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Off the Beaten Tracks: The Beach Boy and the evil Wizard

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IT WAS in the spring of 1968 that Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson stopped his car for two attractive girl hitch-hikers in Malibu, Los Angeles. He invited them back to his rented mansion on Sunset Boulevard for ‘milk and cookies’ although he had other things on his mind. After having sex with them both, he told them of his recent dealings with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Indian guru and creator of Transcendental Meditation.

They said they also had a spiritual leader, a guy called Charlie who had recently been released from prison.

Wilson left for a recording session and returned home late at night to find a school bus parked outside, the lights on in every room and the house full of people. Charles Manson and the Family had taken up residence.

The good-natured Wilson, who was 23 at the time, did not ask them to leave, particularly since 35-year-old Manson was happy to share drugs and sexual partners with him. The Beach Boy rapidly fell under his charismatic guest’s spell, calling him the Wizard, and became convinced that Manson had musical talent – something which signally fails to come across in films about him, such as this documentary. 

This is a creepy watch, particularly when Manson starts waving his arms in a sort of devil dance at the 25 min 55 sec mark.

Over the next six months the Family relieved their host of at least $100,000 – getting on for a million in today’s money. They wrecked his home and his fleet of cars, including a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes.  

Wilson introduced Manson to several record industry friends including the producer Terry Melcher, son of Doris Day. According to the Biography website, ‘Melcher was wary of this unkempt man with the intense stare, declining to invite him to his home at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon.

‘Still, Wilson believed in Manson’s musical talent and set up a recording session through the Beach Boys’ label, Brother Records. However, this ended on bad terms when Manson pulled out a knife to express his irritation with the studio engineer.’

Manson recorded several songs at the home studio of Dennis’s older brother Brian. He provided one named Cease to Exist, which the Beach Boys rewrote and released as Never Learn Not To Love, a single B-side and eventual album track on 20/20.

Wilson had eventually become exasperated by the Family’s constant scrounging and moved out of his house, leaving the landlord to evict his unwanted guests. When Manson heard Never Learn Not To Love he was furious that his work had been tampered with. He presented Wilson with a bullet and warned him to keep his loved ones safe.

A terrified Dennis gave him an extremely wide berth after that – wisely, as it turned out. In August 1969, Manson ordered his followers to kill everyone at 10050 Cielo Drive. By this time Melcher had moved on and the house was now occupied by the actress Sharon Tate, eight-and-a-half-months-pregnant wife of movie director Roman Polanski, who was filming in Europe at the time.

Four members of the family murdered Tate and four friends in horrific circumstances. Manson had told them to ‘do it as gruesome as you can’. The following night he and six others butchered supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in their Los Angeles home.

At Manson’s trial for murder, Wilson refused to testify against him, later saying: ‘I couldn’t. I was so scared.’ Manson and four accomplices were given the death sentence but this was commuted to life imprisonment and Manson died behind bars in 2017, aged 83.

After the trial Dennis embarked on a lengthy process of self-destruction, including ever heavier use of drugs. Mark Dillon, a journalist, wrote in 2012 that some people blamed this on ‘feelings of guilt for ever having introduced this evil Wizard into the Hollywood scene.’

Wilson continued to work with the Beach Boys but the relationship was fractious and he was constantly being fired and rehired. It didn’t help that he had been forced into the family band by their mother Audree when he would rather be surfing, and had to take up the drums because that was the only vacancy left.

His hellraising lifestyle took its toll on his voice and being kicked in the throat during a bar-room brawl didn’t help. But somehow he achieved a creative awakening. This was witnessed by Daryl Dragon, a classically-trained musician who would later form half of the pop duo The Captain and Tennille. Dragon was playing keyboards on a Beach Boys tour.

‘I was sitting out in the bleachers during a sound check,’ he said. ‘I heard these amazing piano chords coming from the stage. I looked up and it was Dennis, which kind of shocked me. Like a lot of people, I only knew him as the wild-man drummer. I didn’t even know he played piano. When I asked him who’d composed the gorgeous music he was playing, he said, “I did”. The richness and instinctive innovation of his chords reminded me of the composer Richard Wagner, whom Dennis had never heard of.’

