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The dark horse of the Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson was a founding member of the influential pop-rock group along with his brothers Brian and Carl, as well as its drummer and occasional vocalist for over two decades. Initially a reluctant member of the group, it was Wilson who suggested that Brian pen a song about his favorite sport, surfing, as the Beach Boys' debut single. He became a key member of their trademark harmonies, which underscored a string of chart-topping paeans to sun and young love, as well as the group's resident heartthrob. As the Beach Boys blossomed into more complex fare with the release of Pet Sounds in 1966, Dennis Wilson grew into his own musician, eventually penning quiet little pop gems like "Little Bird" and "Be With Me" that could stand alongside Brian Wilson's epic and elaborate rock symphonies. But he was undone by drug and alcohol use, which robbed him of his voice and his standing within the group. His 1977 solo effort, Pacific Ocean Blue, was his first and final attempt at establishing himself as an artist in his own right. The gorgeous, melancholy album would be his only completed effort before his death by drowning in 1983. Wilson's unrealized potential, combined with...
The dark horse of the Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson was a founding member of the influential pop-rock group along with his brothers Brian and Carl, as well as its drummer and occasional vocalist for over two decades. Initially a reluctant member of the group, it was Wilson who suggested that Brian pen a song about his favorite sport, surfing, as the Beach Boys' debut single. He became a key member of their trademark harmonies, which underscored a string of chart-topping paeans to sun and young love, as well as the group's resident heartthrob. As the Beach Boys blossomed into more complex fare with the release of Pet Sounds in 1966, Dennis Wilson grew into his own musician, eventually penning quiet little pop gems like "Little Bird" and "Be With Me" that could stand alongside Brian Wilson's epic and elaborate rock symphonies. But he was undone by drug and alcohol use, which robbed him of his voice and his standing within the group. His 1977 solo effort, Pacific Ocean Blue, was his first and final attempt at establishing himself as an artist in his own right. The gorgeous, melancholy album would be his only completed effort before his death by drowning in 1983. Wilson's unrealized potential, combined with the snippets of brilliance he showed before his death, made him a figure both tragic and celebrated in the complex tapestry of the Beach Boys' history.
He was born Dennis Carl Wilson in Inglewood, CA on Dec. 4, 1944, the second of three boys by Murry Wilson, a frustrated songwriter and producer, and his wife, Audree. He was, by all accounts, the rebel of the family, eschewing school and responsibilities for the pleasures of girls, fast cars and surfing, which he pursued, occasionally with cousin Mike Love, up and down the California coast. That particular interest helped to inspire older brother Brian Wilson when he began to lay the groundwork for a pop band. According to Beach Boys legend, Dennis approached Brian to write a song about surfing that would capitalize on its growing craze. The result was the group's first single, "Surfin'" (1961), and a band was hastily assembled to record the effort. Audree Wilson reportedly encouraged Brian to include Dennis in the act, and despite his limited musical ability, he was assigned to play drums and participate in the Beach Boys' calling card: their gorgeous, multi-layered harmonies.
Dennis Wilson was an unabashed admirer of his brother Brian's talents, and quickly schooled himself in drumming in order to earn his keep in the group. His contributions to the Beach Boys were, at first, limited; he was frequently replaced by studio drummers during recording sessions, and relegated to the background in live performances. On occasion, he was given a lead vocal on lesser songs like "Little Girl (You're My Miss America)" from the Beach Boys' debut album, Surfin' Safari (1962), which he delivered in a gruff but capable voice. Despite his second string status, Wilson was the group's most popular member among female fans, as evidenced by the intense screams that lit up from the audience every time his grinning face appeared on monitors during the taping of the seminal '60s concert film, "The T.A.M.I. Show" (1964). The success of the Beach Boys allowed Wilson to indulge in fan adulation to the hilt while devoting free time to cars and surfing. Eventually, Wilson began to show signs of his own musical ambitions. He landed his first hit single with the Beach Boys on a 1965 cover of "Do You Wanna Dance," which broke the Top 20. He later taught himself guitar and accompanied himself on a soulful cover of the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" on the ersatz impromptu album Beach Boys' Party! (1965).
As the decade progressed, Wilson began composing his own songs with the blessing and support of Brian, but by the late '60s, the Beach Boys had begun to fracture into camps, each with its own idea about the direction of the band. Brian Wilson had retreated from live performing after suffering a paralyzing anxiety attack in 1964, preferring to keep to the studio, where he crafted some of the group's most legendary work, including Pet Sounds (1966) and the single "Good Vibrations." His mental health had also grown fragile due to a combination of childhood trauma at the hands of his martinet father, Murry, and an ever-increasing appetite for psychedelic drugs. The latter fueled his most ambitious project with the group, the sprawling 1967 album Smile, which favored sonic portraits of America's history and mythology over the group's signature singles. Its poetic, often surreal tone split the band in two, with Mike Love vehemently opposing the obvious non-commercial aspects of Smile, while Carl Wilson and new member Bruce Johnston welcomed the fresh and innovative approach.
