At 74, the legendary Dick Dale keeps riding those surf guitar waves
Music In the beginning, the ocean was quiet. And before Dick Dale, the chords were thin, flat, and sweet. A young surfer growing up in picturesque 1950s Southern California, Dale changed the course of rock'n'roll with the thick, wet reverberating sound of Middle Eastern-influenced surf guitar and a little song called "Misirlou."
On that same album, 1962's Surfer's Choice (Deltone), he released crashing waves of perma-hits, from the similarly instrumental first hit "Let's Go Trippin'" with its walking guitar line, to juicy-hippie pop track "Peppermint Man." In the decades that followed, Dale influenced an expanding scope of musicians with innovative style, new amp sounds created with the help of pal Leo Fender, and his own signature guitars. He's lead a paradoxical life, the eccentric icon keeping exotic animals (most notably, a pet jaguar), but also a '60s-famous rocker who never touched a drug in his life. Thanks to healthy living and strong values, he's in a continuous prime despite lifelong illnesses; he keeps playing, keeps touring, and has hopes to get back to the beach soon.
I spoke with the maestro on the phone days before the holidays in anticipation of his Oakland show this weekend; in a friendly, frank, and meandering conversation he openly discussed his storied past, his eternal love for the water, and a surprising favorite instrument:
San Francisco Bay Guardian You're about to go back out on tour?
Dick Dale We just finished another tour — 20 concerts on the East Coast where I was born. And now I'm going up to Washington and back. I go to Solana Beach, San Jose, and Oakland at the Uptown. We play all over the world though. In Europe we play to 490,000 people outdoors, then we go play fairs. But I like the club circuit, I've been doing it so many years. It's good because it's a personal thing. I've been dealing with cancer for the last five years and diabetes on top of that, and when they see me on stage, it's like a big club [atmosphere], and they say 'how can he do that without taking drugs?'
I've never had a drug in my body in all my life. I don't take pain pills, never had alcohol in my body in my life. Your body is your temple. I've been a vegetarian for many years, never ate anything with a face. That's what gave me the strength to fight the cancer. The people, they see me performing and say 'wow, how do you keep doing that?'
When I was 20 they gave me three months to live from rectal cancer. I'm still here at 74, doing 30 concerts in a row. When I get to performing I just don't leave. I get at the doorway with my wife Lana and I talk with the people and sign until everybody leaves.
SFBG Where's your home base now?
DD I live near Twentynine Palms, actually Wonder Valley above Palm Springs. I still have my boats in Balboa in Newport Beach though, I came there in 1955. I came first to Southwest LA then to Balboa where I created what I created in the Rendezvous Ballroom — [it was] where all the big bands played in the late '50s.
I created the first power amplifiers with Leo Fender, we put transformers and big 15-inch speakers. That's why they call me not only the King of the Surf Guitar — 'cause I was surfing everyday — but also the Father of Heavy Metal because I played on 60-gauge guitar strings, and strings are normally small, thin, but mine, they called 'em telephone cables, because I wanted a big, fat sound.
SFBG When did you first discover an interest in music?