Dennis Wilson: The Self-Destructive Beach Boy Who Was The Most Talented Of The Lot

When Brian Wilson left the Beach Boys, it looked like the band would go downhill. But his brother, Dennis, turned out to be even more talented - and self-destructive...
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When Brian Wilson left the Beach Boys, it looked like the band would go downhill. But his brother, Dennis, turned out to be even more talented - and self-destructive...

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When Brian Wilson, the genius incarnate of the Beach Boys was once asked how to describe their pop masterpiece 'Pet Sounds', he simply replied that they were making 'witchcraft music.'

For the next twenty five years, it was a hex that landed squarely on his shoulders, forcing him into self-exiled retirement. He would recover eventually from his psychosis and drug related problems but by then the Californian band’s legacy had diminished somewhat, given that the surviving members of the band simply weren't able to replace their absent composer with a songwriter of the same brilliance.

Like all great stories however, there was a twist in the tale and it came from the most unlikeliest of sources. Step forward Dennis Wilson. The band’s drummer and in truth the only member of the band to fully embrace their surf and Californian utopia existence. Dennis was the handsome, all American boy staring out from the back covers of Beach Boys records like Paul Newman. He also had a serious songwriting talent too. Originally used sporadically by his brother Brian in their original recordings due to his limited drumming style, he was still a huge fan of his brother’s complicated and stylish compositions and would study him at work endlessly. Brian was in fact his older brother as well as his classic hero. As the Boys Boys melted down into litigation and lawsuits over the years, mainly aimed at the errant singer, Dennis steadfastly refused to be involved. It upset him immensely to see his older sibling treated that way and if anyone outside the family dared to criticise Brian, Dennis wasn't beyond beating the shit out of them.

With the Beach Boys struggling for hits and any sort of critical acclaim though, even Dennis was forced to admit his brother’s self imposed exile was permanent and began to take over songwriting duties for the band. His subsequent compositions were surprisingly brilliant, shifting the Beach Boys from the beatific pop of their heyday into bluesy and more psychedelic waters. With California evolving from a surf-land into an acid soaked heartland of the American dream, Dennis Wilson was able to tap into the coda of the day and move elegantly with the times. The accusation that the Beach Boys were a band stuck in a moment in time could no longer be aimed at the poster boys of innocent American pop.

In 1969 however, Dennis Wilson was about to discover how dark that acid soaked California could be. Much like his brother Brian, who had succumbed to whispering demonic voices during the 'Smile' sessions (the follow up to 'Pet Sounds'), Dennis was seemingly about to shake hands with Satan himself. He had been introduced that year to an enigmatic and ambitious songwriter called Charles Manson, who was desperate to break into the music business at any costs. Impressed by his music, Wilson gave Manson a helping hand in the business, even including an original Manson composition ('Cease To Exist ') on the Beach Boys album '20/20.'  Wilson even allowed Manson to move into his beach side mansion, but increasingly he was becoming disturbed by Manson’s rages and the disturbing imagery in his lyrics. Eventually he solved the problem by simply moving out of his own property and leaving Manson there. Just in time too. Manson’s notoriety was about to explode with the infamous 'Sharon Tate Murders' and he was planning to murder Dennis Wilson too. He had a bullet delivered to the singer’s record producer with a strange, cryptic message on it. Unsurprisingly the singer went into hiding and would never again discuss the incident on record.

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If this was to be the cue for his own retirement from the public eye however, Dennis Wilson or more to the point, the Beach Boys had other plans. As main songwriter for the band he was needed to keep composing material and for the next four years that's precisely what he did. Towards the end of this period however the same jealousies and insecurities had started to rise from the other members of the band and secretly Dennis Wilson was planning his own exit. He'd even started to keep songs away from the band for his own solo material. By 1974 he'd co-written the song ' You Are So Beautiful' and would later sing it at the end of Beach Boys shows. He was also becoming a deliberate disruptive influence live,regularly streaking on stage to wind the rest of the band up and put a spanner in what he saw as their dull, professional works.

Eventually his behaviour succeeded and Wilson began to record what was to become his solo masterpiece 'Pacific Ocean Blue.'  The recording and material involved in the record showed what many had guessed at all along, that Dennis was at least as talented as his brother Brian. Maybe more so. It's an album that soulfully represents the passing of time by a man who had seen more than most. Its backdrop was Wilson's devoted ocean and he sings beautifully on it, almost as though he can see through the break of the waves into a simpler truth. For a surf boy with a big, simple heart, he'd somehow executed a work of genius. If he'd have retired right there in fact it would have been an absolutely perfect epitaph.

Only he didn't. And this was probably down to the rest of the Beach Boys being chiefs of manipulation more than anything else. For a band whose best product had been composed by two people - the rest of the members still stubbornly refused to step out of the spotlight. The fact that they were brothers didn't help and incredibly Dennis soon found himself back on touring duties, singing songs he was bored of, drinking too much and genuinely frustrated that he wasn't being given time to write a second solo album.

In fact, there would never be a completed second solo album. 'Bambu', its intended follow up was scrapped, due to a lack of financing and other politics (it would eventually get a full release in 2008), and Dennis Wilson found himself right back where he'd started at again. No doubt bored out of his mind, he began to embrace the self destructive behaviour he'd always been good at harnessing. He developed a heavy cocaine habit and his drinking became out of control. He was being carried on a dark swell rapidly and with nothing creative to excite him (especially the Beach Boys machine) he allowed himself no respite in his dangerous lifestyle.

Temperance, though, was never Dennis Wilson’s thing.