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Dennis Wilson: The Beach Boy Who Went Overboard

He was the wild one. He could never get enough of anything: drugs, women or booze. But in the end, he had nothing.

It was almost midnight on Christmas day, 1983, and Dennis Wilson’s head was a bloody mess. The thirty-nine-year-old Beach Boy had been beaten up by a male friend of his estranged wife — nineteen-year-old Shawn Love Wilson — at the Santa Monica Bay Inn. Wilson had checked himself out of the detoxification unit at a local hospital and had been drinking in the area when he ran into Shawn’s friend, with whom he picked a fight. He lost that fight.

Several hours later, drunk and puffing on a cigarette, his face a ghastly gray, Wilson was vowing revenge outside St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica. “I just want to go down. there and kick his ass,” said Wilson in a gruff croak. “Call the cops. Close the place [the Santa Monica Bay Inn] down. Bust everyone.” Steve Goldberg, a close friend who had brought Dennis to the hospital, did his best to calm him down.

Inside the hospital, Chris Clark, another buddy of Wilson’s, was on the phone, trying to convince Dr. Michael Gales to readmit Wilson, an alcoholic and drug abuser, to the hospital’s detox unit, from which the Beach Boy had checked out earlier. But Gales didn’t want to have anything to do with Dennis Wilson.

“He’s just too much trouble,” Gales allegedly told Chris Clark.

“He may die, you know,” Chris Clark told Gales.

“He might have to,” the doctor allegedly replied.

Three days later, on December 28th, Dennis Carl Wilson was dead, his body pulled out of the cold, murky water of nearby Marina Del Rey. Toxicological tests showed Wilson’s blood alcohol level to be 0.26 at the time of death — more than twice the legal limit for driving. A week after his death, Dennis Wilson’s ashes were sprinkled into the Pacific.


“Dennis Wilson was the essence, the spirit of the Beach Boys,” recalled Fred Vail, a longtime business associate of the band’s. “We used to think of him as the Steve McQueen or James Dean of the group.”

For one thing, Dennis was the only Beach Boy who knew how to surf. He was also the band’s sex symbol. But while he was breaking hearts at their live performances, he wasn’t always playing on the records.

By the time the Beach Boys’ fifth hit single, “Little Deuce Coupe,” was released in 1963, Dennis was frequently being replaced in the studio by session drummer Hal Blaine.

It apparently didn’t bother Dennis that Blaine was drumming on the Beach Boys’ records. “I think as soon as the checks started rolling in, Dennis had other things,” says Blaine. “He was buying things; he was appreciating his motorcycling and hobbies and so forth. When you’re sixteen years old and you’re literally handed millions of dollars, you get crazy.”

And Dennis Wilson loved to spend money. “He was a Sixties type of person,” said Robert Levine, his personal manager. He wasn’t concerned about materialistic things. He would give away clothing, money. . . .”

Wilson was famous for letting people crash at his house — when he had one. In 1968, Charles Manson and his “family” moved into Dennis’ Sunset Boulevard home. By then, Dennis had divorced his first wife, Carole Freedman, and was participating in orgies and other debauchery under Manson’s direction. During this, period, he also tried heroin for the first time. The Manson Family spent $100,000 of his money and wrecked an uninsured $21,000 Mercedes. But rather than kick them out when things got too heavy, Wilson himself split, moving in with Gregg Jakobson, a friend and musical collaborator.

Wilson’s involvement with Manson was not atypical in at least one respect: The drummer loved to flirt with danger. In the early Seventies, he would drink a six-pack or two, smoke some grass, then get in his jeep and drive through the desert at top speed with the headlights off.

“Whatever he did,” said Chris Clark, “he did in excess.” Including sex. Dennis was a notorious womanizer; he was never able to remain faithful to one woman. “He called himself ‘the wood,'” says one friend. The wood? “Yeah,” the friend said, gesturing to his crotch.

Even his manager acknowledges Dennis’ satyriasis. “Dennis was a sex fiend, plain and simple,” said Levine. “The man used to think more with his sex organs than with his brain.”

