OF ALL THE BEACH BOYS, DENNIS WILSON WAS THE ONE WHO SURFED, HE WAS ALSO THE ONE WHO HUNG AROUND WITH CHARLES MANSON AND DIED YOUNG.
By Peter Doggett
By September 1983, The Beach Boys had become a travelling freakshow, their once breathtaking musical vision twisted into a grotesque mask of brotherly harmony. While most of the band played out their familiar parts like numbed actors, one participant openly displayed the decay which time, drugs and self-contempt had wrought. Drummer Dennis Wilson stalked the stage like a putrefying ghost, barely able to perform the music which had once been the deepest joy. As an encore to this unholy feast, he would stumble to the microphone, his eyes squeezed into slits between the bloated flesh of his face. His voice a hollow, cancerous rasp, he would croak out a song which had become a cruel self parody: “You – are – so beautiful – to me”.
Within three months, Dennis Wilson was dead. The headlines hailed the puncturing of a Sixties legend, but his demise was more poignant and particular than that. By living out his media caricature as the dark side of the Californian dream, he was denying a public claim to an alternate identity – as a singer, songwriter and arranger of epic intensity and limitless emotion. For almost a decade, while his elder brother Brian Wilson slipped into madness and despair, Dennis has assumed the artistic mantle, crafting music that seared the soul as it clutched the heart.
In the almost psychotic family that was the Beach Boys, Dennis won little recognition for his shift from rebel to rhapsodist. Only in retrospect can bandmate Al Jardine admit: “I think Dennis' work transcended a lot of what we did. When I listen to his music now, it's like, 'God, that's better than anything we've ever done.'”
Nearly 25 years after the release of his only solo album, the remarkable Pacific Ocean Blue, much of Dennis Wilson's most emotional music remains unreleased. The rest is scattered across compilations and reissues, diffused to defuse its impact. You'll search in vain to find it on any collection of The Beach Boys' greatest hits. Instead, Dennis has passed into legend not as a creator but as a stooge – the rock star so naïve that he befriended and financed the countercultural subversion of Charles Manson and his own happy family. Their killing of actress Sharon Tate and her friends in 1969 was greeted as the death of the hippy fantasy, the effective end of the Sixties. Ironically, the same inchoate ambition which inspired Dennis to make music outside The Beach Boys had also opened his mind to the subtle enticement of California's demon king.
“He was a prime target for the Family,” reckoned 'Little' Paul Watkins, who was seduced by Manson's anti-hippie rhetoric and free form attitude to romance, and who was briefly Charlie's deputy in the months leading up to the killings. “I viewed Dennis as an all American surfer kid who suddenly made it rich and didn't quite know how to handle it.”
According to Watkins, Dennis was an uncertain participant in the California myth: “He seemed to be easy going but his jovial exterior betrayed a sense of agitation. When I first met him, he came on like a polished playboy bachelor – glib, loose jointed and hip. Unlike the rest of The Beach Boys, he seemed accessible and amenable to suggestion – less satisfied than them, perhaps with his own success.”
In 1968, The Beach Boys were simultaneously pursuing two goals – spiritual enlightenment via the meditation teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and hedonistic fulfillment from drugs, booze and broads. “Dennis never bought into meditation,” says Al Jardine, but he yearned for philosophical satisfaction to match the easy lays and fast trips he was assured as a Californian prince. The Manson Family offered an enticing duality: Charlie's telescopic vision of the flaws in West Coast materialism, plus a ready supply of uninhibited sexual partners. “Charlie was always sending over contingents of girls to keep Dennis fucked, sucked and steeped in Manson doctrine,” Watkins observed. “He really went to work on Dennis, made him feel guilty for possessing so much wealth, and urged him to renounce it in exchange for a simple communal life based on love – Charlie's love.”
Blown and screwed into a state of ecstatic acceptance, Dennis unloaded his possessions with the same freedom Manson had offered his stable of succubi. One night he opened the doors of his Bel Air mansion and poured the contents of his wardrobe into Manson and Watkins' hands. Then he stripped his collection of gold discs from the walls and stuffed them into the back of the XRZ Jaguar that Manon had been given by former Beach Boys producer Terry Melcher. As Watkins recalled, “We later distributed them on the streets of Hollywood to passers by, just to blow their minds.”
Dennis Wilson's mind was already blown, his body fucked, his garage emptied as he signed over his Ferrari to Watkins. “My buddy wrecked it, and we went off to shoot a game of pool,” Manson remembered. “Someone ripped it off. Dennis is a wonderful person, but he got mad at me.” Manson also claimed that Dennis gave him a $5,000 dolar video player so he could satisfy the perverse demands of a worldwide porno ring.
In the year before the Sharon Tate killings demonised Manson and his acolytes, there was no shortage of pilgrims in search of a gure. Hollywood stars and high school drop outs were equally likely to sign away their lives – and in the case of the stars, their chequebooks – to anyone who could signal a path through the dope haze of the universe.
