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Cancer survivor and rock legend Dick Dale: ‘I had both feet in the grave’

Dick Dale: performed April 25 at Grand Central in Miami with Gold Dust Lounge and Skinny Jimmy & the Stingrays. See below: Photos from the show

Rock ‘n’ roll icon Dick Dale is in the midst of a career resurgence at age 76, despite battling cancer and other serious health issues that would have derailed musicians half his age. He’s graced South Florida with three tours in the past three years, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s in no mood to let anything slow him down.

Dick Dale
Legendary guitarist Dick Dale performs live on his 2013 tour at Grand Central in Miami on April 25.

Dale rarely does interviews anymore, preferring to let his music and legacy of a staggering 58-year career do the talking. But I was privileged to catch up with him via phone from his ranch in California before he set out on his latest tour in March. I promised to limit my questions and keep it brief, but Dale took the conversation in a dozen different directions, as he is known to do, and our talk lasted nearly 45 minutes. It was a fascinating glimpse into the world of not only one of the great guitarists of all time, but one of the most independent and strong-willed musicians to ever take the stage.

His Miami appearance in April showed once again how expertly Dale channels his talent and strength (with impeccable assistance from bassist Sam Bolle and drummer Dusty Watson) into his live shows. The band blasted through all of Dale’s instrumental hits, from Nitro to Miserlou. And when he grabbed the mic to sing a few songs, such as House of the Rising Sun, he quickly had the audience enthralled and singing along. Check out the photos below.

The interview below is edited. The questions and answers are slightly out of order and ellipses mark some deletions. But I tried to keep Dale’s stream of consciousness intact as much as possible. As Dale explained: “If you ask me what time it is, I’ll tell you how to build a clock.” This will hopefully hold over Dale and classic instrumental surf music fans until his next tour, which I’m sure won’t be too far off.

Interview with Dick Dale by Jim Hayward on March 18, 2013.
(Questions and notes highlighted in bold.)

On his early beginnings in country music, dispelling the popular notion that his career started with surf music at Southern California’s Rendezvous Ballroom in the early ’60s:

When I first started playing, it wasn’t at the Rendezvous Ballroom. I was playing on a television show called Town Hall Party with people like Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Gene Autry … that was in 1955. Then I had my own little radio show, Dick Dale and the Rhythm Wranglers, on a station in Santa Ana. That was also in ’55. That’s when I started playing.

Modern Caribbean Rum
Dick Dale
Dick Dale at Grand Central in Miami on April 25.

Asked if he ever thought he’d still be performing a half century later:

I never thought about it. My life is a different kind of life, and the way I look at life is different. I studied martial arts with masters from throughout the world. They gave me a different way of looking at life. We never look at the past because it’s been used and it’s all done. It’s either good or it’s bad. We also don’t look at the future, because in 30 seconds I could be dead. Or as I speak with you I could die. So we don’t worry about the future. We worry about only one thing: The moment of now. That’s why they call it the present. It’s a gift. … I can look back and remember certain things. I go, “Yeah, I remember that time.” But my mind only focuses on now. This moment.

How his live-in-the-moment mantra affects his music:

I never know what I’m going to perform because I don’t follow a list. I just get on the stage and say a prayer to whoever made me. I say, “OK, you’re in control. You’re either going to make me do good or you’re going to make me sound like crap.” But I’m not going to let that happen. I’ll get out there and I’ll start to play and I’ll start reading the audience. I never play the same song twice the same way. I’m always mixing it up in the middle of the song, going into another song. It’s like a Salvador Dalí painting. That’s why all my shows are always different. … I’ll play a song and my band members will go, “Holy mackerel, what’s he doing?” Because they have no idea what I’m going to play. Neither do I. And that’s what makes it so exciting and different every night.

