific Ocean Blue seems to have very few overt musical influences of any sort. This is music that flows from its own source. Unlike Brian, who usually had things pretty well plotted in his head, Denny’s recordings almost sound unfinished, music captured in the act of exploring itself. The instrumentation changes from track to track, but you always come away with the seductive effect of the artist’s weather-beaten, lived-in voice – the aural equivalent of the bearded, shaggy-haired visage that gazed out from the cover – as close as pillow talk.
Upon its release in 1977, Pacific Ocean Blue surprised everyone by selling a quarter-of-a-million copies in America, better than most Beach Boys albums of the period, reportedly causing as much irritation as pride within the band. It had been bad enough when fuck-up Dennis landed a starring role in the 1971 movie Two-Lane Blacktop. Now the fuck-up had a solo album success. “The Beach Boys were scared, intimidated by it,” Mike Love’s brother Stan told Steven Gaines. Though it contained no hits, POB demonstrated the affection with which a sizeable audience still regarded their fair-haired boy, a strong foundation upon which to build a solo career. Dennis kept right on recording, like he intended his life to be one long album, the next instalment of which he was already calling Bamboo.
Despite their endless attempts at exorcism by any and all means available, the Wilson boys were haunted men. As The Beach Boys limped into the ’80s on atrophied creative legs, a group intimate relates a scene he witnessed. Brian had ballooned to 300 pounds. Dennis was visiting, trying to get his brother to make music with him. He’d try anything – drugs, alcohol, junk food – to lure Brian to the piano. The truth was that Dennis was in no better shape than his brother, but he still clung to the belief that there was a melody hidden somewhere in the piano that might save them.
“Dennis was pounding away at the piano,” the associate recalled, “while Brian wandered around the living room with this thick leather dog leash, slapping it loudly against his hand, saying, ‘Remember this sound, Dennis?’ His brother looked over, quietly said, ‘Yes, Brian, I remember,’ and went back to the piano. Brian started slapping himself harder and harder, saying, ‘My dad used to make all three of us line up against the bathtub with our naked asses up in the air. He took a strap like this and started hitting us like this.’ Whack! Whack! Brian was really beating the shit out of the furniture, working himself up to do some real damage. His nurse came running in with medication, but Brian just kept yelling at his brother. ‘Remember, Dennis? Remember?’”
If Dennis Wilson was scarred any less deeply, it was only because he got out earlier. His was the most volatile relationship with Murry – they had a similar volcanic temper – and it seemed they could do nothing but rub each other raw. Yet in the old man’s final days, Dennis was the only one of his sons who’d make the trek out to see him. Divorced from Audree, he lived in a large house in Whittier, where he’d created a huge music room for his sons, outfitted with a full complement of instruments and sound equipment. It had never been used.
“The rest of the family wouldn’t have anything to do with him,” says Ed Roach, “but Dennis reached out. It started with phone calls. They remembered how they used to love watching the Monday night boxing matches together. They started doing that again, drinking and smoking and watching the fights. It developed into a warm friendship, which was good for both of them.” They were able to bury the hatchet only because the past was never brought up. Dennis began to understand that part of his father’s behaviour had been from a genuine, if twisted, sense of protectiveness. But when Murry died in 1973 just as his reconciliation with his wayward son was settling in, only Carl showed up for the funeral. Brian fled to New York. Dennis fled even further, to Paris, accompanied by the wife of a Beach Boys employee, destroying two marriages with one stroke, his and hers. “Smooth move, son,” as Murry chided his middle child, “smooth move.”
Almost as soon as the reception of Pacific Ocean Blue suggested that Dennis might have a meaningful life outside The Beach Boys, it all started to fall apart. In the carefree pre-Manson days, Denny and his pals Gregg Jakobson and Terry Melcher had a self-explantory boys club they called The Golden Penetrators, complete with gold-painted car parked on the Wilson property. And these were married men. Dennis was the cliched male who thought with his cock, and whatever advice it gave he accepted unquestioningly. But as ’60s consciousness exploration and freedom were corrupted by ’70s chemical abuse and indulgence, things took on an increasingly ugly edge. Ed Roach remembers coming to blows with Dennis at Christine McVie’s home when she and The Beach Boy were involved. “It was over a woman,” he admits somewhat sheepishly. “A ridiculous fight all over the house, while Fleetwood Mac were out on the road. Christine had bought an antique piano bench from Tallulah Bankhead, worth $10,000, and Dennis cracked it over my back. I jumped and grabbed the crystal chandelier to kick him like Errol Flynn and the whole thing came crashing down. It was crazy, and the excess fuel in our systems didn’t help.” And, it must be pointed out, the woman they were brawling over was neither Dennis’ girlfriend nor Ed’s domestic partner, but the wife of another Mac member. As the ’70s progressed, the penetrations were no longer so golden.
