When most people think of surf music, they typically call to mind the pop harmonies of the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, or the innocent fun-in-the-sun dance tunes from any number of beach party films. However, the true sound of surf got its origins in instrumental rock’n’roll, sometimes taking influences from early rockabilly and R&B. Alongside the Ventures and the Bel-Airs, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones is among the bands heavily regarded as the originators of the genre. Their single, “Let’s Go Trippin” (released in 1961), is often argued to be the first surf song. One indisputable fact is that Dick Dale revolutionized surf guitar forever with his unique style of single-note staccato picking wrapped in reverb—usually at lightning speed and always cranked up loud.
The left-handed guitarist came on to the scene playing his Fender Stratocaster upside-down, without reversing the strings. Far from being a setback, it became more of a signature, as Leo Fender had to design a custom amp to withstand the abusive demands for volume Dick Dale put them through. The need for the new Fender Showman amp was acknowledged after he had blown an astounding 48 amplifiers! Later, the first 100-watt guitar amp was created for him as well. Taking traditional surf guitar to a whole new level, Dale was known for playing so loud and fast that the “King of the Surf Guitar” was also later dubbed “Father of Heavy Metal” by Guitar Player Magazine, and has inspired generations of guitar prodigies. In 1994, Dick Dale re-emerged to a whole new generation of fans as his song “Miserlou” became the iconic theme for Quentin Tarantino’s hugely successful film Pulp Fiction. Dale was granted an entirely different audience in 2005 when the Black Eyed Peas released the song “Pump It,” featuring samples from “Miserlou.”
Despite numerous health issues over the years, Dick Dale continues to tour and record. I caught up with the guitar legend by phone while he was on his way to the office. It’s very important to Dale to tell his story, not just for personal glory or bragging rights, but to pass along everything he’s learned to try and help others. Since this interview, I’ve even started drinking warm lemon water after looking up its health benefits! So sit down and get ready for a love story for the ages, wellness advice, and life lessons—and maybe even a writing tip or two.
Next week, you’re going to Washington, D.C. to receive the American Task Force for Lebanon Gala Award for your lifelong contribution to music. Does it feel like more of a special honor for you to be recognized by the Lebanese- American community, considering that’s your own heritage?
Dick Dale: Well, my heritage on my mother’s side, they came from Poland. They were actually called “White Russians.” My father’s side came from Beirut, Lebanon. But there have been so many different awards… For instance, I’ve been inducted into the White House Congressional Hall of Records for my life story; and they voted upon it, all the members of the Cabinet. There will be members of the Cabinet there for this award that the United States Ambassador [to Lebanon, Antoine Chedid] will be giving me. But then, you know, at the same time, I’m being given the triple-platinum award for Pulp Fiction, and a triple-platinum award for the Black-Eyed Peas, for the use of “Pump It.” So, when anyone gives me anything like that, it just makes me feel thankful that they have appreciated what we’ve tried to do… You know, they got me in the MIM, the Musical Instrument Museum, which is the largest in the country, in Phoenix, Arizona. And I’m in the Presidential Historical Building in Massachusetts, with John Adams and John Quincy Adams. It just goes on and on. Oh yeah, and the people from NASA, they come to my concerts; they put me in a computer chip in the satellite that is orbiting Mars and also that’s orbiting the moon… You know, I could go on and on because my memory lasts about 30 seconds… I’ve been told I have the most awards of any musicians. I mean, I’ve been doing it since 1955! People like Buddy Holly used to open for me. I found Jimi Hendrix when he was playing bass for Little Richard in a bar to 20 people and showed him how to slide. He wasn’t “Jimi Hendrix” then! The Beach Boys—my dad used to give them $10 to open for me! All these people that I’ve been involved with… Stevie Ray Vaughn, the first music he used to play was a Dick Dale record! There’s a lot of history. One day, they asked me to write a book and I said, “No one would believe it,” so I haven’t written it! [laughs] My wife, Lana, she’s really incredible about my history and knows everything that has gone on, and she’s going to put a biography together and then we’re going to put a book like that out.
I was going to ask about that. Lana mentioned that you were doing a documentary to put out on DVD, and I was wondering: how is that coming along? Do you think it will be available to your fans any time soon?