On his popularity and approach to performing live:

People ask, “What was it like when fans were grabbing your clothes while you were on stage, and everybody swooning and screaming?” I’ve played to 490,000 people in Berlin, and when I go over there I always play concerts where there’s 30,000 people in tents and stuff like that outdoors. … Plus I play the clubs because it’s more intimate. But I don’t think of those things. All I think of is like I’m flying a high-performance aircraft. You have to think of what you’re doing. How do I make them scream louder for the next song? Things like that. I’m so involved in playing to the people, not to musicians. People count differently. They count on the one beat, not the off-beat like musicians. So I play and teach my band members to play on the on-beat like Gene Krupa did. Drums were my first instrument.” …

Dick Dale
Dick Dale with bassist Sam Bolle and drummer Dusty Watson at Grand Central in Miami.

There are different audiences. When I played to 490,000 in Berlin it was just like Woodstock. Everybody was totally different looking. It was a mixture of everything. When I play a dinner house, they bring their kids in – 5, 6, 7 years old. And so I’ll play stuff that will appeal to them. I’ll play the piano, I’ll play my harmonica boogie-woogie. I’m not playing my trumpet or saxophone like I used to because it could cause bleeding … because of the radiation and the chemotherapy. … When I die, it’s not going to be in a rocking chair with a beer belly, it’s going to be onstage in one big explosion.

When I play, I play just as hard for 1,000 people or 500 people as I do for 300,000 people. I don’t cheat, that’s just me. I give my all to everybody because I appreciate them. I’m bigger now (around the world) than I’ve ever been in my life. Belgium is calling me, Russia is calling me, Poland is calling me, Austria is e-mailing me. They all want me to be there to do the concerts because I’ve done the commercials over there for VW, Renault, Nissan.

On why his son Jimmy and other members of his revolving three-piece band endure the “Dick Dale school of pain,” and his unique method of playing:

Jimmy plays with me sometimes. He doesn’t play with me all the time because he has his own life. He won’t be on this tour. I also have drummers that have been with me for years. … The drummer from Cheap Trick (Daxx Nielsen) was backing me for five years. Bryan Head has been with me for many years. Dusty Watson has been with me for many, many years on national tours. In fact, Dusty will be playing this tour with me. These guys have all gone through the Dick Dale school of pain. I’m very painful to work for. I don’t take any crap. I teach them how I want them to play. I tell them: Forget how you learned to play. I teach people the Gene Krupa method, striking on the one. They have accepted that – to learn, and study, and follow me. They’ve been taught to match my guitar. … That’s why we sound like 20 people up there.

The Dick Dale exhibit at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix
The Dick Dale exhibit at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.

Whoever plays bass, they go through training of how they should play with me. Because they get into bad habits with other bands. … A lot of times drummers and bass players make it sound like it’s oatmeal, they’re all over the place. And the audience cannot make heads or tails of the rhythm that they’re playing. … So my sound will always be very, very powerful and strong because it’s the Dick Dale method, the Dick Dale way of playing. I just did a seminar at the MIM Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, and they have a 30-foot display on Dick Dale, and films, all my output transformers, and speakers and amp heads that we created. … I spent about two hours onstage with about 100 people who all came with their amplifiers. All ages, from teens to older people, and we had such a wonderful time. I had them all playing a certain way. … I teach people when they come to me, I help them. They take lessons for years and accomplish nothing but scales. You don’t need scales unless you’re going to be a studio recording musician or a sideman to record for other people. You need some music theory, but to learn to play an instrument you don’t need that. I’ll teach them in one day how to play a song. They go, “My god, I’m not going back to my instructor.” I also teach piano, bass, drums. I can play every instrument.

On bigger bands beyond his three-piece, what special event almost made him want to quit playing, and why he doesn’t consider himself a guitar player:

I’ve played with 17-piece rock bands with six horns and keyboards and six girl singers. I’ve had double drummers, I’ve had double bass players. In fact, I played with a classical orchestra not too long ago doing Miserlou. They allowed me to conduct a symphonic orchestra (at Fullerton College in California.) It was the most incredible feeling. It made me want to quit playing completely and become a conductor. Because I could see and feel what that classical symphonic orchestra was capable of doing, adding more. They followed me to a T and the audience went zonkers. And so did I. … I had them start Miserlou in the symphonic, melodic style with all the violins and everything. And I hid in the wings with my guitar plugged in. … Then all of a sudden I come walking (mimics sound of guitar) and the audience went insane. Then during certain parts I’d break and have the violins come in, then I’d break and have the timpanis and trombones and cellos come in. It was like painting pictures with them. … We did it all in parts, then we all came together at the ending with a big explosion. … What a feeling!

