A banging interrupted Sterling Smith’s band, The Load, who were practising quietly in a cramped apartment in Venice Beach. An unexpected visitor had come calling.
‘We open up and it’s Dennis,’ recalls Smith. The band would normally practise in the back room of the Beach Boys’ Brother Studio. ‘He’s sort of sweating and crying and laughing and he goes, “I did it! I did it! I burned it up!” So we look down the alley and sure enough there’s a fire engine going past and he says, “It was either Karen or the car – one of them had to go!” I ended up walking with him down to this friend who had some Hawaiian marijuana, because I guessed that was what he was looking for, and he’s kicking trash barrels and he’s really got this amazing wired energy. And then within 10 minutes he’s all normal again and you go, “Wow, what was that?”‘
It was 1977. Dennis Wilson, in a fit of jealousy directed at Karen Lamm, his third wife, had torched her Ferrari.
This would be one of a thousand crazy stories concerning the volatile Beach Boys drummer who, for most people with a passing interest in the band, is probably synonymous with any of several things: Charles Manson, surfing, womanising, his death by drowning. There was truth in all these stories. Dennis was the only Beach Boy who surfed. At the age of 16 it was he who insisted that his brother write about the phenomenon sweeping the West Coast. The result was ‘Surfin” – the first in an assembly line of Brian Wilson-composed singles that would change the face of American music.
He was also the self-destructive thrill seeker extraordinaire who would stop at nothing in the quest for a good time. ‘They say I live a fast life,’ he would write on the sleeve notes to the album All Summer Long in 1964. ‘Maybe I just like a fast life. I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. It won’t last for ever, either. But the memories will.’
The fast life would kickstart a wealth of personal problems. Crippling addictions to cocaine and alcohol would blight his later years. The wreckage of five marriages – twice to the same woman and finally to his cousin’s illegitimate teenage daughter – were strewn along the way.
His headstrong will would also, and infamously, lead Charles Manson to his door. The entire Manson Family lived with Dennis for much of 1968 in what has become known as the killer’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’ period. Initially it was a mutually beneficial relationship: Dennis got a house full of naked subservient girls willing to administer ‘free love’ on a daily basis while Charlie used the Beach Boys’ studio to realise his dreams of pop stardom. He would even ‘give’ Dennis a song called ‘Cease to Resist’ which – re-titled as ‘Never Learn Not to Love’ – made it onto a Beach Boys B-side. This would ultimately cost Dennis around $100,000 in money, cars, clothes, food and penicillin shots for The Family’s persistent gonorrhoea, but not before he’d described Manson as ‘The Wizard’ and a ‘friend of mine who says he is God and the Devil’ in an interview for Rave magazine.
In hindsight, the links between the two men have probably been overstated for the sake of rock mythology – Van Dyke Parks, who collaborated with Brian Wilson on the legendary LP Smile recalls hearing of Dennis pummelling Manson to the floor and making him ‘weep openly in front of some very hip people’ – but Dennis would never be quite so forthcoming on the subject again. ‘As long as I live, I’ll never talk about that,’ he would tell David Felton of Rolling Stone in 1976.
Yet, despite his fallibilities (and in some ways because of them) Dennis was elemental to the Beach Boys’ success. He had dreamed the band into existence and he gave them identity – his good looks and lifestyle gave them validity while his primal backbeat drove their songs. Brian might have been scared of the water but Dennis revelled in it. He was to Sunny California what Brian Jones was to Swinging London.
‘When they’re on the stage at Ashbury Park, Finsbury Park or the Paris Olympia the girls gaze longingly at Dennis Wilson, the mad impetuous drummer,’ gushed a typical piece in the NME circa 1967. ‘They imagine the sandy beaches of Malibu filled with Dennises – tall, strapping, athletic youths grabbing their surfboards with a cry of joy, paddling out over whitecapped waves silhouetted against the brilliant sunset.’