Well, we hope so, but it’s going to take about three years. We’ll go from there. We’ve been offered five different movie deals to do a movie about what they’re calling our “love story” about how we came together. Her background is full- blooded Cherokee, and when she was two years old, her mom had multiple sclerosis. And she has M.S., too—we’re a couple of sickies taking care of each other. But Lana’s mother gave her a Dick Dale album with me holding my tiger in my lap. It’s called The Tiger’s Loose, and it has the tiger’s eyes looking at you, and it has my eyes looking at you. She didn’t know who Dick Dale was at two years old! But, she’s got this power (she’s called a sensitive), and from a child, she looked at this album and she looked into my eyes, and she told her mother, “Mommy, one day I’m going to be with him the rest of my life.” She started writing to Doris Day when she was three, and she just got another letter from Doris today! Doris is 90! Lana is a very sensitive person, and she writes to so many people… That’s the way Lana is, you know. She’s a very giving person. So, we’re both the same. We love the same things. We listen to Vince Gill, we listen to Patsy Cline, driving across the country. And my musicians, when we’re coming home, they’ll fly on an airplane because they can’t stand listening to the same song over and over again! [laughs] That’s the way we are, you know? We’re two special souls. But we reach out to everyone we can that are going through the same medical illnesses as what we’re going through and explain how we’re dealing with them and how we’re fighting them…
With my music, I try to be like a Johnny Appleseed as I travel across the country, meeting the people and their families that come to all of the different venues. I try to help them with their problems, illnesses, and different diseases that they have that I’ve been through or have been battling. I try to give them strength. They see me on stage and they go, “Holy Mackerel! How does he do that?!” You know, I’m not going to feel sorry for myself anymore and lay in the bed… Lana, she was trained by a World War II nurse and she knows everything and anything about medicine. She researches all the time and saved my life three times from, you know, kicking the bucket. So, it’s all a big conglomerate, what we do. My music is like a door-opener to the people. If they like what we do, then we sit down and we talk all about our personal things, our medical things… everything! And that’s what it’s all about to me.
You guys are very lucky. Not everyone gets to find their soulmate, and you have. You said you guys were offered a movie deal about your life. Who would you get to play you two if it were up to you?
Me! And Lana! We’re both in the movie, so why not do it? We’d have to get somebody younger, but actually, we don’t need that because we’re talking about how it started with my cancer, and we’ve been involved with this for 20 years. So, if you can’t make the movie with me as I’ve been for the last 20 years, you’re doing something wrong, you know? It’s all about how we met and what we went through in life. Lana contacted me because she was into saving people. She took care of Orson Welles in the hospital. She worked in the veteran’s hospital in Florida, which is the largest in the country. And when she contacted me—she never contacted me through the years from when she was two years-old on, she just followed me. Then, her angel, Bernadette, told her that I’m dying. She told her mother, and her mother said, “Contact him,” and she did. And then she says, “I can’t let you die!” and she came to me, and she stopped me from dying! I mean, the rest is history. It’s an incredible story. We talked on the phone when I was in Europe for two years before I came back. For 19 months, we talked on the phone for ten hours a day. Then, she would tuck me in and put me to bed in my mind to help me put up with the pain I was going through because I’ve never had a drug in my life. And I never took pain pills in my life. So I rode the train of pain and she kept me going.
Then I came home, and we discovered Skype. She saw what was happening to me and how nobody was taking care of me. I was by myself. Then she said her angel told her to go buy a scratch-off ticket, which is like a dollar, and she did. She’s never done that before in her life, and she won $500, and that was her plane ticket to come to me to save my life. And we’ve been together ever since. And, that’s what they want to make the movie about: about how we’re linked and what we’ve both been through, and the pain she’s been through—and yet, we’ve kept going. It would be a tremendous guidance for others out there, when things go wrong in their lives, how to deal with it, how to deal with these discrepancies that come at you during your life. And my music is one of the door-openers to people that open up their hearts to me. That’s the reason why I always sit and sign things after the concert. We played to 30,000 people recently in Las Vegas, called “Viva Las Vegas,” and I ended up at my signing table with Lana for five and a half hours after the concert. After the concert! Can you imagine signing for five and a half ?! Well, that’s what we do, and these are the things they want to write about because nobody does that.
