Cresting a New Wave : Dick Dale, Family Man and Surf Guitar King, Is Ready to Ride
Dick Dale isn’t the sort of person one would expect to cherish silence.
Dale took the electric guitar, an already-raucous instrument as wielded by ‘50s blues men and rockabillys, and turned it into a noise machine that shrieked and sputtered, skidded and crashed.
That was in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Trying to capture the rush he felt when surfing the Southern California waves, Dale zoomed in a staccato frenzy along the fret board of his gold-flaked Fender Stratocaster, sprayed juicy gushes of aural foam with his then-newfangled reverb unit and invented the surf-rock sound.
He thereby became not only Orange County’s first significant rock musician, but the godfather of all rock genres in which the object is to overwhelm the listener with a tidal surge and a palpable blast.
Whether they have known it or not--and the most savvy among them do--the punkers, power-trios, grunge-rockers and metal-heads of subsequent rock-guitar generations owe a debt of discovery to Dale for his pioneering 35 years ago in a Balboa Peninsula dance hall called the Rendezvous Ballroom.
Now Dale is 56. He lives 150 miles from the waves that inspired him and from the long-gone beach-side haunts where he perfected his sound. His home is an 81-acre spread on the fringes of Twentynine Palms, not far from Joshua Tree National Monument in the San Bernardino County desert.
Wheeling a visitor around the property on a golf cart, Dale, who can talk almost as prodigiously as he can play the guitar, launched into a proudly animated, characteristically free-flowing and scattershot narration.
He talked about the local flora and fauna, the history of the region, the background of his ranch and the airstrip it holds (hence its name, the Dale Skyranch) and, above all, about the happiness he has found here with his young wife and their infant son.
Then he stopped and asked his guest to sit still for a moment and take in the vastness of sand, mountains and sky, and the sound of nothing in the middle of nowhere.
“When there’s no wind, it’s like a vacuum,” said Dale, whose legal name is Richard Monsour. “It’s like a think tank. It preserves my strength to live here. It’s a healing factor. I get to charge my batteries in total silence.”
Here, beside his long, boomerang-shaped, single-story concrete house, Dale can spend his days in nothing but a bathing suit and beach sandals.
Among his companions are Dusty, the brown, mixed-breed dog he has taught to ride a surf board across his swimming pool, and Habib, a magnificent Arabian horse he has trained to answer his gentle commands as precisely as a battery-operated racing car responds to the twist of a remote-control knob.
There are also the desert lizards Dale coos at with childlike fascination, and the large rat that inhabits the trunk of his gold Rolls-Royce.
“I don’t have the heart to kill him,” he says. The Rolls, a holdover from a more financially flush period for Dale, now sits in a garage on flat tires, gathering dust on its hood and roof and clumps of soft, tangled, chewed-up rat’s-nest debris in its trunk.
Most of all, Dale can cocoon here with his wife, Jill, a slender, soft-spoken, delicate-featured woman for whom he shows marked tenderness and affection, and Jimmy, the 16-month-old first-born on whom he dotes.
To keep up the payments on this idyllic retreat, to go on relishing its silence, Dale has to make some noise. With the release this week of “Tribal Thunder,” his first album of new studio material since 1964, he hopes to bring that noise to a new generation of hard-rock fans.
For the first time in a long but haphazard career in which he never has mounted a real tour, never played in a foreign country and seldom performed outside of Southern California, Dale says he is willing at last to approach rock ‘n’ roll as a sustained, on-the-road campaign.
“I enjoy living like a hermit, but I cannot live like a hermit,” Dale said last weekend as he sat in a cozy, toy-strewn family room, while his son, a budding drummer, happily banged on a chair with a red hairbrush.
“I’ve got to get out and be known and seen, and I’m going to do that.” Dale adds that he won’t budge without his wife and son, who accompany him to every gig.
“Tribal Thunder” is a well-conceived, exuberantly executed album that captures the bracing style of instrumental rock that Dale has been dealing out on stage with undiminished force since the end of 1989. (Review, F2.)
