A new year brings a new motto for guitarist Dick Dale, the man who helped create surf rock in the early 1960s.
“In ’85, we’re coming alive,” said Dale, sitting in a second-story room of his three-story mansion at the end of the Balboa peninsula overlooking the Wedge, the renowned body-surfing mecca of Southern California.
Dale’s new slogan is meant both literally and figuratively: “The King of the Surf Guitar” is on the rebound from a string of personal and professional setbacks during 1983 and 1984.
Dale spent the last part of 1983 in and out of Orange County Superior Court fighting child molestation charges (he was acquitted on 10 of 12 charges and the other two were dismissed). He lost one of two Rendezvous nightclubs he owned to his ex-wife in a divorce settlement and the other was sold to the city of Garden Grove as part of the city’s plan to renovate the shopping center in which it was located. In October, his application to open a new nightclub in Costa Mesa was rejected by the City Council.
A week later, Dale was severely injured while cooking popcorn when the hot oil exploded and left second-degree burns over much of his body, including his left hand, which is still reddened and deeply scarred from the accident.
Exhibiting the tenacity of the tigers and other wild animals he has been known to keep in his home, the 46-year-old musician said: “It’s no big deal. What I’ve been through, there ain’t nothin’ that I cannot continue going through when I have the people that I have behind me. The thing that pulled me through was all the letters from fans saying, ‘Hang in there, Dick. We’re with you.’ ”
A firm believer in the “silver lining” school of dealing with adversity, Dale added: “With every problem comes a gift in hand. For instance, when I do shows to raise money for burn victims, now I can talk to them and know what they are going through. And I can tell their family and friends that when the doctor says the recovery has begun, that’s really the time they need your concern and love.”
Dale also credits his ability to persevere to extensive training in martial arts, Eastern philosophy and his experiences raising exotic animals.
“There are four sentences (taken from Eastern religion) in my life that I go by: ‘To experience is to know. To know is to understand. To understand is to tolerate. To tolerate is to have peace.’ It took me 17 years and (instruction from) masters of the martial arts to make me understand what that means. But I understand it and that’s how I can put up with all the stuff that goes on.
“That’s one of the reasons I like working with tigers and lions. If you can understand animals like that, then you can really put up with the reasons why people are the way they are and love them.”
With his penchant for philosophizing, even a seemingly innocuous question like “How old are you?” sparked a dissertation on his belief that a person’s mental attitude should transcend chronological age.
But he may have a point. His recent live album, “The Tigers Loose,” recorded at the Golden Bear and released last year on his own Balboa Records label, displays a virtually ageless Dick Dale who still exhibits the technical mastery and sheer instrumental power that made him a local hero more than two decades ago. The album includes new, revved-up performances of his early hits “Let’s Go Trippin’,” “Miserlou” and “King of the Surf Guitar” as well as a couple of more recent Dale compositions.
“That’s the only record that has ever really captured my sound,” Dale said of his instantly recognizable Fender Stratocaster guitar that often erupts with machine-gun staccato runs.
Although he has resumed performing occasionally, Dale is putting most of his time and energy into turning the old Woodstock Concert Theatre in Anaheim into a new Dick Dale club called Richie’s.
Shortly after the Costa Mesa City Council denied his request to open a club--in response to neighbors’ complaints about potential noise--Dale turned to Anaheim, where the City Council approved his plan to remodel the former heavy-metal haven into an adult-oriented restaurant and club. He hopes to open Richie’s this spring.
Once he gets the club off the ground, he plans to tour Japan and resume a more active performing schedule. Although the severity of his burns caused doctors to suggest that he might never be able to use his left hand again, Dale fought back--but not, he insisted, just to be able to play guitar again.
“I could care less if I ever play again,” Dale said. “I’m not one of these guys who is dedicated to playing or performing--that’s just one facet of my life. I’m just as jazzed flying an airplane or riding horses; I could surf the rest of my life away--it makes no difference.”
What was most important in returning to music was being able to continue getting his message out to youthful fans. “I’m up there on stage because I can talk to kids in their own language. I tell them it’s OK to get crazy and get silly and get stupid, but do it within the limits of the law. You don’t have to steal from somebody and you don’t have to take drugs.”
Despite what he feels was sensationalized reporting of his divorce proceedings and the child-molestation case, Dale said he never holds a grudge.
“I answer number one to myself, because I know myself. I answer to my fans, because they know me. My mother knows me and God knows me, and that’s where it’s at.
“I could have gone back and fought it all, but I didn’t. When it first happened to me, I wanted to roll up and die. If it wasn’t for those fans who wrote letters, I think I would have been a vegetable. If these people didn’t stand behind me, I would have gone wacko.
“But my philosophy is that if you’ve been knocked down seven times,” Dale said, “then you get up eight.”