Dennis Wilson

As the reunited Beach Boys make headlines this year, MD remembers their late original drummer. The Smithereens’ Dennis Diken traces Wilson’s path to the top, recounts his dramatic fall, and examines his underappreciated skills.

Through the years, the Beach Boys have been misunderstood by many casual listeners. While their sun-splashed harmonies and exquisite melodies have kept spirits high across the globe for decades, the “fun in the sun” themes largely associated with the band belie the sophistication of much of the music. Fact is, the group ranks among the most influential creative forces of the twentieth century.

The Beach Boys’ original drummer, Dennis Wilson, also tends to get short shrift. Indeed, he’s not associated with the stuff of many exalted sticksmen. Solos and double-stroke rolls were not his thing. There are no instruction books or videos bearing his name. Clinics? Well, he probably visited a few for medical treatment during his short, pedal-to-the-metal existence. More important, though, Dennis Wilson rocked—like his life depended on it.

He poured his colossal heart and soul into everything he did. Passionate, free, helplessly romantic, generous, and cool are a few words that come to mind to describe Denny. He breathed life into the music of the Beach Boys, and in so doing, he played a major role in helping to define an era as well as change the face of popular culture forever.

Sadly, as the surviving members of “America’s band” celebrate the Boys’ fiftieth anniversary this summer with a reunion tour and a new album, the man who best embodied the spirit of the group—the real “beach boy,” the only avid surfer among them—is no longer on this planet to share the limelight with his mates. The cult of Denny has grown through the years, and Wilson’s myriad talents and achievements continue to be discovered by new and old fans alike.

Dennis Carl Wilson (born December 4, 1944; died December 28, 1983) was the middle of the three Wilson boys of Hawthorne, California. The oldest was Brian, a shy, athletic kid who lived for music. He was greatly inspired by Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at a young age and displayed an uncanny ability to decipher the intricate modern harmonies of the Four Freshmen. Carl, the youngest, was a serious guitar student. All three Wilsons dug Chuck Berry and the rock ’n’ roll of the ’50s and early ’60s.

When their mother, Audree, led songfests at the Wilsons’ Baldwin organ, the restless Dennis preferred to run amok most anywhere else, checking under trash-can lids to see what was there and generally looking for action. When he did sit still, Denny played the boogie-woogie his mom taught her boys at the piano and joined in the harmonizing with his brothers in the backseat of the family car and at bedtime. Father Murry was a stern taskmaster and frustrated songwriter, yet he melted at the sounds of his sons’ sweet vocalizing.

More classic a story you will not find. When the Wilsons’ cousin Mike Love (a doo-wop fanatic) and high school friend Al Jardine (a singing guitarist who dug folk music) banded together with the boys in 1961, it was Dennis who suggested they write a song about surfing, one of his favorite pastimes and a burgeoning sport popular around the local South Bay area as well as the entire coastal United States. Brian and Mike duly penned “Surfin’,” and the Beach Boys (nee Pendletones) were born, with an instant hook inspired by Denny’s idea.

As the story goes, the other guys didn’t want Dennis in the group, but Audree insisted he not be left out. The band needed a drummer, and seventeen-year-old Denny, the most physical in the bunch, was “it.”

Success happened virtually overnight. “Surfin’” was recorded in October 1961 and released on the tiny Candix label; it smashed into the top five around L.A. and reached number seventy-five on the national Billboard chart in early 1962. Murry gave up his machinery business to manage the Beach Boys full time and landed them a deal with Capitol Records. Carl was the baby, pushing sixteen. Brian and Al, at nineteen, trailed a twenty-year old Mike.

It’s been said that Dennis stormed out of that first-ever recording session when Murry deemed his drumming inadequate. Purportedly, that’s Brian banging on a drum or a garbage can on “Surfin’.” But Denny nevertheless steps out for a solo bridge vocal on the disc’s B-side, “Luau.”