Wilson was married five times, and had filed to divorce Shawn — the illegitimate daughter of his cousin and fellow band member, Mike Love — a month prior to his death. He is survived by four children: Jennifer Beth, by his first wife, Carole Freedman; Carl Benton and Michael Dennis, by his second wife, Barbara Carol Charren; and Gage Dennis, by his last wife, Shawn.

Wilson’s relationship with actress-model Karen Lamm was by far his craziest. Their first date was in 1974 at Mr. Chow’s, a Beverly Hills restaurant. “He reached over and grabbed my right breast and said, ‘Great tits!”‘ Lamm remembers. “I ran to the bathroom; I was so humiliated. I thought, ‘I never want to see this guy again.”‘ But Lamm and Wilson saw each other for the next six years, a period during which they were married and divorced twice. “We were so out of control,” said Lamm. “It led to a very wild existence with each other.”

Indeed. Like the day in 1975 when Wilson hit Lamm, prompting her to fetch a.38-caliber revolver from her house. She had decided to put on an act to keep Dennis in line. “You get your ass off my property and don’t come back,” said Lamm, waving the gun. Then she shot a hole through the side of their Mercedes, just missing the gas tank. Lamm says they both broke up laughing. In 1978, Dennis drove Lamm’s Ferrari down to Venice Beach and, in another fit of rage, doused the interior of the car with lighter fluid and torched it. “Then he went up to a house on Venice Boulevard and played the piano while it burned, like Nero,” recalled Steve Goldberg.

ll was not wanton destruction while Dennis and Karen Lamm were together. Dennis’ most creative period came in the mid-Seventies, when he wrote and produced a marvelous solo album titled Pacific Ocean Blue. Released in 1977, it sold a respectable 200,000 copies.

Wilson recorded about half of a follow-up album, though most of the songs were never finished. “Dennis was not what you would call a completer,” said Levine. Part of the reason may have been his use of heroin. According to sources close to the band, Dennis had started to use the drug in 1978, and during a tour of Australia that year, he was allegedly sharing his supply with Brian. At one point, the drummer checked himself into a hospital under an assumed name and cleaned up, but his overindulgences were creating problems within the Beach Boys.

Toward the end of 1978, Wilson took up with Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie. The romance began while Fleetwood Mac was recording Tusk. “Dennis walked into the studio one night and whisked me off my feet,” McVie recalled. The two went out for nearly three years, and Wilson even moved into Christine’s house in Coldwater Canyon. “It was probably the experience of a lifetime. Dennis was such a character. Half of him was like a little boy, and the other half was insane. A really split personality.”

With McVie, Dennis was both a great romantic and a drug abuser and alcoholic. He had a heart-shaped garden planted at her home in 1979, and at a surprise birthday party the following year, Dennis hired a symphony orchestra to serenade her as he sang “You Are So Beautiful.” McVie and Wilson sang and wrote songs together at the piano. They considered recording an album together, and she dedicated a song on the last Fleetwood Mac LP, Mirage, to him.

Still, along with the romance and good times came bouts of drunken destruction, when Wilson would storm through the house breaking anything within reach. “He used her place like a hospital,” said Steve Goldberg. “Then he’d call me, I’d go and pick him up, and she wouldn’t see him for a week. When he was totaled out — he wouldn’t sleep for a week — he’d go back. Over and over again. He cared about her, but his priority was having a good time.”

In 1979, the Beach Boys had had enough. Dennis was frequently missing tours, and when he did show up, he was often too messed up to play. Finally, he was kicked out of the group.

When his business affairs in disarray, the drummer hired Levine as his business manager. Within a year, Levine also became Wilson’s personal manager. “It wasn’t the easiest situation,” said Levine. “He was heavily in debt when he came to me. The whole gamut. Two years of back taxes. He owed everybody in every store money. We set up a program where it took us about two and one half years to work down the most pressing debts.” In 1980, Dennis rejoined the Beach Boys and began to tour again.

By the beginning of 1981, Wilson and McVie had split up. Dennis moved into a house in Venice Beach with his seventeen-year-old daughter Jennifer and some other friends. “Things got real bad,” said Steve Goldberg, who was also living at the house. “When he was living at Christine’s, he was doing a lot of coke. [The drinking] kind of started to ease the shakes from the coke. By the time he moved to Venice, he was carrying around a ready-mixed jug. It just progressed to a continual drink.”

