Dick Dale doesn’t need no augmented ninth to make your ears bleed



By Steve Newton

Dick Dale, the undisputed “King of the Surf Guitar”, is known for a uniquely fierce playing style. In concert, he grinds guitar picks down by the dozen, while conjuring a frenzied instro-rock din that—as Ted Nugent used to boast about his own noise—could stop small rodents in their tracks. So when I call the 63-year-old, ponytailed rocker at his 100-acre California ranch, and he explains that his next album will be half acoustic, I’m checking to see if I dialled the right number. Could this be the same Dick Dale whose immortal “Miserlou” set the bristling tone for Quentin Tarantino’s wild celluloid ride, Pulp Fiction?

“Everyone’s been wanting me to do it,” says Dale of his forthcoming foray into the acoustic realm. “In the middle of our rock show, me and my bass player sit down and play a whole bunch of beautiful acoustic things, and it seems to be the highlight—everybody just flogs me with e-mail about it. I wrote some real neat songs when I was in Brazil, and we’ve got a thing called ‘Front Porch Blues’ that I’ve dedicated to the people way back in the ’20s and ’30s that never had real guitars, who just played on a couple of pieces of wood and catgut strings. Nobody knew what a scale was, or an augmented ninth or 13th—and neither do I, I don’t know what the hell that shit is—so the point is that they just played what came from their heart. And this is the way I play the blues on the acoustic.”

I suppose that when Dale’s power trio plays the Commodore Ballroom on Saturday (June 10), an acoustic interlude might be a soothing respite from his regular tinnitus-inducing routine. At least it’ll give people’s bleeding ears a chance to dry up some. “Well, it does,” notes Dale with a chuckle, “and then I make ’em bleed again. When I get through playing on the acoustic I stand up and go, ‘Now, back to reality!’ But we give out earplugs to people in the front, you know. And all my members in the band wear ’em too, but I just cannot. I gotta hear every little thing.”

Those local Dickheads who share an infatuation with volume should make a point of squeezing up to the front of the stage, which will put them in good position when Dale carries on his postset tradition of—rather than returning for the obligatory encore—coming back out and hanging with the crowd. But if you’re up there, be prepared for that revved-up, Middle Eastern–tinged blast that opens “Miserlou”, ’cause it’s liable to knock you back a couple of steps. It certainly had that effect on Tarantino, who Dale claims built Pulp Fiction around the compelling vibe of that tune.

“Most people make movies first, with the music being secondary, but Tarantino does it differently—he does it backwards. He goes crazy over the energy of a song, and creates a movie in his mind because of a song that he keeps playing over and over in his head. And that’s how Pulp Fiction came to be. He came to me and he said, ‘I’m your biggest fan. “Miserlou” is a masterpiece, it’s like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. When you blow the trumpet it’s very heraldic, like Ben-Hur. I would love to have your permission to use “Miserlou” and create a masterpiece of a movie to complement it.’ And because this guy’s had doors slammed in his face—like I’ve had done all through my life—and been a grassroots guy, in the dirt all the time, I said, ‘Go for it.’ ”

Long before “Miserlou” captured the imagination of Tarantino and a million other cool cats, Dale, a teenage surfing fanatic, was attempting to re-create on guitar the physical and spiritual rush of riding waves. He created the first instrumental surf record, “Let’s Go Trippin’”, in 1961, and two years later appeared on the big screen in Beach Party, the first of several popular Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello California-teen flicks. But in ’66 Dale was diagnosed with rectal cancer, and his life-threatening bout with the Big C drastically changed his perspective on the world.

“I really was worried about the guy in the bed next to me,” he says, “as they were cuttin’ his leg off higher and higher, all the way up to his thigh. And that’s one of the things that kept me alive. I had gone down to about 98 pounds, and they cut 14 inches out of my rectal tract—six tumours and seven cysts, they said to me later—but when I left the hospital I went to Hawaii and met some of the underground masters of the martial arts, and that became my life. And by doing that I learned to take pain and put it in another direction.”

That talent for diverting the hurt must come in handy, given Dale’s extremely percussive, up-and-down playing style; he hits the strings so fast and hard that his picking hand becomes a fleshy blur. So when you see him grimacing, that’s no rock-star affectation. “I have a lotta pain,” he points out, “because I’m pushing on 60-gauge strings. People who play guitar use six-, seven-, eight-, nine-, 10-gauge strings. Well, my smallest is 16. It goes 16, 18, 20, 39, 49, and 60—ah, I cheat every once in a while and use 58s—so guitarists will go, ‘Those are like bridge cables!’ And after playing for an hour and a half, when I stop pulling on those things like that, it really hurts, because I don’t play from my fingers and wrists—I play from my abdomen, and use strength from my body.

“I’ve actually popped my ribs out and gotten hernias, pain in my groin, just because when I reach for those notes I pull so hard it’s like I’m going through a solid object with my fist,” he continues. “When I get through a concert, I stick my hands in buckets of ice at the hotel, but before that I sit and sign [autographs] for another couple of hours. To me that’s the most exciting part, because people come to you and say things that they would never tell anybody else.”

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