David Marks, whose chugging rhythm guitar helped shape the personality of the early Beach Boys sound after Jardine temporarily left the fold in 1962, had begun playing with Carl in 1958 and first recorded with the band at age thirteen. Marks, a neighbor of the Wilsons’, hung tight with a preteen Dennis and recalls, “I couldn’t wait for him to come over to the house to take me on my next adventure. He’d always have something exciting to do, like starting forest fires, chopping trees down, or mainly just destroying stuff!”

Though it’s been writen that Dennis briefly studied the traps at one time, Marks remembers, “He started off cold, by just picking up sticks and playing in the Wilson music room. He’d watch other drummers and grab licks from listening to the Ventures, Chuck Berry, Dick Dale & His Del-Tones [the ferocious guitar-led combo that sparked the instrumental surf-music craze], and whatever else was on the radio at the time. But Carl took drum lessons in high school and passed it off to Dennis. I’d say he was the biggest influence on Dennis’s drumming. He dug the idea and had the inherent musical abilities—but I think Dennis used the drums mainly as a vehicle to pick up chicks.”

The guitarist also recalls Wilson’s learning to play a romantic Beethoven piece in an effort to further his amorous career. “When we first started going out on tour,” Marks says, “after the show he’d go to the piano on the side of the stage and play ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ It would attract girls, and they’d sit down next to him on the piano bench.”

Out of the box, Dennis played in a delightfully crude teenage way, yet he proved to be a competent timekeeper with a strong four-on-the-floor kick pulse on the Beach Boys’ inaugural major-label single, “Surfin’ Safari” (a number-fourteen hit in the summer of 1962), as well as on the tracks of the debut LP of the same name. He locks with Brian’s—sometimes Carl’s—bass and Marks’s sturdy rhythm and supports the songs with an unforced, natural feel. Already destined to be the group’s heartthrob, Denny grabs a lead vocal on the ballad “Little Girl (You’re My Miss America).” Interestingly, Carl drums on the surf instrumental “Moon Dawg.”

The Boys’ crackling, glistening “Surfin’ USA” hit number three in May 1963, as the last summer of Camelot and JFK’s New Frontier came into sight. The nation was buzzing optimistically about a future that held the promise of a moon landing before the end of the decade, and the Beach Boys were suddenly a household name. “Surfin’ USA” became the anthem of young Americans who now envisioned their own bright vistas. “Tell the teacher we’re surfin’” summed up Dennis’s rebellious, thrill-seeking ethos perfectly, and Brian, who shunned the ocean, spun his brother’s lifestyle into musical gold. Riding the waves represented a new freedom, even to kids in landlocked Montana, who could fantasize about the promised land of California, reinvented by the boys from Hawthorne.

Alas, Dennis took a spill off a drum riser at a concert and sprained his ankle, causing him to miss the recording of “Surfin’ USA.” Session man Frank De Vito (who later joined the Baja Marimba Band) met the group at Western Studios in Hollywood and did his best to imitate Denny’s raucous percussive manner. Gigging and success-inspired confidence whipped the Beach Boys into a formidable fighting unit for their second album, titled after the milestone hit. Wilson’s drumming is downright fierce, as he drives the guitar-led “Surf Jam” and a cover of Dick Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’” with power, precision, and a true punkrock attitude.

“Shut Down” (the “Surfin’ USA” B-side and a number-twenty-three charter), one of the group’s famed car tunes, presents a fine example of Denny’s style. He boots the band with controlled abandon and shifts the kick pattern on the chorus to great effect. His trademark emphasis on the “&” of beat 2 of the surf snare pattern and his frantic buzz rolls snap this badass song into a tough, danceable frenzy. Simple stuff, but it’s Denny’s swagger on the kit and his obsession with drag racing that fuel the track. You can smell the rubber burn.

It’s worth noting that the sonic space on Beach Boys records is not typically occupied by loud cymbal work. The hi-hat—or nothing at all—is hit where a crash would typically land, allowing room for the other percussion, rhythm guitars, churning piano, and rich harmonies.

