EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally posted on July 16th, 2012. To mark the sad passing of Dick Dale at the age of 81, we are re-posting it.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Surf music? Dick Dale invented the stuff. Pure mainlined adrenaline, it is. Like a pocketful of white lightning. Nitroglycerin on hot wax. Surely you’ve seen the opening moments of Pulp Fiction. Easily the most thrilling marriage of profanity, felony and surf music in the history of American cinema. Rock guitar? He re-invented it. He is more or less the bridge between Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. He worked closely with Leo Fender — godfather creator of the essential machinery of rock, the Fender guitar and the Fender amp — to advance the power and the scope of the electric guitar. He pioneered the idea of guitar as nitro-burning funny car. He made it a fast machine and louder than it had ever been before. When you are packing out the ballrooms of Southern California with 4,000 kids a night, as Dale routinely did in the early 60s, you’re gonna need a lot of firepower. Before Dick, guitar amps didn’t go to 11. After Dick, they did. Now 81-years-old, Dick’s been rocking’ and rolling for more than 50 years. Nothing — not cancer, not diabetes, not renal failure — can stop him. Long may he rock. DISCUSSED: How to surf, Quentin Tarantino, Gene Krupa, surfing, beating cancer, Leo Fender, John Travolta, surfing, going blind, Egyptian medicine, and the angels of mercy.
PHAWKER: Unlike, say, The Beach Boys, you actually used to surf correct?
DICK DALE: Sun up to sun down.
PHAWKER: What advice would you offer to non-surfers?
DICK DALE: Well, you should certainly get someone who has been surfing a long time to give you tips on what not to do with your board as you’re walking out into the ocean. Many times, some people will put the board down horizontal to their body on the water and the water will come real, real slow, you won’t even see it happen when it happens, and it will push the board upward right into your face. So you should always have the board pointing out towards the ocean, the nose of the board, and you should stand beside it with your hands on the board. When you go out in the water and you’re paddling out, I used to always start out paddling fish style on my stomach and when I was tiring I’d get up on my knees and paddle then go back down on my stomach. You’ve got to be careful sometimes when you’re grabbing the rails of the board when your hands are wet, a lot of the times a person put wax on the board and on the rails there was the wax, and your hands will slip off out into the water and you’ll just smash your face into the board and you could break your cheek or get injured that way. Another thing, I don’t want to take up all your time …
PHAWKER: No. Go ahead.
DICK DALE: When you’re paddling out to the water and the waves are coming at you, one’s going to come over you. Well what I used to do was to lean forward, grab the nose of my board with both hands so that I’m laying on it and I’d roll over and pull the nose down towards my head so that the waves would go right over the top of me and continue rolling as I went through the wave. Some people, they’ll sit forward and they’ll kind of duck their head down and push the nose up but I don’t advise that. I advise them to, if they’re laying down or just kneeling paddling, just grab the nose with both hands, like 10 or 12 inches down from the tip of the nose on each side of the rail, and then just spin over upside down in the water and pull that nose down so that the waves go over you. You don’t want that wave to break on you and slam the board up into your head.
PHAWKER: It sounds like a good way to get knocked unconscious.
DICK DALE: Yeah. And then a lot of times too we when you lose the board, and even though you’ve got a leash on it now you gotta do the same thing, when you do a wipe out and you’re going off that board and you’re going into the ocean, the first thing I always did was spin my head down and cover my head with my hands because the board will shoot straight up into the air and come down, sometimes nose first and it can sometimes hit you in the head. Stuff like that. Always dive down and hold your head so that the board is being pulled away from you and then surface. And then, if you do go and you see you’re in a big white, if you’re in a 12 footer or a 15 footer or something like that, and even a six foot wave, if you go down and the wave is breaking and it snaps the leash from your foot, or you’re not wearing a leash and the board takes off and starts going in and you’re out there and the wave is behind you, dive down and hold your breath as long as you can, and then surface yourself and when you surface you’ll get a back wave that’s gonna come and meet you, a follow up, so grab as much air as you can and go under again but don’t panic because you’re going to get hit with more than one wave. So if you do it just don’t panic. Go under and hold your breath, and once you surface gulp air and go back down again until the waves die over you, and then from there, if you get caught in the rip tide, and a lot of times about twenty feet from the shore you’ll be paddling trying to swim in, and all of a sudden you can’t get into the shore because the rip tide keeps taking you down to the left or the right 20 feet out from the shore so don’t fight it, just get yourself floating, just tread water, don’t use up all your strength, and tread water until it’s not sweeping you. I’ve been taken at least a quarter mile down a beach front more than once and when it dies out, then you use the strength that you preserved instead of trying to swim through it because you’ll never make it. You’ll never be able to through it so just wait until it’s through pulling you and then turn around and use your swimming talents to get into the beach.
