Interview by Parisa Eshrati
I had the honor of speaking with the legendary King of Surf Guitar and Father of Heavy Metal, Dick Dale, before his trip to Tucson. What was supposed to be a fifteen minute phone interview turned in the most enlightening hour long conversation. I had several questions lined up and was so nervously trying to figure out how to go about asking them, but I realized I had to just let go of any format and listen to his stories. He is an incredibly humble man with amazing stories and a beautiful outlook on life. In this interview, he sheds light on the music industry, health, happiness, and much more.
Due to the length of this interview, I subdivided his stream of consciousness into categories.
Learning from Gene Krupa and How He Created His Style:
"The first thing I ever played was knives of my mother's kitchen pans. I was always very inspired by Gene Krupa and collected his records. He got his rhythm from listening to indigenous tribes and how they pound their spears. They go "boom-chicka-chicka-chicka-boom", like that. And so, the rhythm comes out of their bodies as it is a very sexual and sensual drive. They count on the one, whereas musicians count on the one-and. Gene Krupa would take his drums and go "tikka-tikka-takka-takka-tikka-tikka-tikka-takka" and always count on the one. He played that way, and that way people could clap or stomp their feet to the rhythm. When you look at original conductors of music, they would wave their baton to the count of "one-two-three-four" and that follows from the indigenous people and the Zulu natives. That's where Gene Krupa got his rhythms.
I took that rhythm and applied that to picking on my guitar. So instead of just going [insert Dick Dick’s impression of bad guitar playing here], I instead went "tikka-tikka-takka-takka-tikka-tikka-takka-takka". I do that with everything I play - drums, keyboards, guitar, etc. I re-train my musicians to play that way on all their instruments, and that's why we sound like 20 people out there...because we are striking on the downbeat, on the one. Pushing on the pick causes the strike to be felt by a person listening to you. A lot of people play by their fingers, but that sounds doesn't cut through as well as it would with a pick. It ends up sounding like oatmeal."
Learning from His Exotic Pet Animals:
The sounds that I do and the slides that I do came from listening to my 40 species of animals. They were from various jungles that I would raise and live with for 35 years so that they would live out their lives and they wouldn't get killed by poachers. I didn't just put them in cages. I would sleep with my lions! I wouldn't tell other people to do that because they would get killed. I had lots of acreage. I gave them a place where they could feel at home. They would get so excited when I would come back home. My mountain lion would roar and go “OOOOAAHH" and my elephants scream and go "EEEEEEH", and I would imitate those sounds on my guitar. I would go and hand feed them. Sometimes I even brought my lioness up on the stage and feed her a bunch of chicken necks in front of the audience. Until one day, she felt like she wanted to go outside and dragged me out with the chain during my set so I could play with her outside of the club.
Spiritual Life Converging with Musical Style:
I had been trained by masters all over the world in martial arts since I was 18, and that being one of the ways of life, I closely followed the life of Buddha. In the way of the Shaolin temples, they would tap on a drum with their hands and not even let them touch that drum for even 5 years until they could get that rhythm and tongue it and use their brain. So when you count, you have to teach your tongue to count and hit the roof of your mouth. 80% of the drummers, they try and memorize that beat and they can't do it. So that's why you learn to play it with your tongue.
But that’s what I used to do, I got my sounds from that. Of course, I was also surfing from sun up to sun down, and even surf to the light of the moon. It was my life. So from the animals, surfing, and my experience with the monks at the Shaolin temples all contributed to my sound. It's all a way of life.
How I look at life is thoughts and words. Words become actions, actions become habits, habits become your character, and character becomes your destiny. When you say something to somebody, you can have your intention and they perceive it to be something else. Positive or negative, but by the time you get through it, you’re arguing the way you meant and they argue the way they took it. That's why the Japanese will tell their children to just listen. So it's all about perception, and that's why monks don't speak. What they do is they live by the gestures of Mother Nature…of the trees, the leaves, the water, and Mother Earth. Those are the only true things. That's truth. If one monk wants to do a gesture for another monk, they will carve a bowl for him as a gift. They don't say thank you...the words are energy, and they save that energy for their bodies. So, they smile and bow. The other one wants to do something in return? Well then he’ll make him a little statue of something and they smile at each other and bow. I'd probably still be with them...but you know, I like toys. I like to work with toys. And I mean they work with their hands, but...I like toys [laughs]. I'm like a child.
Advice for Musicians:
I've always told kids to play music to the people. You look at the crowd, you see a person with a cowboy hat. He likes cowboy music? So play Western music. Western music and hillbilly music. Western music is songs about places…”Gimme land, lots of land under starry skies…don't fence me in". Hillbilly music is songs about people… "Ooh you squashed this and that’s why you left me" and it’s all about crying in your beer. Music is either a soother or a destroyer. It all depends what you wanna play and how you wanna look at it.