Up until his death, Dennis Wilson would show up at the Venice Beach home of Garby Leon, a friend with a doctorate in music composition from Harvard. There, Dennis, Garby and sometimes Brian would hang out and make music late into the night, with Brian on Hammond organ and Dennis on grand piano or harp. During that time, Brian wrote nearly an album’s worth of material.

But, Garby Leon says, the other Beach Boys didn’t like Dennis and Brian’s new songs. In late 1981, the Wilson brothers spent a few days making demos of several songs in the studio, but money to pay for the sessions was cut off.

It was while Dennis was living in Venice that the affair with his illegitimate second cousin, Shawn Love, began. Shawn, then sixteen, recalls showing up at Dennis’ house in Venice with a mutual friend.

“What’s your name?” asked Dennis.

“Shawn,” she replied.

“What’s your dad’s name?” asked Dennis.


“Mike what?” he asked.


“Just tell me who your dad is,” insisted Dennis.

“His name is Mike Love.”

Then, she recalled, “he started talking to me like a big brother. He said, ‘It’s not safe for you to tell everybody who your dad is.’ All of a sudden he changed the conversation. At first, some people thought he was coming on to me to get at Mike.” Soon they were living together.

Dennis did go back on the road with the Beach Boys, but it was rough for everyone. Bodyguards were needed to keep Dennis off the bottle prior to performances. When he drank, he could be boorish onstage, as well as an erratic drummer. There were raging battles between Dennis and Mike Love. Finally, restraining orders were issued to keep them apart.

Wilson used to get a kick out of hassling Love. Once, on the way to a concert date, Wilson walked up to the area on their private jet where Love was meditating, pulled open the door and threw up.

By the end of 1981, Dennis and Shawn’s relationship showed signs of strain. “He was acting like a real punk,” said Shawn. “He was drunk and high. It was embarrassing to me. One of my girlfriends told me he was trying to take another girlfriend to bed.”

Shawn was furious. “I ran up to him in the alley, and I just slugged him in the face,” she said. “I came up to him like, ‘I am going to kill you.’ We got into a full-on fight. He didn’t actually punch me, but he had me down. He dragged me by my hair.”

Despite the ongoing friction, Dennis and Shawn were married in July 1983, nearly a year after their son, Gage Dennis, was born. By the fall of 1983, there wasn’t much of a relationship left. Scrawled in crayon on the walls of their house at 6120 Trancas Canyon Road in Malibu were the phrases “No love” and “No respect.” The house was a shambles. Doors were broken. On one occasion, Shawn nearly drove her silver BMW into the front door. Less than a month before he died, Dennis smashed the windows of the same car with a baseball bat.

Dennis and Shawn separated. “I left partially because of me and Dennis not getting along because of personal things — jealousies and stuff,” said Shawn. She moved into a $150-a-week room at the Santa Monica Bay Inn, a stone’s throw from the drug connection Dennis Wilson turned to when he needed cocaine. A divorce was in the works at the time of his death. Shawn claims that they were working things out, but adds, “We probably would have been together, then apart again.”


In 1982, the more business-minded beach Boys — Carl Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love — and their manager, Tom Hulett, felt there were two big problems that had to be solved: Brian Wilson and Dennis Wilson.

Brian had ballooned to over 300 pounds. He wouldn’t bathe, he would eat and then throw up his food, and if drugs were around, he would use them. He was, as one associate put it, “extremely nonproductive as a human being.”

The task of curing Brian eventually fell, as it had once before, to psychologist Eugene Landy. Landy had once worked for a fan magazine, Teen Screen, and was later a record company A&R man before becoming therapist to the stars. In 1976, he became a celebrity for his role in getting Wilson out of the bedroom and into the recording studio. Eventually, Landy was fired when he allegedly began asking for a percentage of the Beach Boys’ income and wanted to become active in the management of the group.

Nevertheless, it was Eugene Landy whom Tom Hulett turned to. Though Hulett refused to be interviewed for this article, he told the Los Angeles Times last summer that he had Brian Wilson’s interest at heart when he enlisted Landy. “I told the other guys in the band that if we didn’t do something, Brian was going to be the next headline (death) in Billboard.”

