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“sail On, Sailor”

After the triumph of Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis's life went downhill fast. He and Barbara had long since divorced, and he began a long and stormy relationship with a beautiful actress named Karen Lamm; they were married in 1976. Karen's fiery temperament was a good match for Dennis's, and the two shared a love for partying. But while Karen knew her limits and eventually stopped abusing drugs, Dennis never lost his taste for them and began using heroin. When he became abusive, Karen left him and they divorced in 1980. He then began an affair with Christine McVie of the band Fleetwood Mac.

His true love throughout these troubled years, however, was his boat the Harmony. He loved to sail it up and down the Pacific coast, or just hang out on it at Marina Del Rey where it was moored. But the boat was repossessed by a bank in 1981, and Dennis—whose income was absorbed by drugs and alcohol—was unable to buy it back. He was heartbroken.

Dennis was urged by the concerned Beach Boys to seek professional help for his addictions, but he resisted. He considered approaching Eugene Landy, Brian's one-time savior, but never followed through. His downward spiral continued, and in 1983 he married for the final time. He and his young wife, Shawn, soon had a son named Gage, whom Dennis adored. Still, the couple soon separated. Dennis began spending a lot of time on the boat of a friend, across from the slip in which the Harmony had once been docked. On the afternoon of December 28, 1983, Dennis Wilson drowned while swimming in the frigid waters of Marina Del Rey. He was only thirty-nine years old.

Dennis Wilson, Dreamer

Despite Brian's celebrated musical genius, it was the middle Wilson brother who provided the Beach Boys with their inspiration. “I remember Brian would drill Dennis on what was going on, really pump him for the [surfing] terminology and the newest thing,” their brother Carl recalled in a 1983 interview. “Dennis was the embodiment of the group; he lived what we were singing about … I mean, we could have gotten it from magazines like everyone else did. Dennis was out there doing it.'

Dennis was also the only Beach Boy to try his hand at acting. He starred opposite folk rocker James Taylor in director Monte Hellman's 1971 Two-Lane Blacktop, playing a character known only as “the Mechanic.” Even though the film became a critical favorite and cult classic, it wasn't a satisfying experience for Dennis, and he never made another feature film.

He turned his attention instead to solo work. Dennis wrote and recorded Pacific Ocean Blue throughout 1976 and early 1977, and began an abandoned follow-up, Bamboo, late in 1977. Pacific Ocean Blue was a hit with critics and record buyers alike, and it is generally considered the era's best Beach Boys-related release. A review in Rolling Stone magazine said that Dennis's songs “have a way of taking hold of your emotions”—or, as Carl put it, he “made it true.”

Additional topics

Musician BiographiesThe Beach BoysENDLESS HARMONY - “sail On, Sailor”, Dennis Wilson, Dreamer, Brian Gets Back On Track, Picking Up The Pieces