1944 – Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys is born in Hawthorne, Calif.
Dennis Carl Wilson (December 4, 1944 – December 28, 1983) was an American rock and roll musician best known as a founding member and the drummer of The Beach Boys. He was a member of the group from its formation until his death in 1983, though he was often supplemented in the studio by session drummers, and on stage by a backup drummer.
Compared to his bandmates, which included his brothers Brian and Carl, and his cousin Mike Love, Dennis sang infrequently, often not singing backup vocals at live performances, though he commonly did so in the studio. He was commonly seen as the sex symbol of the band. His prominence in the group increased as their careers went on, more commonly singing lead, and writing towards and into the 1970s.
The Beach Boys
Born in Inglewood, California, Wilson was the second oldest of the three Wilson brothers. Their mother, Audree, forced Brian to include Dennis in the earliest lineup of the Beach Boys. Urged by older cousin Mike Love, Dennis had approached Brian, the most outwardly talented family member, to form a group and compose a song about surfing. The Beach Boys formed in August 1961 under the guidance of father Murry Wilson, meeting immediate success. Though the Beach Boys were named for and developed an image based on the California surfing culture, Dennis was the only real surfer in the band. In 1976, he described his love for the beach: “I don’t know why everybody doesn’t live at the beach, on the ocean. It makes no sense to me, hanging around the dirty city. That’s why I always loved and was proud to be a Beach Boy; I always loved the image. On the beach you can live in bliss.”
During the first few years of The Beach Boys, Dennis was given the role of the drummer. Dennis had little musical experience at the outset but quickly learned to play the drums. However, he gained little respect musically
Though given few important lead vocals on the early Beach Boys recordings (“Little Girl (You’re My Miss America)” and “This Car of Mine” as well as the bridge verse on “Girls On The Beach”) he sung lead on “Do You Wanna Dance?” in February 1965, then later that year on Beach Boys’ Party!, 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. His piano playing in particular was showcased on his Pacific Ocean Blue album.
Dennis Wilson’s first major released composition was “Little Bird,” the B-side of the “Friends” single, though he had already helped Brian write a few other songs dating back to 1963.
Dennis had further compositions featured on later Beach Boys albums such as 20/20 (1969), Sunflower (1970), Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” (1972), Holland (1973) as well as others. Sunflower included the track “Forever”. Not only popular with fans, it also earned him some much sought praise from brother Brian and father Murry. The album included three other songs written by Dennis which were not originally recorded for the album. As Stephen Desper states in Adam Webb’s book Dumb Angel:
Although Dennis prior to songs in the can already almost finished. So they started considering more and more of these songs because they were almost ready and they could get this album out and get some income.
From mid-1971 to late 1974,). The 1973 live album The Beach Boys In Concert features Dennis alone on the album cover, but none of his songs were included in the lineup.
During the three-year recording hiatus following Holland, Dennis’s voice deteriorated markedly (some claim from an injury sustained in a 1974 fight, others from alcohol use). 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, and the group became more and more of an nostalgia act.
In 1968, Dennis Wilson 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, near Will Rogers Park. Dennis then went to a recording session; when he returned at around three o’clock in the morning, he was met in his driveway by a stranger, Charles Manson. When he walked into his home, there were about a dozen people occupying the premises, most of them female. Dennis became fascinated by Manson and his followers, and the “Manson Family” lived with Dennis for a period of time afterwards, at Dennis’s expense.
Initially impressed by Manson’s songwriting talent, Dennis introduced him to a few friends in the music business, including Terry Melcher, whose home on Cielo Drive would later be the rented by director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate; Tate and several others would later be murdered at the home by Manson Family members. Recording sessions for Manson were held at Brian Wilson’s home studio; those recordings, if extant, have never been released. 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. The song, credited only to Dennis, was said to have been purchased from Manson.
As Dennis became increasingly aware of Manson’s volatile nature and growing tendency to violence, 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 was perceived by Dennis as a threat.
In August of 1969 the infamous Tate/LaBianca murders occurred. The trauma of his prior association with the killers affected Dennis for his remaining 14 years.
