Some people crash and burn. Dick Dale, the “King of the Surf Guitar,” crashed and bounced. Five times. There’s a lesson in that.
It occurs to me now, many years later, that I didn’t so much meet Dick Dale on that grim June day in 1986, but rather was sucked into the eccentric orbit of a flickering rock ’n’ roller. It’s also obvious, looking back, that I met the “King of the Surf Guitar” at one of the lowest points of his often-calamitous life. On that day, a quarter century after Dale’s fame had peaked in Life magazine and on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” a rumbling avalanche of poor choices and bad luck — love, money, real estate, career, everything — seemed to finally catch up with him.
I’d called Dale after noticing a brief news item that described the possibility of his eviction from a 17-room Newport Beach mansion. New to Southern California from Pittsburgh, the nonsurfing capital of the world, I knew nothing of surf music or the man Guitar Player magazine considers — along with Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix — among the “30 Players Who Changed the Way We Sound.” Nor did I know anything about the complex series of misfortunes that had led Dale to the edge of the abyss. But the King was losing his castle and, on the surface, his descent into debt seemed like a good morality tale — a fading guitar hero at the end of his rocket ride. I wanted to write about his crash, to sift the debris for any lessons it might hold, and he agreed.
That was my first clue that things aren’t always what they seem.
We met for the first time a week or so later in the hallway of an Orange County court. His long, unnaturally black hair was pulled into a ponytail, and he was dressed in the clothes of a lifelong performer, despite a receding hairline and the start of a pizza paunch. Onstage, Dale is known for his power and commanding presence — he’s been called a “sonic beast” — but at that moment he looked like an inappropriately dressed 49-year-old man who’d been clocked in the forehead with a metal pipe.
A judge had just upheld a creditor’s right to evict him from his three-story dream house near the fabled Wedge at the tip of Balboa Peninsula, a house as much a part of Dale’s public persona as his glittery gold Fender Stratocaster. He didn’t have time to talk, he said; after months of legal wrangling, the court had given him until the next day to empty the home of his possessions and get out. He was 24 hours from being homeless.
“You’ll need help,” I said, and he was in no position to decline my offer.
From that ringside seat I watched a man truly in the crucible, and what I saw that day was a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Though clearly stunned, Dale never once slid into self-pity. Within an hour, he’d taken out a yellow legal pad and made a list of the things he would need to rebuild his life virtually from scratch. The list eventually grew to 17 items. His first priority was saving the guitars and other instruments, the tools he’d need for the comeback in which he had unswerving confidence. Second came the recording equipment. The clothes came third. His beloved Macintosh computers rated 6th; his surfboards 14th. The cash and valuables in his safes were an afterthought, at 17.
An hour after that — even as he worked toward the brutal eviction deadline, even as he prepared to move into the road-weary 25-foot RV that would become his home for the next year — Dale was already philosophical. “It’s not wrong to become broke, but it’s a real bad thing if you become poor,” he said. “The difference between being broke and being poor is that when you’re poor, you don’t have the mental ability to want something and work hard enough to get it. I once made a million dollars a year with my career. I made $10,000 for three minutes’ work on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1963. It all went to agents, record companies, producers, managers, taxes. It’s no big deal. I just ended up starting over again, just like I’m going to do now.”
I was remembering Dale’s words one day last April as I rolled along the dusty road toward the converted desert airport he calls his “Skyranch,” near Twentynine Palms, where, at 64, he’s enjoying the most successful and satisfying days of his life and career. I was thinking, too, about how the best stories develop over time, stories in which character is revealed rather than exposed. Fifteen years ago, I chronicled in unsparing detail the fall of a man who can be, all at once, charming, obnoxious, wise and comically self-absorbed. What I remember most, though, is the way he responded to a boxer’s clear and undeniable choice: Get up off the bloodied canvas, or stay down. Facing a future that promised nothing but years of hard work, impossible odds and no guarantees, Dick Dale pushed himself off the floor, cleared his head and started to rise.
PSYCHOLOGISTS HAVE LONG BEEN FASCINATED BY PEOPLE WHO seem better equipped than others to survive the natural and unnatural disasters of life. In a word, those survivors are “resilient,” and the search is on for their secret. “What we know about resiliency is limited from the standpoint of research and empirical data,” says Elaine Ann Blechman, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and an expert on the topic of resiliency. “But I can give you some hints and guesses.”
Resilient people, she says, “can be people of any age faced with statistical odds that most people don’t overcome. That can be a child faced with a poor family or difficult home life, to somebody at midlife who has a series of reverses in business and marriage. Most people we know succumb to that. They get depressed and give up. But the resilient person is someone who has enough sense of purpose or vision or meaning as an individual to keep going through very, very difficult times. Extremely difficult times. They’re people who feel they have something important or some talent to contribute to the world.”
I tell Blechman the broad outlines of Dale’s story, explaining how at least five times he has survived the potentially devastating hand that life dealt him. The first was when his white-hot Southern California music career was swamped by a shifting tide of public taste. In the early 1960s, when he was being compared to many of the American greats of the day — “a thumping teenage idol who is part evangelist, part Pied Piper and all success,” proclaimed Life — his act was suddenly eclipsed by the Beatles, the Stones and other British invaders. Just that quick, Dick Dale was yesterday’s news.