They just go and play, take the money, and then they run… I normally don’t like musicians because they’re into the “sex, drugs, and rock‘n’roll.” They don’t give a crap. They’re ruining their bodies, and then they die. It’s called drugs and booze. I’ve never had alcohol in my body. I’ve never put a drug in my body. I don’t eat red meat, and neither does Lana. And we don’t smoke. So, we try to push that on to the people. When little kids come up to me and say, “Dick Dale! How do you play like that?” I say, “Sit down, son, and let me cleanse your soul.” And then I’ll tell them what to do: drink water, clean your body, keep it clean. And you know what? They come up to me three years later and say, “Mr. Dale, you know what? I’m still drinking water!” So if we can still get through to one person, we’ve made it. We’ve done something. And we’ll both do it ‘til we both die. And I know when I die I’m not going to be rocking back and forth in a rocking chair with a big giant beer belly. It’ll be in one big explosion of body parts on stage.
How do you keep up all this energy? I mean, you’re traveling, you’re on the road…
In your mind. It’s your mind. You know, we have a t-shirt: “Your body follows your mind.” Don’t be so weak that your mind allows you to put all kind of stuff in your body that will kill you, so weak that you can’t handle some discrepancy that comes and hits you in the face. Don’t sit there and moan, “Oh my God,” until you end up putting a bullet in your head. That’s weakness. I’ve been into martial arts, in the world of karate, ever since I was 18. I was trained by masters all over the world and they taught me how to handle any situation that comes upon me in the mind.
That’s exactly what I was going to ask you, if your training in the martial arts helped you because of the discipline that they instill in you with the “mind over body” philosophy.
Yes, that has put me past my pain. I’ve been carried at certain times when the pain was so great. I’ve been carried out of the car because I didn’t have the strength to get out of it, the pain was so bad. I couldn’t step up the stairs, so they carried me up the stairs and put me in a chair, and I braced myself and played my guitar and sang into the microphone, and I got standing ovations all night long. And I’ve battled cancer twice in my life. The first time, I had three months to live. This time, I was going out the door. Between Lana, myself, and what she has discovered, dealing with this kind of stuff, not choosing the medication that will kill you from the side effects… She went up to one of the doctors and said, “Do you realize the pills you’ve been having him take causes pancreatic cancer?” And you know what the answer was? “Well, at his age, we’re not worried about that.” Yeah, we want to give him one big dosage! Ha! So Lana, she researches with the institutes all over the world to find out what all these medications do. And we’ve found other things that are not medications that we use on ourselves which are natural. And I’m still here. I was supposed to be dead 20 years ago. Now, I have diabetes on top of what I’ve had to deal with, the radiation for my cancer and chemotherapy that I’ve been through. And now my kidneys don’t work and my bladder was destroyed. I wear a bag on my body out of my stomach. And I have renal failure. That’s the next step right to a machine. And yet, I still play to 30,000 people and sign for five and a half hours. And I have major prostate and bladder issues.
What sort of spiritual and holistic health practices do you use to help you? What other remedies do you recommend for others with similar illnesses?
I learned a lot from the monks. I have trained with monks, and also with my masters in the martial arts. They teach you how to focus and they teach you how to empty yourself. You have to empty yourself before you can feel something of others. And that’s what you do: get rid of your ego. Get rid of all of these things and just work on helping people. Breathe the beautiful air; breathe air in and out like the breeze. They teach you how to breathe for a year before they train you in anything else. Learn how to watch what you eat, what you put into your body. That’s what you have to be careful about. Learn how to fight the toxins. If you were to take a lemon and squeeze the whole lemon (or you can cut it into four pieces so it’s easier to squeeze), put it in hot water in a cup, then drink it first thing in the morning before you put any food in your body. It will attack the toxins that feed cancer and it will destroy toxins in your body. It will make you feel like a million dollars. On top of that, it’ll make you feel like wanting to do something, and it will give you tremendous peace of mind… And you know what? Cancer cells cannot live with oxygen, liquid oxygen… Read about hydrogen peroxide food grade (35%) and cancer. Google it… The doctors won’t tell you about it. The Egyptians have been using it for a hundred years. So it’s very effective and it will kill cancer cells. It’s so interesting.
