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 ... Dennis Wilson
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 supergroup, 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
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 62footer,
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
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
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.
Dennis was like a second father to first
wife Carol's son, Scott, and they had a
daughter, Jennifer, together.
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. Exwife Barbara
says Michael (whose 11 th 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."
A loving if often absent dad, Dennis hugged sons Michael and
at third son Gage's first birthday party last fall.
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."
Dennis surprised girlfriend Christine McVie with the
heart-shaped garden at her home in 1979.
There were financial imbalances
as well as emotional ones. Steve Love, Beach Boys manager during
most of the '70's 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,
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."
People Magazine January 16, 1984
Written by Jim Jerome; reported by Gail Buchalter, Hilary Evans,
Sal Manna, Joseph Pilcher and Salley Rayl.