Dick Dale
Dick Dale makes his guitar scream at Grand Central in Miami on April 25.

You see, I don’t call myself a guitar player. I’m a manipulator of an instrument. I just make a guitar scream with pain or pleasure. Some guy said I played my guitar like I cropped down a tree. Another person said I played the guitar like I was going through an exorcism. I’ve had critics say it’s like two oncoming trains crashing into each other. One said its like he’s throwing Molotov cocktails against a brick wall, then watching the flames slide down the wall. They have so many different opinions of what they feel when they see me play.

On his various interests outside of music:

I remember asking one of my [martial arts] masters one time, “Why can’t I be the greatest and be unbeatable in everything that I do?” I’ve been into many different things – archery, flying planes, scuba diving, all kinds of stuff. And he said: “Grasshopper, yes, you could be the greatest and be unbeatable, but you’d have to give up everything else in your life. You would have to eat it and breathe it and sleep it.” And he said, “Let me ask you a question: Would you rather be a jack of all trades and master of none, or a master of one?” If you’re a master of one, you’d be awfully dull at a gathering of people, wouldn’t you? Einstein couldn’t carry on a conversation with other people. … So I said I’d rather be a master of none and be a jack of all trades. So I got books and studied things. The only fiction I ever read was Heidi in school as a child. Everything I’ve ever read is factual, because it’s a waste of time to read fiction, I believe. Your brain wants to be educated. So now, because I’ve experienced being a plumber, being a house-builder, being an architect, being a draftsman and artist, there isn’t something I haven’t tried that I can’t talk about. Except drugs and alcohol. I’ve never put drugs or alcohol in my body. I used to smoke cigarettes, but I don’t do that anymore. My wife is the same way. I’ve been in the vegetarian world for many, many, many, many years. I’ve studied, I’ve had libraries of books ceiling to floor.

On why his life doesn’t revolve around the guitar:

It’s just one window in my life. … I used to tell my band members, just go home and do something else. Learn how to build a house. Learn surfing like I did. I used to surf sunup to sundown. I trained 40-50 different wild animals from all over the world. … I had lions, tigers, elephants, apes, hawks, eagles, falcons. … I have many windows. If you talk to a musician, he takes his guitar and goes to bed with it. I never play my instrument when I’m home. I don’t practice. I make it all up when I’m playing. The only thing I sit down with, sometimes, is my piano. I love my piano because I’ve always liked to play all types of music, like beautiful Latino songs for my mother. … I very rarely pick up the guitar, except when I’m going on stage.

On what advice he would give on having a happy life:

Get out there and don’t be harnessed to any particular thing. Whatever you do, be a jack of all trades. That makes your life so exciting and beautiful. I’m into photography, I’m into painting. I wanted to learn how to build a house, so I did that. I built my mom and dad’s house, 7,000 square feet. I tell kids, go out and do these things because you’re going to get sucked into hanging around with musicians. I don’t really like musicians. It’s all sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The only ones I like now are the guys who have made it through life, survived, and have learned not to put that shit in their body. Because I never did it, and I’m still here. … I tell musicians, “Have many windows in your life.” Maybe one day, God forbid, you won’t be able to play your instrument anymore. So you can go and do other things. There are so many other things you can do.

Dick Dale
Dick Dale with with bassist Sam Bolle and drummer Dusty Watson at Grand Central in Miami on April 25.

On his recent health issues and he and his wife Lana’s holistic approach to healing:

I’ve been dealing with cancer, diabetes, my bladder is blown out from the radiation and the chemotherapy, and I’m in renal failure. It costs me $3,000 a month just to buy the medical aids I need because the insurance won’t cover it. I feel for the poor people who only live off of Social Security and have the same diseases I have. My diabetes is out of control, my doctor says. I’m one step from a machine. They tell you to take pain pills. I don’t take pain pills. I rode the train of pain. Because if you take a pain pill it will retard healing … in your body. And they don’t tell you that. There are all kinds of things that will destroy your liver. … I was taking a pill the doctor had given me for my blood and I saw on television that it could cause pancreatic cancer. Doctors tell me, “At your age we’re not worried about what it’s going to do in the long run, we need to bite it in the bud now. Give me a break! So I don’t take those.

