The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson Remembered - 30 Years Later
Today (December 28th) marks the 30th anniversary of the drowning death of the Beach Boys' drummer and co-founder Dennis Wilson at age 39. For most of his life, Dennis was overshadowed by his older brother Brian, who wrote most of the group's hits, and by his younger brother Carl, who sang lead on songs such as "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations."
As a youngster, Dennis was considered the least musical of the Wilson brothers, but it was his idea for Brian and cousin Mike Love to first write about surfing which resulted in their 1961 debut single "Surfin'." It was the Wilson's mother Audree who urged the group to include Dennis, who was then forced to play drums because, according to legend, he couldn't play anything else.
Dennis' good looks and powerful live drumming provided the group with a much-needed boost in the wake of the "British Invasion." Brian Wilson often used direct instances from Dennis' life as the foundation for Beach Boys songs, including "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Let Him Run Wild," and "Surfin' U.S.A." Dennis sang lead on the group's 1965 remake of Bobby Freeman's "Do You Wanna Dance." He began contributing songs to Beach Boys albums beginning with their 1968 album Friends, and everyone in the group was surprised at the spiritual quality of his work.
In the late-1960's, while older brother Brian Wilson slowly retreated from the group in a haze of mental illness and drug abuse, it was Dennis' songs on albums such as Friends, 20/20, Sunflower, Carl & The Passions - So Tough, and Holland that kept the band's artistic vision advancing. Songs such as "Little Bird," "Be Still," "Celebrate The News," "Be With Me," "Forever," "Cuddle Up" "Only With You," and "Baby Blue," rank among the most revered of the band's catalogue.
His personal life was less successful, including five failed marriages and a year-long friendship with the infamous Charles Manson. Sadly the mainstream press has always gravitated toward his brief time knowing Manson and turbulent personal life than his 15 years as a working songwriter.
In 1977, he became the first active Beach Boy to release a soloalbum, called Pacific Ocean Blue.
In recent years, it's come to light that Dennis' greatest success was in co-writing the Joe Cocker hit "You Are So Beautiful" with Billy Preston in 1974, for which he did not receive a credit. Friends who were there the night the song was written have gone on record claiming that Dennis contributed integral portions to the song, but that he refused to be credited, explaining that he was "just helping a friend out." Dennis went on to perform the song at nearly every Beach Boys show, starting in 1975, and told numerous people that he indeed did co-write the song.
On December 28th, 1983 Dennis drowned in Marina Del Rey, California just weeks after his 39th birthday.
Only days before, Wilson, who was homeless at the time, had checked himself out of a Los Angeles detox unit in an effort to kick his crippling drug and alcohol addictions. Wilson was visiting a friend whose boat was berthed next to where his own boat, the Harmony, had been docked for years. The Harmony had been repossessed in the summer of 1981 due to lack of mortgage payments, and at the time of his death, Wilson was diving into the 50 degree waters to retrieve various possessions he had thrown off the boat in the past.
Although burials at sea are normally reserved only for naval personnel, then-President Ronald Reagan gave the Wilson family special permission to allow a sea burial for Dennis. He was laid to rest in early 1984.
A feature film based on Dennis' final years, called The Drummer, was recently scrapped after several years of pre-production.
Photo Courtesy of Sony-Legacy