Exalted axeman shreds into his late seventies
THE SANTA CLARA
October 22, 2015
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m a 20,” said guitar titan Dick Dale.
Last Saturday at the Ritz in downtown San Jose, the 78-year-old renal cancer survivor and surf rock pioneer unleashed a torrent of unparalleled prowess.
“When I die, it’s not going to be in a rocking chair with a beer belly,” he said. “It’s going to be in an explosion with body parts flying everywhere onstage.”
Atypical for a rock star, Dick and his wife/manager/agent Lana refuse drugs, alcohol and red meat. Instead, they ascribe to a natural lifestyle centered on martial arts, animal conservation and the regenerative mojo of rock-n-roll. Dick swears this alternative state-of-mind helped him beat cancer twice and Lana endure the pain of both multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia.
“I have to read between the lines that I’ve been kept alive for a mission, to do something for others,” he said. “When you can play music, it’s a healer. It’s been that way forever, even when King Arthur had his jester play the lyre. It heals all wounds. It brings people together. Music soothes the beast.”
As a young man, Dale dabbled with the trumpet, saxophone and ukulele before finding his weapon of choice. The lefty plays the guitar upside down and backwards, meaning his bass strings are on the bottom. Combined with his staccato picking at an atypical, adrenalized rhythm, Dale has cultivated a downright unreplicable sound that gained repute for the first time among surfer crowds in Huntington Beach during the 1950s. There, he met supreme guitar artist Leo Fender, who wanted Dale to try out his new invention, the Stratocaster.
Over the years, Dale and Fender collaborated to make thicker strings, juicier amps and stouter speakers. These advances culminated in Dale’s singular “fat” surf rock sound and paved the way for heavier, harder, faster styles of the genre.
And though Dale has been immortalized in the Huntington Beach Walk of Fame and Nashville’s Musicians Hall of Fame, he isn’t wedded to the style of rock that he vanguarded. He draws inspiration from mariachi, blues, jazz, old-timey country, gospel and Middle-Eastern standards. Even then, he sees music as “only one window of his creativity,” which also finds outlets in designing houses and piloting.
“I never did what most kids do with their guitar,” he said. “They go to bed with their guitar. They eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with their guitar. When I got through playing, I just put it down. I’m done. I never rehearsed. I never practiced. I never even list what I play. I make every show up. I never play any of the songs the same way twice. I just get sounds. I make my guitar scream with pain and pleasure.”
During his six decades of shredding, Dale has brushed shoulders with scores of American cultural pillars. He warbled country tunes alongside Johnny Cash, tutored fellow lefty Jimi Hendrix when he was just a bassist for Little Richard and almost missed a huge resurgence when his bass player threw away a note from a then-little-known director – Quentin Tarantino.
Not easily dissuaded, Tarantino found his way into Dale’s dressing room after the show. The oddball auteur explained to Dick that he generates film ideas after meditating on songs and he wanted to create “a masterpiece of a movie” by making a muse out of “Miserlou,” the beyond-iconic, blistering instrumental based on Eastern-Mediterranean scales. When Dale bestowed his blessing, Tarantino secured the seed that would sprout into “Pulp Fiction.”
“Miserlou” has been covered countless times – most famously as the anchoring sample of The Black Eyed Pea’s megahit, “Pump It,” which has lyrics that basically just restate over and over how kick-ass the song is.
Dale owns two platinum records because of that unstoppable track, and though his music has likely been heard by just about every human being with working ears, he maintains he won’t be satiated as long as there are crowds willing to “listen to the thunder.”
On Saturday, I entered the dim, cavernous Ritz to jams from a group of L.A. hard rockers named Dr. Boogie. Their frontman led an anti-police chant, caterwauled angstily and sported a button-laden vest, a messy 80’s mop cut and one cookie-sized hoop earring.
When they concluded, the audience congealed towards the front. Fans included dads in Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts, pierced-tattooed-hair-dyed punks and two beefy dudes rocking a fez and a dread net, respectively. All came to pay homage.
30 minutes passed. The only action was two P.A. requests to “enjoy the show like it’s 1955,” (abstain from technology) and two inexplicable fog bursts that dissipated in swirling columns on an empty stage. The audience voiced their mounting anticipation with tongue-in-cheek chants of “We Want Dick.”
Finally, after fans had practically started foaming, Dick decreed his presence with a few intoxicating licks and strode onstage with the hard-scrabble magnificence of John Wayne. He stood in a hallowed spotlight, wreathed in a glittering gold Stratocaster with an American flag sticker on it. His (much younger) bespectacled bassist and unbuttoned drummer looked to him for cues. Lana surveyed from upstage-left, wearing a black shirt emblazoned with a white star that said “Dick Dale.”
Now, I’ve seen lots of folks play guitar. But I’ve never seen anyone play with a guitar like Dick Dale. His fingers tumbled down, then scampered back up and around to poke high notes from over the topside of the neck as casual as I would enter a pin number. He whipped his pick back-and-forth at breakneck speeds. He dropped one hand and played open frets. He plucked muted skipping melodies. He plunged into metallic riffs. He slid into underwater facemelters.
He bent classics to his will, smushing together Ray Charles’s bouncy, bluesy “What I Say” with the Rivieras’ eager, effervescent “California Sun.” He thrummed the rise-and-fall of the Animals’ foreboding tale of bayou woe, “House of the Rising Sun,” and orchestrated a full-throated crowd-singing of the chorus. He requested that the sound guy “add a bit more edge (treble) to the mic so they can hear the sexiness of my growl,” then chugged through Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
He blew a shimmering chromatic harmonica solo. He picked up a pair of drumsticks and beat a tribal duet. He flipped the sticks and started tickling grooves out of a proffered bass guitar, grazing, tapping and clacking not just the strings, but the neck and the body too. Just making sure you got that: DICK DALE PLAYED A BASS GUITAR WITH DRUMSTICKS.
He dedicated a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” to firefighters, police officers and the armed services. He let each strum breathe, meditating on the timeless psalm’s poignant progression, stretching the notes into potent crests of supernatural height. Then he launched straight into “Miserlou.” He flew through his magnum opus, infusing it with signature gusto and stuffing the spacious ballroom with a tight, frenetic energy that damn near made me start babbling in tongues.
The trio finaled with a flurry breakdown and we roared. We roared because nobody should be able to do what Dick Dale does, and certainly not at the age of 78. We roared like we’d seen Paul Bunyan hack down a redwood. We roared for Dick Dale, for Dick Dale is a glorious man.
And just before the tenured legend draped his arm across Lana’s shoulders and retreated backstage to do whatever miracle workers do post-miracle, he leaned into the microphone and said to the gushing gathered, “You are my medicine.”
The beast had been soothed.
Contact John Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.