WHEN people speak about the dangers of hitchhiking, the warning is usually directed at the one hopping into the vehicle. But when Dennis Wilson — drummer for The Beach Boys — picked up two teenage girls in early 1968 and convinced them to come back to his Sunset Boulevard mansion to hang out, he couldn’t have imagined the evil he was inviting into his life.
Dennis Carl Wilson (December 4, 1944 – December 28, 1983) was an American musician, singer, and songwriter who co-founded the Beach Boys. He is best remembered as their drummer and as the middle brother of band mates Brian and Carl Wilson. Dennis was the only true surfer in the Beach Boys, and his personal life exemplified the “California Myth” that the band’s early songs often celebrated. He was also known for his brief association with then-aspiring songwriter Charles Manson, who was later convicted of murder conspiracy.
Dennis served mainly on drums and backing vocals for the Beach Boys, and contrary to popular belief, his playing can be heard on many of the group’s hits. He was allowed few lead vocals in the 1960s, but his prominence as a singer-songwriter increased into the 1970s. His original songs for the group included “Little Bird” (1968), “Forever” (1970), and “Slip On Through” (1970). Although uncredited, Wilson helped pen “You Are So Beautiful“, a hit for Joe Cocker in 1974. His music has been characterized for reflecting “his edginess and exhibited little of his happy charm, setting it apart from Brian’s music. … By all appearances the happy-go-lucky Beach Boy, Dennis Wilson lived out the proverbial live-fast-die-young motto. … His wild side masked an underside that was, by turns, brooding, self-loathing, sensitive, and anxious.”
Wilson’s only solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue (1977), was released to warm reviews, but a moderate commercial reception. Written and recorded over a span of several years, the album peaked on US record charts at number 96 during a 12-week stay. Sessions for a follow-up, Bambu, disintegrated before his death in 1983. Five years later, Wilson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Beach Boys.
The girls were part of the Manson Family, a cult led by charismatic criminal Charles Manson, whose young members quickly moved into Wilson’s house. Just over a year later, the family perpetrated one of the most shocking and infamous crimes of the past century — killing nine people in four locations over a period of five weeks, in what has become known as the Tate/LiaBianca murders.
The Beach Boys soundtracked a perpetually sunny California. But their rose-coloured tales of first dates, surfing safaris, and puppy love couldn’t have been in starker contrast to what happened in 1969.
Interestingly, it was Dennis’ spiritual retreat to India in 1968 with the Beatles, folk singer Donovan, and fellow Beach Boys members that sowed the seeds for this fateful encounter — or at least instilled the mindset that would see Wilson throw open his house to strangers.
In an article published that year, hilariously titled “Dennis Wilson: I Live With 17 Girls” (boy, did that living arrangement backfire!), Wilson tells Record Mirror: “I told them [the girls] about our involvement with the Maharishi and they told me they too had a guru, a guy named Charlie who’d recently come out of jail after 12 years. He drifted into crime, but when I met him I found he had great musical ideas. We’re writing together now. He’s dumb, in some ways, but I accept his approach and have learnt from him.”
At first Dennis Wilson was taken by Charles Manson, and his unorthodox lifestyle. Manson was a struggling musician, and Wilson provided him the types of contacts necessary to achieve his dreams of stardom.
Wilson introduced him to record producer Terry Melcher, who Manson later felt slighted by; his home was the scene of the tragic Tate murders after an enraged Manson mistakenly believed Melcher still lived there.
Wilson also financed recording sessions with Manson and his older brothers Brian and Carl, who produced approximately 10 songs for a debut album — the results of which most likely will never see the light of day. (The perverse possibilities of Brian’s nostalgic, honeyed production mixed with Manson’s message are almost too much to bear.)
In August 1968, Manson threatened Wilson with a bullet, and the relationship swiftly broke down. According to longtime Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks, Manson presented the bullet, telling Wilson, “Every time you look at it, I want you to think how nice it is your kids are still safe.”
A physical altercation followed — or as Parks put it: “Dennis grabbed Manson by the head and threw him to the ground … He beat the living shit out of him.” Shortly after, a shaken Wilson abandoned the house, never to return. He refused to ever speak on record about this period.
As a creepy postscript, a song Manson wrote in 1968, the ominously-titled Cease To Exist, was reworked slightly by the Beach Boys as the softer — but still eerie — Never Learn Not To Love, and released on the band’s 20/20 album in February, 1969 — hitting stores less than six months before the murders.
With Manson owing Dennis over $100,000 by that point, Wilson took the copyright and was credited as the song’s sole composer — meaning many who cheerfully hummed away to the song over the following years had no idea of the inherent evil of its actual composer, or the twisted back story that led to the song’s existence.
For a month prior to his death, Dennis had been homeless and living a nomadic life. In November 1983, he checked into a therapy center 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. Following a violent altercation at the Santa Monica Bay Inn, Dennis checked into a different hospital in order to treat his wounds. Several hours later, he discharged himself and reportedly resumed drinking immediately.
On December 28, 1983, 24 days after his 39th birthday, Dennis drowned at Marina Del Rey, Los Angeles, after drinking all day and then diving in the afternoon, to recover items he had thrown overboard at the marina from his yacht three years prior. Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Hunter believes that Dennis experienced shallow water blackout just prior to his death.
On January 4, 1984, the U.S. Coast Guard buried Dennis’ body at sea, off the California coast. The Beach Boys released a statement shortly thereafter, elegizing “We know Dennis would have wanted to continue in the tradition of the Beach Boys. His spirit will remain in our music.” His song “Farewell My Friend” was played at the funeral.
Dennis’s widow, Shawn Love, reported that Dennis had wanted a burial at sea, while brothers Carl and Brian did not want Dennis cremated. As non-veterans of the Coast Guard and Navy are not allowed to be buried at sea unless cremated, Dennis’s burial was made possible by the intervention of President Reagan. In 2002, Brian expressed unhappiness with the arrangement, believing that Dennis should have been given a traditional burial.
Thank you for reading my blog. Please read, like, comment, and most of all follow Phicklephilly. I publish every day at 8am EST.
Instagram: @phicklephilly Facebook: phicklephilly