Then in 1965, Dale, still in his 20s, was found to have rectal cancer, one of the disease’s deadliest forms. Without surgery, his doctor told him later, he might have lived only three months more. The ensuing battle relieved him of part of his small intestine and much of the money he made during his peak earning years of 1960, 1961 and 1962. His weight eventually dropped from 158 to 98 pounds, and he moved to Hawaii expecting to die. He began studying martial arts, and credits the lifestyle changes he learned there to salvaging his health.
He switched gears, opening his first nightclub in Riverside in 1968 even though he knew nothing about running a business. Then, two years later, Dale retooled his stage act and took it to Reno, Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas. Money flowed again and, this time, having learned his lesson, he sank much of it into real estate — a house in Costa Mesa, apartment buildings in Huntington Beach, marina property in Oxnard, a small airport near Fresno.
He began touring again, but in the early 1970s he had a chance to buy a beer bar called the Playgirl Club in Garden Grove. Dale renamed it The Rendezvous and gradually expanded it into an 18,000-square-foot musical megaplex. With Dale as a regular stage act and many top bands eager to play at the club, The Rendezvous was a huge success. He soon opened Rendezvous II in Huntington Beach. By the mid-1970s, things were going so well that he jumped at the chance to buy the magnificent mansion at the tip of Balboa Peninsula originally built in 1926 by razor magnate King Gillette, though he had to sell some of his other properties to afford it.
By then, though, Dale’s personal life was unraveling. The fallout from a nasty, protracted and very public divorce drained him financially and damaged his reputation. The deals he cut to save his beloved mansion put him on the road to financial disaster.
In 1984, Dale spilled a pot of boiling cooking oil on his left leg, left foot and left hand — his guitar-picking hand. “It was like his hand was melted,” remembers Cynthia Huffman, Dale’s companion at the time, who now is president of a North Hollywood casting agency. “For a lot of people that wouldn’t be tragic, but when you’re left-handed and play guitar really, really fast, that’s a really big deal. That’s how he made his living.”
Third-degree burns are among the most painful injuries a human body can suffer, and Dale’s recovery at a burn center in Irvine was excruciating. His doctors predicted that the resulting scar tissue would prevent him from playing the guitar, but even then, Huffman remembers, “Dick’s attitude was, ‘Look at all these poor little kids that were in fires and in so much pain. It could have been worse. How dare me whine about a little hand thing?’ “
He said something else then that Huffman still remembers: “If I can’t play guitar, we’ll figure something else out.”
“That’s what [resilience] is all about in a way — living large,” Blechman says. “Having a sense that life is a finite opportunity. ‘I have a life and I’m going to make the most of this. It’s a kick to be alive.’ “
CELEBRATING DICK DALE FOR ANYTHING other than his music can be tricky, like celebrating Hustler publisher Larry Flynt for defending the First Amendment. In some stories, the hero isn’t easy to understand or even like. Dale is an impossibly complicated, often contradictory, subject — inseparable from the history of Southern California beach culture, but with an accent that betrays his Massachusetts upbringing; capable of both startling wisdom and laughable lapses of judgment; a self-professed health freak with weaknesses for buttered popcorn and pizza; a nonstop talker who numbers among his favorite sayings, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.”
So let’s start with the music. The guy can play virtually anything — guitar, drums, trumpet, piano, ukulele, accordion, the list seems endless — though his unorthodox way with string instruments makes the violin a logistical nightmare. He’s self-taught, which explains why he plays the guitar upside down (to accommodate his left-handedness) and backward, with the heavier strings along the bottom of the guitar’s neck and the thinner strings along the top. “If someone tries to sound like Dick, they can’t,” says Ron Eglit of Huntington Beach, Dale’s bass player and friend for the past 23 years. “It’s because on a physical level they’re not playing the same way. He has his own language for music. He’s just in a whole ’nother world.”
Dale’s musical passions are boundless (a Slim Whitman CD was slotted next to a self-made disc of “Arabic Music” in his Chevy Suburban’s CD rack) and he makes music onstage and in the studio with a striking combination of technical skill and raw instinct. A Southern California beach-culture icon by the early 1960s — his music infuses the 1963 classic “Beach Party” with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello — he remains true to his trademark brand of high-decibel instrumental electro-throb.
“In our world he’s definitely one of the guys who shaped the way we do things now,” says Guitar Player magazine editor Michael Molenda. “He’s never been considered a technical genius, but he does have an intensely strong personality that comes through in the way he plays. It’s passionate and arrogant, but in a good way. He attacks the guitar to squeeze every single aggressive noise possible out of it. He’s got this feral energy. Can you imagine that in 1962, with all of that namby-pamby pop of the day? Here comes this guy in surf clothes and he’s brutalizing a guitar. He influenced a ton of players.”