And all these findings, we share these with other people. We knew a man who had cancer all throughout his chest. He was in his ‘70s and they sent him home because they couldn’t operate on him. He started drinking 35% food-grade hydrogen peroxide, and it’s been about 13 years and he’s still alive. There was no cancer for them to operate on when he went back in… In my teens, I used to smoke about four and a half packs a day. It was my crutch. Then one day, when I start wheezing and I could feel fluid in my lungs, that was it. I quit cold turkey. And that’s the way it is. Now I’m 77 and I’m still kicking butt on stage! You know, if I want to lay in bed and think about my kidneys not working, and the fact that I gotta raise $3,000 every single month just to buy the medical supplies for my stomach because the insurance won’t cover it… You know, I could worry about all that stuff, but I don’t think about it. We just don’t do it! We go on the road, Lana and I; we love geographical locations. We love the farmlands, the trees, everything. She’s taken a million pictures everywhere we go. So it’s like we’re going on a mini-vacation. And every time we stop for gas, we stop and we look at all the little curios in the gas stations. We think about seeing the people we’ve been seeing for the last 30 years across the country, “The Great DD Music Lovers.” I don’t like to call them “fans,” I call them the “Great DD Music Lovers.” That’s what it’s all about. We’re not into the big trap that everybody else is. We just laugh about all those other people, the showbiz people that are beyond it all, you know what I’m saying? They don’t have time to talk to the little guy, the homeless guy who says, “Hey, please, can you give me some food?” We stop and we get them the food. Now, we don’t give them money to go out and get some alcohol. We say, “Alright, we’ll buy you a dinner,” and Lana goes out and buys them a dinner and brings it back in a box and we watch them eat it! So, that’s what we were put on this Earth for, I believe, and Lana believes it also. That’s another thing: you gotta go out in life and find someone that thinks the exact same way you do. You want to listen to Patsy Cline and they love it too—boy, you’ve got somebody! You want to sit out there on a bench and watch the world go by and feed the pigeons like we do…
When we go to Hawaii, we go to Magic Island where we got married; we sit there and a thousand pigeons come fly to our laps and we feed them. Then we look at the rainbows, see all these things, and I don’t have a mate that says, “Can we go now?!” You know? You know what Lana said to me? “Honey, I would be happy at the North Pole, as long as I was by your side.” Then she says, “Dick is the love of my life.” Let me tell you: some people, when they’re together, they’ll do something for you on a Monday, and they’ll do something on maybe a Thursday or a Saturday. Then they’ll say, “Thank you very much, that was nice of you.” But when someone does it seven days a week, with 24 hours a day of dedication of their life to you, that’s what constitutes true respect and love. That is love. And that’s the way Lana is to me, and that’s the way I am to Lana.
What kind of music are you listening to these days?
I listen to country music. My wife and I love, as I’ve said, Patsy Cline and Vince Gill. We listen to big band music from the old days, which we love. We listen to ‘50s doo-wop music, and I listen to—when I want to totally relax—what I loved for many years when I used to surf my brains out: the music of Hawaii.
Have you been writing any new material at all?
I make up all the material when I go into the studio. I recorded on the last tour. I recorded “Amazing Grace” on my guitar in Tennessee at Sun Studios. Then we’re going to start doing a country album and I’m probably going to have Lana sing with me. She used to sing like the Andrews Sisters. She’s got a beautiful, beautiful voice. She sings like Doris Day. Doris even used to say that, but that was when she was just a little child!
Well, that’s awesome! I didn’t know Lana can sing! Is there anything else you want to discuss or mention?
No, I just appreciate when writers write about things that are really going to help others instead of being sensationalistic. You can either wake up in the morning and feel crappy, and make everybody else feel crappy all day, or you can wake up in the morning and say, “Thank you, Lord, for letting me open my eyes so I can go out and make somebody happy.” So, that’s what I believe in when you write. I wrote for a magazine, Music Confidential, and I always put in something that would educate someone. Or something good, something positive. In other words, do a positive story. Don’t be like comedians that have to use every swear word in the book to get a laugh. Bob Hope made the world laugh, and he never swore. Use the time you’re alive to help someone, no matter what it is. And that’s what I believe.
Dick Dale & Band play the Howlin’ Wolf on Wednesday, April 23rd. For more info, check out dickdale.com.