In late October 1982, Brian Wilson was told by his accountants that he was broke and that he owed the government tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes. A week or so later, at a meeting attended by Mike, Al and Carl, plus various managers and accountants, Brian was fired. He was handed a letter dated November 5th, 1982, that read, in part: “This is to advise you that your services as an employee of Brother Records, Inc., and otherwise are hereby terminated, effective immediately.” Though it was signed by the four other Beach Boys, Shawn Wilson claims that Dennis didn’t know what he was signing, if indeed he signed it at all.

“They told him that the only way that he could be a Beach Boy again, and the only way they would release his 1982 tour disbursement money, was if he would agree to see Dr. Landy,” says Brian’s girlfriend, Carolyn Williams, who was present at the meeting. “Brian started yelling that he didn’t like Dr. Landy and that [Landy] was charging him $20,000 a month the last time. He was willing to see anybody to get the weight off, but he didn’t want to see Landy. And they said, ‘Well, no, you have to see Dr. Landy. That’s the only way.”‘

A while later, Brian was taken to Hawaii to begin a program with Eugene Landy. Brian remains under Landy’s care to this date; his fee is rumored to exceed $50,000 a month. Landy has recently become the Beach Boys’ “recording manager” and may share song writing credits (and, thus, royalties) with Brian Wilson on the next Beach Boys’ album. Because of his relationship with Brian, Landy actually told a reporter from California Magazine, “I’m the one who’s making the album.”

The three Beach Boys and their manager then apparently turned to the other problem: Dennis Wilson. “When they put Brian in the Landy program,” said Shawn, “A couple of our friends said, ‘Dennis, as soon as they have Brian done, they’re going to try to do the same thing with you.’ He said, ‘No, they’re not going to do anything.”‘

Dennis was wrong.

Mike, Carl, Al and manager Hulett had already banned Dennis from some concerts during 1983. Finally, Dennis was told he would not be allowed to tour with the band unless he went through a detox program. “Which was okay,” says Levine. “They were all interested in helping him. I was in full agreement with that.”

To hear Dennis’ Venice Beach friends tell it, the rock star was literally put out on the streets. For a month prior to his death, Dennis was without a home. He had no car and little money. He lived a nomadic life, crashing with various friends. “If Dennis had had a place to live, he might not have died,” said Garby Leon.

At least one member of Dennis Wilson’s immediate family agrees. “I feel if Dennis had had a place to stay, he might not have been down in the marina that day,” said his daughter Jennifer.

Though Bob Levine feels Wilson was fairly serious about straightening out his life, Steve Goldberg maintains he was just telling people what they wanted to hear. In late November, Dennis checked into a country club-style therapy center in Arizona. He left after two days.

Over the next month, he bounced from friend to friend. There was a scene outside an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where Wilson and Beach Boys manager Tom Hulett argued about money. Hulett reportedly pulled out a wad of bills, peeled off fifteen dollars and offered it to Wilson, who wouldn’t take it. Hulett threw it on the ground. The next day. Hulett apparently gave Wilson $100.

On Friday, December 23rd, Dennis Wilson checked into St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica. Dr. Jokichi Takamine, the doctor caring for Wilson at St. John’s, says that “he was very serious” about the program.

Wilson and Takamine spoke at length on Saturday; the doctor says he told Wilson he would be away on Sunday, Christmas Day, but would see him on Monday.

But Dennis checked himself out of St. John’s Hospital early in the evening on Christmas Day. Although Shawn had apparently agreed to come to the hospital with Gage to visit, she never made it. “He just showed up at my mom’s,” said Shawn. “He said he was really lonely and that he wanted to be with us on Christmas.”

He spent about an hour with Shawn and Gage, then left. A friend bumped into Dennis walking along the road near the Santa Monica Bay Inn. They went for a drink at a club. It was later that night that Dennis stopped by the Santa Monica Bay Inn and was beaten up by Shawn’s male friend. After being denied medical attention at St. John’s hospital, Dennis was admitted to Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital at around two a.m. He spent the night.