Manson had a head start over the other gurus, offering not just sex but music. He eked out the fragments of his philosophy into songs, delivered in a smooth, attractive voice pitched somewhere between Tim Hardin and Rick Nelson. Wilson was his immediate entourage – co writer Gregg Jakobsen, Terry Melcher, and to some extent his fellow Beach Boys – envisaged Manson as a Dylanesque youth prophet who could both save souls and sell records.
The Beach Boys had recently launched their Brother Records label, but Brian Wilson's attempts to recruit talent were stymied by his erratic working methods. When Dennis heard Manson's songs, he imagined he might steal a march on his elder sibling. With Jakobsen, he supervised a series of sessions during which Manson recorded his songs with members of the Family – and, if unconfirmed reports are to be believed, selected Beach Boys personnel. Conveniently, the Manson/Wilson tapes vanished after the Family were fingered for the Tate killings, and have never been heard since.
“It was irritating,” Al Jardine recalls of the Family's collision with the Beach Boys. “They were always around, and it was 'Charlie this, Charlie that.' Dennis wasn't as fun loving at that point. He became more moody, more into his music.
And he had this thing he and Charlie worked out. It was just a melody in “Never Learn Not To Love”. Not the melody but the mantra behind that. Then Dennis wanted to put it into everything. I thought, 'This is getting to be too much.'”
Jardine's recollection underestimates Manson's contribution to a song that appeared on the Beach Boys' 20/20 album, and on the flipside of the single 'Bluebirds Over The Mountain,' released around the time of the killings. “Never Learn Not To Love” began life as a Manson composition called “Cease To Exist”. Its philosophy was tailormade to entice a man from a dysfunctional family. “Submission is a gift, go on, give it to your brother/I'm your kind, I'm in your mind, I'm your brother”. Dennis retained most of Manson's melody but retooled the song as a romantic come on, with the opening phrase now “Cease to resist”. He added Charlie's mantra as a hook, and renamed the song after his own persuasive plea for his lover to open her mind – or her legs.
Even for a man with a Family of sexual disciples, getting a cut on a Beach Boys album ought to have offered Manson unique gratification. So it's strange that – in circumstances still unexplained by any of the participants – Charlie allowed Dennis to omit his name from the writing credits.
One account suggests Dennis bought the song for $100,000 – a sum that would have been excessive even for a millionaire playboy with a guilt complex. Another claims Manson yielded his rights in return for a Bsa motorbike, which in turn he gave to Paul Watkins – though Watkins failed to mention any such trade in his account of Family life. It's more likely that Dennis bargained free use of the song in return for a recording deal for Manson. Two weeks after the Tate killings, Rave magazine printed an interview in which Dennis said “Charlie Manson's a friend of mine who says he is God and the Devil. He sings, plays and writes poetry and may be another artist for Brother Records.”
The slaughter of a movie star and her high living associates ended that dream: Manson and Familt retired to the desert, making occasional raids on the homes of Wilson, Jakobsen and Melcher as a reminder that the connection hadn't been severed. Dennis paid for his naïve enthusiasm throughout the rest of his life – not in the Family retaliation he'd initially feared, but in constant questioning about his involvement with Manson from journalists and acquaintances. “I'll never talk about it as long as I live,” Dennis insisted in 1970, but that merely stoked the world's curiosity.
The aftertaste of the Manson episode soured the reception of Dennis Wilson's music for the next decade – a period in which his creativity far outweighed that of brother Brian. His excessive private life and involvement with a mass murder cult scrambled the public's perception, and ensured his colleagues in the group remained blind to the flowering of a unique voice.
“I didn't really appreciate it,” Al Jardine admits, “but when he began doing his own material, it really stood out. But he had that big shadow hanging over him – his big brother Brian with all that talent.”
Personal history helps to mitigate The Beach Boys' myopic vision of their drummer. Group legend has it Dennis first suggested Brian write songs about the surfing lifestyle, but as Jardine recalls “He wasn't even slated to be in the band. But because Audree [the Wilsons' mother] broke down and couldn't handle it, we said, “We can't do this, it'll ruin the family's peace of mind.”
As the band outgrew their hometown of Hawthorne, California, they discovered a blond hunk of a drummer might be an asset. Dennis delivered what no other Beach Boy could: the promise of sex. His time keeping might have been erratic, but as he threw his body into every assault on his drums, Dennis provoked orgasmic female screams which coated the entire band with charisma.
At first he wasn't required to sing; his voice was deep and rough, an heirloom from his neurotic and aggressive father Murry Wilson. Murry guided The Beach Boys' early career with the same clenched fist he'd wielded through the Wilsons' childhood.; as the boy closest in temper to his father, Dennis got the harshest treatment. Rather than rehearse or record, he'd head for the shore, where his stardom earned him unbroken attention from the girls on the beach.