Dennis Wilson starred alongside James Taylor and Warren Oates in the critically acclaimed film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) as “The Mechanic”. The film is often discussed alongside other anti-Western Existentialist road movies of the era, such as Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. It depicts “The Driver” (Taylor) and “The Mechanic” driving aimlessly across the United States in their ’55 Chevy surviving on money made by street drag-racing.
In 1969, Dennis Wilson released his first piece of solo material. A little-known single released under the artist title of ‘Dennis Wilson & Rumbo’. The single featured “Sound of Free” on the A-side with “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.”
Pacific Ocean Blue
Wilson released his debut solo album Pacific Ocean Blue in 1977. His collaborators on the album included Daryl Dragon (the ‘Captain’ of Captain & Tennille) and Manson-era confederate Gregg Jakobson. The album peaked at #96 in the US and sold around 300,000 copies, matching that year’s Beach Boys album Love You. Dates were booked for a Dennis Wilson solo tour but these were ultimately cancelled, possibly due to internal politics – however Wilson did occasionally perform his solo material on the 1977 Beach Boys tour..
Pacific Ocean Blue’s follow-up, Bambu, was initially scuttled by lack of financing and the distractions of simultaneous Beach Boys projects. A sampling of its music was officially released in 2008 as bonus material with the Pacific Ocean Blue reissue.
Two songs from the Bambu sessions – “Love Surrounds Me” and “Baby Blue” – were lifted for the Beach Boys 1979 L.A. (Light Album). Wilson and brother Brian also recorded together apart from the Beach Boys in 1980 and 1981. These sessions remain unreleased though widely bootlegged.
Bambu was long believed to be titled Bamboo – however, a recent press release from Caribou Records ahead of the re-release of Pacific Ocean Blue states that the correct spelling was Bambu, after the brand of rolling papers.
Dennis claimed in a September 1977 interview that his second solo album was much better than his first album. He was quoted as saying: “The next album is a hundred times what Pacific Ocean Blue is. It kicks. It’s different in a way. I think I have more confidence now that I’ve completed one project, and I’m moving on to another”
Dennis was also romantically involved with Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie. He had just divorced his third wife for a second time before he and Christine fell 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.”
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.”
In 1982, Fleetwood Mac released a single, “Wish You Were Here” written by McVie, which was partly about Dennis’s relationship to her. Lindsey Buckingham also wrote a song inspired by Dennis on his Go Insane solo album entitled “DW Suite”.
Succeeding years saw Dennis Wilson’s alcohol abuse problem worsen. and their young son, Gage Dennis Wilson (born January 1983). He had been previously married four times: to Carole Freedman (with whom he had a daughter, Jennifer (born December 21, 1966) and whose son, Scott, he adopted); to Barbara Charren (with whom he had two sons, Michael (born February 19, 1971) and Carl (born December 31, 1972); and (twice) to Karen Lamm, the ex-wife of Robert Lamm. Dennis also had two sons, Chris and Ryan born out of wedlock. On January 4, 1984 he was buried at sea off the California coast.
Fred Vail, a close friend of Wilson, said that his premature death was most likely inevitable: “I knew that Denny wasn’t the type of guy who would live to be an old man. It just wasn’t in the general scheme of things. He was just constantly challenging the boundaries.”. Dennis Wilson’s ultimate demise bore remarkable similarity to that of fellow drummer (and Beach Boys aficionado) Keith Moon.
Dennis himself quoted in the sleeve notes in the album All Summer Long:
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 an interview with Keith Altham after being asked “… is there anything that frightens you?” Dennis responded “Fear is nothing but awareness. I was only frightened as a child because I did not understand fear – the dark, being lost, what was under the bed! It came from within.” Dennis once said,
I give everything I have away. What I am wearing and what’s in that suitcase is it. I don’t even have a car. I have a 1934 Dodge pick-up truck which someone gave me. I could have anything I want. I just have to go out and get it. If it’s worth having, it’s worth giving. The smile you send out will return to you!
Stephen Kalinich, in an interview with Adam Webb, stated that “He had soul in his music and he was a master. And yet a primitive master in the sense that he may not have heard all of Beethoven or Bach but he had a feeling of combining the pain and the joy together.”
* Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)
* Bambu (2008)
* “Sound of Free”/”Lady” (1970) (as Dennis Wilson & Rumbo)
* “River Song”/”Farewell My Friend” (1977)
* “You and I”/”Friday Night” (1977)