But me, I'm a romantic and I love romantic song. I love playing some Latino songs. I’ll get different kinds of reactions when I play different types of music. One critic said my music sounded like two locomotives crashing into each other. Another said it sounds like I’m playing to exercise the Devil. I play a mixture of everything, and it all depends on who's there. I'll go from House of the Rising Sun to Deep Purple to Johnny Cash. I'll see an old lady there, I'll sing, "Oooh I started loving you again..." and stuff like that. It moves people, it's a psychological impact. I recently played in Las Vegas, and I saw just about every possibility of different shapes and types of human being, so I played to every single one of them. And then I stuck around after for 5 1/2 hours signing autographs.
"Dick Dale was the first person to make people's ears bleed."
Being the "King of Surf Rock":
They gave me the title "The King of Surf Rock" just because I was surfing with everybody, not because of how I was playing my music. The title stuck with me, in fact it's in the White House Congressional Hall of Records. I play songs like "Esperanza" or other Latina songs that I play, and I play all instruments, and do songs like Louie Armstrong and country songs...but how could you call that surf?
They call me the Father of Heavy Metal because I created the first power amp in the world - the fender output transformers that could handle my sound, from 10-15 watts to 100 watts. Dick Dale was the first person to make peoples' ear bleeds. Lee Fender was a dear friend of mine, very close, and I blew over 50 of his amps. He asked, "Why do you have to play so loud?" and I said, "Because I want that fat sound!" I wanted the sound of Gene Krupa's drums. I played on 60 gauge strings and critics would say that I play on telephone wires. I always tell the promoter that there’s nothing surfy about certain songs that I play. I mean “Miserlou” and “Shake and Stomp”, that there didn’t come from surf. It comes from drums going “tikka-tikka-takka-takka”, the next step was my animals screaming to me, and the next step came from the ocean. I mixed all of that together. Although the title is entitled in the history books, and that's still great.
I even had a bass player quit me one time because I wasn’t playing any surf songs! I told him when I’m playing to grey haired ladies in Reno, I wanna make them comfortable and them to have a good time. They want to hear songs that go like, "I love youuuu for sentimental reasons" , so I would play those songs, but also play a mixture of other songs. Dick Dale's shows are a mixture of the way of I play my guitar. You'll recognize songs but I never play the same two songs twice. I'll add stuff into it and jam right into another song and it makes the crowd stay interested. I’ve never seen anyone walk away from one of my concerts.
Health and his loving relationship with his wife:
I once had a 17 piece band play horns and do the whole big band thing. Whatever instrument I had, I played it. As time I've gone on, because of my cancer and diabetes and renal failure with my kidneys shutting down, I have to wear a bag in my body. The doctors tell me not to play at all because if I exert myself, it will ruin my body. If I were playing too hard on the trumpet, it would tear the meat away and make a hole in my body and kill me. So they tell me to go home and lay in a bed and stay there.
Lana [Dick’s wife] was trained as a WWII nurse and very strict. She would study from medical institutions all over the world. She also has MS, which is a disease that disintegrates the muscles in your body. She's in pain 24 hours of a day. But we take no pills, we don’t smoke, don’t put any drugs in our body and never have, and we don't eat red meat. We treat ourselves well. She takes care of me 24 hours a day, we're never out of each other's sight. I've collapsed and laid on a gurney in the hospital for 12 hours and 5 doctors couldn’t understand why. Lana came in and looked at the screens, and knew exactly what was going on. They took me back to the hospital for a 9 hour operation, and went through 2 of those and then wanted to put another bag in me. I said no.
Lana has saved my life three times. We're a couple of sickies taking care of each other. She does all the booking since she wants me to rest, but ya can’t keep a man down I guess. We do what we do. She goes through her pain, I go through my bleeding, but we get through it together. We get so many emails from people going through similar pains, and it's so sad to think of people who can hardly afford this. I have to pay $3000 dollars a month and that's only for attachments, not even covering for the insurance! So if I don’t get on that stage whether doctors like it or not, I'll be dead. All these poor people only get this small monthly check that will barely keep them alive. We have two goals to do going on tour, like Johnny Appleseed: 1. Raising the money for me to stay alive so I can keep going and 2. Talking to the people that come to me when I sign afterwards baring their operations and telling me what they’re going through, and we try to help.
Music is a door opener. 5 year old kids come with their parents, have earplugs in their ears, then they grow up and get married and bring their kids. I’ve watched so many generations. I'll be 77 on May 4th…but once again, don't put booze or drugs in your body. I have a shirt that Lana designed that says "Your body follows your mind”. Hey kids, wake up! The body follows your mind! Don’t let your mind be so damn weak that it allows you to put shit in your body. Sorry for the language...I'm from Boston. When people want to buy me a drink, I say, “Yeah, some pineapple juice and ice cubes”, and they say "Whaaa? No Jack?" I say, “Nah…I don’t put that shit in my body. I used to smoke a lot, but that made my lungs will up with water. I quit cold turkey.
"Dwell about the moment you are experiencing, like you would a fine food. You savor the moment. That's why they call it the present...because it's a gift. That's the way I live."