But the Dennis Wilson who burned Christine McVie’s pool house to the ground – prompting her pointedly dry remark to Gregg Jakobson, “A bit excessive, your friend Dennis, isn’t he?” – was also the same man-child who had a large heart composed of red and white flowers planted in McVie’s garden, where he serenaded her backed by a string quartet. (That Chris ultimately wound up with the bill in no way diminishes the gesture of a man who, when he had it, happily gave away everything he had.)
A decade earlier he had confided to a friend, “I could probably never be happier in my life, could never make things better than I have them right now, yet I know I’m gonna fuck it up. It’s not that I think that, I know it. I have to fuck it up. I don’t know why. It’s just too perfect, so I’ve gotta fuck it up.”
Which is maybe all that had ever been expected of Dennis Wilson. Storm clouds had been gathering from the day he was born, but now they intensified. At the time I was playing pinball with what I perceived was a happy-go-lucky Dennis, Chuck Kirkpatrick was experiencing a very different Dennis. This one started out sweetly, showing off new songs on the Brother studio piano. “He’d come into our session and play me some heartbreakingly beautiful songs,” the leader of the group Crane recalled. “But he was also drinking constantly, and as the alcohol took effect he’d get louder and wilder and incoherent. The hands playing haunting chords turned into clenched fists pounding the ivories, punctuated by Dennis yelling ‘cunt’ and ‘death’. It was like you were watching him destroy the beauty he’d just created. He didn’t know when, or how, to stop.” After these liquor-fuelled revels, Dennis would sheepishly tear up the invoice for the band’s session, saying, ‘This one’s on me.’” Booze was the main culprit. In the aftermath of Manson, both grass and LSD made him paranoid. The problem seems to have begun in the early ’70s when Dennis broke his hand and had to relinquish his drum chair, leaving his hyperactive self with too much free time. When cocaine excess came rolling through the ’70s, it made a beeline for Dennis Wilson. “There must be something genetic that pushes the Wilsons toward addiction,” Al Jardine speculates. “Because they all got caught in that trap, even Carl. We tried to get Dennis to meditate, but he always had something else he had to do.”
The last time I saw Dennis Wilson was in a Hollywood restaurant. He was with Christine McVie, whom I actually knew much better. She waved me over and asked if I’d met Dennis. When I reminded him of our previous encounters, he responded with such enthusiastic affirmation that it was obvious he didn’t really remember them at all. You didn’t feel inclined to take this personally, because Dennis was so fully in the moment, and (usually) so much fun to be around, that people simply treasured their time with him and forgot the rest. But was he really “in the moment”? For with all his manic embrace of experience, in every moment he inhabited he was already restlessly reaching for the next one. His inexhaustible reserves of energy would never allow him to alight in any one place for very long. And woe to those who tried to hang on; his personal highway was littered with the wrecks of five marriages and countless relationships. It was as if he thought that if he kept running as fast as he could he might somehow arrive at a place where he and the world would finally be in sync. He never did. No one could keep up. Beneath that tidal wave of charm, fellowship and good cheer, he just might have been one of the loneliest men alive.
The final few of years of Dennis Wilson’s life are a story that begs not to be told. Most people are visibly saddened when asked to recall the unstoppable deterioration of what had once been such a vital and beautiful presence, who now appeared virtually indistinguishable from the homeless he had always gone out of his way to help. “I literally had no idea who he was,” recalls Daryl Dragon of the man who’d once been his creative partner. “He was bloated, dishevelled, unrecognisable. He had to grab my arm and say, ‘It’s Dennis.’ I was shocked, and I know he could see it in my face.” Steve Kalinich recalls Brian making him get up and drive him to the marina out of concern for his brother’s condition. When Brian Wilson is worried about the shape you’re in…
He could give it all away to others, but he could never spare any for Dennis. So now everything was gone: the money, the cars, the houses, the girls. The band, fed up with the drama that accompanied his deterioration and his inability – or unwillingness – to accept help with his addictions, had done the unthinkable: they’d washed their hands of him for good. Some members grieved, and hoped that this wake-up call might be the one to get through; other members were openly relieved. For Mike Love this was the ultimate victory over his irresponsible cousin. In 1980 Nick Kent reported Love’s description of Dennis as “a drugged-out no-talent parasite who we’ve sacked”. It was a consciously cruel mischaracterisation, but one which Dennis was, sadly, struggling to live down to. (But, as he often did, Dennis got in the last shot. In perhaps the sickest twist in their lifelong pissing contest, he would impregnate and marry Mike’s illegitimate daughter Shawn.)