PHAWKER: Well, that’s all very useful surfer information. Thank you. When was the last time you actually surfed?
DICK DALE: Well, it’s been a while now because of the fact of the cancer, and the diabetes on top of the cancer and I have what they call renal failure at this moment and I have to be careful. I cannot strain, you know I’m not playing and jumping off the stage or playing my saxophone or anything like that but I do boogie woogie on my harmonica. But they don’t want me to strain because my fistula which is part of my intestinal track which happened because of the radiation that I went through and that’s how I destroyed my bladder, because of the radiation creating fistulas in my body, and I got infected inside of me and shut down my kidneys and stuff like that.
PHAWKER: Sorry to hear that, man. So moving into surf music is it true that you were trying to replicate the sound that you would hear in your head maybe when you were in the tube of a wave?
DICK DALE: That was the ending of it all. The beginning was replicating the sound of Gene Krupa on my drums, because I played drums first. But I wanted the sound of Gene Krupa’s drums on my guitar. And the way that I played the percussion, when you’d play on the drum you’d go [makes drum beat sounds] 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1 — like that. Well, then you’d learn to do taka ticka taka ticka taka tica ta, then you’d go taka ticki ticki taka ticki taka, you know like that and that’s the way he was playing on the drums when he was doing a fill so I learned to pick like that and I started picking that way. But before that I was singing Hank Williams songs and doing country songs and I was strumming and of course I was playing like a dummy upside down because the first instrument I learned to play was the ukulele and I couldn’t understand why my fingers wouldn’t go where the book told them to go. The book didn’t say ‘Turn it the other way, stupid, you’re left handed.’ So I just forced my fingers.
After trying to play the sounds of Gene Krupa we were designing amplifiers with Leo Fender, he was like a second father to me, and he took a liking to me. He had just created the Stratocaster and I became his guinea pig at that time and I had to test everything that came out of his mind. Now, as far as the sound, I was getting the sound of Gene Krupa’s drums but at the same time I was protecting species of animals; lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, bears and chimps that deserved to breed but were being killed by the poachers, so that they could live out their full life. And I had a lot of property at the time, I had about four or five acres, and I had they all lived on that instead of in little cages like at the zoo and I would even sleep with the lions and bears for about 30 years. When they would scream to me, and the lions would roar when they wanted to eat, and they wanted to eat at a certain time, like around 5:30 in the morning and they’d roar and I would imitate their roars and I’d imitate the screams of the mountain lion, whaaaaallll, like that to me and the elephant, when I would feed it. So the sound started with Gene Krupa’s drums and then it evolved into the screams of the animals, and then from the animals it went into the tubes of the waves.
Now, how they named it Surf Guitar, and they named it Surfing Music, it was a club I belonged to at the time, it was called the 5th Street Crew in Huntington Beach, California and I was hanging out and I said, ‘Hey, I’m playing at the Rendezvous Ballroom’ — which held 4,000 people — why don’t you guys come on down and they said, ‘Cool.’ So anyway, they came down and they sat in front of me, and they go ‘Man!’ — because the crazy sound I was getting out of my amplifiers that Leo was building — they said ‘Wow, that’s like the surf man, you know you’re the king, the King of the Surf Guitar,’ and they started calling me the King of the Surf Guitar. And so that stuck with me, and from then on everybody called it Surf Music.
DICK DALE: Well, my music is what created Pulp Fiction. A lot of people don’t know the whole story. When I was on tour, Quentin Tarantino came up to my bass player and gave him a note that said ‘I would like to talk to Dick Dale,’ and my bass player at the time didn’t know who he was so he threw the note away. But Quentin found me in my dressing room and he said, ‘Dick Dale, I’ve been listening to your music umpteen years it’s so powerful it gives me energy.’ He said most people, when they make a movie, they make the movie first and then they put music to it while they’re watching the rushes and they say ‘OK, there’s a character doing this so let’s put some music to that.’ He said ‘I don’t do that. Usually what I do is I hear a song and it just nails me and I play it over and over and over and over, and I see the movie [in my head], and what I want to do is I want to create a masterpiece of a movie to complement the masterpiece of your song.’ And he asked ‘Can I use your song to create this movie?’ And because he was so earnest, so sincere, I said ‘Do it.’ So he did it and when I asked him how he was doing with the movie and he told me John Travolta was in the movie. When it was done, I got a message that said ‘I’ll send you a limo to pick you up and I want you to come to Universal Studio and I want you to tell me what you think of the movie.’ So they picked me up and took me down there and I was blown away. I was just blown away and look what it did for him. Look what it did for John Travolta. It was one of those things. That’s how it happened.
PHAWKER: I love that story.
DICK DALE: He even told that story on the Johnny Carson Show too.
PHAWKER: That’s great! I know that soundtrack did very well sales wise and I’m assuming you’ve seen a lot of money from that? Hopefully you’re financially secure from that? Yes? No?