Wilson checked himself out at 11:30 a.m. the next day and called Steve Goldberg an hour and a half later. “He was at a beer bar two blocks down the street He wanted me to drive down and pick him up,” said Steve Goldberg. “I told him I was working on my van and said, ‘Why don’t you just walk over here?”‘ He kept calling me back. He wanted money and a ride. He ended that conversation [with the word] termination. Click. I don’t know if he was referring to the conversation, our friendship or his life.”


On Tuesday, December 27th, at about eight p.m., the phone rang on Bill Oster’s boat, the Emerald. Dennis wanted to visit. The old friends had been out of touch for nearly a year, but Oster was happy to hear from him and agreed to pick up the Beach Boy and the girl he was with, Colleen “Crystal” McGovern.

Wilson had met Oster, a mechanical engineer, a few years earlier when his boat, the Harmony, had been docked next to the Emerald at a Marina Del Rey slip. After Wilson lost his boat, Oster hid a key on the Emerald so Dennis could have use of the boat. Dennis had called Oster from Colleen McGovern’s house in Culver City. McGovern was a casual friend; she and Dennis had been seeing each other only for a few weeks. After talking with Oster, Dennis was excited. “He said, ‘We’re going to the boat; we’re going to have a good time. And tomorrow I’m going to go to detox,”‘ recalled McGovern.

When Oster picked the couple up, Dennis said, “Gotta get a bottle.” They stopped at a liquor store, Wilson bought a fifth of vodka and some orange juice, and they drove to the boat.

Oster, his fiancée, Brenda, McGovern and Wilson sat around in the boat’s small cabin that night, reminiscing and drinking. At one point, the conversation turned to Dennis. Oster told the Beach Boy, “It wasn’t six months ago that I said to Brenda, ‘I hope the next tune we see Dennis, it’s not at his funeral.” Wilson looked right at Oster and said, “Don’t you worry about that.”

“We talked about his alcohol rehabilitation, detox and why he didn’t want to go in,” recalled Oster. “He said, ‘They won’t let me back in the band until I do it.” He didn’t like the atmosphere [at St. John’s]. There was a place in New Mexico he was willing to try.”

Wilson was drinking heavily. “If anybody else had been drinking the way Dennis was drinking, they would have been smashed,” said Oster. “But Dennis drank like that normally. I don’t think I ever knew him sober.”

At about midnight, Dennis passed out. He slept fitfully. “Dennis was just sweating like I’d never seen him sweat,” said McGovern. “It was just dripping down his face. I was mopping his forehead constantly.”

McGovern eventually fell asleep, but was awakened an hour later by Wilson. “I could see right away he was wound up again.” Wilson made several phone calls, apparently including one to Shawn. “Dennis and I ended up staying up all night,” said McGovern. “We would sleep a few minutes, then he would wake me up again. Every once in a while he’d say, ‘Honey, what are we going to do?’ And I’d say, ‘We’re going to get some sleep.’ And he would say, ‘I can’t sleep, ‘I can’t sleep.”‘

The next morning, the foursome sat around talking. At about ten, Oster suggested that he and Wilson go rowing. “We set it up, put the oars in it,” said Oster, “and he’s wandering around. ‘I want a drink, I want a drink!’ The girls had hid the stuff. He finally found it and mixed himself another drink.”

They returned an hour later; at noon, they had turkey sandwiches. Wilson had consumed three-quarters of the bottle of vodka by this point. When he spilled a drink on his pants, Oster loaned him a pair of cutoff jeans. That’s when Dennis began diving into the slip next to the Emerald. He surfaced and handed Oster an old piece of rope.

“That was the first thing he brought up,” recalled Oster. “He kept diving down, scrounging around, bringing up junk. Why he was doing it, I don’t know.”

Wilson came out of the fifty-eight-degree water after twenty minutes; back on the dock, he was shivering and his teeth were chattering. He sat in front of a heater inside the cabin. His friends brought him towels, and after about fifteen minutes, he stopped shaking. He ate another sandwich and had another drink.

Then he made a few more dives. He found a silver frame that had held his and Karen Lamm’s wedding picture. He had thrown it off the Harmony in 1980, when they were divorced.

