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?
DD When I was a kid back in Boston. I'm self-taught. Never took a lesson. Piano being my favorite. And I always played trumpet, sax, accordions, and harmonicas — you name it! I was just inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville. That's the real deal, that's where you're voted upon by over a hundred thousand players, musicians.
SFBG And how'd that feel? It must've been exciting.
DD That was the real thing! That other [rock history museum], that's just governed by a dozen people around a table. I really never paid attention to any of these though really, I've always been a rebel in the business. The big agencies and recording companies, they don't like me, haven't liked me since I was a beginner in this business because I knew what they were doing when they had these kids sign — they were taking away all their royalties. I tell the kids now, don't sign with a big company, the minute you sign, you sign over your rights.
SFBG Do you meet a lot of younger bands? Do you see your influence on their music?
DD Yeah, they all open up for me. It's been going on and on though. I found Jimi Hendrix when he was playing bass for Little Richard in a bar in Pasadena for 20 people. Stevie Ray Vaughan, his first records he learned on were Dick Dale records. I'm the guy who created the first power amplifiers with Leo Fender. In fact, I just got through doing one of the songs on the album for Glen Campbell's last album. Glen played backup guitar in my recording sessions back at Capitol [in the 1960s].
SFBG Do you ever think about releasing new material?
DD My son, Jimmy [who's 19], he matches me note to note, but I also taught him drums like Gene Krupa. Jimmy and I, we do dueling guitars. We just created two new guitars. Jimmy has one called the Jimmy Dale Signature Kingman guitar, and I have the Dick Dale Signature Malibu guitar. And my guitar is about three-quarters size so you can put it in a car and play it. It's something I've been screaming about for 20 years, nobody would listen. Finally Fender wanted to me to do something and I said I won't do it unless you make this guitar.
On acoustic guitars it's usually six-to-eight inches deep to make a big sound, but they don't realize its unnatural for the average human to put their arm over the top of the guitar and start strumming, you get a cramp in your back, the older you get, the quicker that comes. I've always said 'why can't I just drop my arm straight down?' Instead of eight inches deep, make it three inches. They all said 'you're not going to get the sound.'
When you have molecules for mahogany, they're a certain shape, you strike a note with a string, it'll go 'BING!' The note wants to travel like a tsunami wave, a continuation, so it travels through the back, up the side, but when it goes to the top base with a different wood, it's like somebody changed the recipe for your soup. You're going to hear the string, but you'll never hear the color of the sound, the pureness, undisturbed.
I tried to explain that to them using one wood so it'll be all the same molecules. I convinced them to do that, they made that guitar then I had them put on two pick guards, one on top, so you save the face of the guitar, then I had them put on a tuner. Then I had them strum it and those techs, their jaws just dropped. I said, 'see? The world is no longer flat, fellas.'
The last tour we did, was only just Jimmy and I doing dueling guitars. We sat in two chairs like the Smothers Brothers, picking on each other, father and son. Now we're doing the tour with my band, and now he's doing drums for me.
SFBG I saw that you were inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach.
DD Yeah, everybody can walk all over me now. No, I'm just joking, I make fun of everything. I used to surf the pier all the time. I'll be back in the water again, it's just that we've been on such a hellacious schedule that I don't even have time. When I go back, I'll be back in the water. To me that's the greatest healer.
With The Bitter Honeys, and the Dirty Hand Family Band
Sat/7, 10 p.m., $20
1928 Telegraph, Oakl.