Savoring the Moment:
I’ve played everywhere. I played for 490,000 people in Berlin, and I'll play for 400 people. Wherever I go is wherever I'm at. Don’t think about the past. Don’t waste time dwelling on the past because you’ve used it and its either good or bad. Don’t waste time thinking of the future because you could be dead in 30 seconds from now. I could have a stroke talking to you. So you don’t worry about that. Dwell about the moment you are experiencing, like you would a fine food, you savor the moment. That's why they call it the present…because it’s a gift. That’s the way I live.
Dick Dale’s Love for College Radio:
What brought me back to going back on tour, ‘cause I’ve been doing this since 1955, was a fella that came to me and wanted me to play to a at a college. I said alright and talked to my guys, and I did it. This guy was a young budding writer, Joel Sullivan, a young kid. He ended up writing this two page write up and it was incredible for a young kid learning to be a writer. Well then I didn’t see him anymore, but when I was in Riverside and he all of a sudden called me about the AP release.
So, I got a phone call from a voice from the past, and it was Joel Sullivan. He’s now the writer of over 50 books about artists and writes for the San Francisco paper. He asked me to do a show in Frisco and did a big write up in the paper. Tickets were being scalped for 150 bucks each.
What really got that going and got the records moving was also getting phone call from the colleges and CMJ charts. The first one came from Canada, then Florida, and so on. And so I was on the top of the CMJ charts and they put all of my songs of the college playlists. I would drive to colleges and sit with them and talk with them on their shows. It was CMJ that revived my career! That was the beginning again.
The FCC even did an investigation on some of these stations because they thought I owned them and told them to play all my songs. It's grass roots people, 5000 watt stations, these are the people that mean so much to me. I’m more known all over the world now that I was when I first started.
Then before you know it, I was asked to be in Pulp Fiction and asked to be in commercials from around the world. When Quienten Tarintino and I got together, he told me that he had been listening to my music for years. He wanted to create a masterpiece of a movie, and he said he wanted to compliment what he thought was my masterpiece, "Miserlou". I said yeah go for it! He's a rebel of a guy, and I've been a rebel in the music system. I always tell the kids not to sign to labels, and I always get in trouble for that.
Dick Dale’s Merchandise and Fan Following:
After hitting the CMJ charts and touring, I remember I went into different states and I would see a group of ten college kids from my last show. I asked them what they were doing there, and they said, "We’re your fans man, we're following you!” The Grateful Dead had their shirts that said Dead Heads, so I said, “Well what am I gonna call you guys?” They said, “We’re DICKHEADS, man!” I didn’t think I could put that on a shirt, but we ended up making some, and they sold out! A fan once told me he went to work wearing that shirt and his boss told him to change it, and he told his boss to shove it! It’s something I can't escape, people keep asking Lana for the dickhead shirts. There are some die hard dick heads out there.
Lana’s Powers as a Medium:
My mother has contacted with me through Lana since she is a medium. She sees spirits. My dad even helped her coin some of those phrases on the shirts. I was never a believer in spirits and things like that but now I’ll talk about it. I used to not talk about it because they can put you in a funny farm if you’re not careful. I was still suspended in disbelief, but Lana would say that my mom would be calling her. She put her hand on her shoulder and said, “Please take care of my Dickie and tell him I love him.” Nobody in my life called my Dickie. My father called me mister, but no one had ever called me Dickie but her. That blew me away. She didn’t tell me a lot at first because she didn’t want me to think she was looney.
One time Lana told me that my dad was in the car with us while we were driving. I kept trying to play tricks. Lana said he's sitting there and looking there and not saying anything, but I wanted him to say something. He asked me to play his favorite song off of a CD we were listening to, which we hadn’t heard before. He said the track was called “I’ll Dance at Your Wedding”, and won’t you know it, that song was on the CD.
So I have to believe now because we're in contact all the time. Lana had many men try and pursue her. Johnny cash would have Lana sing with him on stage when she was just a little girl, but she always saved herself for me. She contacted me after my divorce, and we talked on Skype and stayed in touch. I didn’t have the money to see her because my divorce took all my money, but her angel told her one day to buy a scratch lottery ticket so she could come to me, which she never has done before. She won $400, which was exactly enough money to get a plane ticket. We’ve been together since.
Receiving His Lifetime Achievement Award:
A week ago I got a special award in D.C. from senate for my lifetime achievements. There were over 1000 people from all over the world and the award was honored to me by the Lebanese ambassador. It was unbelievable. They asked Lana to give the speech because she knows about me more than anymore, and it put me in tears. When I got up there, I couldn’t even talk.
Discussing Tucson and Touring:
I used to fly my plane into Tucson often, and I love the area. It was also so nice for me what they did at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. Arizona has so much history to it and we love going through every time I finish my tour. We love the formation in the rocks and the whole thing in a nutshell. It’s a heartwarming thing going through the country… and where you go is where you’re at. I love all the things we see. We both love it. Lana and I both love the same thing. We'll play Patsy Kline songs all the way from to Virginia to Calfornia or Vince Gill’s song “The Two of Us”, but the band members fly home because they can’t stand listening to the same songs all the time. But Lana and I are so much the same, and we love it.
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All interviews posted before October 2015 were originally recorded for KAMP Student Radio.