Certain thrones exist in a state of perpetual flux. Titles like the NFL champion and the Academy Award for Best Actress are extremely likely to shift from year to year, and our culture will never agree on the greatest rapper, the best female pop star or if a young guard is truly the next Michael Jordan. On the flip side, a handful of other thrones are rock-solid entities that have not been, and will never go, seriously challenged. Dick Dale’s title of King of the Surf Guitar is the finest example of this. It’s a role he’s embraced yet also despised for how it has stereotyped his career. However, as a pioneer and icon of surf rock, his status is immutable. Plus, since no current notables are out there making surf music, add an extra layer of concrete to said status. Still, if anyone deserves an award as grandiose as being named the monarch of an entire sub-genre, why not have it be a fascinating figure who is prone to indulging in grandiosity himself?
Born Richard Monsour, the 75-year-old Dale has been in the music biz for at least a half-century, experiencing varying waves of popularity along the way. He’s been a rising, suit-clad dreamboat (a 1963 Life magazine story described him as “a thumping teenage idol who is part evangelist, part Pied Piper and all success”), a rock ’n’ roller working in a humdrum doo-wop-influenced style, a guitarist with a thunderous staccato style and an amp- annihilating demand for loudness, and a relatively obscure musician whose career received an unexpected jolt in 1994 when Quentin Tarantino used his “Misirlou” to score the opening of Pulp Fiction. The Greek-folk-song-turned-scorcher that first appeared on 1962’s Surfers’ Choice is a missile of finely tuned reverb and virile strumming that aims to spark instant movement. Dale has long used spirited language to describe how much impact he wants his songs to create, and surf rock’s most famous recording conveys the thrill of motion without a word.
For his part, the guitarist has played up the surfing connections but is someone to be taken seriously. He used to carry his surf board to the stage and then turn it over to reveal his guitar, but he also surfed himself. It was the fans, he says, who crowned him the King of the Surf Guitar.
“Because they called me that, that stuck, but I play everything from Latino [to] ‘Silent Night’ to ‘Amazing Grace.’ I’d rather have it called Dick Dale music, but [surfers] put the terminology of surf music [on the genre] because it gave them the power when they were surfing,” the talkative Dale says, speaking from his home/airport hangar in Twentynine Palms, Calif. He brings up three key inspirations for his style, with the first being a jazz drummer he’s frequently cited and the second referencing his collection of exotic animals: “Me, I was playing from the power of Gene Krupa’s drums, from the power of my lions and tigers, and from the powers of surfing—all three put together.”
Despite his age and diabetes, Dale is touring his ass off again. To be the King of the Surf Guitar is to endlessly rejuvenate yourself through force, pride, stubbornness and idealism. “When I die, it’s not going to be in a goddamn rocking chair with a big belly,” he says. “I’m going to die in one big explosion and body parts are onstage. And that’s the way it is.”
Mon., July 16, 8pm. $20-$25 doors. With Blue Wave Theory. North Star Bar, 2639 Poplar St. 215.787.0488. northstarbar.com
PW's Music Issue 2014