Ever his brother's ardent supporter, Dennis Wilson threw his weight behind the album, but his hard-partying persona made it easy for his opinion to be discounted. In the end, Smile was shelved for nearly 40 years, and Brian Wilson retreated into self-imposed exile, where his already tenuous grip on reality grew looser as the 1960s slipped into the next decade. With Brian Wilson's departure as the Beach Boys' chief creative architect, the other members began to jockey for position as its new leader. The initial tumult obscured the fact that the band was without its main songwriter, and Dennis Wilson stepped up to fill the gap with his own compositions. His first major released song was the gentle "Little Bird" from their 1968 album Friends, and as time progressed, he would land at least one song on subsequent Beach Boys albums.
During this period, Wilson also began his strange and ultimately terrifying relationship with cult leader Charles Manson and his "Family." Wilson became acquainted with Manson through his cadre of female followers, who won him over with copious amounts of free sex and drugs. Manson later came to live in Wilson's home, and used the Beach Boy's music industry connections to land a record deal. The cult leader had impressed Wilson with his psychedelic folk anthems, and in turn, Wilson and the Beach Boys would record a version of "Never Learn Not to Love," a sanitized version of Manson's "Cease to Exist," which later turned up on their 1969 album 20/20 to a chorus of disapproval from the critical community. Wilson would later introduce Manson to producer Terry Melcher, the son of singer Doris Day. But Manson's bizarre music and increasingly volatile nature forced both Melcher and Wilson to distance themselves from him, with Wilson literally moving out of his own home when the Family refused to vacate. When Wilson rebuffed Manson's subsequent efforts for more support and money, he received a bullet with a cryptic and threatening note. In August of 1969, Manson's followers invaded Melcher's Benedict Canyon home and murdered actress Sharon Tate, who was residing there, along with her companions. The event devastated a guilt-ridden Wilson, who would refuse to discuss the matter in interviews for the remainder of his life.
The Beach Boys' continued slide into commercial irrelevance obscured some of his best songs for the band, though the 1970 tune "Forever," from the album Sunflower, became a fan favorite. That same year, he took his first stab at a solo career with an obscure single called "Sound of Free" with a group called Rumbo. In 1971, he made his debut as a lead actor in Monte Hellman's existential road picture "Two-Lane Blacktop," which cast Wilson alongside James Taylor as a pair of taciturn car fanatics who engaged in a cross-country road race with a loudmouthed GTO owner (Warren Oates). The film, which was marketed as a landmark in the new American cinema of the 1970s, was not a commercial success, but would enjoy cult status in the decades that followed.
Meanwhile, Wilson's continued drug and alcohol use began to take its toll. He injured his hand in 1971, which forced the group to replace him with South African musician Ricky Fataar. Constant smoking had also ruined his already rough voice, leaving him unable to participate in the group's fabled harmonies. He became an uncertain commodity within the group, delivering a heartbreakingly vulnerable rendition of Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful" in his ragged voice on one night, and then disrupting the show by streaking or stumbling into equipment on another. Despite his deteriorating physical condition, Wilson began to cull material for a solo release in 1976. The resulting album, Pacific Ocean Blue (1977), was a beautiful collection of songs that showed an aptitude for songwriting and production that surpassed anything produced by the Beach Boys during that period. Pacific Ocean Blue, in fact, reached a higher chart position on the Billboard album charts than either of the Beach Boys' records that same year. Critics were effusive in their praise of the record, and even Brian Wilson emerged from exile to express his love for his brother's work.
Encouraged by the positive reaction, Wilson began work on a follow-up, titled Bambu, in 1978. However, the album was beset by a host of problems from the Beach Boys camp, not the least of which was the sale of their label, Brother Records, which left him without a means of releasing the album. The Beach Boys would later poach two songs from the Bambu sessions for their dismal 1979 record L.A. (Light Album), and the remaining songs went unreleased until they were included as part of the 2008 reissue of Pacific Ocean Blue. Wilson dove headlong into his substance abuse issues, which scuttled a romance with Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie and, for a time, ended his connection with the Beach Boys. However, in 1980, he returned to their fold for their seemingly endless rounds of summer tours and nostalgia-heavy performances. By then, he was a shadow of his former self, and engaged in an ugly conflict with Mike Love. Wilson had become involved with Shawn Marie Love, who was allegedly Love's illegitimate daughter, and with whom Wilson had produced a son, Gage, in 1982. The two were barely on speaking terms following the birth, and on occasion, would break out into fistfights both on-stage and off.
On Dec. 28, 1983, Wilson was on his yacht in the harbor at Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles. He had been drinking all day, and decided to dive overboard to retrieve items that he had thrown overboard years before. After several successful attempts, Wilson did not break surface again. The cause of death was determined as drowning. At the time, Wilson was only 39 years old. He was buried at sea, in the place that he found the most peace, on Jan. 4, 1984. In the years that followed Wilson's death, Pacific Ocean Blue would develop a reputation as one of the finest efforts by any of the Beach Boys, and a sad reminder of the loss of a talented performer whose true abilities had never gained their proper showcase. The record was reissued in 2008 and rose to No. 8 on both the Billboard Catalog and Internet charts. Both Rolling Stone and the influential U.K. magazine Mojo would name it the reissue of the year. In 2011, it was reported a Dennis Wilson biopic was in the works, with actor Aaron Eckhart attached to play the tragic Beach Boy.
By Paul Gaita
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