By Steve Newton
The unconfirmed reports circulating earlier today have now been confirmed: Dick Dale, the legendary guitarist whose finger-bleeding fretting style inspired countless guitarists, has died at 81.
Dale’s passing was confirmed by his bass player, Sam Bolle, and first reported by the California Rocker website. No cause of death was given, but Dale had been in ill health for several years, including suffering from rectal cancer.
Dale originally came to fame in the early ’60s with his band Dick Dale and the Del-tones, who had hits with surf-rock tunes like “Let’s Go Trippin”” and 1962’s rowdy “Miserlou”, which was brought back in vogue when Quentin Tarantino used it in the opening scene of his blockbuster 1994 crime thriller Pulp Fiction.
Dale’s intense style of instrumental rock had also been given a boost in 1987 when he recorded a stellar version of the Chantay’s “Pipeline” with Stevie Ray Vaughan for the soundtrack of Back to the Beach.
But the main way Dale communicated with his fans was through steady touring and fiery performances that featured his uniquely muscular approach to guitar.
“You see, I got the power of my playing from my animals and surfing and from martial arts,” Dale told me in a 1993 interview. “When I play that guitar, I bang on it like I’m chopping down a tree. I don’t play a guitar like someone who went to school at Juilliard, playing with just wrist and finger action. All my action starts from my abdomen and goes through my spine and goes up to my shoulders and arms and legs.
“I pick so hard on those big strings that my picks melt,” he added. “When I’m sliding up and down those big 50-gauge strings, it’s like putting your hand on a grinder. My fingers will bleed at times and it’ll hurt, but I’ll just jump all over that stage, goin’ for it.”
When I interviewed Dale for the second time, in advance of a show at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom in June of 2000, he explained how Tarantino’s celluloid version of “Miserlou” came to be.
“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.’ ”
During that second interview, Dale reiterated how physical his performing style was, and the toll it took to play guitar his way night after night.
“I’ve actually popped my ribs out and gotten hernias,” he claimed, “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. 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.”