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The Wisdom of Dick Dale

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It’s been ten years since I started playing guitar with instrumental surf rockers The Madeira, and we’re hopeful that all the amazing experiences we’ve had so far have adequately prepared us for the big day. The day we will be opening for our biggest influence, the man who started the surf party in the first place: Dick Dale.

I recently had the privilege of conducting a phone interview with him, a stream-of-conscious conversation that sprawled in many unexpected directions. The first thing I realized during the two-hour conversation was that a conventional-style Q&A was never going to happen. Our exchange ebbed and flowed through a variety of moods, with topics of discussion ranging from his stint in the Air Force to bouts with cancer, the discipline of martial arts to his lifelong love of surfing. He gave marriage advice, mused on the existence of the paranormal, and explained why it’s better to be a jack of all trades than a master of one.

Despite his name being synonymous with the title ‘King of Surf Guitar,’ Dick Dale prefers not to talk about the genre (“No, not ‘surf music’ - ‘Dick Dale music,’” he balked upon first mention of it). He had nothing to say about the inclusion of “Misirlou” in ‘Pulp Fiction’ or the British Invasion that swept surf music out of the mainstream in the mid-'60s. At 77, he prefers to be home at his ranch in Twentynine Palms, California with his wife, Lana, and their exotic animals, than out on tour. Suffice it to say Dick Dale is a living legend whose watershed days developing a unique guitar sound and style defined what is now a time-tested, though perennially underrated, genre of music. What follows is a heavily condensed account of our conversation. 

Patrick: I appreciate your taking the time to talk. We’re really looking forward to seeing you in Indianapolis on July 22. My band, the Madeira, will be opening the show for you.

Dick: Oh, great! Hopefully I’ll be able to see you.

Patrick: How did your signature sound - the sound of surf music - originate?

Dick: When you say “surf music,” here’s how it came to be in the beginning... I first was given a trumpet when I was in seventh grade. I listened to people like Louis Armstrong and Harry James. Gene Krupa was my hero, and that’s why I started playing drums on my mother’s flour cans and sugar cans with eating knives. My father would kick me in the butt and say “Don’t scratch your mother’s flour cans and sugar cans,” because I’d be listening to Gene Krupa, Glen Miller, and all those people on the 78 records. I learned those rhythms that Krupa had learned from the indigenous tribes. He would play those rhythms that tribes would bump their spears on the ground to, always on the “one.” That’s how I learned to play drums. And then I took that same rhythm and applied it to my guitar, where I would strum the same way. So the people would feel that rhythm that I was playing. Because musicians play to other musicians; the grassroots people who tap their feet on the “one” don’t know what’s going on, so they don’t clap the way the musicians play. I play directly to the people. And on any instrument I have ever picked up, I’ve played by ear. I went and played the same rhythms that Gene Krupa played.

I always loved animals, and I had over 40 different species of animals – lions, tigers, leopards, jags, eagles, hawks. You name it, I had it. I was raising them to protect them from being killed by poachers. These animals would call to me when they would see me coming home. I never just put them in little cages, they would run as they were in the wild. I would even have them in my house, my African lioness in the front living room. And I wouldn’t suggest people doing that, cause you’ll get eaten. [laughs] But they would call to me. I would hand feed them all. So I would do this with my elephants and my African lion every day. So with all the sounds of my animals, I would make it sound like that on my guitar. And it would sound like the scream of a Pterodactyl or a Tyrannosaurus. So that would be number two, where my sound came from.

Number three would be the ocean. When I moved to California I became a surfer, and then I went to Hawaii and stayed there for many months when I was performing. I would be in the water from sun-up to sundown. Even in the night I was surfing. I would only come out of that water once, to go get a root beer float.

