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Dick Dale, King of the Surf Guitar

by Deuce of Clubs

(First published in Planet Magazine, 26sep1995)


Anyone who knows anything about Dick Dale probably knows that he invented the genre of surf music, that he appeared in beach movies with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and that Quentin Tarantino used Dale's version of "Miserlou" as the theme to Pulp Fiction. But did you know that he used to raise lions and tigers in his home? Or that "Miserlou" is actually an old Mediterranean folk tune? Well, hang on—Dick Dale loves to set the record straight....

Deuce of Clubs: What does the word Miserlou mean, anyhow?

Dick Dale: You know, I don't know. It's Arabic.

I like how you snuck in the traditional Arabic version as a hidden track at the end of the Tribal Thunder CD.

Yeah, we were fooling around in the studio with this old flat-top guitar that Scotty (Mathews, who produced the album) found floating in the water in Mexico. The pegs were falling out and everything, but we put some strings on it and we also had this little Arabic drum, like the Egyptians play for the belly dancers. I took that guitar—I couldn't see what I was doing because it's a right-hand guitar, and you can't see no dots on the neck or anything—and was showing how "Miserlou" was played originally. Scotty was recording us and decided to put it on the end of the album.

You received a Grammy nomination for the Back to the Beach soundtrack—do you keep in touch with Frankie and Annette, or any of that crew?

Not really, no. Annie and I were very close for many years. In fact, our parents were trying to get us married! She's just a sweetheart of a girl, a real special person who never let it go to her head. Unfortunately, she has a real bad illness. And Frankie was always a nice guy, too. He was a straight shooter, just a straight shooter.

Whatever happened to Harvey Lembeck?

He died.

That's terrible! When Back to the Beach came out, I was disappointed not to see Eric von Zipper again. He was my favorite.

It's a shame. I've seen a lot of people go.

When you played here last, you introduced the song "Calling Up Spirits" by talking about the Founding Fathers. I'm curious about your political views.

They should all be wiped out!

Political parties?

Exactly. They should all be taken out! Just put the grassroots people in there. The people running this goddam country have never had their ass in the mud, they've never been in the trenches. If you had a business putting brakes on cars, would you want somebody who's gone to Yale and been "trained" to be the manager of your company, or would you rather have a guy who's been putting brakes on cars for 24 years? It's time for grassroots people to all band together and say, "We're tired of this crap! Let's take back our land!" [Dale proceeds to riff for about twenty minutes about government oppression.] Don't you think any sane man would end up going berserk and just shooting up anything and everything through frustration? I mean, people crack under those pressures! (Laughs) Well, you asked me about my political views! I could punch holes in that SOB all day long!

Do you still keep a lot of animals?

I have a beautiful Castillian Mustang, Arabian horses, we got my surfing dogs, and then all the creatures up in the desert here. My cats—my big cats—are with my buddy, he's got a big compound. And they're breeding and having fun and living out their beautiful years and preserving the breed.

So you still have lions and tigers?

Oh yeah, but not here with my child. They'd eat him! I lived with 'em and slept with 'em for thirty years. But you have to step away from it or, you know, the child will get eaten. I didn't have them in cages, I had big open compounds. They'd be in my home with me, they'd sleep with me. You can't have that when you have a child.

The back of one of your albums says "Dale was so in love with his first lion, he went into convulsions and had to be revived by artificial respiration when it died." What happened?

I was in my twenties, I guess. This lion I was trying to keep alive had a disease. Her balance was off, she couldn't walk straight. I always get up when I hear any kind of sound; I'm a light sleeper. I heard a sound, but I was so exhausted because I'd been with them all day—I'd take blood out of one and give injections to another because I would get all these sick animals. I always wanted to be a vet. Anyhow, she was wanting to come in the house and tried to get up over a chain-link fence. Her collar got hooked on the fence and she strangled to death. I went out and was holding her. I kept saying, "Elsa, come back, come back." Next thing I knew I was walking with her in the sunlight along the house. I had my hand on her shoulders, and she was saying, "Dick, come on, come on." I says, "Elsa, don't leave, don't leave." I had a big chain-link gate about eight feet high leading to the front yard. But now, immediately inside that gate it was black, black like India ink. The gate opened and she started walking through it. I said, "Don't go there, don't go there." She said, "Come with me, Dick. Come with me." I started crying. I says, "Please don't go." I started walking in with her. She was ahead of me now, sliding out from underneath my hand. I stepped through the gate, into the darkness. But the heel of my foot was still in the sun, where you could see everything. And I woke up. My best friend was breathing into my mouth, said I'd stopped breathing about three times. Hi, Jimmy! Hi, baby! [Jimmy is Dale's 3- year-old son, who plays drums on stage during his dad's shows.]

Your son's quite a drummer.

Oh man, yeah. He's endorsed by Zildjian cymbals. He's going on this big tour with us for about 42 days across the country starting with you guys. Any place that isn't too smoky and has a large stage, he'll be on stage playing the whole concert.

You were the first person in California with a license to play rock and roll. What does that mean?

In the fifties, you couldn't get a license to play in the high schools and junior highs—you could only dance to horn bands. They thought anybody who played guitar was evil. We said, "You want your kids out in the street or would you rather have them in one big place?" They said, "They gotta wear ties!" Who the hell ever heard of surfers wearing ties? They finally gave us a permit to reopen the Rendezvous Ballroom, which was a whole city block. Opening night we had 17 surfers in their bare feet—wearing ties. We had a box of 'em and handed 'em out to keep the city happy. And the surfers would say, "Man, you're the king!" So that's how the name "King of the Surf Guitar" came about. Dick Dale has never named anything himself. Dick Dale was strictly a product of the grassroots then, and now boom!—it's happened again. Especially because of Pulp Fiction—that just took it right over the top. Movie's done over $100 million. I just got a platinum album for it.

There's lots of misinformation about your invention of surf music.

Yeah! It was in the fifties, not the sixties, like all the magazines say. They don't know the whole true story anyway— they weren't even born! I crack up. I've always been kind of silent about everything, but now that everybody's starting to try to make money off it, I don't want kids to spend money on the wrong thing. You got books out there with all these different kinds of guitars that have nothing to do with the sound that Dick Dale created. The sound is a Stratocaster guitar. It's the solidity of the wood— the thicker the wood, the bigger and purer the sound. It was a Strat. Not the Jaguar, not the Jazzmaster, all these things we created later, for different reasons. Even the reverb—reverb had nothing to do with the surfing sound, and here they got 'em on the cover going "That's the wet, splashy sound of reverb." No! We created the reverb because Dick Dale did not have a natural vibrato on his voice. I wanted to sustain my notes while singing. So we copied the Hammond organ, which had a tank in it. We took the tank out, rewired it, and had an outboard reverb! It was for the vocal. Our first album, Surfer's Choice, sold over 88,000 albums—locally! That's like more than 4 million today. Dick Dale was already established as King of the Surf Guitar, and that album did not have reverb on it. It wasn't even invented!

I really like that you hang around after the show and talk to people and sign autographs.

If I spent money to see somebody, I would love to be able to go say hi. Sure, I'd like to go downstairs and die after blasting for an hour or so, but the thing is, how often are you going to see these people?

© Deuce of Clubs

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