Guitarist catches a new wave

Dick Dale's tour and new album rekindle his famous style

May 20, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

When Dick Dale answers the phone late-morning in a hotel on the road to somewhere that will eventually bring him to Towson's Recher Theatre on Wednesday, he yawns. Repeatedly.

"Did I wake you?" I ask him, a little unnerved already about tracking down the renowned guitar player on his cell phone at the last minute to play 100 questions.

He mutters something about "being up, being down," then asks, "Where the hell am I right now?"

In 38 days, the 65-year-old Dale will have played 32 shows, three of them in Maryland. After releasing a new album in January, where Dale is right now is riding high, having reached a peak of success over the last several years that crests close to that of his initial fame.

In the late 1950s and early '60s, Dale was a teen idol whose crazy upside-down left-handed percussive style slammed into the course of music history. He's the King of Surf Guitar. He's also the one to blame for LOUD music - for working with Leo Fender to crank up amp wattage so that he could go berserk on an electric guitar trying to mimic the roar of the waves he surfed in Southern California and the lions he lived with in his beach house.

Dale has been up and down so many times it's hard to keep track.

After a strange conversation about martial arts philosophy, ego and the purity of baby creatures, sick children and vegetarianism, we resolve to talk later when he's more awake and has made it to the next hotel, a Best Western in Detroit. When I get him on the phone again, he warns me that he is not "the typical musician character."

"I'm not a musician, pal," he says. "Who am I? I'm Dick Dale."

Dale, a left-handed Boston native who learned to play upside-down and backward on a ukulele, moved to Southern California in 1954 with his parents for his senior year in high school. He learned to surf. He started playing guitar at the Rinky Dink and then began packing a club called the Rendezvous on the Balboa Peninsula.

He created a genre, showed up in Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello movies and influenced some of the biggest names in modern music, including, he says, Jimi Hendrix and the Beach Boys. When the British invasion began to supplant Dale and others who made it big in that early rebellion period between the innocent 1950s and the all-out abandon that was 1960s rock 'n' roll, Dale almost died - literally, of rectal cancer, he says.

After six tumors were removed, he says he retreated to Hawaii, studied the martial arts with "underground masters," surfed and played guitar, fasted and gave up "eating flesh." "They gave me a way of life," he says.

There he "met a girl ... a dancer, Filipino and Chinese," he says. He took her to California when he returned a few years later and put her in his show.

He bought a nightclub. He posed with his golden Fender Stratocaster guitar in the first issue of Playgirl in 1973, he says. He made millions in real estate, he says, and moved into a 17-room Newport Beach mansion.

Then, the man who had already resurrected himself once wiped out again. He blames his divorce from that dancer for costing him $9 million and his airplane and getting him evicted from his dream house. He moved into his RV and washed himself in gas station restrooms before setting up in his parents' driveway, he says. In a cooking accident in the mid-1980s, he spilled boiling oil on himself, severely burning that spit-fire left hand. "They told me I'd never play again," he says.

While still living in his RV, he began to motor up and out again. He recorded the classic surf tune "Pipeline" with Stevie Ray Vaughan, earning a Grammy nomination in 1987. Dale, who says, "Don't ever let your brain leave 20," then met Jill, a woman 30 years his junior whom he eventually married.

They moved to a 150-acre desert airport that Dale calls his "Skyranch" near Twentynine Palms, Calif. It's 2,000 feet above Palm Beach, he says, and a couple hours from the Pacific Ocean. Dale, who seldom surfs now because of water pollution, sold his songs to commercials, started touring again and found a place on the alternative music scene. He recorded a few albums and he and Jill had a son.

And then, riding the biggest wave in decades, Dale got a call from director Quentin Tarantino, who wanted to use his classic version of the Arabic folksong "Miserlou" for his 1994 film Pulp Fiction.

In January, Dale released Spacial Disorientation, which, he says, is how you feel after going to one of his shows. "Left is right, right is left - that's what my music does to people," he says. It is the first album that is 100 percent the way he wanted, he says. "The best I have ever done in my entire life."

On the CD jacket he invites listeners to e-mail and "tell me what you see and what you feel when you play this."

On the album, Dale shifts from "Miserlou"-type power guitar to Deep Purple's classic "Smoke on the Water" to Spanish ballads, the blues and even a version of "Silent Night."

Yet Dale, in a rambling, almost three-hour phone conversation, says at one point, "I do not know anything about music. I am a manipulator of instruments."

"I never worry today about tomorrow, and I don't think about yesterday because it is gone. I live for this very, very moment."

Performance

What: Dick Dale

Where: Recher Theatre, 512 York Road, Towson

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday (May 22)

Tickets : $15

Call: 410-337-7210.

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