As far as the Beach Boys were concerned the good outweighed the bad. Dennis brought tension and strife but without him they were a whole lot less attractive. ‘He had an energy that was turbulent,’ explains Daryl Dragon, who would work with Dennis in the early Seventies before going on to form The Captain & Tennille. ‘It was like watching a volcano. You say, “That’s pretty.” And then someone else says, “But it killed 500 people!” And you say, “But it’s still pretty!” The Beach Boys without Dennis Wilson was like looking at Vesuvius when it wasn’t blowing up.’
While the teen magazines could caricature Dennis, the reality was more complex. In the same breath as Manson it could be mentioned that he starred in the Monte Hellman road movie Two-Lane Blacktop , was friends in the Sixties with Neil Young (who also rated Manson as an artist) and specialised in the creation of heartstopping ballads.
‘Dennis was just the nicest guy ever, the nicest Beach Boy, but he was crazy a lot of times so that made it difficult,’ says Earle Mankey, chief engineer at Brother Studio in the mid-Seventies. ‘But with Dennis there wasn’t any subterfuge in what he did. It was always “here’s what I have inside and I’m going to give it to the world”. You can say that’s a nice thing for an artist to want to do but there’s something really weird about the Wilsons – they really worked that way.’
In fact, following Brian’s self-enforced retirement in the late Sixties it was Dennis, along with younger brother Carl, who became keeper of the Beach Boys creative flame. It was this ‘drugged-out no-talent parasite’, as bandmate Mike Love described him in 1980, who would take the artistic blueprint set by Brian from 1966-67 and attempt to push it further.
During that period, Brian made the leap from songs about cars and girls to creating ‘teenage symphonies to God’. The 1966 album Pet Sounds marked a new benchmark for pop and, as Paul McCartney has often enough stated, was a major influence on Sergeant Pepper . He followed it, after six months of studio sessions, with ‘Good Vibrations’ – still arguably the greatest single ever made. Brian proved pop music could be high art with limitless imagination, and of all the other Beach Boys it was Dennis who would leap with him.
At first his support was merely vocal. While other band members warned Brian not to ‘fuck with the formula’ that had seen them become America’s biggest band, Dennis stood wholeheartedly behind the experimental new direction. ‘In my opinion,’ he would say of the unreleased Smile in 1966, ‘it’s so good it makes Pet Sounds stink!’ And even, in the Seventies, he would retain an almost unshakeable faith in his brother’s talents. ‘Brian Wilson is The Beach Boys,’ he would say. ‘He is the band. We’re his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We’re nothing. He’s everything.’
But Dennis would prove himself no musical slouch either, and what Brian started in terms of emotional creativity, Dennis tried to finish. Songs of his such as ‘Little Bird’, ‘Forever’ and ‘Cuddle Up’ littered Beach Boys LPs from Friends (1968) to 1979’s L.A. (Light Album) .
Intense, melancholic and soulful they would usually sit at odds with the group’s more wholesome image. Dennis, with his cracked and gravelly voice, didn’t even sound like a Beach Boy. A significant number of his songs would never even find a home and would remain if not lost, then presumably hidden in the archives. These include ‘Wouldn’t it be Nice to Live Again?’, the ballad that should have closed Surf’s Up and the dramatically downbeat ‘Carry Me Home’ from 1973 – a song from the viewpoint of a dying soldier that was considered ‘too negative’ for the Holland album. (‘Carry Me Home’ would later be covered by Primal Scream with lead singer Bobby Gillespie describing the original as ‘devastating’.) Yet Dennis did release a solo album in 1977. Although currently out of circulation, Pacific Ocean Blue was a collection comparable in scope and soul to Brian’s best work. It was a densely packed musical tour de force. As the Beach Boys descended into a parody of their former selves it would be Dennis who would twist their trademark sounds into new shapes. At his best this would sound something like Kurt Cobain produced by Phil Spector
This profound musical talent was barely recognised in his own lifetime, least of all by his own group. More tragic was that Den nis might not have realised it himself – a deeply troubled soul, his excesses masked a life hampered by insecurity and self-doubt. ‘He was really empty inside,’ his second wife Barbara Charren would tell documentary maker Alan Boyd in 1998. ‘[He] had this insatiable appetite for whatever it was – whether it was writing, whether it was drugs, whether it was sex, or adulation.’
