For someone who has beaten cancer, nearly lost a leg, dodged exploding speakers, pulled National Guard pilots out of burning planes, and slept with lions, 66-year-old Dick Dale says he owes his life to a Corvette. So the story goes, but then again, Dick Dale's life is one helluva story. And he'll be glad to tell it to you-often speaking of himself in third person singular and skidding into non-stop, off-task philosophical rants that mirror his political and social passions.
Known as the "King of the Surf Guitar," Dick Dale's trademark sound of 10,000-rpm staccato picking anchored by a full tank of reverb is as recognizable as an L88 under full throttle. His music is an extension of the ocean's power, a tsunami of six-stringed hydrosonic energy that attacks the central nervous system like a moray eel's bite. Just as the NCRS dictates one way of restoring a Vette, Dick Dale professes only one way to play surf guitar: A fat-body Fender Stratocaster-equipped with strings as thick as battery cables-wired through a pair of Fender Dual Showman amps and an original Fender reverb unit. Although his 1961 milestone surf hit "Let's Go Trippin'" didn't have this unique sound-reflection reverb, it is now to surf music what nitrous oxide is to street racing. It coats the notes with a distinctive wet, underwater texture-liberating them to be played at ear-bleeding volume without any pain.
Completely self-taught, Dick Dale originated his style by playing a right-handed guitar upside down and transposing the notes to create a unique, snarling sound. An inspiration to thousands of garage bands in six different decades, Dick Dale is an innovative survivor and a spiritual shaman rocker who never compromised his integrity or beliefs.
When the record companies stretched the surf sound into hot rod tunes, Dick Dale instinctively released albums like Mr. Eliminator and Checkered Flag. Besides surfing all day, he cruised nights in a '40 Ford woody, occasionally raced at local drag strips and dirt tracks, swapped stories with Tony Nancy, hung with the Sultans car club, and played at George Barris' car shows. As a budding gearhead, Dick Dale machined handlebar risers for his '41 Harley Flathead, then hopped up a '55 Pontiac convertible, '64 Caddie, and '59 MGA roadster customized to look like a Cobra. It was at Barris' shop that Dick Dale spotted "this long red body [that looked] like a stretched Cobra. Instead of a hole in the front, it had teeth!" The vehicle was a Corvette C2 chassis topped with a Wildcat body. An Indy racing mechanic had built it for the movie Straightaway. Dick purchased the car not knowing the bank still had a lien on it. Eventually the repo men tracked it down, but not before Dick challenged a few Vettes and '32 roadsters on Harbor Boulevard. "Dick Dale was a madman for speed then," he remembers.
So how did a Corvette save Dick Dale's life? While performing in Pasadena, he "got into a beef with a gang." The police could only escort him to the city limits, but Dick was in his sister's '54 Vette, and he says he outran his pursuers on the freeway.
That escape hardly compares to Dick Dale's other battles. He stopped surfing when a leg infection caused by ocean pollution almost led to an amputation. He also underwent exhaustive surgery for rectal cancer that dropped his weight to 98 pounds. A recovery retreat to Hawaii only led to bouts of depression. Discovering martial arts and Eastern philosophy soon inspired him, and he also served with National Guard rescue units. By then, disco and punk had drowned surf music. Even with the resurgence of retro rock, Dick Dale couldn't capitalize because he never really established a huge following outside of Southern California. Although he appeared in a Frankie and Annette beach movie and recorded six hot-selling albums in the '60s, Dick Dale preferred to stay home to raise exotic animals and run his surf shop instead of touring the nation. Fighting with his record label didn't help, either. "When they tried to record me, they put limits on me," he growls. "When my father gave me the first record, I threw it against the wall. It sounded so tinny."
Playing at wide-open throttle is Dick Dale's sonic trademark. In the beginning, no amplifier or speaker could withstand his scorching southpaw machine-gun picking and venomous slam slides down the neck as he tried to emulate the sounds of crashing ocean waves and the roar of his lions and tigers. His equipment often threw a rod and caught fire on stage. So Leo Fender-the Zora Duntov of guitars-designed a nitro-burning amp and helped JBL build bulletproof speakers with enough bottom end to survive Dick's stage rage. As a rock 'n' roll test-dummy, Dick Dale destroyed almost 50 prototype amps before the Dual Showman was tough enough for "The Beast," his '56 Strat's given name. In fact, Dick Dale still uses the first production Dual Showman amps and Fender reverb tank that Leo Fender gave him in the late '50s.
Dick was following the Reno-Tahoe-Vegas lounge circuit the late '80s when he scored a cameo in the surf-revival flick Back to the Beach. There he pounded out a savage Grammy-nominated duet with Stevie Ray Vaughn, covering The Chantay's '63 hit, "Pipeline." His comeback received a huge boost in 1994 when film director Quentin Tarantino used Dick's 1962 hit "Miserlou" in the opening scene of "Pulp Fiction." By then Dick Dale was getting major play on college radio stations with an eclectic array of songs from a new album called Tribal Thunder, which included acoustic guitars and horns.
As a non-drinking vegetarian adamantly opposed to drugs, Dick Dale still tours and offers up an intoxicating experience as he cranks every note past redline. His concerts don't rely on dancers or flashy light shows. They're raw and primal. Backed by a relentless drummer and a blistering bass player, a leather-clad Dick Dale shreds guitar picks at a banshee pace. Children enjoy his concerts as much as Gen. X neo-surf punks and aging long-boarders reliving their youth. Always grateful, Dick Dale will spend an hour or two after each show talking to the crowd and signing autographs. "I play on what the grassroots people count. I play on the on-beat. Other musicians lead with the off-beat," he explains. "Dick Dale keeps it straight and always on the on-beat."