Wilson’s friend James Guercio, a guitarist and producer, had begun working with the Beach Boys in the 1970s. ‘Dennis would play me songs when we were on the road,’ he said. ‘He just blew me away with his raw talent. I could also sense an injured bird there. He was way more talented than anyone gave him credit for. But he’d play things and you’d never hear them again. I said, “Dennis, you’ve got to get this stuff down. Here’s a blank canvas. Just fill it up”.’

In 1976, it was announced that Wilson would become the first Beach Boy to make a solo album. Pacific Ocean Blue was released the following year and is, in Guercio’s words, ‘his moment and his masterpiece’.

The first track, River Song, opens with Wilson’s piano and quickly becomes a rousing singalong sounding like the Beach Boys would if they had all gargled bleach. What’s Wrong has a similar vibe. Track three, Moonshine, slows things down to great effect with Dennis at his most heartfelt. ‘Somebody forgot to tell him that he wasn’t a great vocalist,’ said Guercio. ‘You’re going to hear passion, pitch variations, timbre variations etc that sitting out there naked, but there’s so much emotion and creativity behind it that it works.’

Friday Night is a moody stomper and then we have Dreamer, one of few rock songs to rely heavily on the tuba. Thoughts of You starts simply with a piano motif then soars with strings before returning to Wilson’s croaky voice. Time is another one from the heart although the atmosphere is marred somewhat by the raucous horn section towards the end.

You And I sounds almost like a Steely Dan track; never a bad thing. Pacific Ocean Blues dips its toe into funkdom, then we have a true beauty. Farewell My Friend is a tribute to Otto Hinsche, father-in-law of Dennis’s brother Carl. According to Dennis, Otto, whom he loved dearly and called Pops, ‘died in my arms and I came to the studio. I knew that he loved the Hawaiian islands; the song just happened, sort of a happy farewell. I carry a picture of him everywhere. When my father (Murry) died (in 1973), Pops saved my life in a way.’

Rainbows  is a further Beach Boys-style workout and the album closes with End of the Show. This is another farewell, to his wife Karen Lamm, who was forever leaving him.

Despite some ecstatic reviews (Rolling Stone described it as ‘truly wonderful and touching’), Pacific Ocean Blue was not a commercial success, selling so few copies that a solo tour was cancelled because the record company feared no one would turn up. Wilson’s increasingly erratic behaviour amid mounting drug and alcohol abuse was no doubt another factor.

He immediately began work on a second album, Bambu, but failed to finish it under pressure to keep playing with the Beach Boys. For the next five years his life was a downward spiral, continually quitting and rejoining the group. A relationship with Christine McVie (nee Perfect) of Fleetwood Mac ended in acrimony. By November 1983, he was a homeless alcoholic dossing on friends’ sofas and the other band members said he could never again perform with them live unless he checked into rehab.

After some half-hearted attempts at therapy he got into a fight with a younger man at a bar in Santa Monica and needed hospital treatment for his injuries. After a few hours he discharged himself and went straight back on the booze. It was on December 28 that he went diving at Marina del Rey after an all-day drinking session and his body was pulled out of the cold, murky water. It was three weeks after his 39th birthday. He was buried at sea, an honour usually confined to Coast Guard and Navy veterans but allowed in Dennis’s case following an intervention by President Ronald Reagan.

For many years Pacific Ocean Blue was unavailable in the shops and achieved mythical status as a lost classic. In 2008, we got to hear what the fuss was about when a lavish double CD package was issued complete with photo booklet and extensive liner notes.

The first CD features four unreleased bonus tracks – Tug of Love, Only With You (which previously appeared on the 1983 Beach Boys album Holland) plus the mournful instrumentals Holy Man and Mexico.  All of these would have been worth a place on the original album.

CD number two comprises tracks from the Bambu sessions, the  highlights of which include the impassioned It’s Not Too LateLove Remember MeLove Surrounds Me and Are You Real? In one of the final songs, All Alone, Dennis rues the mess he has made of his life and relationships. The final track, Holy Man, is a vocal reworking of the previous instrumental version and might just be the best thing on the record.

So there we have it – a double CD plus a few Beach Boys tracks form the musical legacy of Dennis Wilson’s wasted life. Granted, no one forced him into all that drink and drug abuse but one does wonder how differently it might have turned out had he not stopped for those two girls at the side of the road in 1968.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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