So, when the waves would take me or when I’d bodysurf, the waves would just pick me up, chew me up, and spit me out. And I’d be unconscious, because when we would land, it’s only 6” of water of sandy beach in Hawaii. I’d wash up on the shore like a beached whale. But that sound is what I incorporated also. So when I had my first concert with Leo Fender, I went to Balboa, California, and then I started surfing. So when we opened up the ballroom at Stan Kenton that was the last act that was there, and they were going to tear it down, and I got permits to open it with my dad. It held 4,000 people. The stage was humongous and there were giant red curtains. I told the surfers I was surfing with, we had a club called the 5th Street Crew, and I told the guys I was going to be playing at a place called the Rendezvous, 'cause we had no money to promote. And the first group of people that came there were these surfers, about 17 of them. And they’re standing in front of me while I’m playing this guitar.

Patrick: Almost synonymous with surf music is the name Leo Fender and the Fender Showman amplifier, which many of us still use today. Could you tell me more about your work with Fender?

Dick: I had heard about Leo Fender. I met him and he took a liking to me, like a son. Leo and I used to sit in this front living room on the floor listening to Marty Robbins on a little 8” speaker, it was just monaural. And that’s when we started designing the first output transformers that went from 10-15 watts to 180 watts. The JBL Lansing 15” D-130 speakers, I blew over 50 of his amplifiers, and he’d say “Dick, why do you have to play so loud?” And then we finally brought him down to the Rendezvous Ballroom. And by word of mouth, we had 4,000 a night.

Patrick: And then he understood what you needed.

Dick:He had Freddy Tavares from Hawaii, and he was his number one tester. He took all the bugs out of the Telecaster guitar. And when I met him, he said “Here, I just made this. It’s a Stratocaster. Take it and tell me what you think of it.” I held it upside down backwards and started playing it, and he never laughed. He looked like Einstein and was very serious.

Patrick: We’re both left-handed, but I play guitar in the traditional right-handed way. From what I understand, when you were learning to play, you didn’t restring the guitar for a left-handed player, in effect, learning to play upside down.

Dick: What happened was, as a child back in Massachusetts, I was reading a Superman magazine, and in the back there was an ad to sell so many jars of Noxzema skin cream, and we’ll send you this ukulele. I went out every night in the damn snowstorms; the snow would be so high you couldn’t go outside the front door. They’d say “Dickie is supposed to be in school.” And I says “Please buy my Noxzema skin cream.” And so I sold it, and I sent it in, and I had to wait about four months…

Patrick: And you finally got your ukulele.

Dick:And I finally got a ukulele. It just had holes with pegs in it and sawdust. And I just smashed it, I was so upset. So I took my little red wagon and a whole bunch of Pepsi bottles and went in and traded it, and I got $6. And for $5.95, I bought my first plastic brown and cream ukulele. It had screws holding the pegs in. They used to just fall out. And then I got this book and couldn’t figure out why my fingers wouldn’t go where the book said for them to go. And the first song that I ever learned was “Tennessee Waltz.” It was because my left hand had all the rhythm, playing the knives on my mother’s flower cans to Gene Krupa. And all the rhythm was in my left hand. So I just went and started taping my fingers where they were supposed to go, and I’d go to sleep at night thinking the fairy godmother would come along and make my fingers go there like they’re supposed to. And I learned those three chords.

Patrick: I picked up the ukulele a few years ago too, and it’s a lot of fun. When did you pick up the guitar?

Dick:I would go out picking swamp berries in Whitman, Massachusetts, where my grandma and grandpa lived, and one day my buddy and I were walking through the back swamp woods; it was like ‘Deliverance.’ We heard this noise and saw this old house. We stepped up on the porch and the front step collapsed. There was about five guys inside…and they were selling hollow-bodied guitars. And I said, “Wow, look at those guitars! How much?” And then he said “eight bucks.” At that time, I was working for five cents an hour at a bakery making bread. I says “Can I make payments?” and tried to get him down to 25 cents a week. He says, “No, 50.” I had 50 cents, gave it to him, and then he gave me the guitar. On the last payment, he saw me on the street and grabbed me by feet and held me upside down and shook. And he shook out whatever money came out of my pants (laughs). It was enough for the last payment, and I got that guitar, and it was an Ethel guitar. And then I had to hold it upside down, backwards, the way I would make the chords. And then I started strumming country songs, Hank Williams stuff.