“He was really excited,” said McGovern. “He said, ‘Guess what I found! A chest of gold!”‘ Back on board, the Beach Boy sat around for about two and a half hours, relaxing and drinking. He finished off the fifth of vodka. He was talking about what he thought was at the bottom of the slip: a tool box, the “chest of gold,” a sack of silver dollars. “He was psyching himself up to go back in after his treasures,” said Oster. “I told him there was nothing down there. We tried halfheartedly to talk him out of going back in. There was no I talking him out of it.”

At some point, he found a bottle of wine on the boat and drank from it. Around four p.m., Dennis was ready to go back in the water. But first he walked to another houseboat on the other side of the dock in search of booze. He managed to talk a friend into giving him a partially filled fifth of vodka and had another drink.

Then he made his last dive. Oster was standing on one of the slender piers that extend between the docked boats, across the slip from the Emerald. From there, he saw air bubbles. “I saw him come up to within two feet of the surface,” said Oster. “Then I saw him swim behind my rowboat, where I couldn’t see his face or what he was doing. I think I heard him take a breath of air.”

Oster called out, “Dennis, what did you find?” There was no response.

“At that point, I saw him go straight down and back out of sight. I said to myself, ‘That sucker’s playing a game on me, he’s trying to hide.’ That was my fatal error. Because that was the last time he went down. I took a few puffs on a cigarette, waiting for him to come up. Didn’t hear or see anything. So I quietly walked around to my side of the empty slip. I didn’t see him, so I stomped on the dock and made a whole bunch of noise and said, ‘Hey, Dennis, where are you? Ha ha. I can’t find you.’ Still no response. Then I started looking. It was just clear enough that you could look under all the docks and see if there was an object under there. There were a lot of places where he could have come up and hid.”

But when Dennis didn’t surface, his friends became worried. Oster was going to dive in himself when he spotted the harbor patrol. According to the autopsy report, “The harbor patrol searched the waters for approximately thirty minutes before finding the body. The time that the body was pulled from the water was approximately 1745 hours [5:45 p.m.]. Dennis Wilson was pronounced dead three minutes later.


“We are not disbanding,” announced Carl Wilson at an L.A. press conference on Monday, January 9th, twelve days after Dennis Wilson’s death. “We are postponing currently scheduled dates during this period of mourning.”

Regardless of their personal feelings about Dennis, the Beach boys will continue — and at least one member thinks the band will be stronger. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link” is how Mike Love characterized Dennis’ effect on the band during his decline. “Dennis had his problems: drugs, alcohol. . . .”

Now middle-aged men — Love is forty-three; Brian Wilson, forty-one; Al Jardine, thirty-nine; Carl Wilson, thirty-seven; and Bruce Johnston, forty — the remaining Beach Boys are caught in a bind. Their last studio LP, Keepin’ the Summer Alive, sold fewer than 200,000 copies, and the band members have reportedly been unable to hang onto their money. (Mike Love filed for bankruptcy last year.)

As a result, they must tour constantly to afford their extravagant lifestyles. So, to no one’s great surprise, the Beach Boys were performing at Harrah’s, a casino in Lake Tahoe, a little over a month after Carl’s announcement.

Renewed concert activity is not the only front the Beach Boys are now active on. A million-dollar deal with Vestron Video to make a home video, The Complete Beach Boys, has been made. Culture Club producer Steve Levine, who has recently spent time working on music with Brian in Jamaica, will produce a new Beach Boys album in London. Recently, the Beach Boys aimed up on the soundtrack to Up the Creek. A collaborative Beach Boys-Four Seasons single titled “East Meets West” has been cut, and the band is pairing up with international pop star Julio Iglesias on a remake of the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe.”

At the late show at Tahoe, Brian Wilson did not perform. The others, backed by an eleven piece-band, including a horn section and two drummers, offered an unexceptional rerun of the Beach Boys’ oldies. With the exception of “Rock and Roll Music,” which reached Number Five on the pop charts in 1976, and a couple of tunes off Carl Wilson’s solo albums, the Beach Boys performed music that was nearly two decades old.

Toward the conclusion, the band sang a weary version of “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Conspicuously absent was any mention of Dennis Wilson. The period of mourning was apparently over.