The Tragic Death Of Dennis Wilson Explained

The Beach Boys may have recorded a plethora of songs about surfing and the beach, but there was one band member who stood out as the only "real" Beach Boy — original drummer Dennis Wilson. Unlike his brothers Brian and Carl Wilson, his cousin Mike Love, and fellow classic-era members Al Jardine and David Marks, Dennis was the only one in the group who actually knew how to surf, as pointed out by Rolling Stone. That, in a way, made up for his reputation behind the scenes as arguably the least musical of the Beach Boys, a so-called "clubber" behind the drum kit whose parts were frequently played on record by session musicians like Wrecking Crew mainstay Hal Blaine. (Didn't stop him, though, from writing the sappy, yet beautiful ballad "Forever," from the Beach Boys' 1970 album "Sunflower" ... and multiple "Full House" episodes, as performed by John "Uncle Jesse" Stamos.)

Tragically, Dennis Wilson was also the first of the original Beach Boys to pass away, as he died on December 28, 1983, just weeks after turning 39 years old. While most fans are aware that he died after drowning at Marina Del Rey, California, the last few days of his life — and especially the hours right before his death — still deserve a closer examination.

Dennis Wilson's final days: Broke and on the outs with his bandmates

During the Beach Boys' peak years, Dennis Wilson lived the life of a stereotypical rock star, indulging in drugs, booze, and women and seemingly reveling in his bad-boy reputation. But on the other hand, he was also generous to a fault (via People), freely spending money on his friends and letting them enjoy the spoils of his lavish lifestyle, even if one of those friends turned out to be would-be mass murderer Charles Manson. Unfortunately, his self-destructive behavior and sheer disregard for material possessions ultimately caught up with him, and as Rolling Stone reported in 1984, he spent the last month of his life homeless and practically broke. 

All this came shortly after Dennis (second row, extreme right in photo above) was given an ultimatum by his bandmates — enter a detox program or stop touring with the Beach Boys. He was also separated from his wife, Shawn Love Wilson (bandmate Mike Love's alleged illegitimate daughter), who, together with their infant son Gage, had left him after a brief and turbulent relationship. Estranged from his wife and bandmates, the drummer bounced from one friend's house to the next, spending whatever little money he had on booze and drugs.

Speaking to Rolling Stone, Wilson's friend Garby Leon suggested that "if Dennis had had a place to live, he might not have died." This was an opinion shared by the musician's then-teenaged daughter Jennifer, who said her dad "might not have been down in the marina" on the day of his death if only he had a more permanent place to stay.

He was making some efforts to get clean

Faced with the possibility of getting banned from touring with the Beach Boys if he didn't sober up, it would seem that Dennis Wilson was doing what he could to turn his life around shortly before his death. According to Rolling Stone, the drummer checked into St. John's Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica on December 23, 1983, with the intent of entering the facility's detox program. Dr. Jokichi Takamine reportedly told Wilson that he would only be able to see him on Monday, December 26, but even with this holiday-related delay in mind, Wilson was "very serious" about cleaning up. The two men never got to talk again, as Wilson checked out of St. John's on the evening of December 25 and spent an hour or so with his wife and son at his mother-in-law's house ... before apparently meeting with a friend for some drinks.

Wilson's personal manager, Robert Levine, told Rolling Stone that his client really wanted to get clean toward the end of his life. However, for friends such as Steve Goldberg, this was nothing more than lip service. The publication noted that in November 1983, Wilson had gone to Arizona and similarly checked into a "country club-style therapy center," which he stayed in for only two days before promptly checking out.

Wilson was drinking heavily in the hours before his death

On December 27, 1983, Dennis Wilson got in touch with a friend named Bill Oster and made plans to visit him on his boat, the Emerald, which was docked at Marina Del Rey. Compared to the events of the previous two days, which included a fistfight with one of his wife's male friends and a disturbing phone call to his pal Steve Goldberg, the evening of December 27 appeared comparatively light-hearted. Apparently, Wilson wanted to have one last night of fun before finally cleaning up. "He said, 'We're going to the boat; we're going to have a good time. And tomorrow I'm going to go to detox,'" the drummer's friend Colleen McGovern recalled to Rolling Stone.

Everything seemed to be going well as Wilson, McGovern, Oster, and Oster's fiancee, a woman named Brenda, were having fun talking about the good old days while drinking on the boat. Chillingly, Oster remembered telling Wilson about the time he told his fiancee that he hoped "the next [time] we see Dennis, it's not at his funeral." The musician reassured his old friend that he had nothing to worry about, and the conversation then turned to Wilson's plans to enter a rehab facility in New Mexico. He was, however, drinking copious amounts of vodka on that night, though this initially didn't worry Oster, who explained that "Dennis drank like that normally."

Waking up from a fitful sleep, Wilson wanted nothing more than to have another drink on the morning of December 28. At that point, his female companions had hidden his booze, definitely concerned about his well-being. It wasn't long, though, before he found his bottle of vodka and continued drinking.

A fatal search for supposedly buried treasure

Despite being evidently intoxicated, Dennis Wilson took a dive into the extremely cold water in the afternoon of December 28, confusing his friends as he kept "bringing up junk" to the Emerald with each dive he made, according to Oster. It soon became clear why he kept diving back down — back in 1980, when he still owned a boat called the Harmony, he had tossed out several items from his marriage to Karen Lamm (pictured above), including a silver frame with their wedding picture. McGovern recalled how Wilson was "really excited" to have found the picture, but he wasn't done yet. While finishing the last of his vodka, the musician kept talking about what might be buried at the bottom of the slip — he alternately speculated that a toolbox, some silver dollars, or a "chest of gold" was waiting to be found.

Although Oster repeatedly tried to convince Wilson that there was no such treasure, the drummer made one final dive after scoring even more booze from a nearby houseboat and consuming some of it. "At that point, I saw him go straight down and back out of sight," Oster told Rolling Stone. "I said to myself, 'That sucker's playing a game on me, he's trying to hide.' That was my fatal error. Because that was the last time he went down."

Worried that something bad had happened to his friend, Oster was preparing to dive in when he spotted the harbor patrol and asked for help. Wilson's body was recovered at around 5:45 p.m., and he was pronounced dead only a few minutes later. It was later found that he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.26% at the time of his death, or more than thrice the current federal limit for driving.

Dennis Wilson was buried at sea

According to UPI, Wilson's final resting place is where his life ended: the Pacific Ocean, off Southern California. On a hot January day, the Beach Boy was buried at sea while some of his family watched on. Burials at sea, however, were not usually allowed for civilians. The New York Times points out that they were primarily reserved for military veterans. Luckily for Wilson, one of The Beach Boys' biggest fans was none other than President Ronald Reagan. Prior to Wilson's death, The Guardian writes that The Beach Boys were asked to headline a concert in Washington D.C. for a Fourth of July celebration.

The performance was canceled by interior secretary James Watt, as he did not want the band to give off "the wrong element" at the event (via The Guardian). Shortly after, Reagan, perhaps as an apology, invited The Beach Boys to perform a benefit concert at the White House for the Special Olympics. To thank them, he told the band, "If there's anything I can do for you, just let me know." Months later, Wilson died, and his wife and mother requested a burial at sea. Reagan, Per The New York Times, obliged.

Even so, not all were on board with this decision. In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Brian Wilson, who was not the funeral, stated that he desired his brother to have a "regular burial." People reported that some of his family wanted him to be buried next to his father at Inglewood Cemetery. Ultimately, his wife, Shawn Love Wilson, had the final say and chose the burial at sea.