That is when he pared his band down to a basic trio. Before that, for many years, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones had been a large ensemble with horns, keyboards, backing singers and an emphasis on vocals rather than the instrumental rock with which he first made his mark.
Dale’s record company is HighTone, the Oakland-based independent label best known for propelling Robert Cray toward his current status as a major-label blues star. The small company also has released a string of excellent, if modest-selling, albums by such roots-and-country performers as Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Dave Alvin and Costa Mesa’s Chris Gaffney.
The object, said Darrell Anderson, HighTone’s director of promotion and marketing, is to promote Dale to college and alternative-rock radio stations in hopes of reaching guitar fans in their teens and 20s.
This sounds like a wild expectation, considering that Dale is no young stud, but a man of 56 whose broad, creased face, strong, full nose, and flowing ponytail call to mind John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.
“Yeah, but it’s not a 56-year-old-man sounding record,” Anderson said. From sales of Dale’s two oldies collections on the Rhino and GNP/Crescendo labels, “We know he has a solid base (of older fans), and this is a good thing.
“But we expect this to sell to a lot younger audience. There’s the mystique that he’s this great guitar player who nobody hears anymore,” Anderson said, “that this is where it all came from, because without Dick you wouldn’t be subjected to any grunge bands.”
“I would like to see Dick Dale happen again like Roy Orbison did,” says his manager, Robert Fitzpatrick, who used to co-manage Cream in the 1960s. “Not people rediscovering an old guy, but an old guy who’s still happening.”
To that end, Fitzpatrick recently asked the organizers of the Lollapalooza tour and an upcoming, KROQ-sponsored alternative-rock fest at Irvine Meadows to include Dale on their youth-oriented bills.
So far, he said, no luck.
“It is so hard to get people to understand who Dick Dale is,” Fitzpatrick said. (Among other things, Dale is one of the players included in Musician magazine’s recent listing of the 100 greatest guitarists of the 20th Century.)
Now Fitzpatrick is searching for an agent to book Dale on a club tour, and a director to make a video for “Nitro,” the remarkable track that leads off the new album with rocketing surf guitar set to a thrashing, punk-rock beat.
If Dale strikes most twentysomething rock fans the way he strikes Frank Black, he should have no problem. Black, the former leader of the Pixies, is one of today’s leading heroes of smart, collegiate rock.
He said in a recent interview that he bought the Rhino compilation, “King of the Surf Guitar: The Best of Dick Dale & His Del-Tones,” a few years ago, then saw Dale play at Bogart’s in Long Beach.
“It was one of the best rock ‘n’ roll shows I’ve ever seen. Blistering,” Black said. “I was with my very quiet, meek girlfriend, and she was up on a chair screaming. It was thoroughly entertaining, and macho to the core. It was a hell of a lot more rock ‘n’ roll, aggressive and in-your-face than any (expletive) indy rock show I’ve ever been to. It just blew that stuff away.
“He’s so much cooler and hipper, and I’m not just being nostalgic about surf music,” Black said. “I’m basing it on the fact that his records are totally ripping, and I went to a show and it blew me away.”
A career resurgence for Dale at this late date would add one more chapter to an already remarkable life’s story. Besides inventing surf-rock, Dale has made himself into an accomplished animal trainer who at various times has kept a jaguar, a mountain lion and a Bengal tiger as house pets.
He is a student of karate, a pilot of small aircraft and something of a surf-guru pop philosopher who will dispense theories, opinions and advice on every facet of human behavior from courtship to religion to child rearing.
Lately, he has added do-it-yourself architecture and home-building to his repertoire (Dale’s parents, James and Fern Monsour, live in Twentynine Palms in a big, lavish house he designed and largely built, paying special attention to the needs of his ailing mother, who uses a wheelchair.)
Along the way, Dale has overcome serious illness, career-threatening accidental burns, financial setbacks and two harrowing trials in which he successfully defended himself against criminal charges.
“If I ever wrote a book, people would never believe it,” he said.
