Dennis Wilson - Biography



          He was the cute one of the group, the guy who's musicianship didn't matter nearly as much as his good looks or the fact that he epitomized everything the Beach Boys tried to capture in their beginning: surfing, fun, and young love. That was the way it was, at first. But little by little, Dennis Wilson emerged as something much more than a good-looking rebel. He started lending his own songwriting talents to the band's albums more and more frequently, and those talents greatly improved over the years, culminating in his only solo album, 1977's Pacific Ocean Blue. Although Wilson, who drank in excess and married five times in the course of his 39 years, never escaped his brash boyishness, the maturity and depth of his music were undeniably present. Wilson has been described as a man with a big heart, and also a heartbreaker. And he was a heartbreaker, but by the end of his short life, he was breaking hearts with his music as much as with his charm.


            Dennis Wilson was born on December 4th, 1944, in Inglewood, California. He was the middle of three Wilson boys, younger than Brian, older than Carl. Considered the family rebel, Dennis was constantly in trouble, meeting the punishing hand of Murry Wilson, a father known for his excessive use of discipline. While Brian and Carl learned to play their instruments, Dennis barely paid attention to music, devoting himself to surfing, partying, and girls. When the Beach Boys formed, Brian was on bass and Carl on guitar while Dennis was relegated to the drum seat. Even his proficiency on that particular instrument was barely passable at the time. Brian quickly asserted himself as the creative force of the group, and built the group's image around surfing and fun, even though Dennis was the only surfer in the band.


            For the band's first recorded song, “Surfin',” Dennis kept time in a simple, economical fashion. Reportedly, Brian wrote this song on Dennis' recommendation. The entire surf image of the band in its early stages was built around Dennis' actual lifestyle. Beyond that, his input was nil. He honed his drum skills quickly, and on the band's early 60's LPs, it's obvious that Dennis had gained complete control of his drumming faculties. As Dennis' good looks and charm made him more and more popular with female fans, Brian was retreating further into himself, and by 1965, he was no longer touring with the band, preferring to hunker down in the studio and give the Beatles a run for their money. The first Beach Boys album made after Brian's no-touring decision, Today! has a Dennis-sung song, “Do You Wanna Dance,” as the opening number. He had lent his voice to songs before, such as “Surfers Rule,” “This Car of Mine,” and “Little Girl (You're My Miss America),” but “Do You Wanna Dance” was the first song with Dennis' lead vocal to become a hit. It peaked at number 12 on the pop singles chart.


            For the recording sessions of Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson's greatest contribution to popular music, the skills of topnotch session men like Hal Blaine were favored over those of Dennis. Along with the other non-Brian Beach Boys, Dennis' involvement in Pet Sounds was mostly limited to vocals.  Dennis did not begin his own experiments in songwriting until the late 60's, when two songs, “Little Bird” and “Be Still,” made it onto 1968's Friends. 1968 was also the year that Dennis infamously befriended Charles Manson and the Manson Family, allowing them to stay at his home for a while, unaware of their murderous potential (he'd severed ties with Manson prior to the Family's murder spree). Dennis even went as far as to help Manson in his musical aspirations, holding recordings sessions for him at Brian's mansion-cum-studio. One song, “Never Learn Not to Love,” off of the 1969 Beach Boys album, 20/20 , is said to be a retitled version of the Manson-penned “Cease to Exist.” The song is credited solely to Dennis, however.


            In 1970, Dennis tried his hand at recording an entire album of his original material. Ultimately, due to a movie project (a road movie in the vein of Easy Rider called Two-Lane Blacktop), only a single surfaced, “Dragon,” which was credited to Dennis Wilson and Rumbo. On that year's Beach Boys album, Sunflower, three songs were Dennis Wilson originals. On every one of their 70's albums, at least two songs were at least partially credited to him. On 1972's Carl and the Passions – So Tough , Dennis' gruff and tortured croon was on full display in his songs “Make it Good,” and the teary-eyed closer, “Cuddle Up.” By 1976, he was ready to try to go it alone once again. Partnered with Gregg Jakobsen, his friend, he cut Pacific Ocean Blue (Caribou), a masterpiece that culled together songs Dennis had been working on since the early 70's. It was the first solo album by a Beach Boy. What's more is that it did better, chart-wise, than the next two Beach Boys albums, M.I.U. and L.A. (Light Album). It's chart run was modest, however, and it peaked at 96 on the pop album charts.


            After the release of Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis all but renounced the album. He was of the opinion that it lacked any substance, whereas Brian was a fervent supporter of his brother's solo debut. It says something about Dennis' ambitions, and the potential he saw in himself, that he would pan such an accomplishment. The LP, though unmistakably a product of the 70's, is exceptional, and a surprise for anyone who thought Dennis' musical talents were restricted to drumming. Not only does it highlight his songwriting gifts and his quietly pained, effortless voice, but it also shows that he'd grown into quite an accomplished musician on piano and guitar as well. While most of the album feels weighed down by the singer's sad ruminations on things like nature (“River Song”) and love lost (“Thoughts of You”), there are songs such as “What's Wrong” and “Dreamer” that find him embracing rock & roll both lyrically and musically, as he rifles through white-boy R&B and boogie. 


            Perhaps the main reason that Dennis so easily dismissed the album was he, as he claimed, had much better things in store. Even before Pacific Ocean Blue was available for purchase, Dennis was  working hard at his follow-up LP. Tentatively called Bambu, this second album was never to see its completion. Always a hard partier, Dennis' lifestyle was beginning to get the better of him. His drug use and alcoholism were seriously affecting his productivity as well as his personal life. On December 28th, 1983, while diving into the ocean from his boat in Marina Del Rey, Dennis drowned at the age of 39. He was given a burial in the ocean that he loved, and “Farewell My Friend,” a heartbreaking song from his lone solo album, was played at his funeral. Pacific Ocean Blue was given a respectful and well-deserved reissuing by Legacy Recordings in 2008 after being out of print for almost twenty years.

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