"I DON'T DO INTERVIEWS. Everybody puts on the sensationalism."
Dick Dale, the 77-year-old guitar legend, is driving himself and his wife, Lana, to the next tour stop. As he cruises through Florida tolls, congenially chatting up toll workers and making them laugh, Dale eases between stating the hard facts of his career, reminiscing warmly about his life as a superstar, and suddenly delving into digressions that speak louder than any Wikipedia page could.
The shell story is just one of many poignant tangents.
“If you go to a store at the beach,” he starts thoughtfully, “you see a bunch of seashells you can buy.”
In the midst of disappointedly observing the nation’s insatiable taste for National Enquirer-style muckraking, Dale suddenly enters the memory of the time he took his tractor out for a dig on his 81-acre property, 2.000 feet above sea level.
“All of the sudden, I see thousands—I mean thousands and thousands—of seashells on every side,” he recalls. “Every kind of shell you can think of coming out of the ground in the hot desert.”
“When I pick up one of those shells, I get this feeling I get like I’m in Jurassic Park—I’m holding something millions of years old,” he says in wonder. “Then I go back in history, and it says it was in the water billions of years ago.”
“It’s something to buy a seashell,” he concludes. “But it’s something else to pick one up on your property.”
Given his full life—as a guitarist, surfer, exotic animal trainer, martial artist, pilot, and more—it’s easy to conjure the image of Dale tearing around his property on a front-end loader, cutting through the soil to unearth prehistoric treasures.
It’s just as easy to see him wishing to be known as that rare find, not a souvenir in a discount bin upon which passersby can project their own narratives.
“People have their own idea of the way things are,” he says. “They weren’t there—they just assume.”
For someone who will go down in history as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s true pioneers, he has every right to set the record straight. This is Dick Dale: the first rock guitarist on The Ed Sullivan Show, a renegade during a time in which electric guitar was widely deemed “the devil’s music.” His style is the reason Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen play the way they do. Metal wouldn’t exist without him.
Back in the day, when Dale played live, his guitar couldn’t be heard over the screams of his fans. So he just made music louder.
Teaming up with Leo Fender, he tested out countless electric guitars and amplifiers, blowing out hundreds of speakers (loaded guitar cabinets and house speakers) in the process.
Without him, the ‘10’ max volume setting on an amp today would sound like a ‘4.’
Onstage, he’s been likened to a Molotov cocktail, the roar of his guitar compared to that of a freight engine; it’s clear that he wants his life in his own words.
For starters: though his 1963 album title crowned him “King of the Surf Guitar,” Dale doesn’t like the title as an exclusive.
“The real story is, it’s just plain Dick Dale music, in the style of my animals and the ocean,” he says.
The animals are the menagerie of wild species like tigers, lions, and elephants that have long been a part of Dale’s family.
“I’ve lived with them for over 35 years,” says Dale. “Whenever they want to be fed, I’d imitate their wailings. So when an elephant would go [does a fantastically accurate elephant impersonation], I’d do that with my guitar.”
Another key secret to that Dale sound was inspired by drummer Gene Krupa.
“He was the first drummer to make drums a solo instrument,” explains Dale. “He listened to natives in the jungles and copied their rhythms—one, two, three, four. Average Americans, that’s how they stomp their feet. Musicians count on an off-beat, and African people count on the on-beat. So my music is all played on the on-beat.”
On tour, Dale uses his platform to be a “Johnny Appleseed” to people who struggle will illnesses; a survivor of rectal cancer and husband to Lana, who suffers from MS, Dale doesn’t believe in pain medication due to its addictive qualities.
“We try to teach other people who have the same illnesses as we have,” he says. “They see me onstage—I’m going to be 78, I’m bouncing around! We teach them not to feel sorry for themselves, to get out of bed and help somebody else.”
Dale wears a bag due to renal failure; monthly, he raises $3,000 to pay for the bag’s attachments, which need to be changed two to three times a day to avoid infection. The cost of the vital devices isn’t covered by insurance. A harsh reality of the Dale story: to handle those staggering expenses and stay as healthy as possible as he approaches 80, he must continue to gig.
“I can’t stay home and build a ship in a bottle or polish my airplane,” states Dale. “I have to be on tour.”
It’s incredibly important to Dale and Lana to use their time on tour to promote healthy choices, particularly to young people. A road dog long devoted to a drug and alcohol-free lifestyle, Dale goes for water, or pineapple juice with a little ice, at clubs. He’s outlived the majority of his peers; at his level of stardom, living clean was a rarity.
“I don’t like musicians,” he says frankly. “I don’t like those people because they don’t give to the majority. They don’t give a good path for children to follow. They break guitars onstage. It’s sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. ...I always respect a person with a clean mind and a clean body, and that’s that.”
“In martial arts,” he continues, “I was taught that my body is a temple, and you don’t desecrate your body.”
At shows, Dale and Lana encourage audiences to do the same, taking time to talk with fans and connect with them.
“We tell them what we eat, what we do,” Dale explains. “We tell them to drink lots and lots of water. Some come back two, three years later and say, ‘Guess what, Mr. Dale? I’m still drinking water, cleaning my body.’ If we can get to one of them and let them walk the path of their own and not be pressured by peers, other people will follow. That’s what it’s all about.”
And what an example the man sets. Dale continues to be a wearer of many hats, but when it all comes down to it, he was born to perform.
“When I die, I’m not going to be in a rocking chair with a beer belly,” he declares with a laugh. “It’s going to be an explosion onstage!”