Dennis Wilson’s Last Christmas
Thirty years ago this month, the only Beach Boy who could actually surf took one last, desperate dive in search of his past.
Christmas comes this time each year. So went the lyrics to the Beach Boys 1964 holiday hot-rod song “Little St. Nick.” It was an obvious statement amidst a holly bush’s worth of banalities that included a description of Santa as “a real famous cat all dressed up in red” and an increasingly shrill chorus of “Run run reindeer!” Twenty years after singing on The Beach Boys Christmas Album, Dennis Wilson spent his last Christmas in a Santa Monica detox center. He checked himself out before the day was done; his first stop was to spend time with his wife and son. Next up was a night of drinking and a brawl that Dennis resoundingly lost, resulting in a hospital stay in Marina Del Ray. When he got out the next day, he’d head to the water and try to recapture, in some small way, a piece of his past.
Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy who actually surfed. “Surfin’ USA,” “Noble Surfer,” “Catch a Wave,” “Surfer Girl” — just to name a few — were some of the songs that made the Beach Boys famous starting in the early 1960s, but only the drummer, Dennis, enjoyed the sport. The middle of the two other Wilson brothers who made up the group — along with cousin Mike Love, Al Jardine, and various members who came and went — Dennis seemed to live the fun-loving surfer image that the other Beach Boys projected.
Dennis wasn’t just the only surfer in the Beach Boys. He was the wild one, the cool one. He rebelled against his controlling and abusive father, Murry. Dennis wrecked cars, he spent money, he had sex with countless women. While the others in the band — Brian and Carl, Al and Mike, and later Bruce Johnston — had an aesthetic that ranged from chubby-cheeked to banal, Dennis was handsome, rakish. He had a cleft chin and piercing eyes and a surfer’s build.
There was a time when Dennis seemed to have everything. He found his place within The Beach Boys, eventually writing songs as well as drumming and singing. He put out a well-received solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue. He flirted with film stardom, and he not only married a Hollywood type (the late actress and producer Karen Lamm), he married her twice.The two epitomized the soaring highs and devastating lows of 1970s Hollywood society, complete with windswept glamour portraits and the all-encompassing wreckage particular to a marriage beset with drugs, alcohol, and epic arguments (Lamm once pulled a gun on Wilson; he set her Ferrari on fire).
1968 was a big year for Dennis. He had recently divorced first wife Carole Freedman (during the two years they’d been together, he’d adopted her son, Scott, and Carole had given birth to their daughter Jennifer). The release of the new Beach Boys album Friends included two songs co-written by Dennis (also on lead vocals) — a first: “Little Bird” and “Be Still.” (The lyrics for “Little Bird” seem to showcase Dennis’ wayward approach to life. “Where’s my pretty bird / He must have flown away,” Dennis sings. “Dawn, bird’s still gone / Guess I’ll go mow the lawn.”) He spent time with luminaries of the Hollywood scene and beyond, including actor Steve McQueen and Transcendental Meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Bandmate and cousin Mike Love named Dennis as the adulterous “other man” in his own divorce from wife Suzanne Love. And one night in the summer of ‘68, Dennis brought home a couple of hitchhikers. They, in turn, introduced him to Charles Manson.
Soon, Manson and his followers were living with Dennis, costing him a small fortune in food, totaled cars, and treating the gonorrhea that ran rampant among the crowd. Dennis, with his “Guess I’ll go mow the lawn” approach to life, moved out of the house and left the Family there rather than telling them to leave. But the damage had been done. Dennis and Charlie had tried recording music together; Dennis altered and appropriated Charlie’s song “Cease to Exist” and credited himself as the sole writer after retitling it “Never Learn Not to Love” (it was released in 1969 as the B-side to the Beach Boys’ “Bluebirds Over the Mountain.”) Manson was decidedly unthrilled, and ominously gifted Dennis with a bullet. (Dennis told Rolling Stone in 1971 that he hadn’t credited Manson on “Never Learn Not to Love” because “He didn’t want that. He wanted money instead. I gave him about a hundred thousand dollars worth of stuff.”)
