Surf King

Guitar pioneer Dick Dale is rocking like never before at 60

Thirty-six years after the first cascading notes from Dick Dale's Stratocaster signaled to the landlocked U.S. that something called surf music was happening in California, Dale, now 60, lives in the desert.

Long gone from his old haunts around Newport and Balboa, he retreated several years ago to a concrete house high in the desert above Palm Springs. His neighborhood is so dry he packs in 1,500 gallons of water every 15 days, and must never leave a faucet running. This is a far cry from when he lived like the Submariner, emerging from the waves to take the stage.

He thinks about going surfing again--his young wife Jill and 5-year-old son Jimmy want to know what they missed--but he frets about the safety. His Rolls-Royce slumbers in his garage, tires flat, a champagne-colored rat resident in its trunk. Perhaps most startling of all, the father of heavy metal, who boasts of the amplifiers he once destroyed, is surrounded by a profound silence.

"It's so quiet it's like living in a vacuum," he says, speaking by phone from his home. "You hear nothing--and it scares people."

But this is temporary. Dale is at home resting up between tours, and he'll head back out on the road at the end of the month, for a swing through South America and the Pacific Northwest. The graying, ponytailed ax master is in demand like never before, reaping the delayed rewards of a serpentine career.

Rhino Records has just released Better Shred Than Dead, a two-CD retrospective comprising Dale's earliest presurf '50s sides, his bold early-'60s experiments, and his postmodern, post-Pulp Fiction output. Most recently, he's been recording for Beggars Banquet, an alternative label more accustomed to eyeliner and gloom. In his brief hiatus, on a hot morning, Dale talked about his career.

Born Richard Monsour in Boston to a Lebanese father and a Polish mother, he grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, in a house five blocks from the other ocean. His first musical impressions were formed by big-band drummer Gene Krupa, the Benny Goodman sideman who all but invented the drum solo.

His next influence was Hank Williams. But to be Hank Williams, Dale needed a guitar, and his parents couldn't afford to buy him one. An ad in the back of a Superman comic offered a ukulele to people who sold Noxema skin cream. Hustling the jars in a snowstorm, Dale later found the ukulele, alas, to be cardboard. So he collected Pepsi bottles, took them downtown in his wagon, and bought a plastic ukulele with his proceeds.

"Then I got a book," he says, talking as fast as his fretwork, "and the book said, 'Put your fingers here and put your fingers there.' Well, I couldn't figure out why my fingers wouldn't go there, and the book didn't tell me, 'Turn it around, stupid, you're left-handed.'"

When Dale was in high school, his parents landed jobs in California, settling in southwest L.A. Dale finished high school there and got his own job at Hughes. He woodshedded, and won an Elvis Presley soundalike contest, which evolved into a gig singing Elvis songs before screenings of Presley's movie Love Me Tender (he repeated the performance in the 1960 Marilyn Monroe movie Let's Make Love).

Eventually, Dale got his own half-hour radio show on a Santa Ana station, billed as Dick Dale and the Rhythm Wranglers. The Shred anthology opens with "Ooh-Whee Marie," his first single on the label his father Jim started, Del-Tone. It's a hiccuping, semirockabilly track that's pleasant enough, but gives no inkling of what Dale would soon become, in no small part because the centerpiece is Dale's singing. The same is true of the next two Shred cuts, "Stop Teasing" (1959) and "Jessie Pearl" (1960), although the latter turns the energy up a notch.

One day, Dale and a friend from his motorcycle club visited the Rinky Dink Ice Cream Parlor on Newport Beach's Balboa Peninsula to check out the girls. Dale talked the owner into giving him a gig there. When he began to draw a crowd, he moved to a bigger hall, the Rendezvous Ballroom. Formerly a showplace for big bands, the 12,000-square-foot theater was perfect for rock 'n' roll, if Dale could find a way to fill it.

At about that time, the movie Gidget was released. Detailing the adventures of a 16-year-old Cali girl who falls for a surfer, it helped surfing move from a cultish hobby to a full-blown fad.

Dale was already hanging 10 when Gidget hit. His beach buddies frequented his shows at the Rinky Dink and followed him to the Rendezvous. Within four months, he was drawing standing-room-only crowds of more than 4,000, mostly surfers and surf wanna-bes who did what they called "The Stomp" to fast-paced instrumental tunes. Elvis had drawn such crowds at state fairs and auditoriums, but he'd had national media exposure. Dale was a genuine grass-roots phenomenon.

In 1961, he cut "Let's Go Tripping" live at the Rendezvous. With its overmodulated twang and honking saxophone, "Tripping" was a two-minute invitation to a carefree life. There'd been other instrumentals with a similar sound, but this was the first specifically directed at the surfing subculture, and it made a splash, edging onto the Billboard "Hot 100" listing. Dale's father collected his early singles on an album called Surfer's Choice, replete with a cover picture of Dale surfing under a San Clemente pier.

"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.

"There was a lot of pressure. Some guy from the Los Angeles Times was there, a big critic.

"I got out and I just ripped for 20 minutes nonstop. Well, that started it. The next day, a full page of the Los Angeles Times was a write-up of Dick Dale that if I paid a million dollars I could have never bought."

Henceforth Dale would record and perform as a power trio. Signing with the indie label Hightone, he released Tribal Thunder in 1993. The album, and particularly the single "Nitro," seemed to pick up where "Miserlou" and "The Wedge" left off, featuring the same guitar pyrotechnics with hints of Spanish and Middle Eastern melody lines, but faster and cleaner.

"Nitro" began to show up on the CMJ college-radio charts. The next year, he released his second Hightone album, Unknown Territory, and set off cross-country in earnest, typically beginning his shows with the proud boast, "I have come to melt your ears."

In 1994, Dale's music--specifically, "Miserlou"--got its broadest exposure ever when Quentin Tarantino used it behind the opening credits in his film Pulp Fiction, and on the soundtrack album, which went platinum. According to Dale, it was "Miserlou" that inspired the movie, after Tarantino saw one of his live sets.

"He said, 'Dick Dale, I'm one of your biggest fans. "Miserlou" is a masterpiece, it's the good, bad and the ugly all together. It's very heraldic'--that's the word he used--'the trumpets, it's like Ben Hur. I would love to have your permission to create a movie to complement it.'"

Dale's professional trajectory makes the Grateful Dead's "long strange trip" look like a walk to the corner store. He says he has no plans to retire--he roars when the subject is hinted at: "When Dick Dale dies, he's not going to be sitting in a goddamned wheelchair with a can of beer and a big potbelly going 'Get me another beer, Mary,' rotting away like some little leaf in the eddy of a stream. Dick Dale will die in one fucking big explosion onstage!

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