On 1963’s Surfer Girl album, the first on which Brian is officially credited as producer, Dennis grooves mightily on the taut, rollicking “Catch a Wave” and on “Surfers Rule,” another lead vocal of his. He handles the shuffle of “Little Deuce Coupe” as well as ballads like “In My Room” with ease. Yet it was on this LP that a few numbers were embellished by members of the Wrecking Crew, the cream of Los Angeles studio musicians heard on Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” productions and countless other ’60s and ’70s hits. The drummer was the legendary Hal Blaine, who would play on many future Beach Boys record dates.

By all accounts, Dennis was okay with abdicating his throne to seasoned players like Blaine, Earl Palmer, and Dennis Dragon when needed, in part because it allowed him to play hooky and follow other pursuits. His notes on the back cover of 1964’s All Summer Long sum it up well: “Maybe I just like a fast life of driving my Sting Ray and XKE, playing my drums, and meeting so many girls and guys (especially girls).” But Dennis drums on the lion’s share of the cuts on that classic album, including the group’s first number one, “I Get Around.” A rare drum solo, “Denny’s Drums,” fills out the Shut Down Volume 2 album, and that’s Dennis finessing the unorthodox pattern on “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man),” from The Beach Boys Today!

In 1964, the Beach Boys’ appearance in the concert film T.A.M.I. Show is an eye-opener. It’s here that we learn Denny was a lefty playing a righty four-piece Camco kit, with only one cymbal (in addition to hi-hats) used as a crash/ride. (Photos from this period also show him using Rogers and Gretsch gear.) In terms of sheer excitement, the group holds its own with James Brown, the Rolling Stones, and other stars on the program. The Boys exude an all-American charm, and Mike Love is an entertaining frontman.

But it’s the bushy-blond Adonis, bashing out the savage beat and shaking his locks, who’s driving this bus and wreaking havoc with the hysterical females in the audience. He’s also the ideal of every boy in the crowd. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t always a staunch guardian of the tempo once the adrenaline kicked in on stage. This band could not have conquered the world without Denny’s charisma.

While his non–Beach Boys drumming career was trifling, Denny’s playing on a 1963 45 by the Four Speeds, “R.P.M.”/“My Sting Ray,” is noted by fans and collectors. The Speeds were a studio pack fronted by Brian Wilson’s early collaborator Gary Usher. Dennis’s animalistic prowess was also coveted by the likes of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian and L.A. songwriter P.F. Sloan. Neither deal was ever consummated, but word was out that this guy was a monster.

As the ’60s swung on, and in the face of the Yank-crushing British Invasion, the Beach Boys had staying power. Brian was rapidly gaining genius status in the biz, and each new release from the band was infused with a magical production or vocal ingredient that blew kids’ minds worldwide. But the pressures of writing, arranging, and producing a steady stream of singles and albums amid hopping on planes to honor one-nighters took its toll on the group’s leader. Brian suffered a nervous breakdown and retired from touring in December 1964 to put all his energies into painting his aural masterpieces. Adventurous orchestral tracks were cut with the Wrecking Crew, while the boys soldiered on without their big brother—initially with Brian’s live sub, Glen Campbell (a prominent guitarist on Beach Boys sessions), followed by Bruce Johnston. The group members would add their vocals when they returned from the road.

Brian knew well what he had in the soulful rasp of his brother’s voice and used it to great effect, be it to color the blend of the group harmonies or to highlight a tune’s bridge—or to place him front and center. Denny leads off 1965’s The Beach Boys Today! with a yearning vocal on a thundering cover of Bobby Freeman’s 1958 smash, “Do You Wanna Dance?,” reaching number twelve. He also gives an emotion-drenched reading of the introspective, lushly arranged ballad “In the Back of My Mind,” which is indicative of the artistic direction in which the eldest Wilson was heading.