The cause of this emptiness could be attributable to any number of factors. Certainly Dennis was the black sheep of the Wilson clan – unable or unwilling to har monise with his brothers as a child. ‘I’m a duck who was born with two chickens,’ he allegedly cried back in 1962. He was also the product of an abusive household. Murry Wilson, their tyrannical father, tore into all of his sons but it was Dennis he would attack physically.
By the 1970s – with Brian a damaged soul and following the Manson atrocities – Dennis Wilson was a haunted man who kept himself in perpetual motion. ‘There was always that melancholy and painfulness in him,’ says his former friend, the photographer Ed Roach. ‘That’s why he always kept this high level of energy going on. As long as he kept in motion and kept his excitement going on – whether it was jumping in the ocean or jumping onstage or jumping into being the life of the party then he never really had to deal with it. He just kept raising the bar… a little bit more and a little bit more until eventually it just all crashed down on him. And once it did then it all just magnified, and all the demons started coming in and just ate him alive.’
He would die on 28 December 1983 aged just 39. A chronic alcoholic and virtually homeless he had gone diving into the chilly waters at Marina del Ray after drinking on a friend’s boat. Swimming in the spot where his own boat had been moored just years earlier, he was looking for remnants of his previous life. It was a bitter twist. The man who gave away everything had just about nothing left for himself. With special Presidential dispensation, his body was buried in the Pacific on 4 January 1984.
Tom Murphy, whose home studio would become a hangout for Dennis in the early Eighties says what many felt. ‘Everybody loved Dennis but I’m not sure that Dennis loved himself.’
Yet, in 1976, nobody would have guessed what was to come. Wilson was living a happier and more settled personal life than ever before. He was married to the aspiring actress and model Karen Lamm and, though it was a volatile relationship – the Ferrari incident was not untypical – many considered her his perfect sparring partner. ‘We were both dynamos,’ she would say. ‘When you put two dynamos together you get dynamite.’
Dennis was also the proud owner of a 62-foot sailboat that he named The Harmony. When he wasn’t on the ocean or performing with the band he could usually be found in Brother Studio working on new material.
The Beach Boys were also riding high. It was their fifteenth year as a band and, after enduring some lean times commercially, they were now one of the biggest concert acts in the US. The release two years earlier of Endless Summer , a compilation of Brian’s Sixties hits, had earned them a whole new audience and thanks to Jim Guercio, the producer of Chicago who had managed the band through the period, they had been resurrected as a live draw.
On top of this the band were about to release 15 Big Ones their first ‘new’ album for three years the first to bear the illustrious, and potentially lucrative, credit ‘Produced by Brian Wilson’ for nearly a decade. A primetime NBC special entitled It’s OK was to show in August.
Only it wasn’t OK. Far from it. A heated battle was taking place for the soul of the band. ‘It was a total vote everyone stood in the studio and raised hands over the tunes,’ Dennis would complain in a typically candid Crawdaddy interview. ‘I was blown out of the water, but I don’t want to sound negative – just critical. I’m very excited for Brian, but I don’t want him to lay back, the way he’s been doing with the oldies.’
The problem was that 15 Big Ones was a stinker of an album. Poorly produced and even poorly sung, it included sloppy covers of such standards as ‘Blueberry Hill’ and ‘Chapel of Love’ among equally sloppy originals. Dennis and Carl had intended the covers as a warm-up exercise for Brian to reacquaint himself with the studio. They weren’t expected to become the main event.
Inevitably the album was almost unanimously savaged by the critics although a version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Rock’n’Roll Music’ reached number 5 in August – the group’s first Top 10 hit since ‘Good Vibrations’. As one reviewer commented: ‘The Beach Boys only succeed in jumping several steps sideways and 10 years backwards.’
And Dennis certainly wasn’t interested in going back there. The whole ‘Brian’s Back’ campaign appeared to be an entirely bogus PR exercise. He and Carl had hoped their brother’s return would enhance creativity within the band. The band’s other faction, led by their business-minded cousin and lead vocalist Mike Love, had other ideas. It seemed they were rubbing their hands at the prospect of the Golden Goose coming home to roost. Who cared if Brian couldn’t cut it any more – so long as they could wheel him out when necessary?
