Dick Dale Has to Keep Rocking or He'll Die
Dick Dale and his pet lioness, Elsa
"If I stop, I'll die," Dick Dale says over the phone, then laughs. "When I die, it's going to be an explosion of body parts onstage."
The term 'legend' should never be used lightly, but Dick Dale certainly deserves it, having not only practically invented surf music, but his upside down, left-handed staccato style strongly influenced heavy metal, Jimi Hendrix, and anyone who has ever happened to use reverb. It's no exaggeration to say that every guitar-driven band, from The Ventures to Sonic Youth to Best Coast and beyond, owe The King of the Surf Guitar some kind of debt.
And at 77, the Boston-born guitarist does seem unstoppable. Despite a few fights with cancer and other health problems, he's still going strong, continuing to put on lively performances and worldwide tours.
With his band the Del-Tones, Dale popularized surf music in the 1950s, often transforming Middle Eastern scales and traditional folk songs into zesty, throbbing hits; the most well known example being "Misirlou," which featured prominently in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Inspired by the unique rhythm in the waves, Dale worked closely with Fender Guitar Company to manufacture instruments and amplifiers that could actually handle his enormous wall of sound.
Speaking to Dick Dale on the phone feels like like talking to a grandparent. His voice is warm, inviting -- not at all the gruff, businesslike tone I expected -- and we talk for over an hour. Well, he talks, I listen. I'm only able to get one question out: "How are you doing?"
"You never ask somebody how're they're doing," Dick says firmly. I feel myself start to sweat, but then he continues. "Because they'll unload on you for about three hours about their bad back and about every ailment that they've got. So, just say, 'hi Dick, you sound great today!'"
"Hi Dick," I say. "You sound great today!"
Dale's wife, Lana, laughs from the other room. Judging from the one phone call, their 25-year romance is definitely something special. According to the couple, Mrs. Dale now does all his booking and management, answering 2,000 emails per week, and scheduling interviews, including this one. She's also a 'walking encyclopedia' of medical science, as Dick puts it, and he says she once saved Orson Welles life in a hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida.
"She was a nurse there and [Welles] wouldn't let anybody touch him but her because she was so meticulous in everything that she does," Dale says. Just like he warned me, Dick does talk to me about his health problems, only he isn't bitching about them. He's very open about the battles he's had with cancer, which left him with renal failure, among other issues. But Dale continues to tour and still shreds it on stage.
"My wife has MS for chrissake and she deals with it everyday," Dale says. "We take no drugs, we don't take no painkillers, and it's because we've never put alcohol in our bodies in our life, and we've never put a drug in our body in our life, and we don't smoke and we don't eat red meat."
If Dale sounds like he's proselytizing, you can't blame him. He says the main reason he tours is so he can provide guidance and comfort to people going through the same health conditions as himself.
"They look at me and say, 'Oh my God, look at him on the stage and he's not on any drugs or anything and he's playing like that,'" Dale says. "We sit and we talk when the concert's over and we share what they're going through. And these poor people, I'm telling you, they're lying in bed and they cannot work and they cannot pay the extra money for the same stuff that I gotta buy."
It's not like Dick Dale has small audiences, either. His MIM show in Scottsdale sold out quickly, but also consider that he played before 490,000 people once in Berlin, 25,000 at last year's Viva Las Vegas Car Show (with Little Richard, no less), and when he played with Kid Rock at SunFest2014, he had an audience of 30,000. After Viva Las Vegas, the guitarist says he spent five and a half hours at the merch table talking to fans.
"I don't get on Twitter and all that other kind of crap. We have too much time to pay attention to just email," Dale says. "We get 2000 email a week. Who's got time to get on YouTube or whatever? Although, there's about 10,000 Dick Dale things on YouTube, and because the kids all come and sneak what I'm doing on stage on their iPhones and put it on YouTube, God bless 'em."
Dick Dale is scheduled to play Musical Instrument Museum, on Friday, April 3.
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