He was born and raised in Quincy, Mass. Dale’s grandparents were immigrants: Polish on his mother’s side, Lebanese on his father’s. Both of his parents worked, and Dale, brought up under strict, don’t-spare-the-rod discipline, carried a heavy load of household chores.
He cherished summers spent on his maternal grandparents’ small farm, where he nurtured a deep love of animals. Dale says he used to walk to a nearby dairy and spend entire days petting the cows.
“My father never put me on his lap and said he loved me. The old-country type of people, they’re hard,” Dale said, adding that he doesn’t blame his father, and sees the strictness and use of corporal punishment as legitimate antidotes to a youthful wild streak.
“I could give (animals) love and affection. Maybe it’s what I didn’t get from my parents. But they were busy working to stay alive. Now, with my son, I hug him and tell him I love him every day, and take him with me wherever I go,” he said.
Dale recalls that his first musical instrument was his mother’s set of kitchen-storage canisters, which he banged on with knives. He earned a licking for this early experiment in rhythm. He picked up the piano, played trumpet in a school band and, inspired by Hank Williams, whom he says he once sneaked into Boston Garden to see, took up the guitar.
Dale’s father was a machinist and inventor who held a succession of jobs, usually more than one at a time. In 1954, he got a job at Hughes Aircraft and moved the family to Los Angeles. There, Dale finished high school and began playing professionally on the local country circuit (he got his stage name from a country disc jockey who suggested that Richard Monsour wouldn’t do).
But as Dale progressed on the guitar, he began experimenting with the Middle Eastern music he’d heard played on the oud at family celebrations on the Lebanese side, and the Gene Krupa-inspired beats he’d heard on big-band records.
The result was the driving, dramatic surf-guitar sound.
As he began to draw crowds at the Rendezvous Ballroom, Dale became a guinea pig for Leo Fender. Through a process of trial and error that Dale says involved 48 blown-up amplifiers, the Fullerton-based guitar innovator tailored an amp, the Fender Showman, that could deliver the massive sound Dale sought.
Dale was a big draw in Southern California, but he remained largely a cult artist elsewhere. His biggest hit, “Let’s Go Trippin,’ ” from 1961, only reached No. 60 on the Billboard singles chart.
Dale signed to Capitol Records but made only one brief trip to the East Coast, to play on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and perform at venues in Virginia, New Jersey and New York.
Looking back, Dale says he lacked two things necessary to make him a national star: business muscle and high ambition.
“If I would have had the right promotion team, we would’ve been as big as the Beatles,” said Dale, who is not reluctant to put his career in a magnified light. (According to one longtime associate, Steve Soest, Dale may not be a modest man, but he is “a real genuine person who lets you know exactly what he is. He’s got a lot of ego, and a lot of people read it wrong.”)
“My dad was the manager,” Dale continued, “and he really didn’t understand the makings of show biz. He would get me gigs, and make sure I didn’t get in trouble. All I cared about was playing on weekends and surfing all week.
“For me, music was only a facet of my life,” he said. “I never looked at it to become an Elvis Presley. I’d rather be a Jack-of-all-trades than master of one. If I became an icon, where my whole life was music, I would probably have become a vegetable. I wouldn’t be able to have all these talents I have today and be an interesting ‘character.’ ”
By 1965, with singing British invading and Beach Boys harmonizing, the wave had crested and broken for Dale’s instrumental surf rock. As musical styles changed against him, Dale says, his father “wanted me to really bear down, put my nose to the grindstone and be a real top professional entertainer.
“My dad knew the bills had to be paid, and I was more interested in surfing and playing with my lions and tigers. My parents wanted the best for me; my father saw I had a talent, and we would get into arguments about where I should play and how I should play and when I should play,” he said. “I was saddened because I was hurting my mother and father, and I was going through tremendous turmoil.”
Dale said the stress led to a heart attack in 1966, when he was still in his late 20s. Shortly after that, he underwent surgery for rectal cancer.
