Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy

By Jon Stebbins (ECW Press)

As embarrassingly primitive as it may seem, rock 'n' roll is foremost an expression of rebellion against firmly held parental values. The primary distinction between pop and rock is that parents may tap their feet to the former but must, by God, detest the undiluted medium and message of the latter.

The Beach Boys -- while never "bad boys" -- did cross over to a degree when they ditched the hamburger stand and "Fun, Fun, Fun" for the adolescent claustrophobia of Pet Sounds.

More important, though, the band was born of a family (three brothers, a cousin and a neighborhood friend) that smeared the line between The Donna Reed Show and The Addams Family. Beach Boy patriarch Murray Wilson might've looked like the typical bespectacled, pipe-smoking dad, but he was, in fact, a monster, making even well-behaved eldest son Brian shit on a newspaper in the dining room as a form of punishment. While remaining the brains of the band, Brian eventually cracked and spiraled into the void of drug abuse and mental illness.

Younger brother Dennis, dad's greatest challenge, kept up the fuck-you attitude long after his father was no longer the target. Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy attests to the destructiveness of a violent upbringing so well it should be required reading in developmental psychology courses.

Jon Stebbins' biography depicts an outrageously perverse course of self-obliteration, fed by a lethal mix of the fame and vice that defined the '60s/'70s Southern California music scene. No fictitious rock 'n' roll epic could concoct a figure as endearingly tragic as the likes of Dennis Wilson: The family's handsome, athletic son inspires his brainier, agoraphobic elder brother to focus on surfboards, woodies and bikinis. The results are wildly successful, far beyond anything the brothers imagined, but Dennis' commitment to the family band ebbs and flows even after his father is out of the picture. Cousin Mike Love, oddly both a conservative Republican and disciple of a bizarre spiritual guru, becomes the new father figure. Dennis responds to his endless chastising by marrying Love's teenage daughter, one of countless relationships that also included Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac. The drunk and drugged-out star abandons anyone who hasn't already left him, entertains the company of a replacement family led by Charles Manson, and eventually trades his beach-bum status for that of a broke street bum. Though kicked out of the group, he creates a solo album that whups the band's increasingly tepid fare. Just before his 40th birthday, he drowns, the only surfer in a surf band, in 13 feet of water while trying to retrieve some wedding pictures he'd dumped over the side of his boat years earlier. Dennis' wish to be buried at sea is granted after the President of the United States overrides a maritime law prohibiting such ceremonies for civilians.

Good luck topping that, fiction writers.

Though not as prescient as Timothy White's Beach Boy history The Nearest Far Away Place, and lacking the personal (if still-under-the-oppressive-control-of-Eugene Landy) perspective of Brian Wilson's autobiography Wouldn't It Be Nice, Stebbins' The Real Beach Boyuncovers the inner conflicts that turned Dennis' existence into one of alienation and self-destruction, wholly different but even more devastating than the course Brian would take.

Knowing what we now know of the Wilson family travails, it gives rise to the notion that there's a much darker motivation for the adolescent escapism of the Beach Boys' early work, and the ethereal longing found in the grooves of Pet Sounds.

 
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