He’d been forced to sell Brother Studios, which he and Carl had taken over from the band. “Whatever else may have been happening in his life,” says writing partner Kalinich, “when it came to the music he was a disciple. That’s where his purity always came through.” Now that was gone too. The album to have been called Bamboo had gotten off to a roaring start, with more up tempo material than he’d produced since Sunflower. But with his personal and professional life in disarray, recording sputtered to a halt. Dennis made sporadic attempts to record, but his primary instrument had fled. The voice that launched a thousand intimacies, once endearingly ragged, was now ruined.
Worst of all, his beloved boat, Harmony, had been seized and sold for less than half of what Dennis had put into it. Without the three things Dennis valued most – his family (for the band was ultimately his real family), his home (Harmony was more home than any of the palaces he’d occupied), and his work (the studio was his creative security blanket) – what was left?
“I’ve got one last Dennis story, and I’ll try to get through this…” Chip Rachlin told me haltingly. The agent who had helped mastermind The Beach Boys’ ’70s resurgence had become especially close to the drummer. “I stopped working with the group in 1978. In ‘83 I was working for MTV, and my ex-wife and I were in England. I woke up this one morning, and told her about this dream I’d had. It was one of those vivid ones that stay with you. In my dream there was a stadium, and it was when The Beach Boys had that elaborate stage set that looked like a ship, remember? I told her that this show had gotten rained out, that the stadium had flooded. She came back later that day, and…told me my friend Dennis had drowned…”
On December 28, 1983, Dennis went diving off a friend’s boat next to the slip where the Harmony had been docked. Having found trinkets from his past life on the murky marina floor, he went back down for a sunken chest he was convinced contained treasure. He never came up. From the top of the world to the bottom of the ocean, and only 39 years old. The following January, Dennis Carl Wilson was given a burial at sea. This was as it should be. The sea had always had him. But everyone who’d ever come into contact with this beautiful, broken angel felt that they had a little bit of him too. The connection Dennis Wilson made with people was deep and lasting, and not of the sort a little thing like death is likely to mess with.
Trisha Campo was a friend before she worked with Dennis at Brother Studios, and maintained a devoted friendship until the bitter end, and maybe beyond. “It was the day after he died,” she explains. “His wife Shawn had gone to identify the body. I turned around, and there was Dennis standing in the middle of the room. I looked at him, and he had this confused look, like he didn’t understand what had happened. A while later I was in my own place, and a girlfriend was spending the night. She didn’t know anything about The Beach Boys or that part of my life. She asked if I knew a guy, and then described him. I said, ‘Yeah, but he’s dead. Why do you ask?’ Well, she said, he’s standing right there. My daughter also saw him in her room. This started happening regularly, until one day I got really angry and shouted, ‘What do you want? Tell me or get the fuck out of here.’ After that the visits stopped. I think he was trying to tell us that something wasn’t right.”
What was it Dennis wanted? Peace, certainly. For his music to be heard, probably, especially when it is received in the spirit of love and wonder in which it was made. (Plans are now afoot to finally reissue Pacific Ocean Blue and the collected fragments of Bamboo.) But what Dennis probably would’ve wanted more than anything, was just one more minute. One more minute of life. Like most who were fortunate enough to have made his acquaintance, or just fell in love with him through his music, I remember a different Dennis than the one the world saw at the end. In my mind’s eye he’s standing on a stage, waving to an audience he loves every bit as much as they love him. What I hear are the words Dennis used at the end of the very last show he would ever play as a Beach Boy. It was a nothing State Fair gig somewhere in New York state, though to Dennis there was no such thing as an unimportant show. As was so often the case, the drummer was the last Beach Boy to leave the stage, lingering to bask in the afterglow.
“Thank you very much,” he called out, “for everything I’ve ever dreamed of…”