Dale then moved to Hawaii, “feeling sorry for myself and wanting to get away from everything.” He says his father visited Hawaii during that period to see whether he was all right, and found him playing in a small bar for $20 a night. “My father goes, ‘You’re belittling yourself, playing in this bar for peanuts.’ I went, ‘But Pa, I like it.’ ”
By the early ‘70s, Dale was back in California with a wife, Jeannie, who had been a Tahitian dancer in Hawaii. They started a musical revue that played locally and on the Las Vegas-Reno-Lake Tahoe resort circuit.
In a publicity shot from the early ‘70s, reprinted in Robert J. Dalley’s book, “Surfin’ Guitars,” the couple appears to be patterned after Sonny and Cher--with Dale in long hair, bell-bottoms and showy psychedelic shirt.
Dale and his wife also invested in nightclubs and real estate. Soon enough, he was riding high with a fortune made on investments.
He lived with his big cats in a mansion built in 1925 by King Gillette, the razor-blade magnate. The last house on the bay side of the Balboa Peninsula, the mansion stands just a few yards from the Wedge, the surfing spot Dale had helped make famous in one of his songs.
There, Soest recalls, he hosted jam sessions with his band and enjoyed waving at passing tour boats whose guides would point him out as a local celebrity.
Then came what might be considered Dale’s Job period.
He went through a bitter divorce, which cost him much of his wealth. In 1983 and 1984, in what he described at the time as “a vicious scam” instigated by his ex-wife, Dale was tried on charges that he had sexually molested a 13-year-old girl. He was acquitted on 10 of the 12 counts against him, and the others were dismissed after juries twice failed to reach a verdict.
The memory of the episode remains deeply wounding to a man who says he always strived to keep a clean reputation and often used the stage as a platform for preaching good values and a message of drug- and alcohol-free fun to his young audiences.
Dale’s bleak period continued in 1984 when he badly burned himself while making popcorn. The accident, considered career-threatening at the time, has left permanent mottled patches of skin on much of his left hand. To complete the cycle of bad luck, he lost the mansion to foreclosure in 1986, and moved into a motor home in the driveway of his parents’ house in Fountain Valley.
Steve Soest was Dale’s bass player and band leader throughout those years. “Amazingly enough, he never changed his demeanor,” recalled Soest, who now runs a guitar repair shop in Orange.
“He’d be joking. He never seemed depressed about it. He’d go out and do the shows, and he was never bummed out. Even after he got burned and they told him, ‘You’re not going to be able to play again, you’re not going to have any sensation, you’re not going to be able to hold a pick,’ I went over his house, and he was stretched out on the couch (in his bandages), showing us tunes he wanted to play.”
“You could tell when he played it was an outlet for him,” Soest added. “He’d come off exhausted and sweating. Everything he was mad at would come out” in a surf-rock exorcism.
“I’d rather not even get into it,” Dale said of his troubles during the 1980s. “I don’t dwell on anything that’s negative. Now I’ve got the most wonderful thing. I think the Lord wanted me to experience every bit of anguish and pain you can go through, so I can appreciate somebody as wonderful as Jill.”
Dale met his future wife at a party in Huntington Harbour in December 1986. It was a dressy affair, she recalls, and they were the only two people to show up wearing motorcycle jackets.
Dale says he was smitten at first sight with the young woman, who worked as a veterinary assistant, shared his love of animals and didn’t know Dick Dale from Dale Evans.
Not wanting to give him the wrong impression as the relationship blossomed, Jill concealed the Rolling Stones flaming-lips-and-tongue logo tattooed on her right shoulder, an icon from her punker days. Before he could notice, she says, she had it hastily removed, leaving a scar.
As his personal life improved, so did Dale’s career prospects. In 1986, Rhino issued its “best-of” collection (later released on CD in 1989), bringing his music back into circulation. In 1987 he was recruited to play on the soundtrack of the film “Back to the Beach,” a sequel to the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach movies in which he had played cameo roles during the early ‘60s.
Teamed with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dale pulled off a blazing guitar duet on the Chantay’s surf-rock classic, “Pipeline.” In 1988, the track was nominated for a Grammy as best rock instrumental.
