Music News

Surf King

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Meyerowitz