My wife has saved my life three times when the doctors didn’t know what they were doing. … I was in an emergency room for 12 hours with five doctors and they couldn’t figure out why I had collapsed, and Lana showed them what it was. … We fight all this stuff with natural things, and we try to help other people who have the same diseases who are laying in bed rotting away because the insurance won’t cover what they need for their disease. They say, “We’ll only cover this much.” But they need more. … It’s so sad what they’re going through.” …

I’ve been through three operations, a total of 9 1/2 hours with three surgeons. I had both feet in the grave. So I don’t go back in for any more operations. Lana watches over me, we’re never separated. She sells the merch while we’re on the road. We watch over each other. She has her own disease. She has MS. So we’re a couple of sickies who treat each other. We heal each other. But we’re happier than we’ve ever been because we both love the same things. She loves the old Big Band-style music and so do I. She loves country music. We listen to Vince Gill all day long.

On his legacy and his bond with his fans:

More people are digging into history, like at colleges, and finding out about Dick Dale. They’re realizing that I was the guy splitting the atom in the beginning of amplification … with Leo Fender. I’m the “Father of Loud,” before heavy metal. … I’m the guy, along with Leo, who created the big 15-inch Lansing speakers with the big 100-watt transformers. … And hopefully they see me as a person who is like them. That’s the reason why I sign autographs at the end of the night. I don’t just play and leave. I stay until everybody leaves. I’m signing and I’m talking with families, and I’m talking to people with diseases. I make them laugh about it. I talk to little kids who come up to me. And I tell them to drink water and give their body a bath inside, to stay away from the soda pops and all that stuff. … I tell people, “Go home and hug your mother and father … Tell them how much you love them. … The point is to get children today to give the love to their parents that their parents gave to them. The parents sacrificed, and the kids take it for granted. I try to get that message out to them, because if they like my music they might listen to what I say.”

DICK DALE IN CONCERT, April 25, 2013
With Gold Dust Lounge and Skinny Jimmy & the Stingrays

(Photos by Jim Hayward; click on thumbnails for larger images and slideshow)


* More 2013 tour reviews, photos: Atlanta | St. Louis

Past Atomic Grog coverage
2012 tour:
* Concert review: Dick Dale’s comeback revs into overdrive
* South Florida welcomes Dick Dale, but when will the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
* Nothing can stop surf guitar king Dick Dale
* The Atomic Grog celebrates first anniversary with the return of Dick Dale
2011 tour:
* Dale shreds all doubts with sizzling shows
* Dick Dale playing the tour of his life | What makes Dick Dale the ‘King’?
* Tour was 7 years in the making

Official sites
* | The Dick Dale virtual museum

4 Replies to “Cancer survivor and rock legend Dick Dale: ‘I had both feet in the grave’”

  1. Thank you for your writings of dick dale, it expresses that you truly wrote from your heart…. it is very complete about my feelings, For that, I thank you… dick dale

  2. This story about you Dick Dale is very excellent written and spoken from you. I have watched your career while growing up and am now 66 yoa and still a DICK DALE fan for ever. I have been to the last two Concerts in ST Pete, Florida with your Father in Law Leo, whom I worked with and is my Best Friend since 1983.
    I have enjoyed your Music for years and hope you have a Long Life of Playing ahead of you. Thank you for the Music.


  3. I have been a Dick Dale fan since before I knew who he was. I was a Huntington Beach kid when he was doing Balboa. I have been to two of his live appearances. The most memorable was at the Pomona Fairgrounds, where he was almost a one man show, I got to stand right next to the stage and he was a real human. That makes him the best. His attitude towards life inspires me. I am in my sixties. I am wondering since his web page expired 3 days ago and the last I can find of him was the May concert, what is up?

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