The innovation and sophistication of “California Girls,” the album Pet Sounds—the 1966 opus regarded by many, including Paul McCartney, to be an unequalled achievement in pop music—and the revolutionary “Good Vibrations” were generally unappreciated by the emerging American counterculture, which couldn’t get past the squeaky-clean image of the group. It didn’t seem to matter that the Beach Boys unseated the Beatles as the number-one “world vocal group” in Britain’s 1966 New Musical Express poll, or that concert tickets and records continued to sell in Europe. Following Brian’s abandonment of the ambitious and much-anticipated Smile album and a canceled appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival during 1967’s Summer of Love—where the Who, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix marked the changing of the guard—the Beach Boys were suddenly perceived in the States to be hopelessly square.

Through the ups and downs, Dennis fully supported his brother’s ideas and experimentation. “Brian is everything… we’re his messengers,” the drummer once explained. While his studio participation had largely been limited to vocals in 1966, Denny nevertheless laid down a heavy backbeat as the Boys grooved together once again on Wild Honey, a stripped-down, gritty, R&B-tinged LP released in late 1967.

Dennis immersed himself in the prevailing ’60s culture, attending love-ins at L.A.’s Griffith Park and experiencing a spiritual awakening, embracing the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In late 1967, he encouraged the band to follow the guru and to practice Transcendental Meditation (already championed by the Beatles), a philosophy that would inform their music for decades; Mike Love remains an ardent advocate of TM to this day. This influence was apparent on their next album, 1968’s light-as-air Friends, with Jim Gordon on drums. It’s here that Dennis emerges as a talented tunesmith with a pair of gems, both collaborations with the poet Stephen Kalinich: the contemplative “Little Bird” (with a bit of uncredited help from Brian) and the minimalist organ and-vocal “Be Still.” Both were mature, intimate, and as intriguing as they were a surprise to fans—and probably to the other Beach Boys!

During this same period, Dennis was lured into Charles Manson’s circle by the madman’s bevy of female followers. Wildeyed aspiring songwriter Manson routinely hustled music-biz types and eyed a contract with the Beach Boys’ newly minted Brother label. He actually recorded demos at Brian’s home studio and cowrote songs with Dennis. The eerily haunting “Never Learn Not to Love,” originally titled “Cease to Exist,” landed on 20/20, the band’s final Capitol studio album, released in February 1969. Wilson saw fit to write Manson out of the credits, especially after the maniac commandeered Dennis’s house, threatened his child, and squandered more than $100,000 of his fortune. Purportedly, the upbeat Dennispenned “Celebrate the News” rejoices in Manson being jettisoned from his life. Mind you, this was all prior to the brutal Manson-orchestrated Tate-LaBianca massacres of August 1969 that shocked the Los Angeles community and rattled the Beach Boys camp.

Dennis Wilson

THE ’70S
With that nightmare behind him and a new decade dawning, Dennis was poised for a larger share of the spotlight, with designs on solo projects as well as a bigger role in the musical direction of the Beach Boys. In August 1970, the band sprung Sunflower on the world, a cornucopia that stands as a durable favorite among fans. It’s rife with significant writing and production contributions from all of the members, with a heaping helping from Denny: two original compositions, two cowrites, and three lead vocals—not to mention a single. One of the album’s stunners is his ode to all women, the achingly gorgeous “Forever.” The other DW offerings were funky and contemporary, ushering in a new yet not unbefitting direction for the forward-looking band. Later that year, Dennis’s first solo release, “Sound of Free”/“Lady” (the latter song was cowritten with Captain & Tennille’s Daryl Dragon), was issued in the U.K.

It was all coming together: a new, loving wife (his second marriage), blossoming talent as a songwriter and producer, plans for a Dennis Wilson album, and a major part in a Universal feature film. Dennis reluctantly accepted the role of “the mechanic” in the Easy Rider–inspired road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, directed by Monte Hellman and costarring James Taylor and Warren Oates. Although his deep knowledge and passion for cars made for a virtual typecast, Denny regarded his first, and ultimately last, acting experience as “the hardest work I ever did” and admitted of the box-office flop, “I don’t know what it’s about.” Yet it remains a cult classic.

