How Surfing + A Mountain Lion Inspired Dick Dale's Ear-Splitting Surf Rock Sound
Dick Dale died over the weekend at 81 years old. This is the story of the surf rock legend who collected exotic animals, innovated on the guitar, and gave Pulp Fiction its soundtrack.
When Dale moved to Southern California as a teenager, he was already a skilled musician. But the 1954 SoCal move brought a new passion: surfing.
It was the roar of the Pacific Ocean surging around him him while hunkered down in a roiling pipeline wave that Dale tried emulating on the guitar.
"When I was surfing, I would get that rumble sound," Dale told me during an interview at his 80-acre desert home near Joshua Tree in 2010.
"And at the same time, I was raising 40 different exotic animals. So when my mountain lion, he'd go, 'Waaah!' I'd imitate that on my guitar. When my African lion wanted to be fed, he'd go, 'Ooowwwahhhhrrrgh!' They were matching the sounds of what you go through when on a 15-foot wave."
The guitar and amplification systems available at the time couldn't fully reproduce the roar Dale was hearing in his head -- but it's not like he didn't try.
Dale left a scorched trail of blown and burned speakers in his sonic quest. Nothing could withstand the punishment the young guitar slinger put equipment through as he cranked the volume louder and louder to fill the larger and larger venues he was playing.
Up to 3,000 teenagers at a time, and a string of famous musicians and movie stars, were flocking to the Rendezvous Ballroom on the Balboa Pier and other venues at the peak of Dale's early fame in 1961 and 1962.
"Little Richard, he'd say, 'Oh Dick Dale! You have luscious lips!'" he laughed, reeling off one star-studded yarn after another.
"With Jimi Hendrix, when he was playing bass for Little Richard in a bar in Pasadena to 30 people, he'd come and see me and I'd show him these [guitar] slides," Dale recalled. "He was left-handed, but he couldn't play the way I was playin'."
Enter Orange County-based guitar and amplification pioneer Leo Fender.
"The Einstein of guitar and amplifiers! He made the first 85-watt output transformer peaking 100 watts," Dale said. "I wanted to get as loud as I could, because the people's bodies were soaking up the bass resonance. Leo had a saying: 'When the guitar and amp can withstand the barrage of punishment from Dick Dale, then it is fit for human consumption.'"
After a lot of experimentation, innovation, and more blown amps and wrecked guitars, Fender came up with his fabled Stratocaster -- a guitar with a thicker neck and body that other electric guitars didn't have. He also mastered an amplification system that could withstand Dale's addiction to volume, but also retain a clarity that captured Dale's frantic, percussive picking technique -- a style inspired by Dale's passion for stomping big band jazz and bombastic jazz drummers like Gene Krupa.
A string of hit singles ("Miserlou", "Let's Go Trippin'", "The Wedge") and albums followed in quick succession, launching the surf music craze that would be further popularized by more pop-friendly acts like Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys.
But by 1965, surf music was wiped out by the British Invasion and new psychedelic sounds coming to these shores. On his 1967 debut LP, one of Dale's former protégées, Jimi Hendrix, signaled the end.
"Your people I do not understand,
So to you I shall put an end
And you'll never hear surf music again." -Jimi Hendrix / "Third Stone From the Sun" (1967)
Music fans would never hear from the Rendezvous Ballroom again -- it burned down in 1966. Dale's gigs dried up, and so did the hits.
Then came the worst news: cancer at the age of 27, despite a life dedicated to physical fitness, healthy eating, and abstinence from smoking, drugs, and alcohol.
"They cut 14 inches out of my rectal tract; six tumors and seven cysts. I went down to about 90 pounds and I said, 'See ya later!' And they said, 'See ya later!'" Dale said.
Dale beat cancer, took up martial arts, and moved to the desert, away from the surf and the music business -- though for years, he also kept a houseboat docked near his beloved surf.
Dale continued to make music and perform -- still, sales were slow, and crowds were tiny compared to the Rendezvous Ballroom days.
But a new wave of stardom struck with the force of a tsunami after director Quentin Tarantino used "Miserlou" to drive the explosive opening of his 1994 film Pulp Fiction. Several powerful comeback albums followed.
Dale's music was also championed by a new generation of metalheads, punks, and grunge rockers. The frenetic riffing that he pioneered is so baked into guitar-based music now that musicians may not even realize they're emulating his sound. Just listen to Metallica's 1984 debut Kill 'Em All or Slayer's Reign in Blood -- much of modern metal guitar riffing has that same frantic but precise percussive swing innovated by Dale.
Dale's resurgence of popularity coincided with yet another bout with cancer and other health challenges. But he refused to pack it in. Performing became both therapy for himself and the members of his audience, many of whom had been loyal fans since the Balboa days.
Dale began peppering his stage banter with inspiring stories about beating the odds and dealing with pain and discomfort.
"And when I have pain now I say, 'Yeah, you have no idea what the pain was back then!' So, you deal with it, you deal with it," Dale told me in 2010.
"When you fall in a bucket of s---, tell yourself it's perfume, 'cause you might have to stay a while," he said with a laugh.
"I'm not gonna die in some rocking chair," he insisted. "I will play that guitar until I blow up on stage."
At a packed performance at the Coach House in Orange County about six months ago, one of his last, 80-year-old Dale was a bit shaky on stage. He flubbed a few notes here and there, and would miss a cue from his hard-hitting rhythm section.
But Dale didn't try to hide the mistakes, nor did he get angry or surrender the stage. Instead he laughed it off, and invited the audience to share in the struggle, confessing that the music was slipping away from him a bit.
Maybe. But from the first bone-rattling note to the last, the unmistakable Dale rumble was there. Eighty years on, the thunder was still in his hands.
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