Surf King

Guitar pioneer Dick Dale is rocking like never before at 60

"That was the first authentic surfer picture taken for commercial use," he says. "And that album sold over 88,000 albums--that's like four million today, just in the concerts. Now wouldn't you say after that Dick Dale would have the undisputed title "King of the Surf Guitar"? Because there was nobody else. But then you see these history books about the Surfaris and so-and-so. Give me a break. The Beach Boys used to come to my dances as little kids. My father used to give them $50 to open for me when we were up at Pismo Beach."

Dale next cut the quintessential surf song, "Miserlou." As fans of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack can attest, the song still sounds up-to-the-minute, like the accompaniment for belly dancers in orbit. Yet it had deep roots, beyond Dale's lifetime.

"When I first heard 'Miserlou,' I was a child in elementary school, 7 or 8, and I was watching my uncle play an Arabic drum. Then a man would be playing an oud, an Arabic stringed instrument--they'd play it with a turkey quill. . . . A lot of people say it's a Greek folk song, but it was sung in Arabic.

"So I was playing at the Rendezvous, and this little kid came up to me and said, 'Can you play something on a single string?' I said, 'Come back tomorrow and I'll have it for you,' just to get him out of there.

"I stayed awake all night saying, 'What am I gonna do? They're gonna find out I'm a fake,' and all this stuff, and all of a sudden I said, 'Miserlou!'"

A string of singles followed through 1963, including "King of the Surf Guitar," the inevitable "Miserlou Twist," a reworking of "Hava Nagila" and the sublimely frenetic original "The Wedge" (all included on Shred).

Sales of electric guitars skyrocketed, and surf bands such as the Sentinals, the Surfaris and the Centurians sprouted like toadstools. Dale signed to heavy-hitter Capitol Records, and when he moved his revels from the Rendezvous to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium for a month in 1962, the crowds kept growing, prompting police to say they had no idea there were that many teenagers in the area.

And then something even stranger happened: After Dale's 1964 album Summer Surf, he didn't record original material again for 29 years. Through his early, burgeoning fame, he'd been reluctant to leave his coastal fan base and tour, partly because he was collecting a menagerie of exotic animals--leopards, tigers, alligators--and he worried they wouldn't get tended if he traveled.

Meanwhile, domestic pop music was overwhelmed by the Beatles leading the British Invasion that temporarily shut down surf, swamped the girl groups and muffled almost all Yankee rock 'n' roll. As Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson put it, "Suddenly, we looked like golf caddies."

As if that wasn't enough, Dale's body began to give out. He had a heart attack while still in his 20s, and then underwent surgery for rectal cancer. Doctors told him he had three months to live.

"I started blacking out and stuff like that, and I went and got some tests done," he says. "They put me on these nitro pills and they said, 'Get away from what you're doing, it's gonna kill you.' My father wouldn't believe that, he got all mad and everything."

Dale moved to Hawaii where he could surf all day to recuperate. At night he played Top 40 covers in a little cafe. Returning to California in the '70s, he invested in real estate, opened a couple of nightclubs, and then put together a musical revue with his first wife, Jeannie, and hit Las Vegas.

He went through a bitter divorce in 1983. He was later charged with sexually molesting a 13-year-old girl and then acquitted on 10 of the 12 counts against him; the others were dismissed after juries failed to reach a verdict. Dale says his ex-wife trumped up the charges.

He badly burned his left hand while making popcorn the next year. In 1986, he lost his Newport mansion to foreclosure and wound up living in a motor home in his parents' driveway. But like his long solo-guitar runs, Dale bounced back with a resounding wham.

The same year he lost the mansion, he met his current wife Jill, 30 years his junior, at a party. She had no idea who he was for months after they started dating, he says, and he wasn't about to tell her--he claimed his name was "Trapper." That same year, 1986, Rhino issued its first best-of-Dale collection. Jill eventually discovered who Trapper was. A Stones and Ramones fan, she urged him to strip down his sound to something like a power trio. He resisted, but got the chance willy-nilly in 1989, when he was invited to play a benefit show in San Juan Capistrano.

"They were raising money for children for Christmas," Dale says, "and they had 17 bands, nothing but headbangers, and they asked me to come in. . . . I said, 'Fuck, I can't do this, because my whole band won't come down, they won't do it unless they get paid.' But I knew my name was gonna be bad mud, so I called up my drummer and I called up my bass player.

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