Requiem for the Beach Boy by David Leaf


Editor's Note: The following article was the first piece I ever read that focused exclusivly on Dennis Wilson. I had already passed through various manifestations of Beach Boys fandom, but had felt distant from and uninterested in the group since Dennis' death. It would be years before I would recognize and come to a true understanding of Dennis' musical accomplishments, but it was this article, a decade-and-a-half-ago, that lit the spark for me, and sent me on my way. For me this essay remains a linch-pin, a starting point, and we are honored that David Leaf has granted us permission to reproduce this moving tribute here. As a close friend and confidant of Brian Wilson, David's only request was that we provide a link to Brian's own site, and urge you all to visit. No problem. The surviving Wilson brother is currently experiencing an unprecidented rennaisance on personal and professional fronts, due in no small part to the consistant encouragement of friends like David Leaf. We are happy to encourage our readers to visit Brian's site at www.brianwilson.com. You will also find this site on our "links" page. The following essay was originally adapted from an article in BAM (Bay Area Music), and was included in the 2nd edition of Leaf's book "The Beach Boys and the California Myth" published in 1985. - D.A.


In November 1983, after the Beach Boys' opening night concert at the Universal Amphitheatre, I spoke with Brian Wilson backstage. During a long conversation, Brian asked me whether I liked the way the group had performed "Surfer Girl." As their harmonies had been mediocre, and as I've never deliberately hurt Brian's ultrasensitive feelings, my answer was evasive. But it was also the truth.

"Brian, I don't know why, but it was on that song that I missed Dennis the most. You know, the way he stands at the microphone, with his hand in his ear, his eyes closed, singing and swaying with the music. It's just not the same when he's not there."

Dennis would never perform with the Beach Boys again. He died just a month later, weeks after his thirty-ninth birthday. And if you had seen Dennis in the last year, his death really wasn't a surprise.

I last saw him in April 1983 at the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey. It was obvious that something serious was wrong. He could barely speak, let alone sing, and his once muscular surfer's body seemed doughy. Describing it to friends, I called it "beer bloat."

Whatever the L.A. County Coroner ultimately concludes, my feeling is that Dennis's death wasn't from alcohol or drug abuse so much as a cumulative overdose of life. Nobody I've ever known lived a more intense existence. When Dennis Wilson worked, it was nonstop, for days at a time until he would collapse from exhaustion on a studio control room couch. And when he played - well, let's just say that in recent years, he was more a "player" than a worker.

The night he died, a South Bay newspaper reporter asked me to characterise Dennis. I told him that Dennis's most fascinating personality facet was his intense curiosity. Dennis wanted to know everything through experience, and he attacked life with a combination of blind faith and childlike innocence. He lived his life with a freshness and vitality, all that really mattered was this one, wonderful moment of now. Dennis was a perpetual bad child, but he could always win your forgiveness with his smile.

Incredibly, it was not an act. Dennis had never been taught how to deceive people, and he was genuine. In his dealings with the media, Dennis was easily the most candid and revealing member of his family and the group. A rare combination - intensity and honesty; and Dennis didn't lie - except maybe to himself. As with Keith Moon and other dead rock stars, chronology is relatively meaningless. Dennis Wilson lived more life in a month than most people do in a lifetime; we need not feel badly just because he died so young. We mourn not only for his youth but the waste. He had much to give, and he only tapped a fraction of that. On albums like Sunflower, Dennis bloomed, and his emotional artistry would later see its first (and last) major expression on his impressive debut album, Pacific Ocean Blue. His music was adult and maturing, and there was the promise of more to come. Sadly, he never really knew how much his music was appreciated.

Dennis seemed uncomfortable with his talent (who wouldn't be, in the shadow of Brian?), and while insisting that his brother "Brian, is the Beach Boys," Dennis overlooked the fact that he, Dennis, was the Beach Boy. He, with his sandy hair and winning grin, was the one the girls screamed for.

In his personal life, Dennis acted as if he feared nothing, including death. Some people said he was self-destructive, but from what I saw, Dennis approached almost everything he did as a challenge. Maybe he pushed himself beyond the limit so that he could prove that for himself, there were no limits. And for Dennis, there was so much to try that it was inevitable that he would cross the boundaries of "acceptable behavior."

Not that this is an apologia for Dennis. He could be rude and irresponsible. But when he was sober, Dennis often exhibited to his fans a modest charm and unexpected thoughtfulness. He made everybody he was with think they were the most important person in the world at that single second. He was sincere, but like a child, would move on to a new toy. Maybe worst of all, Dennis didn't know how to say no.

There were qualities he kept hidden, too. Perhaps most moving was the remark one of Dennis's children made after Dennis died. "Mommy," he cried, "things will never be the same again. No one can make me laugh like Daddy can."

When I heard that Dennis had died, I was determined not to dwell on the sadness; and when BAM Magazine asked me to write a reflective memoir on what Dennis Wilson meant to California music, I began to flash back to the times when I had seem him or been alone with him. Like the day I had watched him vigorously perform his promotional duties for his pride, Pacific Ocean Blue; that night, he took me and a bunch of other writers into Brother Studio to sing on "He's A Bum," teaching us that making records was hard work.

Later that night, Dennis was at the piano in his beachside house. He pounded out "Heroes and Villains" at the piano, and then smoothly and with a musical wink, moved into "River Deep, Mountain High." By three in the morning, he had me writing Iyrics to a new song of his. And as the night wore on and I fought sleep, he told me a little about his time with Charles Manson, and the fear he still lived with. As dawn broke, he was on the phone, rousting friends.

There were also the concerts in the early '70s when Dennis would sit at the piano and humbly play his beautiful, haunting love songs like "Barbara" and "I've Got a Friend," as if to say, "I know they're not as good as Brian's, but ..." or at the end of the show, when caught up in the crowd's excitement, he peeled bandages off his hand and jumped onto his rightful perch - the drums.

Possibly my favorite memory is the time he called me at three in the morning. He was reading the book I wrote about the band, [The Beach Boys and the Californian Myth], and he had been hurt by something I'd written. He demanded to know the source of a fact. "Dennis," I softly replied, "normally, I wouldn't reveal a source, but itl this case, I'll make an exception. Your mother told me that." Dennis countered with "Why did you listen to her?" We both erupted in laughter. I think that was the last time I spoke with him.

I certainly don't claim to have been a close friend of Dennis Wilson's, but the time I've spent with him and his music has always been precious. I hope that I've absorbed just a little of his spirit. He was alive! In death, I pray he finds his peace.

1983 David Leaf (All Rights Reserved)



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