Dale credits Jill, a Ramones fan, for persuading him to strip down his band to a raw, basic trio and leave behind the last vestiges of his 1970s Las Vegas show ethic.
According to Soest, core members of the oft-changing Del-Tones lineup had long suggested a simpler, more rock-oriented approach, but Dale had resisted because “he was into satisfying the crowd and playing something for everybody, making everybody happy. He’d see an older lady in the audience, and you’d have to play a country song. The band wanted him to do more straight (surf-rock) stuff.”
Dale made the break on Dec. 17, 1989, when he played a benefit at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. Reluctant to ask his full band to play without pay, he appeared in a trio format, backed only by bassist Ron Eglit and drummer Steve Aschoff (lately, Dale has been working in a young drummer, Dave Maneely, to replace Aschoff because the veteran player isn’t free to travel).
The Times’ review of that set described it as “a 20-minute, nonstop explosion of fierce sound and high-magnitude attitude. . . . Dale may be a part of rock history, but this was history that smacked you in the face and left you shaking your head with a silly grin.”
Dale says that the review, coupled with his wife’s continuing exhortations to just “crank on the guitar,” finally persuaded him to drop the show-band approach and play bare-bones power rock (of course, the prospect of having to pay only two backing players, instead of 10 or 11, probably had some appeal, too).
Last spring, the little-traveled Dale played his first-ever concert in San Francisco, at the instigation of Joel Selvin, music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Dale says Selvin, who had first written about him in 1970 for a UC Riverside campus newspaper, called to congratulate him after hearing of the birth of his son in January, 1992. Selvin suggested Dale play a club date in San Francisco, and helped generate interest by profiling him in the newspaper.
“I was really terrified nobody was going to come,” said Dale. But the show--the first in a series of successful San Francisco club performances last year--sold out, attracting an audience divided between faithful surf-rock fans, younger rockers and Deadheads. The Bay Area buzz prompted HighTone executives to scout and sign Dale.
As he bids to become rock’s biggest comeback story of 1993, Dale says that his chief ally will be terror. On stage, he looks like a furious gladiator, hammering left-handed at his unusually thick strings with such force that the tips of his guitar picks often melt from the friction (Dale and Soest both swear this is so). But he says that his playing does not flow from the larger-than-life swagger he exudes.
“I may appear to have self-confidence, but my (playing) is motion driven by fear,” said Dale, who says he recites a “Hail Mary” before every show.
“My fear is the fear of failing, the fear of not being liked. I’ve never had the fun of playing in my life. Just terror. I’ve got to be creative every single show. I can’t give the people the same 10 songs each time. I go off on tangents all over the place, go into two or three different songs and back into the song I started. People like it. They think, ‘He didn’t do the norm.’ They’re coming to see somebody go off on this Caterpillar roller-coaster ride of sound. When I’m on stage it’s a battle--a battle to create a sound and a ride.”
At home on the ranch, Dale can be out of the storm and enjoy the silence, the precocious play of his son and the moonlit horseback rides he likes to take, unencumbered by clothing, with his wife. At home, to impress a visitor, he will pull out a cassette of “You Make Me Feel Like A Big Oak Tree,” a tender country song he wrote and recorded years ago.
“The (new) album is me cutting loose on afterburners,” he says while the quiet love ballad plays. “But when I can’t rip on that stage anymore, I’m gonna do a country album. This is Dick Dale. This is my heart you’re hearing.”
For now, though, be prepared to hear him rip.
“I’m not telling myself, ‘I’m 56, I shouldn’t be able to do it.’ I want to be able to show those people. I want to play for Europe and the Japanese people.
“These people love the Ventures"--the most popular of the remaining instrumental surf-rock bands--but, Dale added, “they haven’t met the man who started it. It’s like Mighty Joe Young. Somebody went to the jungle and brought me back and said, ‘Look what I found.’ ”
* Dick Dale’s upcoming shows included a performance Sunday at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, following the San Diego Padres baseball game, a June 5 concert at the Palomino in North Hollywood and a July 3 date at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.