Going trippin' with Dick Dale
Jerry Falwell will perform a gay wedding ceremony; Michael Moore and George W. Bush will team up for a splashy Vegas revue; Yahoo Serious will experience a massive career renaissance; and Us magazine will get something right.
All of these events will take place before a consensus emerges on an issue that has divided music nerds for decades: Who invented surf music? Some argue for Jan & Dean, who had hit singles as early as 1959 and released the genre-defining tracks "Surf City" and "Ride the Wild Surf." Others lean toward the Beach Boys, who took the SoCal beach-utopia vision worldwide and inspired the already established Jan & Dean to concoct surf anthems through the example of their "Surfin' Safari" (not to mention the fact that Beach Boy Brian Wilson co-wrote J&D's "Surf City").
But the strongest case surely belongs to Dick Dale, for nearly a half-century the undisputed "King of the Surf Guitar." The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean wrote make-out music for horny young beachcombers. Sometimes they extolled the glories of their surfboards, but you always sensed that for them, surfing was all about showing off. What really mattered was that the beach offered "two girls for every boy."
Dale's music, however, didn't merely celebrate the ocean, it sounded like it: rolling waves of drums underpinning a furious, adrenaline rush of overdriven electric guitar. In the era of instrumental rock, Dale could never be mistaken for his competition. Duane Eddy was rudimentary and tame, but he scored with his identifiable twang. The Ventures were irrepressibly tuneful and polished. But Dale's feral staccato picking carried the threat and excitement of a tsunami. He didn't think like a guitarist, because his biggest sonic influences were not guitarists.
"I tell my musicians when I train them, 'Look, I'm really playing drums on my guitar,' which I do," Dale, 67, said in a 1997 interview for his Rhino Records CD anthology, Better Shred Than Dead. "I play the cymbal, I play the snare, I play the bass. Why? Because Gene Krupa was my first hero that I listened to on big band records, and he was why drums became my first instrument."
Born Richard Monsour to a Lebanese father and Polish mother, Dale also stood out because of the way he brought Middle Eastern modalities and Latin rhythms to his guitar workouts. The classic 1962 raveup "Miserlou" - famously appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction - was based on a traditional Arabic tune while the castanet romp "Spanish Kiss" featured a flamenco beat. He even adapted "Hava Nagila" into a surf rocker.
While many of his instrumentals sounded like interchangeable variations on the same propulsive theme, Dale had a wider range than most instrumental rockers. For his unofficial theme song, "King of the Surf Guitar," he employed an R&B girl-group which touted his greatness, while he answered with raunchy guitar licks. The result felt like Phil Spector at the beach. Many of his early (admittedly corny) pop tracks, such as "Ooh-Whee Marie," emphasized his vocals, as did his version of Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man." Above all, Dale made his mark by changing the sound of an amplified guitar. He worked closely with guitar innovator Leo Fender, urging Fender to create bigger, more powerful amps (a skeptical Fender finally agreed after watching Dale burn up a series of inadequate speakers). He also used outrageously thick strings on his Fender Stratocaster, allowing him to attack the instrument harder than anyone in early-'60s rock had begun to contemplate. For Dale, musicianship was always about intensity before complexity.
It's little wonder that a young Jimi Hendrix - like Dale, a left-hander forced to restring right-handed guitars - became a fixture at Dale's shows, and befriended him. Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun" (the only instrumental on his 1967 debut album, Are You Experienced?) was dedicated to Dale, then suffering - and thought to be dying - from rectal cancer. Hendrix's whispered line, "You'll never hear surf music again," widely interpreted as a shot at the Beach Boys, was actually meant as an homage to Dale.
Dale returned the favor in 1996, by covering "Third Stone." By that time, Dale had found his musical second wind, with the 1993 psychobilly steamroller "Nitro," and Tarantino's cinematic stamp of hipness the following year, making him a worthy Gen X reclamation project. These days he's jamming onstage with his 12-year-old son Jimmy (already dubbed "the Prince of Surf Guitar") and playing to kids young enough to be his grandchildren.
As he said in 1997: "I've dedicated the rest of my life to touring, and when I die, it's not going to be in a rocking chair; it's going to be onstage in one big explosion of body parts." •