When trying to help Manson launch his career as a musician and songwriter, Dennis had introduced Charlie around — significantly to music producer Terry Melcher. The son of movie star Doris Day, Melcher lived at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. Dennis gets a brief shoutout in Quentin Tarantino’s recent film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, when Charles Manson pays a surprise visit to the house on Cielo Drive, at that point inhabited by Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Manson, looking for Melcher, is informed that Melcher has moved away. And indeed, it seems that Charlie knew, when he ordered members of his cult to wreak murderous havoc at Cielo Drive on an August night in 1969, that Melcher was no longer a resident. But Melcher had ultimately declined to work with Manson. There would be no record album, and no documentary about the Manson family, as Melcher had once envisioned. Charlie was, again, let down by the players on the Hollywood scene. His rage and feelings of betrayal had exploded into a deadly conflagration, with Cielo Drive being the flash point; a symbol of wealth and privilege and success that Manson must have felt, at that point, he could never achieve. 10050 Cielo Drive had a gate keeping people from its privileged world. Manson was out. He had wanted in, desperately.
Dennis never testified at the trial of Charles Manson and his followers, and he refused to discuss any of it. “I don’t talk about Manson,” he said in 1976. “I think he’s a sick fuck.” By then, he seemed to have moved on, and the 70s had been another eventful decade for him. He’d been married to and divorced from second wife Barbara Charren (with whom he fathered sons Michael and Carl). He co-starred with James Taylor as “the Mechanic” in the film Two-Lane Blacktop. He released his solo album in 1977. From 1976 to 1980, he was twice married to (and twice divorced from) actress Karen Lamm. But his increasing — and increasingly inextricable — involvement with drugs (including heroin) and more and more unstable lifestyle spoke of an ever-deepening descent into dark waters. During a 1980 “Good Morning America” interview, Dennis was barely able to sit up, sometimes lying down or leaning on brother Carl Wilson, other times unable to keep his head steady.
By 1983, he had reached his life’s rock bottom. Frequently homeless, he was sometimes banned from playing with The Beach Boys. When he did appear onstage, his voice was raspy and ruined, and he looked wasted. His beloved boat Harmony, which he’d bought and rebuilt in the mid-seventies, had been repossessed. His new 19-year-old wife and the mother of his youngest child, Gage, was Shawn Love — daughter of Mike Love. This was to be the last chapter in the long, antagonistic history between Dennis and his first cousin and fellow Beach Boy Mike Love. Episodes ranged from the obnoxious (the time that Dennis threw up on Mike when Mike was meditating) to the outlandish (Mike accused Dennis of sleeping with Mike’s second wife, Suzanne). The nail in the coffin was when Dennis married the teenaged Shawn. Eventually, Dennis and Mike took out mutual restraining orders on each other.
It makes sense that at the end, when he had nothing, Dennis Wilson would lose his life trying to get some of it back, even if his former personal and professional glories had been reduced to a series of waterlogged, ruined mementos.
Dennis spent his last days on a friend’s boat in Marina Del Ray, right next to where his own Harmony had been docked. After a drunken, restless night, Dennis was in and out of the water on December 28th, 1983, diving down where Harmony had been to retrieve items he’d thrown overboard years before. He resurfaced freezing but excited; he’d found a silver frame that had once held his wedding photo to Karen Lamm. Determined to find more, he went into the waters again — the last time for the only Beach Boy who had ever really surfed. It was almost 6 P.M. when the harbor patrol found his body and pronounced him dead.
Dennis Wilson, the star and his glory, had been born of the frothy blue California ocean. He died at the age of thirty-nine in cold waters while the sun began to disappear behind the horizon. “Maybe I just like a fast life,” he mused in the sleeve notes for the 1964 Beach Boys album All Summer Long. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. It won’t last forever, either. But the memories will.”
The memories weren’t enough; in the end, Dennis needed something to hold on to. He died reaching for it.
Illustrations by Luisa Colón