Dennis Wilson: The Beach Boy Who Went Overboard
It was almost midnight on Christmas day, 1983, and Dennis Wilson’s head was a bloody mess. The thirty-nine-year-old Beach Boy had been beaten up by a male friend of his estranged wife — nineteen-year-old Shawn Love Wilson — at the Santa Monica Bay Inn. Wilson had checked himself out of the detoxification unit at a local hospital and had been drinking in the area when he ran into Shawn’s friend, with whom he picked a fight. He lost that fight.
Several hours later, drunk and puffing on a cigarette, his face a ghastly gray, Wilson was vowing revenge outside St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica. “I just want to go down. there and kick his ass,” said Wilson in a gruff croak. “Call the cops. Close the place [the Santa Monica Bay Inn] down. Bust everyone.” Steve Goldberg, a close friend who had brought Dennis to the hospital, did his best to calm him down.
Inside the hospital, Chris Clark, another buddy of Wilson’s, was on the phone, trying to convince Dr. Michael Gales to readmit Wilson, an alcoholic and drug abuser, to the hospital’s detox unit, from which the Beach Boy had checked out earlier. But Gales didn’t want to have anything to do with Dennis Wilson.
“He’s just too much trouble,” Gales allegedly told Chris Clark.
“He may die, you know,” Chris Clark told Gales.
“He might have to,” the doctor allegedly replied.
Three days later, on December 28th, Dennis Carl Wilson was dead, his body pulled out of the cold, murky water of nearby Marina Del Rey. Toxicological tests showed Wilson’s blood alcohol level to be 0.26 at the time of death — more than twice the legal limit for driving. A week after his death, Dennis Wilson’s ashes were sprinkled into the Pacific.
“Dennis Wilson was the essence, the spirit of the Beach Boys,” recalled Fred Vail, a longtime business associate of the band’s. “We used to think of him as the Steve McQueen or James Dean of the group.”
For one thing, Dennis was the only Beach Boy who knew how to surf. He was also the band’s sex symbol. But while he was breaking hearts at their live performances, he wasn’t always playing on the records.
By the time the Beach Boys’ fifth hit single, “Little Deuce Coupe,” was released in 1963, Dennis was frequently being replaced in the studio by session drummer Hal Blaine.
It apparently didn’t bother Dennis that Blaine was drumming on the Beach Boys’ records. “I think as soon as the checks started rolling in, Dennis had other things,” says Blaine. “He was buying things; he was appreciating his motorcycling and hobbies and so forth. When you’re sixteen years old and you’re literally handed millions of dollars, you get crazy.”
And Dennis Wilson loved to spend money. “He was a Sixties type of person,” said Robert Levine, his personal manager. He wasn’t concerned about materialistic things. He would give away clothing, money. . . .”
Wilson was famous for letting people crash at his house — when he had one. In 1968, Charles Manson and his “family” moved into Dennis’ Sunset Boulevard home. By then, Dennis had divorced his first wife, Carole Freedman, and was participating in orgies and other debauchery under Manson’s direction. During this, period, he also tried heroin for the first time. The Manson Family spent $100,000 of his money and wrecked an uninsured $21,000 Mercedes. But rather than kick them out when things got too heavy, Wilson himself split, moving in with Gregg Jakobson, a friend and musical collaborator.
Wilson’s involvement with Manson was not atypical in at least one respect: The drummer loved to flirt with danger. In the early Seventies, he would drink a six-pack or two, smoke some grass, then get in his jeep and drive through the desert at top speed with the headlights off.
“Whatever he did,” said Chris Clark, “he did in excess.” Including sex. Dennis was a notorious womanizer; he was never able to remain faithful to one woman. “He called himself ‘the wood,'” says one friend. The wood? “Yeah,” the friend said, gesturing to his crotch.
Even his manager acknowledges Dennis’ satyriasis. “Dennis was a sex fiend, plain and simple,” said Levine. “The man used to think more with his sex organs than with his brain.”
Wilson was married five times, and had filed to divorce Shawn — the illegitimate daughter of his cousin and fellow band member, Mike Love — a month prior to his death. He is survived by four children: Jennifer Beth, by his first wife, Carole Freedman; Carl Benton and Michael Dennis, by his second wife, Barbara Carol Charren; and Gage Dennis, by his last wife, Shawn.
Wilson’s relationship with actress-model Karen Lamm was by far his craziest. Their first date was in 1974 at Mr. Chow’s, a Beverly Hills restaurant. “He reached over and grabbed my right breast and said, ‘Great tits!”‘ Lamm remembers. “I ran to the bathroom; I was so humiliated. I thought, ‘I never want to see this guy again.”‘ But Lamm and Wilson saw each other for the next six years, a period during which they were married and divorced twice. “We were so out of control,” said Lamm. “It led to a very wild existence with each other.”
Indeed. Like the day in 1975 when Wilson hit Lamm, prompting her to fetch a.38-caliber revolver from her house. She had decided to put on an act to keep Dennis in line. “You get your ass off my property and don’t come back,” said Lamm, waving the gun. Then she shot a hole through the side of their Mercedes, just missing the gas tank. Lamm says they both broke up laughing. In 1978, Dennis drove Lamm’s Ferrari down to Venice Beach and, in another fit of rage, doused the interior of the car with lighter fluid and torched it. “Then he went up to a house on Venice Boulevard and played the piano while it burned, like Nero,” recalled Steve Goldberg.
ll was not wanton destruction while Dennis and Karen Lamm were together. Dennis’ most creative period came in the mid-Seventies, when he wrote and produced a marvelous solo album titled Pacific Ocean Blue. Released in 1977, it sold a respectable 200,000 copies.
Wilson recorded about half of a follow-up album, though most of the songs were never finished. “Dennis was not what you would call a completer,” said Levine. Part of the reason may have been his use of heroin. According to sources close to the band, Dennis had started to use the drug in 1978, and during a tour of Australia that year, he was allegedly sharing his supply with Brian. At one point, the drummer checked himself into a hospital under an assumed name and cleaned up, but his overindulgences were creating problems within the Beach Boys.
Toward the end of 1978, Wilson took up with Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie. The romance began while Fleetwood Mac was recording Tusk. “Dennis walked into the studio one night and whisked me off my feet,” McVie recalled. The two went out for nearly three years, and Wilson even moved into Christine’s house in Coldwater Canyon. “It was probably the experience of a lifetime. Dennis was such a character. Half of him was like a little boy, and the other half was insane. A really split personality.”
With McVie, Dennis was both a great romantic and a drug abuser and alcoholic. He had a heart-shaped garden planted at her home in 1979, and at a surprise birthday party the following year, Dennis hired a symphony orchestra to serenade her as he sang “You Are So Beautiful.” McVie and Wilson sang and wrote songs together at the piano. They considered recording an album together, and she dedicated a song on the last Fleetwood Mac LP, Mirage, to him.
Still, along with the romance and good times came bouts of drunken destruction, when Wilson would storm through the house breaking anything within reach. “He used her place like a hospital,” said Steve Goldberg. “Then he’d call me, I’d go and pick him up, and she wouldn’t see him for a week. When he was totaled out — he wouldn’t sleep for a week — he’d go back. Over and over again. He cared about her, but his priority was having a good time.”
In 1979, the Beach Boys had had enough. Dennis was frequently missing tours, and when he did show up, he was often too messed up to play. Finally, he was kicked out of the group.