DICK DALE: No, for a lot of reasons I’d rather not get into. You get fees for doing that and you get paid royalties so that’s no problem, and you get what they call upfront money so there’s that. I hit some hard times and had to start all over again and with the love of my life, Lana, she came from St. Petersburg, Florida. Our love story is kind of a beautiful story. When Lana was three years old her mother had given her a picture album of tigers and so she loved animals and she always took care of animals and, not when she was three years old but later on what happened was she picked up my album The Tiger’s Loose and she looked into my eyes on the album cover and saw the animal in me and said ‘I want to be with him the rest of my life.’ She always watched me through my life and never contacted me because she respected the fact that I was married at the time. Then, when I became very, very ill, through all her life she never got married, she never had boyfriends; she always told people ‘I’m saving myself for Dick Dale.’ One day she emailed me when I was very, very ill and my body was being affected by radiation all through my body and my bladder became destroyed and the diabetes came in and I was going blind. She was taking care of returning veterans at the veterans’ hospital and she wanted to contact me so she emails me and then we started talking on the phone and we talked for over 19 months and she sort of kept me going and then eventually she saw that there was something radically wrong with me and the doctors couldn’t figure it all out and she prayed to her angel Bernadette and her angel said ‘Go get a scratch ticket,’ a lottery ticket, which she’d never done before and she won $400.00 and bought a plane ticket to come save me. And she showed up.
PHAWKER: What year were you talking about here? When did this happen?
DICK DALE: About eight years ago, something like that.
PHAWKER: What happened to your first wife?
DICK DALE: [pause] I’d rather not discuss that.
PHAWKER: OK, but I just wanted to establish that you were no longer married to her when this woman came into your life.
PHAWKER: So you were alone for a long time. So you guys have been together for the last eight years ever since?
DICK DALE: That’s right. But getting back to the story, when she first showed up she insisted on seeing all the blood tests and she read it and told the doctor, ‘Did you read this report?’ He said, ‘What’s the matter with it?’ She said ‘It’s supposed to be 80 over 120 and it’s over 600 and he could die.’ He said, ‘My god, get him to the hospital we’re gonna lose him! We’re gonna lose him! They got my blood sugar down to around 200 and then it was 190 now I can see. Before I couldn’t see the signs on the freeway. So she’s been an angel to me and she’s with me every night. We’re never out of each other’s sight.
We’re a couple of seniors that take care of each other. That’s what we do. Because of the illnesses that we have I like to be a Johnny Appleseed going through the country because when people see me on the stage they say, ‘Holy god, how does he do it?’ And we sit and we talk about all the illnesses. We learn to make fun of it, we tell them if you can just swear at it and make fun of it and you can learn to help other people try to get through theirs and you forget about what’s going on with you. So that’s a way of dealing with it and that’s what we’re doing, me and Lana. We’re like Johnny Appleseeds going across the country.
PHAWKER: You’re 75. That’s amazing. Let me ask you this. Are you still doing this because you want to or are you still doing this because you need to make a living?
DICK DALE: I do it for both reasons. We do it because of what’s happening now with the government and the insurance. They took away Lana’s insurance and she’s got a deadly disease going on and they said they had to get rid of five million people and so she says, ‘why are you getting rid of me?’ She is handicapped. They said we’ve gotta get rid of five million people and it’s going up higher. And with me too, the insurance wasn’t paying everything and so we’re out to continue to survive and pay our medical bills and at the same time help others who are going through the same thing with their medical bills. And we talk a lot about how we can endure what we endure. We laugh about it, talk about it, swear about it and try to make people look at it differently.
PHAWKER: Dick, thank you very much for your time. It’s an honor to speak with you. I love your music. I’ve been a big fan for a long time.
DICK DALE: You’re a music lover. I hate the word fan. We’re all music lovers. We’re all a big family. They’re bringing their kids to see me. Two-years-olds, five-year-olds. It’s unbelievable. I got so many emails from just 12 year olds drawing pictures saying get well and they were drawing pictures of palm trees and my guitar and stuff like that. So I’ve got just so many generations of people responding to my music, it’s amazing.
PHAWKER: Well, you can count me in, my friend.
DICK DALE: Thank you. Before you leave I want you to tell your fans that when you’re dealing with cancer, when you’re dealing with other diseases, go to your computer, look up cancer and look up oxygen. Cancer cells cannot live with oxygen. Oxygen kills cancer cells and it’s linked with oxygen so go and look up “cell food”. Then look up hydrogen peroxide, food grade, 30% to 35%, look up that. The Egyptians had been using that for years and years and years and it kills cancer cells and other diseases too and the doctors know about it, the medical world knows about it but they won’t talk about it.
WARNING: This scene features the most thrilling combination of profanity and instrumental surf music in the history of cinema. Play loud.