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PatrickSo where did the title ‘King of the Surf Guitar’ originate?

Dick:The kids who saw me that I was surfing with, they’re the ones that gave me the surfing title. They said, “Man, you’re the king—you’re the KING! You’re the king of surf guitar, man.” That’s how it began, and then they named all of the songs that I was making up as I was playing.

Patrick: So it just kind of stuck then.

Dick:The picture of me surfing on the cover of the first album was the first picture used for commercial publication.

Patrick: This was Surfer’s Choice?

Dick:Right. And then… it was voted into the Congressional Hall of Records for all time. And that was “Dick Dale, King of the Surf Guitar.” So, no matter what I say or do....

Patrick: You’ll always have that title.

Dick:Why couldn’t I get knighted? [Laughs] 

Patrick: There are much worse titles out there, that’s a pretty prestigious one.

Dick:I had a critic say “Don’t ever in your life poo-poo the name ‘King of the Surf Guitar,’ because you are truly what that title is, and how many people can say they were king of something? Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, Elvis Presley was the King of Rock & Roll. And there were other people trying to use that title, but were never recognized. I never pay attention to any of those things.

I asked one of my masters one day, “Why can I not be the greatest of something that would be unbeatable?” These were monks that I trained with. There’s always someone better than you. He said “How would it be if you were the best? You can be the best, but you must give up everything in your life, and only see that, eat that, sleep that, dream that, and live that. And he said “Wouldn’t it be better to be a jack of all trades, master of none, rather than just master of one?” If you were master of one, you would be very dull. So I chose to be a jack of trades, master of none. I have read on everything from how to raise a canary to how to weld, how to fly an airplane, how to build houses, and I have done all of these things. And I tell kids, “Put this in your brain because it will keep you away from drugs, it will keep you away from the bad people. You walk your own path, and the good ones will follow you. Treat your body like it’s a shining temple, not some kind of a billboard.” I’d give them some famous words that my masters gave me: “To experience is to know, to know is to understand, to understand is to tolerate, to tolerate is to have peace.” Everybody is so intelligent, even monkeys have intelligence. But that is your worst enemy, because many people with their intelligence have gone down those roads and been screwed, blued and tattoo-ed.

Patrick: Right, because they can justify it in their mind.

Dick:Yes. And what controls intelligence? Wisdom. And where does wisdom come from? Making mistakes throughout your whole life, learning not to go back to them. I would rather talk to someone who is 90 years of age tell me how they achieved their wisdom of how not to make those mistakes. Thoughts become words, so be careful what that thought is. Words become actions. A word can give you a big, smiley hug, or it can give you a knife in the back. So thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become your character…You can’t hide your character, and character becomes your destiny. So when kids want to talk to me about playing the guitar, I say “Come here, son. Let me cleanse your soul.” And then I’ll tell them the attitude that they must have.

Patrick: It’s funny you say that because you’ve been touted by some not only as a groundbreaking musician, but also as an inspirational life coach, and even a guru. So, let me ask you, what do you believe happens after death?

Dick:First of all, I don’t speak bullshit. I’m from Boston, Massachusetts. Whatever I say, you can bet a thousand dollars on what I say and win with someone else that it’s true. I will not say anything unless I have experienced it or I have a thousand books and have read about it. You asked a very important question.

Patrick: It’s THE question, isn’t it?

Dick:There is nothing else more than that question. If we ever get a chance to sit down, I could show you definite proof of what happens to us when we die. I have not only experienced that, my wife has experienced it because she was born a ‘sensitive.’ Have you ever heard of a medium?

Patrick: I have.

Dick:First of all, I have never believed in any of that unless someone came down and shook my hand and said “Hi, Dick, How are you doing” in spirit form. But now I cannot say that anymore. My wife was born a sensitive, which is ten times more powerful than a medium. You’re born with this, and her mother was born with this. If I was tell you what’s happened to me, 95 percent of people would put me in the funny farm. So that’s why we don’t like to talk about it.

