Music News

Dick Dale on the Arabic Roots of Surf Rock, the Love of His Life, and Dying Onstage

After nearly an hour of conversing with Dick Dale, he apologizes for getting into storytelling mode. The time spent on the phone with the "King of the Surf Guitar" made me feel like I was 5 years old and listening at the feet of that wise, old, clean-living grandfather I never had. We're both part Lebanese, and we both believe in holistic healing, and we both love the high desert region of Southern California, where he lives at what 43CL on Google Maps will show you is Dick Dale Sky Ranch. So, you know, it makes sense. When I mention that I'll be going to his upcoming shows in South Florida — there are three of them — he advises me to bring earplugs. It's like he's family. Like he cares.

Whole Lana Love

Dick Dale is completely unguarded. He talks about his home, perched in a valley, surrounded by mountains, populated with coyotes and jackrabbits. He says with fascination, "It looks like we're on the surface of the moon!" Merely a few nights earlier, out in this nature, a white owl landed on wife Lana's back when she was cooking food for the two. Lana is clearly the center of Dale's universe. A nurse born in Saint Petersburg, Florida, she acts as a healer and full-time companion to her husband. Both have suffered a whole host of painful health conditions. Dale has struggled with cancer for six years, renal failure, and diabetes, among other ailments. Yet Dale just launched a 50-city tour with a rigorous schedule of playing gigs almost every night for months. He says nonironically, "Music is medicine for everybody, and laughter is the greatest healer."

Lana, he tells me, is with him every minute of every day. When she was 2 years old, she held up an album to show her mother. "It was a picture of me holding one of my tigers on my lap," Dale says. It was The Tiger's Loose. Little Lana said, "Mommy, one day, I am going to be with him the rest of my life." Dale had been married before for many years, and Lana contacted him via email after his marriage ended. He claims that their eight- to nine-hour-a-day phone conversations carried him through the pain he was experiencing. Then one day, Lana's angel told her to do something unusual: Go out and buy a scratch-off lottery ticket. She won $400. This allowed Lana to meet the man whom she always knew she'd spend her life with. They've been together for six years. They both love to listen to Patsy Cline, Dale notes, and love animals and people-watching. "We can just sit on a bench in Hawaii and just smell the plumeria blossoms," he says. It was in the state where he surfed for so many years that they married. "She just loves everything that I love," he confides. "It was meant to be."

Signature Sound

Dale was raised in Quincy, Massachusetts, by a father of Lebanese descent and a mother of Polish heritage. He points out proudly that his surname, Monsour, is aristocratic, meaning the brave ones. "My mother cooked Arabic food — incredible," he reminisced. "I used to work at the Thomas Bakery in Quincy... I used to pull bread out of the oven and get burned all the time." He refers to the pita as Syrian bread — a sure sign he's an Arab raised in the Northeast.

His family would gather frequently for a mahrajan, parties that included belly dancing and music. His uncles would play the darbuka, a metal-topped drum, and the mandolin-like instrument the oud. They would perform the folk song, the misirlou. "The word misirlou means 'the Egyptian,' " Dale says of the tune he immortalized with his own stamp of style. "It's an Arabic love song: 'Sweetheart, where are you, my sweetheart?'" The beat of the darbuka in that tune is the beat Dale played much faster on his guitar. He quickened it up to please the young folks who wanted to "be-bop." And the classic surf sound was born.

"I developed that style of playing like Gene Krupa on drums," he points out. Dale's first love was the drums. He played, as a kid, "on my mother's flour and sugar cans, listening to big band, Harry James, and Gene Krupa. Gene Krupa made drums the first solo instrument in the orchestra. I wanted to make my guitar like his drums." He says the beat on the one is one that Krupa learned from indigenous musicians.

His son Jimmy is also a multi-instrumentalist and will play drums on tour with him. They designed signature Fender guitars — the Jimmy Dale Signature Kingman and Dick Dale Signature Malibu — and they sometimes play just the two of them, dueling. "Those guitars have changed the world of music also, 'cause we designed them with a certain depth and thickness" that, he says, makes them easier to play.

Clean Living

What makes Dale a spectacularly unique rock 'n' roll icon isn't just that he created a whole genre of music but that he has never drunk or smoked and doesn't eat red meat. Of he and his wife, he says, "We're strictly of the earth." Clean living.

"I don't play to musicians," he claims. Musicians live lives with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll that Dale deems destructive. He doesn't allow anyone on tour with him to drink or smoke. "There's nothing but fruits and vegetables in the dressing room," he announces. He asks, to the surprise of venue owners, that they replace refrigerators full of beer with water. Dale tells people who play with him, "Forget what you know; I'm going to teach you what you should know. You're going to play to people, not musicians."

He recently had the opportunity to conduct the Fullerton College Symphony when it performed an orchestral version of "Misirlou." "When I heard what they had the ability to do, I asked the conductor, could I please interject some things, because I can hear some of the things they can do with 'Misirlou.' When we got through, the audience went insane. It was the first time in my life I said I don't want to play anymore; I want to get a job as a conductor, because it was so creative. Like Salvador Dali painting."

At almost 75, Dale still connects strongly with his audience. "I was put here, like Johnny Appleseed, to spread happiness," he says. "Make people forget about the pain that they're in." And Dale knows pain. He says thoughtfully, "I had the blues because I had no shoes, then upon the street, I met a man who had no feet." At shows, he makes sure to sign everything and talk to everyone. "The same families have been coming for the last 20 years. Their kids have been growing up, getting married, and they still come to see me." He has paintings on his wall from 12-year-olds that say "Get Well!" Many of the kids who contact him are gravely ill. He says of their commiserating, "We tell war stories, and we laugh."

At the end of the conversation, I wish him well, hope he and his wife feel better. He proclaims with a laugh, "When I die, it's not going to be in some old rocking chair, going back and forth. It's going to be onstage in one big explosion of body parts." And I tell him, "That'll be quite a show to see."

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Liz has her master’s degree in religion from Florida State University. She has since written for publications and outlets such as Miami New Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Ocean Drive, the Huffington Post, NBC Miami, Time Out Miami, Insomniac, the Daily Dot, and the Atlantic. Liz spent three years as New Times Broward-Palm Beach’s music editor, was the weekend news editor at Inverse, and is currently the managing editor at Tom Tom Magazine.
Contact: Liz Tracy