But Brian was barely capable of leading himself, never mind a factionalised family business. Weighing over 250lb, he was on the brink of madness following years of self-abuse. The situation had worrying parallels with events of a decade earlier when Brian was fighting to break the Beach Boys formula of cars and girls. Now, once again, the band was reverting to type. The retro sleeve design of 15 Big Ones depicted five grinning boy-men trapped in aspic. Their future was to relive the past in a perpetual rendition of ‘Be True to Your School’. As in 1966, factions within The Beach Boys were threatening to tear the very heart from the band. Dennis was furious.
‘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.’
Dennis had stockpiled some ambitious musical sketches, vignettes that conveyed ‘the feelings of being free on Fridays to be yourself, togetherness, love, and the doubts that can tear everything apart’. Some of these, such as ‘River Song’ and ‘Rainbows’, had been knocking around for several years. With the band looking backwards to go forwards the likelihood of them fitting onto a Beach Boys record was now slimmer than ever. So Dennis approached Jim Guercio, now owner of Caribou Records, to help him start a solo career.
Guercio was the driving force behind the eventual appearance of Pacific Ocean Blue . He knew the internal friction inherent in The Beach Boys as well as anyone. It was under his calm stewardship that the band underwent their renaissance in the early Seventies. He also knew how to handle a free spirit such as Dennis with his tendency to leave work unfinished. He would grant complete artistic licence but only if they both agreed on a structured recording process. ‘We can go anywhere you want,’ he explained, ‘but only if you work on one track at a time.’
Ultimately this arrangement was as important as the $100,000 advance and two-album deal that Dennis secured from Caribou Records. He would never see such support again. Guercio brought finance, confidence and belief to the table but he also brought what Dennis had previously lacked: focus. The first move was to bring in Gregg Jakobson, a long time friend and collaborator, to anchor and produce the sessions. According to Guercio this would grant Dennis complete artistic autonomy while freeing his headspace from the business. ‘My discussions with Dennis were along the lines of, “You just tell Gregg 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.”‘
This protective barrier gave Dennis total freedom to create. Brother Studio was at his disposal 24 hours a day, and he revelled in it. ‘Dennis really felt he could do whatever he wanted,’ confirms Jakobson. ‘If he had an idea, he had the room in that studio, and the time and the engineers and the inclination and the support just to really fool around until it was the way he really wanted. It was really nice. The clock was never running. It was never a concern.’
With so few restrictions, the atmosphere was ripe for experimentation. The Double Rock Baptist choir was brought in for ‘River Song’, crowd noise was added to ‘End of the Show’, a string ensemble was slowed down to half-speed – with the intention of making it sound like a Thirties orchestra – and added to the mix of clavinets, harmonicas, Moogs and brass that textured the songs. Dennis was not the world’s greatest musician but this proved no disadvantage. ‘He was creating how to play the piano at the same time he was creating the composition,’ explains Stephen Kalinich who wrote lyrics for Dennis’s first compositions in 1967 and for ‘Rainbows’ on Pacific Ocean Blue . ‘That’s the innocence and the approach he brought – a freshness and a childlike quality. A staid and trained musician could not do what Dennis did.’
‘I just thought he was really avant-garde – he was an amazing artist,’ says John Hanlon, who acted as engineer throughout the recording. ‘He wasn’t afraid to experiment, to fall into space. He was very out there. He wasn’t afraid of being different.’
Dennis’s voice, though sandpapered by cocaine to almost a single octave, was always intimate and expressive. At times he could have been whispering in the listener’s ear. Carl Wilson’s more angelic tones were prominent too. Members of the Beach Boys touring band such as Ed Carter, Billy Hinsche and Bobby Figueroa were also utilised. The final roll call listed nearly 30 participants. When Dennis Wilson got creative everybody was involved.
The result was one of the most extraordinary albums of its era. Like Pet Sounds , Pacific Ocean Blue was made in glorious isolation. ‘He took what Brian began into a more evolved and more adult place,’ says Ed Roach.
