Death of a Beach Boy
They say I live a fast life. 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.
When he spoke those words in 1965, maybe Dennis Wilson really believed that the fast life couldn’t last forever, that someday he’d grow up. He was 20 then, and he had plenty of time. But Dennis, the only real surfer in the Beach Boys super-group, never stopped living the adolescent fantasy he helped immortalize in classic hits like Surfin USA, Little Deuce Coupe and Help Me Rhonda—fast cars, easy chicks, perfect waves and endless summers. When his lifeless body was pulled from 13 feet of murky water off a Marina del Rey boat slip late last month, the innocence of those pleasures was long lost. At 39, Wilson had drowned after a day of drinking and diving into bone-chilling 58-degree water clad only in cutoff jeans and a face mask.
As friends and family mourned Wilson’s death, they drew a portrait of a vastly untidy life, one forgivable in a teenager, pitiable in a middle-aged man. Athletic, wild and charming, he had the surfer’s indifference to possessions, squandering millions on good times and friends. Rootless, at the end he had no home, crashing each night at a friend’s place or a cheap hotel. A compulsive womanizer, he had had five marriages, a new woman always on his arm and a recent union that shocked some. Last summer he wed Shawn Love, now 19, the daughter of his first cousin and fellow Beach Boy Mike Love, and the mother of his fourth child, a son, Gage, born the previous year. Also a big partyer, he had brushes with drugs over the years—and a long spiral into chronic alcoholism.
The drinking had become so bad, in fact, that the Beach Boys—Love, Dennis’ brothers, Carl and Brian Wilson, and friend Al Jardine—had barred him from several concerts. Through the years the Beach Boys had been one of rock’s most troubled groups, with publicized drug hassles, internal feuds and Brian’s psychiatric problems. But recently the band gave Dennis a warning: If he didn’t dry out, he could not join the group’s upcoming tour.
A few days before Christmas he checked into the detox unit at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica. Dr. Joe Takamine, who runs the 21-day detox program, said a blood test taken on admittance showed a .28 alcohol level and traces of cocaine. “He told me he was drinking about a fifth of vodka a day and doing a little coke,” Dr. Takamine adds. “I put him on 100 mg. of Librium every two hours so he could come down slowly and maybe start the program in five days.” On Christmas, however, he suddenly left. He spent that day drinking with a friend. At 3:30 a.m. Dec. 26, he reportedly checked into the Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital but walked out the next day and later met with Shawn. Then he took off again.
His last night alive was spent aboard the 52-foot yawl Emerald, owned by his friend Bill Oster. Dennis was with a friend named Colleen McGovern. The marina once had been home—before he was forced to sell his beloved 62-footer, Harmony, in 1980 to satisfy back bills and bank loans. He reportedly awoke by 9 a.m. and began hitting on vodka. “We went rowing in the morning, got some cigarettes, had lunch on the boat—turkey sandwiches,” remembers Oster. “Dennis was in a good mood, happy. We were plotting how to buy his boat back.” (Wilson’s business manager, Robert Levine, had offered to repurchase the boat for him if he went 30 days without drinking.)
By noon a yacht manager, Skip Lahti, 26, who had known Wilson for a couple of years, says, “He was staggering around pretty good.” Wilson napped for an hour or so, awoke, then visited Lathiel Morris, a retired friend living in a houseboat near the Emerald’s slip. He seemed excited rather than drunk to Morris. “He said, ‘I’m getting my boat back,’ ” Morris recalls. Wilson eyed Morris’ 16-year-old granddaughter. Then he complained about his impending divorce. “How many does that make?” Morris asked. “The sixth, I think,” Wilson answered. “I’m lonesome. I’m lonesome all the time.” Morris adds, “I saw he was with this beautiful brunette [Colleen] and said, ‘Ahhh, baloney.’ He said, ‘We’ve only been going out a couple of weeks.’ ”
Morris next saw Wilson around 3 p.m. He had begun diving into the water next to the Emerald’s slip, retrieving from the soft bay floor sea-corroded junk that he had thrown off the Harmony when it was anchored there: a rope, some chains, a steel box and, eerily, a silver frame that once held a photo of an ex-wife, model/actress Karen Lamm. “He was in and out of the water, getting a kick out of all the stuff he was finding,” recalls Lahti. After diving for about 20 minutes he came out of the water shivering badly, warmed up and ate another sandwich. About 4 p.m. he went back in. “He thought he found a box. He called it a chestful of gold,” says Oster. “It was probably a toolbox. He was just being Dennis, entertaining everybody, being his lovable self, goofing around.”