Patrick: By all accounts, you and your wife, Lana, seem to be a great team. I just got married a few weeks ago and wanted to ask if you had any advice?

Dick: Treat them with honey. Just be cool, calm, and quiet as much as you possibly can. No matter how much, they’ll always feel insecure about something. So treat them like a baby cub animal…

Patrick: Everybody’s insecure about something. That’s just how the human mind works.

Dick: That’s right. Our days are numbered. My friend, you just give your sweetheart a big hug and tell her not to listen to what all the other ones say to her.

Patrick: Will do. [Laughs]

Dick: You speak very learned, even though you have a young voice.

Patrick: Thanks. I’m older than I sound, but I’m a musician too, so I try to keep myself young to be able to go onstage and perform. Do have any advice for performing musicians?

Dick: When you start playing and see this band that thinks they’re pretty hot, and they ask you to work with them, that’s what their character is all about. If they’re into the drugs and the booze and the smoking, walk away. I would like to slap every one of them, but it’s just a shame. Everybody I knew liked pot. I found Jimi Hendrix when he was playing bass for Little Richard in a bar in Pasadena to thirty people. And I’d show him all his slides and everything like that. Before he got saturated in drugs, he used to say “I got all of my best [stuff] from Dick Dale.” But he was a warm, nice person in the beginning. The people he had to be associated with got to him cause he felt he should be doing these things with them if he wanted to be successful. And that’s why I don’t like musicians or entertainers, because they don’t represent what they should represent to the world.

Dick: That’s why when I got into performing, I left. I’d go surfing, I’d read how to build a house. I read books on developing real estate. Then I lost it all from a divorce. So now I’m back on my feet as long as I’m able to move around, but the doctors are telling me not to do what I do.

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Patrick: Like yourself, the Madeira’s drummer, Dane, is a pilot. He wanted me to ask what kind of airplane you fly?

Dick: A 337 Skymaster. It’s a twin-engine, the engine in front, one on the back two tails, and they’re attached together. That’s the plane that I have, and I also have a single engine called a Mescalero, a T-41BR-172E. All the army fliers, they had them for the Air Force.

Patrick: That sounds like quite a thrill. Speaking of, I understand you’ve been receiving some impressive accolades recently. 

Dick: I’m in the Presidential Historical Museum with John Adams and John Quincy Adams, in that building, the most decorated of all entertainers. The United States ambassador from Lebanon flew me to Washington D.C. with 2,000 dignitaries, ambassadors from Palestine, Morocco, everywhere, and had us in the White House at the famous hotel where the president goes to have his big dinners. We had a meet and greet, and then they presented, playing my movies, and the ambassador gave me this lifetime award for what I have done with my music throughout the world. That was pretty neat…They had me there to perform, and a portion of my forefinger holding the pick was cut off. I went to the hospital and they said “bring me the other part of your finger, we’ll stitch it on.” I said “I don’t know where the hell it is, it’s on the carpet somewhere” (laughs). And then I just taped up my finger and miraculously, a portion of it grew back. But I had three weeks for it to heal up to a point where I could hold the pick.

Patrick: Unless you injure yourself, you’re not working hard enough at playing! So, after more than half a century performing live, how do you keep that inner fire?

Dick: All these people ask “How does Dick Dale do it onstage?” I’ve had it where they’ve had to carry me onstage and put me in a chair because the pain was so severe, but I would perform, and get standing ovations.

I learned from the monks that you don’t think about yesterday, cause it’s gone. It was either good or bad. But you don’t worry about yesterday. You don’t worry about tomorrow, because after I speak to you, my friend, I could hang the phone up and keel over dead. So I make the most out of this conversation, and this is the longest I’ve ever talked to anybody [for an interview].

Patrick: Thanks, I really appreciate it!

Dick: I’ve seen so many of these journeys, and you need to have someone say good things and try to make those good things take hold and stick to you. That’s why if you ask me what time it is, if I like you, I’ll tell you how to build a clock.