With an up-to-date, ecologically savvy image, the Beach Boys saw their hip quotient rise in 1971. While several of Dennis’s songs didn’t make the cut on Surf’s Up, an LP on which the drummer’s presence is decidedly minimal, the band called on him for its next album. Two orchestrated ballads initially pegged for his solo project, “Make It Good” and “Cuddle Up,” were considered high points of 1972’s Carl & the Passions: “So Tough.” (“Cuddle Up,” another Dragon co-write, was eventually covered by Captain & Tennille on their blockbuster LP Love Will Keep Us Together.)

The rest of the ’70s took a different turn for Dennis after he sustained serious injuries from an accident where he plunged his hand through a glass door. Ricky Fataar, of the South African band the Flame, was recruited to keep the beat on record and on stage, while Denny sang in the front line with Mike, Carl, and Al. Other regular drummers who would spell Wilson or share the doublekit stage setup were Mike Kowalski and Bobby Figueroa. (John Cowsill is the current skinbeater.)

Following a curious and temporary transplant of the band and their families to the Netherlands to record the 1973 LP Holland, which boasts two prominent DW songs, the group focused on touring. Endless Summer, a compilation of pre- 1966 Beach Boys hits, was released in 1974. The double LP went on to sell more than three million copies and awakened a new generation of fans, who flocked to the group’s revamped, oldies-heavy show.

With a full beard, a windblown, flowing mane, and rugged magnetism, Dennis was the personification of late-’70s California cool. He fell hard for an expansive sixty-two-foot sailing vessel he named The Harmony, which some have called the true love of his life, and spent untold hours refurbishing and maintaining it himself at Marina del Rey. Basking in the glory of his beloved Pacific Ocean, Dennis sailed to Mexico and Hawaii. There was even a drumkit on board. But his outward appearance as the eternally golden surfer boy betrayed the effects that life in the fast lane was having on Dennis. Amid the “Brian’s back” hype in 1976 that marked the band’s fifteen-year anniversary, the recalcitrant maestro returned to the stage and produced the top-ten 15 Big Ones, a mixed bag of ’50s and ’60s covers and some quality new music. But fans were startled to hear Brian’s and Dennis’s ragged, hoarse singing. Their once-pure voices were now ravaged by chain smoking, drinking, and drugging.

Dennis’s hand had since healed, and his return to the drums—on a clear acrylic Zickos kit with gold hardware—found him as vital and commanding as ever. Encores around this time featured him serenading the ladies with “You Are So Beautiful.” Legend has it that he contributed anonymously to the writing of the Joe Cocker 1975 smash, which is officially attributed to Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher.

Wilson continued to write and record tracks at the band’s Brother Studio in Santa Monica. James Guercio, Chicago’s producer, flipped over Dennis’s music and signed him to the CBS-distributed Caribou Records (also the Beach Boys’ label in the late ’70s). Guercio provided the moral support Denny needed to realize the completion of Pacific Ocean Blue. Released in September 1977 and coproduced with old friend and collaborator Gregg Jakobson, it was the first solo album by a Beach Boy. There was speculation by many within and outside the confines of the band that this spelled splitsville for the group, especially considering the recent infighting that had been chinking the armor of the organization.

Pacific Ocean Blue is a stark yet polished and textured blast of emotion shot directly from Dennis’s heart and seemingly tortured soul. Session players were enlisted, including the renowned Motown bassist James Jamerson and the great Hal Blaine, though Dennis was committed to painstakingly working out many parts himself, even on instruments he had no prior experience with. His raw, scarred vocals made Blue all the more dark and personal, and the album stood artistically above any of the Beach Boys’ recent offerings. It garnered great reviews, and sales approached a respectable 300,000 copies. A tour was planned but ultimately canceled.