About 4:15 p.m. he came up for the last time. “He didn’t indicate any problem,” says Oster. “I saw him at one end of the slip. He blew a few bubbles and swam to the dinghy very quietly. It was like he was trying to hide. I thought he was clowning. I jumped on the dock to flush him out and then we would all laugh.” When Wilson couldn’t be found, Oster flagged a passing harbor patrol boat. Meanwhile, Oster, Morris and Lahti frantically searched the deserted docks and nearby bars for Wilson. Lahti, who knew Dennis to be a practical joker, volunteered to dive in, but Oster thought it was a typical “crazy-Dennis” stunt. “I told Bill we’d have surely found him after 20 minutes,” Lahti recalls. “Bill said, ‘No, he’s still joking. He’s known to do this sort of thing.’ ” As divers plunged in and probed the bay in the dark, Oster still hoped that Dennis would surface somewhere.
It was about 5:30 when they found Wilson. Four divers had been searching for him and had rigged a long pole to probe the bottom. That was where they found him, directly below the empty slip. Coroner reports called it an “accidental drowning” but a fuller toxicological report will be made. “He did drink a lot and had a lot of wild parties,” says a shaken Morris, 57. “But he was one swell guy, thoughtful, considerate, even when drinking. I just can’t figure out why they let him dive down there. I know it’s hindsight now, but he lost his life for nothing.”
Dennis’ death brought together—though briefly and acrimoniously—long-split factions in the Beach Boys’ extended family. At a 30-minute funeral service at an Inglewood, Calif. cemetery chapel three days after the drowning were his mother, Audree, the band members and close associates. And the women and children: Shawn, with whom Dennis had lived for almost three years; first wife Carol Freedman, 37, her son, Scott, 21, from a prior marriage, and her 16-year-old daughter, Jennifer, Dennis’ oldest child; second wife Barbara Charren, 38, and their sons, Carl and Michael, 12 and 11; and Karen Lamm, who was married twice to Dennis during the late ’70s.
By several accounts, the family was bitterly divided over the funeral and plans to bury Dennis at sea. The clan reportedly split into two factions, those allied with the Wilson family and those who fell into the Shawn Love Wilson camp, reflecting long-simmering rivalries within the Beach Boys themselves. At a family funeral conference, ex-wife Lamm reports, “I suggested playing Farewell My Friend [Dennis’ 1977 song]. I also said I wanted to read a passage from Corinthians about unconditional love, which is what Dennis was all about. Shawn said, ‘You can’t read it.’ She’s not the nicest girl.” Shawn and Jennifer wound up reading the text, and, with the backing of her mother, Shannon Jones, Shawn also had her way about the burial. Reportedly, when Dennis’ brother Carl flew in from Colorado, he made plans to have Dennis buried in Inglewood Cemetery next to their father, Murray, who died in 1973. Shawn vetoed that plan, claiming that Dennis had told her he wanted to be buried at sea. Since the coroner would release the body only to Dennis’ wife, the family had no choice but to accede to Shawn’s demand.
Dennis’ children are plainly suffering. Shawn reports 16-month-old Gage keeps looking around for his dad, who played hide-and-seek with him. Ex-wife Barbara says Michael (whose 11th birthday fell on the day of his father’s service) told her, “Mommy, things will never be the same again. No one can make me laugh like Daddy can.” The boy was also upset that “they’re dumping Daddy’s body over a boat—that’s disgusting.” Carl complained that he had someday “wanted to be buried next to his father.”
