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How Charles Manson Ruined Dennis Wilson's Life

Culture | February 3, 2019

Beach Boy Dennis Wilson in 1971. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1960s, it was probably not a good idea to hang around with Charles Manson. Dennis Wilson didn't know that -- but nobody did, at least, not the way we know today. Dennis Wilson, brother of Brian Wilson, was a co-founder of The Beach Boys; Charles Manson, on the other hand, is perhaps the most famous (certainly the most infamous) cult leader in American history. On his orders, Manson's followers -- the "Manson Family" as they were known -- carried out the Tate-Labianca murders in 1969, leaving seven people dead, including actress Sharon Tate. The group's goal was to realize Manson's apocalyptic vision of a massive race war, a scenario he described as "Helter Skelter."

We're aware of all this today, but back in the spring of 1968, when Dennis Wilson let the Manson Family into his life and his home, the group's darkest deeds were still a year off. While living with Dennis Wilson, Charles Manson and his swarm of STD-infested scavengers relentlessly took advantage of Wilson’s kindness. They destroyed his home, his cars, and his credit. Wilson, who died in 1983 after a long struggle with addiction, never recovered from his time spent living with the family, and blamed himself for the deaths that occurred after the Manson Family moved from his home in the Palisades to the emptiness of Spahn Ranch. 

Dennis Wilson may never have met Charles Manson if he hadn’t been so prone to picking up hitchhikers, especially young female hitchhikers. In the spring of 1968 Wilson saw Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey thumbing it on the side of the road and brought them home for milk and cookies. This act of kindness turned his life upside down.

The girls returned to Wilson’s rented home in the Pacific Palisades, and when he left to record tracks with the Beach Boys they never left. When he returned he found a party in full swing, and a bearded, dirty stranger waiting for him in his driveway. The man was Charles Manson, and in order to make Wilson feel comfortable he supposedly got on his knees and kissed the drummer’s feet. Wilson spent the rest of ’68 partying with the freeloading Manson family. 

The Family Wrecked Wilson’s Cars

A 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 NART Spyder. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Mike Love’s memoir Good Vibrations, he writes that “Dennis was all too happy to allow Manson and his girls to move in, use his charge cards, take his clothes, eat his food, even drive his Mercedes. Manson, after all, had something for Dennis—a stable of young women who catered to his every desire.” Because he was blinded by the young women who swarmed about Manson, Wilson didn’t care that the Family was slowly eroding his life and his possessions like rats in the wall of a decaying home.

The Family didn’t respect or care for any of Wilson’s possessions, so it’s no surprise that when they totaled his uninsured $21,000 Mercedes (That’s half a million dollars in today’s economy). But that’s not the worst of it, gearheads. The Wilson brothers loved their Ferrari 275GTBs -- both Brian and Dennis owned one. Manson Family members borrowed Brian's, and crashed it. Later, they also managed to wreck Dennis Wilson’s Ferrari 275GTB while driving around downtown LA. 

They Blew $100,000 Of Wilson’s Money

Source: "Inside the Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes," via

While living with Wilson throughout 1968 the Family took full advantage of their plush and undeserved digs. Everything the family bought during their stay with Wilson was paid for by the Beach Boy. They racked up huge bills on the drummer’s credit cards, and according to Karina Longworth, the host of You Must Remember This, the family ran up an $800 tab at a local dairy in Wilson’s name. How much milk were these hippies drinking?

Aside from sending Wilson into massive credit card debt, the family also took whatever they wanted from his house. His clothes, his gold records -- if it wasn’t nailed down, the Family saw it as theirs for the taking. Around this time, Wilson started distancing himself from the cult leader and his family, but instead of asking them to leave, calling the police, or just throwing them out on the lawn by the scruff of the neck, he simply moved into another house. But Manson wouldn’t be ignored. He left a note for Dennis at his new place that read “you can’t get away from me.” 

The Family Gave Wilson Gonorrhea

A story on Dennis Wilson from from The Record Mirror, a British music weekly, dated 1968.

As if wrecking his cars and running up huge bills weren’t bad enough, all of the group sex that the gang was engaging in took a turn for the worse (as it tends to do). No one knows who the first member of the Family was to contract gonorrhea, but whoever it was gave it to the rest of the girls, and one of the girls (or multiple girls) gave it to Wilson. The drummer did the only thing he could and took the whole family to get penicillin shots.

Wilson claimed, “It was probably the largest gonorrhea bill in history,” and his claim was later backed up in Rolling Stone by an anonymous member of the Beach Boys. “Dennis ran up the largest gonorrhea bill in history the time the whole family got the clap. He took them all to a Beverly Hills doctor – it took something like a thousand dollars in penicillin.”

The Family Threw Huge Parties At Wilson's Place

Dennis Wilson. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As Manson and his cronies continued to destroy Wilson’s life, they turned his home into a party palace and walked around liked they owned the place. Wilson may have been partying hard in his home before he was entangled with the Family, but Manson’s parties were a different kind of fun.

One member of the Beach Boys who spoke to spoke to Rolling Stone under the auspices of anonymity said, “We’ve got several eight-track tapes of Charlie and the girls that Dennis cut, maybe even some 16-track. Just chanting, f*cking, sucking, barfing. Maybe we’ll put it out in the fall. Call it ‘Death Row.’” Manson took Wilson’s idyllic never-ending summer and turned it dark. He corrupted it and made it nasty, a microcosm of what he would finally do to the ‘60s just a few months after Wilson finally parted ways with him. 

The Bullet

Charles Manson mugshot from April 1968. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Manson got part of his wish to be a rock legend when the Beach Boys recorded a version of his song “Cease to Exist,” but they did the opposite of everything he asked them to. They changed the music from its bluesy twang to a more refined pop sound, they changed the lyrics, they changed the title, and most heinous of all in Manson’s eyes - they changed the credit.

Dennis Wilson was the sole writer credited for “Never Learn Not To Love,” and this sent Manson over the edge. One day in 1968 Manson walked up to Wilson holding a single bullet. When Wilson asked him what it was, Manson replied, “It’s a bullet. Every time you look at it, I want you to think how nice it is your kids are still safe."

According to musician Van Dyke Parks, Wilson beat the snot out of Manson in front of a bunch of “hip people.” With his tail between his legs, Manson retreated to Spahn ranch and began planning what would become the Tate-LaBianca murders. 

Tags: 1968 | Charles Manson | Crime in the 1960s | Dennis Wilson | Manson Family | The Beach Boys

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.