‘If it had a “produced by Brian Wilson” credit, his fans would consider it one of the greatest LPs of all time,’ says Jon Stebbins author of the cracking biography The Real Beach Boy . ‘It’s a timeless recording. It followed no trend. It sounds a little like a late Sixties record in places, a little like an AOR Seventies record in places, and a little like a Cocteau Twins record in places. There’s even hints of industrial, blue jazz, funk, and of course classical, on the LP. Most of all it bears the nearly indefinable Dennis Wilson style. There is no question it’s by far the finest Beach Boys solo project… I’d put it among the top five Beach Boys LPs, period.’
Dennis had moved beyond what even Brian was capable of. Quite how much was evident on the release of the brand new Beach Boys LP Love You . Written and produced entirely by his brother, it provided an unintentionally chilling journey into the mind of its creator. With cuts such as ‘Honkin’ Down the Highway’, ‘Roller Skating Child’ and ‘Ding Dang’, the images of grown men with beards ‘sittin’ in class’ or ‘makin’ sweet lovin’ with a rollerskating child were at best naive, at worst disturbing. Some found charm in its honesty, but if a revitalised Brian were touring Love You next February instead of Smile , you sense that filling the Royal Festival Hall might prove a struggle.
Dennis was striving for something similarly autobiographical – but this was music wholly unconcerned with commerciality. It was all there: his volatile relationship with Karen Lamm in the aching regret of ‘Thoughts of You’ and ‘Time’ ‘Farewell My Friend’ was a gorgeous eulogy written for Billy Hinsche’s father and ‘End of the Show’ had a humble message for his fans: ‘Thank you very much for everything I’ve ever dreamed of…’ The sound of the ocean ran throughout its groove.
‘There was no pretension about it,’ says Gregg Jakobson. ‘There’s nothing trying to match an image. While The Beach Boys had an image for their music, Dennis didn’t try to fit in. Whatever he was feeling went on the tapes.’
‘To me, beyond the musical aspect, the thing that made him stand out in The Beach Boys was his attitude,’ says Earle Mankey. ‘What he said to people over and over again, to me and other people was, “I just want the truth, I want to sing about the truth, I want this to be true.”‘ None of us exactly knew what truth meant, but it was from the heart.’
Unfortunately, these very ambitions sealed Dennis’s fate. ‘Dennis wasn’t looking for a hit,’ says Carli Munoz, who would work tirelessly on Bamboo , the follow-up album that was never to be (although a number of bootleg versions have surfaced). ‘Dennis was going for the emotional – what worked for him, what had emotional strength and basically what sounded good.’ The Beach Boys no longer strove after such lofty ideals.
Pacific Ocean Blue would outsell every subsequent Beach Boys LP anyway, but the band, now dominated by Mike Love, were already down the apple pie road to country fairs and Republican rallies. The next LP was recorded at the Maharishi International University and featured a cover of ‘Peggy Sue’ and a song called ‘Pitter Patter’ among its delights. Dennis barely appeared on it. ‘I hope that the karma will fuck up Mike Love’s meditation forever,’ he commented. ‘That album is an embarrassment to my life. It should self-destruct.’
Yet cruelly it was Dennis who would self-destruct. The efforts that went into making Pacific Ocean Blue effectively set him adrift from the band that had made him. His rela tionship with Karen burned out without finances the studio and the boat soon followed. With the Beach Boys reverting to the clean-cut caricatures of 1964 Dennis went off the rails. His drinking became excessive and, through an ill-fated relationship with Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie, he entered the cocaine blizzard that was the making of Tusk and never really came out. The last time Sterling Smith saw Dennis he was drinking with a group of hobos.
‘Dennis drowned before he ever hit the water,’ says Stephen Kalinich. ‘I think if he had had more outlets and encouragement with his creative expression he might have taken a less destructive path. That was his way out of it, but when that was blocked and he did not have the familiar tools and the studio around him, it was like a person without a country.’
Within a few years he would be excised from the band’s history. It was as though Pacific Ocean Blue had never even existed. Once again he would be their no-talent drummer – the lothario who surfed. The Beach Boys continued without Dennis. They were on the way to ‘Kokomo’ and lucrative duets with The Fat Boys. For that journey they had no need of their soul.
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