The family turmoil was nothing new. Dennis Wilson—born midway between Brian, now 41, and Carl, 37—grew up amid violence at home in Hawthorne, Calif., five miles from the Pacific. His father, Murray, a frustrated songwriter who had lost an eye while employed at a rubber plant, was a “tyrant,” Dennis once said. “I don’t know kids who got it like we did.” He burned Dennis’ hands after he played with matches. Brian’s deafness in one ear may have been the result of a beating. “He beat the crap out of me,” Dennis once recalled. “The punishments were outrageous.” Small wonder that Dennis, having discovered the exhilarating freedom of the surfboard at 13, would help inspire the band’s vision of rebellion and freedom in the teen beach culture.
Brian, the group’s most gifted musician and composer, turned their simple rock structures into elaborately tiered studio art, surpassed only by that of Lennon and McCartney in the late ’60s. But by the time that happened they were surrounded by L.A.’s drug world. They made albums heavily influenced by Brian’s experimentation with LSD. They flirted with the then-fashionable TM. In one notorious episode, Dennis befriended the demonic madman Charles Manson, whose “family” moved into his palatial Beverly Hills mansion for several months, sponging some $100,000 off him and wrecking an uninsured $21,000 Mercedes. Manson and Wilson apparently collaborated on one song (Never Learn Not to Love, on the Boys’ 20/20 LP), but Dennis wised up and got the maniac out of his life some time before the grisly 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders. That experience left his self-confidence shaken for years.
As the Beach Boys’ music went into eclipse in the late ’60s, Dennis seemed increasingly to turn his energy against himself. There were the failed marriages; a disappointing film debut, Two-Lane Blacktop in 1971; sloppy performances during the band’s road revival in the mid-’70s and a cranky detachment from touring. A solo LP (Pacific Ocean Blue in 1977) earned favorable reviews but didn’t really sell.
And his relationships with women didn’t jell. His tempestuous marriages to Lamm became mired in cocaine and booze. “Drinking broke us up,” says Karen. “It hurts to see someone you love go down.” Karen has been a member of Cocaine Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous for almost two “clean” years, but Dennis couldn’t resist the drugs. After they broke up in 1978 Dennis took up with Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac, but that affair ended after two years. “Dennis was just so empty inside,” says ex-wife Barbara. “He never realized what a unique person he was. He tried to fill that need any way he could. When we were living together, he loved the sense of family. The only problem was that he couldn’t stay long. He always had to leave and come back.”
There were financial imbalances as well as emotional ones. Steve Love, Beach Boys manager during most of the ’70s, says Dennis’ alimony and child support payments, as well as outrageous “extravagances”—fancy cars, diamonds and furs for girlfriends—ate up an income that sometimes hit $600,000 annually. “It’s hard to imagine,” says Love, “that anyone could just blow so much money, but Dennis did. He was totally unrestrained and undisciplined; he was foolishly, self-destructively generous.”
When all the veneer is stripped away, the truth about the Beach Boys is that ex-Interior Secretary James Watt was only partly wrong in last year’s famous gaffe about the group attracting “the wrong element.” They didn’t attract it so much as conceal what lurked beneath the surface of their own innocent myth. The problems of elder brother Brian Wilson, long a reclusive LSD casualty, have been well documented. Now some see it as ironic that while the delicate Brian was under 24-hour psychiatric care at a cost rumored to hit $50,000 a month, Dennis, the group’s vigorous and daring roughneck, was unable to commit himself to treatment. “I would tell him he was drinking too much and hurting himself,” Love says. “But he rebelled against restraints, whether man-made or natural.”
After the funeral service, the band gathered at co-manager Tom Hulett’s house. “We were sort of having a wake,” says Love. A nondrinking vegetarian, Love nevertheless showed up with four bottles of the most expensive champagne he could find. “Dennis would have wanted it this way,” he said. Mike and Brian shot some basketball. “I told Brian I thought the best thing we could do was write a song for Dennis,” Love adds. “We didn’t work on it that night. We just talked and toasted Dennis and the New Year. We were all so much a part of each other that I’m sure we’ll miss him every single day the rest of our lives. There’s no way we’ll not miss him.”