Yet Dennis' carefree attitude didn't mean his ears were closed. He was Brian's chief supporter as surf ditties gave way to the epic landscape of Pet Sounds and the conceptual bravado of Smile. And Brian's music unlocked the key to his own creativity. “He watched me produce records and he just got the knack,” Brian says. “Basically, he was on his own.”
On the 1968 album Friends, Dennis blossomed from cover model to creative genius. Like Brian, he found artistic stimulus outside the group, from Jakobsen and poet Steve Kalinich, who penned the almost Buddhist wisdom of “Little Bird” and “Be Still”. Manson's involvement couldn't disguise the sonic force of “Never Learn Not To Love”, while another 20/20 contribution “Be With Me”, boasted a Wagnerian orchestral arrangement that was the spiritual opposite of Brian's karmic mantras.
By 1970's Sunflower – named by Bruce Johnston as “our best album, not Brian's, maybe, but ours” – Dennis was effortlessly dominating his peers with songs that ranged from the playful eroticism of “Got To Know The Woman” to the desolate romanticism of “Forever”.
Dennis essayed a solo excursion that year, a single named “Sound Of Free”. When that didn't capsize the band, he laid plans for an entire album. Well into 1971, he devoted months of studio time to the project, creating the skeletons which were being exhumed almost a decade later.
What linked these songs – from “Lady” to “Cuddle Up”, or the harrowing “Carry Me Home”, told in the voice of a dying soldier – was unfeigned emotional commitment., a total lack of distance between the man and his art. Dennis played the studio the way he played the drums, channelling his lifeblood into every pulsebeat. His love songs promised a devotion so deep it might end in tragedy,; his voice evoked bittersweet sadness at the height of ecstasy. Nobody else in Seventies pop was so open to the moment, so cavalier about displaying their innermost desires.
Unwilling to explode the myth of family harmony, Dennis regularly siphoned material from his solo project onto Beach Boys albums, delaying its completion. And there were other distractions – a role in Monte Hellman's enigmatic road movie, Two Lane Blacktop, and an accident which prevented Dennis from drumming for over a year. He claimed he'd stuck his fist through a plate glass window in a fit of frustration; Jardine says he cut his hand open trying to catch a bottle of water. Either way, it frees him to roam the stage with the band, much to the chagrin of eternal sparring partner Mike Love.
“He was competition for Mike's role as frontman,” says Jardine. “Dennis would infuriate Mike simply by standing up. He could make the audience release an incredible amount of energy. The girls would go crazy. It was constant competition, and it came down to whose testosterone meter was the highest on the day. They were at it all the time.”
After providing the highlights for early Seventies albums like Holland, Dennis took advantage of the Beach Boys' drift into stasis later in the decade. While the band veered between indulging Mike Love's theatrics and pretending Brian Wilson was sufficiently stable to return to the studio, Dennis finally completed his album.
Pacific Ocean blue (1977) easily outsold the late Seventies Beach Boys' albums, and its ragged perfectionism outstripped the band's laboured nostalgia. Its success spurred Dennis into immediately commencing work on a follow up, tentatively titled Bamboo. But during the Seventies he became enmeshed in a series of increasingly disastrous relationships, veering between flamboyant romantic gestures and vast binges on alcohol and cocaine. Most provocatively, he set up home with Mike Love's estranged daughter, Shawn. As his drug intake ballooned, the Love/Jardine axis succeeded in isolating Dennis from his brothers. He was regularly fired, each time having to abase himself before being allowed to return. But every pledge of abstinence was followed by a steeper fall.
Well before 1983, he'd abandoned work on Bamboo, unable to concentrate in the midst of his cocaine confusion. In any case, his voice had already jumped ship – which is exactly hat Dennis did off Marina Del Rey, diving into the ocean in a vain attempt to retrieve imagined treasures from the sea bed.
Already woozy from drink, he struck his head on the bottom of a boat as he swam to the surface, was knocked unconscious and drowned. He was 39 years old; he had already lived hard enough for several normal men, and his body betrayed it.
The Beach Boys cloaked their individual agony and guilt in a display of corporate grief, and then continued to besmirch the artistic spirit Dennis alone had kep alive in recent years. A more respectful tribute would have been a coherent release of his musical legacy, unveiling the agonisingly poignant “It's Not Too Late”, the Latin dance fiesta of “Companion”, the brooding, lustful “Wild Situation”, and the other half finished but fully conceived recordings intended for Bamboo.
But that would have clashed with the official Beach Boys legend, which says Brian Wilson was the group's only genius and Mike Love the keeper of its flame. And Dennis? He was the booze-soaked drummer, an innocent excessive who lost his soul to Charles Manson. Easier to perpetuate that myth than admit the Beach Boys ignored the man who was Brian Wilson's only possible heir.
Thanks to Ken Sharp for interviewing Al Jardine.