Despite the triumph of Pacific Ocean Blue, a budding international profile as a solo artist, and a second project in the works to be called Bambu (cuts from these sessions instead made their way onto the Beach Boys’ L.A. (Light Album), from 1979), Dennis’s time in the sun was slipping away. His tumultuous relationship with model/actress Karen Lamm resulted in a pair of unsuccessful marriages—both to her. A romance bloomed with Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie, but as Denny’s drug and drink intake increased, his voice deteriorated and the once strikingly handsome, fashionable star became scraggly and unkempt. His onstage and offstage behavior became unpredictable and unprofessional. Wilson was eventually banned from playing with the Beach Boys, who were already facing enough intergroup turmoil without him. Dennis would float in and out of their orbit during the next few years.

In 1981 Wilson met and married Shawn Love, the alleged illegitimate daughter of his cousin Mike. The couple had a son named Gage, but despite his deep love for the child, Dennis just couldn’t turn his life around. With The Harmony repossessed and Wilson’s financial resources depleted, the family moved into a Santa Monica motel. Plagued by alcoholic seizures, Dennis intimated to a friend that he felt he didn’t have long to live. Reluctantly, the band took him back for dates in 1983, including a benefit at the Reagan White House. As the year wore on, Dennis was spiraling downward. In September he would play his last show with the Beach Boys.

On December 28, 1983, after staying overnight with friends on their boat at the Marina, Dennis went diving not far from his old nautical digs and discovered framed photos and souvenirs thrown overboard during fights with Karen Lamm. The treasure hunt continued, but the drummer never resurfaced. Just past his thirty-ninth birthday, Dennis Wilson drowned in the waters that finally called him home.

The Beach Boys canceled several months’ worth of gigs in mourning of the heart and soul of the group. President Reagan granted a burial at sea, an honor not usually bestowed on civilians. The band moved forward, enduring the loss of Carl to cancer in 1998. There were numerous additional personnel changes, but Mike Love, a constant since 1961, continued to front the Beach Boys along with Bruce Johnston and a group of kindred-spirit musicians who could lovingly capture the nuances of music that the world seems to continually crave.

History has generally been kind to the Beach Boys. Okay, the group still tends to be unjustly minimized as lightweights who wrote and performed catchy melodies about cars, girls, and good vibrations, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the hip listener—and there seems to be a lot of them these days—recognizes the depth and artistry of the music. The contribution of each individual member has also been put into its proper context over time.

Dennis emerges as an enigmatic, complex soul. A deeper analysis may reveal that he was searching for the love and acceptance he never felt from his father, whom, he claimed, “beat the crap out of us all the time.” Bobby Figueroa says of his friend in Jon Stebbins’ biography Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy, “He did not like to see people get hurt, and I think it’s because he was hurting inside a lot. The heart, the softer side of him—people don’t realize how huge that was.”

And Dennis the artist, at last, seems to be getting his due. In 2008, Sony/Legacy released a deluxe two-CD edition of Pacific Ocean Blue, bolstered by tracks from the unfinished Bambu and a lead vocal by Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins on an instrumental bed called “Holy Man.” Kudos were heaped on the package. It made Amazon’s top ten and hit number sixteen in England, and Mojo, Uncut, and Rolling Stone distinguished it as reissue of the year. A biopic dealing with Dennis’s last few years, to be called The Drummer, is scheduled to begin production this year. One can’t help but think that Denny would be gobsmacked.

It’s funny—not much was expected from the wild surfer kid when his mom insisted he join the little band her sons were forming with their cousin and a friend. Yet it’s hard to imagine the past fifty years without the Beach Boys and the musical gift that soothed, healed, and provided joy to a troubled world. As Brian, Mike, Al, Bruce, and David take the stage this year, the proceedings are blessed by the spirits of Carl and Dennis. These founding members will never be forgotten. As Denny said in 1964, “I wouldn’t give up this life for anything in the world. It won’t last forever, either, but the memories will.”