Music Interview: A Conversation With Dick Dale

A Conversation With Dick Dale

August March
9 min read
Bodhisattva of the Surf Guitar
Surf Rock Bodhisattva Dick Dale (Lana Dale)
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Dick Dale invented summertime. Before he figured out how to channel the power of the ocean and the intensity of non-Western rhythms through an electric guitar, the kids in southern California were mostly square and spent the months between June and September going to barn dances, politely adhering to their parents’ customs, never daring to wander away from 4/4 timing, never craving to turn the volume up to 11.

Dale spent his early years in Massachusetts becoming familiar with the traditional music his family excelled at; the rhythms of the Tarabaki drum and the sound of the oud influenced his musical vision. When the family moved to the West Coast in the mid ‘50s, Dale learned to surf.

The nascent musician’s ideas about music continued to evolve. Dale studied drummer Gene Krupa—one of the first white jazz musicians to recognize the primacy of African music, Krupa had become deeply influenced by the genre as did Dale. The guitarist came away from his studies with an essential idea: Clarity of tone at a high volume would enable a musician to explore new methodologies for creating a groove, and the sounds produced would literally resonate within the bodies of listeners.

What followed was an explosion of sound. Working directly with the founding engineers at JBL and Fender, Dale helped develop a loudspeaker that could handle 100 watts of amplification—while he continued to surf the breaks and listen deeply to the monstrous motors of the hotrods roaring around his beach town.

By 1961, Dale had landed a series of gigs at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Calif. Using an ultra-loud rig and staccato picking with a keen sense of rhythm and frenzied melodic style, Dale accurately and energetically reflected the energy of the culture in which he had immersed himself. Surf music was born.

Weekly Alibi chatted with legendary guitarist Dick Dale as he prepared to load his life up into a van and take his precision show on the road for the gazillionth time. At 78 years of age, he still has the mojo to tour across the land, bringing the sea and the sunset to summertime towns across the country. He’ll perform at Sister on Monday, May 9.

What’s important to you as you continue to rock out in 2016?

Man, all that stuff you wrote about me, I don’t know about that. (Laughs) I just take each day as it comes. Everything from building houses, to doing things I’ve never done before. That’s the reason I keep moving. Music has been but one window in my life. I never wanted to be on stage. My father tricked me into being on stage. He wanted to see how tough I was. He had this friend of mine join up with a talent show. He told me my friend was going to play the guitar too, so there would be two of us. I don’t know if he flipped him a fin or what. I didn’t want to do that, but I got up on stage anyway. The other guitarist started playing this rhythm, quarter notes up and down the scale; 1,2,3,4 … 1,2,3,4. I told him, you know what, you should make it fuller and more exciting, double those notes. And he started playing eighth notes and I joined in, but then he ran off the stage to see if I’d panic, but I didn’t. I don’t back down from anything in my life. I won the contest. That was back in Massachusetts, I was in seventh grade.

How did your values shape your desire to make music?

I worked in an Arabic bakery for five cents an hour. I tell some of those stories to the audience while on stage now. I say, would you dig ditches for five cents an hour? They yell back, “Are you kidding, man, times have changed!” And I tell them, “The only thing that’s changed is the time.” Yes, gas went up, and it used to cost 10 cents to see a movie. What hasn’t changed is character. That means helping old ladies cross the street … you train your mind that way, to accept, to be humble. That is something I learned early in my life. If I’m building a table and I bend a nail, I don’t cover it up with molding so no one will see it. I will take that nail out and put a new one in. That’s the way I’ve always done things. There’s a whole reasoning behind it. I’ve discussed this with masters, with monks. My wife had an audience with the Dalai Lama; he blessed my rosary.

How does that sense of mindfulness come out in your performances?

The only difference between me and anyone else is that I have many windows to go through. As far as staying alive, I have to perform because I have to raise, like, at least $3,000 a month just for the attachments on my stomach (Dale has advanced diabetes). That isn’t even talking about the other medical expenses. The whole thing is, if I don’t play out I don’t live. On my last tour, on my days off, they were feeding me through a tube because the pain was so heavy. They wanted to put me in the hospital at one point, but I said, “Are you kidding, I have a concert tonight!” So I did the last four gigs of the tour sitting on a stool, and I’d make fun of it. The other reason we’re out on the road again is to share with people what we do to stay alive. Listen, everybody dies. But it’s how you die. My playing has always been like a book cover; people open up the cover and see what’s inside. If it matches them, if they’re struggling, if they’re searching too, then we’ve shared something essential.

Does your audience know about this deeper side of Dick Dale, or are they just coming out to see a guitar god?

Are you kidding me, dude? We had 30,000 people in the audience when I played Viva Las Vegas last year, and I spent hours meeting with them afterward. About 50 percent of them have gone through something medically intense. Here’s what happens: One of the last concerts I did, an old-time surfer, he was dying in hospice, wanted to come out to the show. The music of Dick Dale meant a lot to him, and his friends were going to bring him on a gurney. He went into a coma, and the doctors said he was going to die. But on the day of the show, he miraculously came out of the coma, and we Skyped the show to his hospital room. He tells me he’ll see me on tour this year.

So, what is the music of Dick Dale?

I play every style of music. Surf music too. I dig Latino music. I tutored Ritchie Valens, for Crissakes. I love Jimi Hendrix and the Ramones. I love emotional music. If I see someone with a cowboy hat [in the audience] I’ll do Johnny Cash. I did a piano concerto-type thing at the last place I played. I can play [the piano] like Jerry Lee Lewis. I can play classical and romantic works too. I don’t do this sort of thing often on interviews, but listen. (Dale proceeds to play the piano, starting off with some scales, then rocking out with a heavy boogie-woogie vibe for two minutes before continuing to talk). I wasn’t trained to do this; I learned it myself.

Where does all of that come from?

I was like this all my life; because it’s like building a house, you start from the ground up. Lana, my wife, is a main source. When Lana sings, it’s beautiful … she has that voice. She’s got a mind that’s unbelievable. She was sent to me from the heavens above.

But my whole life has been like that … okay I’ll tell you, this is what I got from the monks. They spend their lives trying to know the Buddha. There are no gray parts to life. It’s either right or it’s wrong. One time I asked one of my masters, “How can I be the best?” He told me that I could be the best, but that first I had to give it up, everything. Then, you’ve got to live it, breathe it, you’ve got to sleep and dream it. Then he asked me, “Do you want to be master of one or master of none?” That made sense to me. But no matter what I do, what things I construct, on a scale of 1 to 10, it usually comes out as a 25. I try and strive for perfection in all things, though I am a master of none. It’s a way of life.

What advice do you have for young musicians?

When you start playing an instrument—no matter what it is—and you’re loving it, and this big band or manager comes to see you play and tells you, “We like the way you play,” don’t go with them. Walk your own path, no matter what people say to you. I don’t hang out with musicians. I don’t like the people in show business either because they are phony and fake. They won’t give you a street to go down. Now, there are people out there in the business who’ve been through a lot, and it shows in their work. I was talking to [country music superstar] Charlie Daniels about this. He said something that bears repeating, “Son, they can’t do what you do. You just go out there and do what you do.”

Dick Dale

Lana Dale

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