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Sonic Tsunami

Dick Dale
Surf music creator Dick Dale set to shred the stage at the Mystic Theater

By Greg Cahill



"When I'm performing up there, I'm taking people on a sonic ride--a non-chemical experience--that I find on the neck of my guitar," says guitarist Dick Dale, 60, who created surf music in the late fifties. "On stage, I feel like I'm in a cage with a hundred lions. I feel like I'm coming down a hundred-foot wave. I play with that kind of ferocity. Many people call me manic when I play. How can I explain it? I'm not a person who sits on stage playing a beautiful classical concert piece and then says, 'See how pretty it is?' I'm a person who is leaping off a building and playing on the way down.

"That's what I'm all about."

Forty years ago, Dale captured the essence of the surf experience and created a new genre of music that blended the Middle Eastern scales of his Lebanese ancestors and a distinctly American cultural experince. His raw, driving power launched hundreds of copycat bands, gave rise to such commercial surf wannabes as the Beach Boys, and influenced everyone from the Jimi Hendrix to Sonic Youth.

Dick Dale and Del-Tones released five albums between 1961 and 1964, including the seminal Surfer's Choice (Del Tone). Yet Dale, who now lives on a sky ranch in the high desert north of Palm Springs with his wife, son, and a managerie of wildcats, virtually disappeared from the music scene in the early seventies after becoming disillusioned with the corporate rock mentality.

Then, in 1987, he began his comeback when he recorded an intense version of the Chantay's surf classic "Pipeline," along with Stevie Ray Vaughan, for the Back to the Beach soundtrack. In 1991, he joined Marin rockers Psychefunkapus on their turbulent single "Surfing on Jupiter."

Now Dale can be heard in all sonic glory on the newly released 2-CD anthology Better Shred Than Dead (Rhino), 44 reverb-drenched surf instrumentals, replete with machine-gun staccato guitar riffs and rumbling bass lines, that illustrate why Musician magazine has acknowledged Dale as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of the 20th century.

The collection includes tracks from 1993's Tribal Thunder (Hightone), which soared up the college radio charts and helped usher in the neo-surf movement proselytized by the likes of the Mermen, and Man or Astro Man? "Everything I do is for the underdogs, the common people, like myself, who have always had to do things from the ground up," says Dale, during a phone interview from his home. "I've never been involved with the big corporate machine."

Born in Boston and raised a long way from the beach in neighboring Quincy, Massachusetts, Dale used to sneak off to listen to his father's prized Gene Krupa records, a practice that accounts for his percussive primal rhythms. He purchased his first instrument at age eight. "I used to read Superman comics," he recalls. "The ads said, 'Sell so many jars of Noxema skin cream and get this great ukulele. It had a rearing horse and a cowboy with a lariat. I said, All right! I sold all these jars of Noxema, pounding on people's doors in the middle of snow blizzards. I sold enough to buy 10 ukuleles. I waited six months and finally it came in the mail. It was pressed cardboard, the pegs would fall out of the holes.

"I got frustrated and smashed it in the garbage can."

Eventually, Dale hooked up with some local musicians who played "wild side of life songs, those old Lefty Frizzell-type songs." One of them sold Dale a used guitar for $8, which Dale paid off at 25 cents a week.

By 1957, Dale had moved to Southern California, surfing during the day and playing teen dances at night around the Newport Beach area. And electric guitar designer Leo Fender had given Dale one of the first Fender Stratocaster guitars, which later became standard issue for aspiring rockers. Dale also helped Fender develop the Showman amplifier and reverb. But it was nature, especially the pounding surf and roaring lions, and not technology, that inspired his sound.

"Whenever I surfed, I'd end up getting stitches in my skull from being lifted up by the wall or taken down and sucked under. Or I'd see the white water coming over my ear and doing tick-ee-tick-ee-tick," says Dale, who uses heavy-gauge strings the size of bridge cables and often bleeds as a result of his intense playing. "I thought of that when I played and I thought of the powerful thundering of the surf when I'd get to the bottom turn and get sucked up and lose it. Just to feel that rumbling and be one with nature was inspiring.

"To me, my guitar is fierce animals and fierce ocean all mixed together. It's unbeatable power."


Dick Dale performs Sunday, Aug. 24, at 8 p.m. at the Mystic Theater, 21 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma. Tickets are $15. Call 707-765-6665 for info.

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