The tragic story of Dennis Wilson: The only real Beach Boy
A charming young boy riding the waves of the turquoise ocean, the California sun shining overhead adding to his splendour, the sandy beach strewn with people who, half dazzled and half jealous, watch him living his life to the fullest and wish: “If only I could be this happy and carefree!”. Cinematic as it may sound, it is a just like a scene of a movie—an image out of context that creates the illusion of happiness. Appearances are similarly elusive. When we say we “know” a person it actually means how they appear to us. It’s our perspective that explores a side of them. But we must remember that it is a small fraction of their identity and their lives. Just a scene. Not the entire movie. It seems we haven’t learnt anything from the old proverbs because we still add tags to people based on how we perceive them.
Dennis Wilson, the middle brother of the Wilson trio and the drummer of ‘the sound of California’, The Beach Boys, was the victim of such tags throughout his life. People knew him as the eye candy, surfer, womaniser, drug addict and an eccentric personality who torched his wife’s car out of jealousy. “They say I live a fast life,” he wrote 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 forever, either. But the memories will.” But why did he need a lifestyle that could constantly remind him that he was alive? Was he dead inside? Alas, nobody asked these questions when there was time.
The band, on the whole, never gave Dennis his due recognition. At the age of sixteen, it was he who insisted his brother Brian write about the phenomenon sweeping the West Coast. The result was ‘Surfin’, a legendary composition that changed the face of American music. When Brian decided to break the mould that made the band popular and leap from songs about cars and girls to creating “teenage symphonies to God,” Dennis stood by him like a rock even though the rest of the members warned Brian not to “fuck with the formula”.
“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 is the band. We’re his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We’re nothing. He’s everything.” Following Brian’s self-enforced retirement in the late 1960s due to his deteriorating mental health, Dennis took up his part and kept the band glued together. Though his cousin and bandmate Mike Love described him as “a drugged-out-no-talent parasite” it was actually his creative genius that helped the band stay afloat even after some unsuccessful album releases. He took his brother’s artistic blueprint and pushed it further.
Never an attention seeker, he was the most supportive guy with just a few bad habits. “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.”
Since Dennis’ turbulent energy and rash lifestyle overshadowed his sensitive and creative sides, he always stayed the good-looking boy in other’s eyes, the member who could draw the crowd. “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 white-capped waves silhouetted against the brilliant sunset.”
However, it wasn’t just unrecognised potential that made Dennis drift away. It was deeply rooted in his childhood. He identified himself as the black sheep of the Wilson family: “I’m a duck who was born with two chickens,” he allegedly cried back in 1962. This psychological dilemma along with physical abuse by his father Murray Wilson left him scarred for life. To fill the void in his heart, Dennis celebrated life in the grandest manner, fearing that if he stopped, he’d be torn apart by the demons in his mind. He was drawn to vibrant lifestyles like a moth to a flame. Thus, he was easily lured by Charles Mason in 1968. By the time Dennis realised the harrowing truth behind the enigmatic cult figure, he was left bankrupt and personally damaged. Even long after he had distanced himself from the Manson family, he constantly received death threats over the telephone.
Never able to battle his haunting past and the constant feeling of being worthless, Dennis found solace in drugs and alcohol. His behaviour became so out of control that the band gave him an ultimatum after a concert in November 1983 to check into rehab for his alcohol problems or be banned from performing live with them. He checked into a therapy centre in Arizona for two days and then on December 23, checked into St. John’s Medical Hospital in Santa Monica, where he stayed until the evening of December 25. But his problems had advanced far too much by then to be handled effectively.
Typically, he resumed drinking and on December 28th he drowned at Marina Del Ray while diving to retrieve his ex-wife’s belongings, previously thrown overboard at the Marina from his yacht three years earlier amidst their messy divorce. Maybe Dennis was trying to find the traces of his past, trying to find a reason to live, trying to rescue his life from the depths.
Dennis Wilson died without knowing his worth, without his talents being recognised by others and without anyone beside him to hold his hand. He died before he could tell his story and seek help. He died trying to live the best way he could. There are thousands of Dennises around us whose cry for help goes unnoticed. Maybe it’s time we become a bit more sensitive and conscious about the people around us and try to see the whole story instead of viewing a part of it according to our convenience.