Another thing: At an age when most people are slowing down, Dale — who does not drink, smoke, take drugs or eat much red meat — still approaches life and work with the infectious enthusiasm of a hyperactive cheerleader. He doesn’t sleep much, preferring catnaps and a four-hour doze during the night. During his waking hours he’s a tireless student of life, competent at everything from architectural drawing to operating a road grader. An Air Force veteran (a crash crew member, not a pilot), he got his private pilot’s license in 1974, but is no less proud that he poured the cement for every square inch of the 2,860-foot-long runway on the 81-acre Skyranch. He personally trained the two horses he keeps there to obey his voice commands, just like the lions and other big cats he once kept in the mansion. With his second wife, Jill, a bass player, he is helping teach their 9-year-old son, Jimmy, everything from driving a Massey Ferguson tractor to reading a pilot’s map. Jimmy often plays drums onstage with his parents with a sophistication and sense of rhythm that’s downright eerie.
Reviewers of his recent stage shows have lapsed into purple hyperbole. “TWO HUGE THUMBS UP!!!!” enthused one; gushed another: “[The man’s] musical gift is drawing the hypnotic, sexual power of his songs through his almost lyrical staccato barrage.”
But if Dick Dale’s earsplitting sound is best appreciated from a distance, then, perhaps, so is the man himself. Dale can be overbearing — “Sometimes I just amaze myself,” he says without irony while cranking his latest work on the Suburban’s CD player — and that sometimes creates an aura of self-importance that can hover around him like a fog. He’s not the only person to speak of himself in the third person, it’s just that he doesn’t have the cultural gravitas of, say, Muhammad Ali and others who also make it a habit. Despite warnings to Jimmy about bragging, Dale spends a lot of time talking about himself and his influence on music.
Maybe that’s a holdover from the early days of his career, when he watched better-marketed surf bands — the Surfaris, the Chantays, the Ventures, the Beach Boys — rise to national prominence. Despite being hailed at the time as a fleet-fingered guitar magician and one of rock’s true originals, only one of his five local hits, “Let’s Go Trippin’,” ever broke into Billboard’s national top 100. In 1961 it climbed to No. 60.
“We needed marketing, because word of mouth ain’t gonna take you nationwide,” Dale says now. “We didn’t do it.”
Perhaps to compensate, the amazing Dick Dale generates an equally amazing amount of Dickocentric blather. It accumulates like drifting snow, and as it does, it’s easy to forget that, during the past 15 years, he’s done that rarest of things: exactly what he said he was going to do.
TOO OFTEN IN THE MEDIA, YEARS OF HARD WORK weigh less than 15 minutes of fame. Want proof? Search the Los Angeles Times archives to find out whose name appeared more often during the past three years, Gao Xingjian, last year’s Nobel laureate in literature (23), or Darva Conger, the winning contestant on “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” (89)
Maybe that’s why I want so badly to revisit Dick Dale’s story. Having chronicled his 15 minutes of infamy in 1986, it’s a chance to make sure that they don’t overshadow what has happened since. Turns out, the most interesting chapters of his story unfolded far from the public eye.
Dale and I lost touch sometime in the late 1980s. I embarked on a novel-writing career that promised, well, nothing but years of hard work, impossible odds and no guarantees. During those years, watching from afar, I was regularly inspired by news accounts of Dale chipping away at the improbable.
After hearing his name in a radio report this spring, I e-mailed him congratulations about the upcoming release of his new CD, “Spatial Disorientation.” He replied with a burst of electronic joy: “So much to share with you of a positive light . . . my son Jimmy plays drums and is now playing like a madman . . . we’re doing a concert together raising money for the church and kids in our little town of Twentynine Palms. The Dick Dale family, my wife Jill, Jimmy and me . . . it’s like Mayberry here. I love it, plus I have my own airport. Check my Web page, dickdale.com, and read all the good fun things that working around the clock brings . . . ”
And so I set out to reconnect with Dick Dale. To finish the story.
AFTER MAKING HIS PRIORITY LIST IN 1986, he began a slow, steady climb. As he had done for years, he approached each day with a mix of Buddhist philosophy, Catholic resolve, Protestant work ethic and the studied nonchalance of a laid-back Southern California surfer. “Wherever I am is where I’m at,” he often says. “I learned that from being around animals and watching the way they deal with things. They deal with what’s happening at that moment, then they decide what’s next. Like Einstein said, there’s a formula for everything, so why make a big deal out of it?”
Huffman says that attitude is pure Dick Dale. “Even though he’s as complex as he is — I think there’s, like, five of him — he’s really very simple and stays true to that one idea: ‘If it’s broke, I don’t have time to worry. Just fix it and move on, and it’s up to me to fix it.’”
Within a year of his eviction, he’d recorded a version of the classic surf tune “Pipeline” with Stevie Ray Vaughan that got him a 1987 Grammy nomination, his first. (He no doubt was the only nominee that year who was living in an RV in his parents’ driveway at the time the nominated song was recorded.) He bought a house in Garden Grove, refurbished it and sold it for a profit. He bought another, as well as some property in Twentynine Palms. He also bought an airplane to replace the one he’d lost during his divorce and, at that point, he says, “My dream was to have my own airport.”
He eventually fell in love with both Jill and the high desert, and they set up camp far from the Pacific coast where, several lifetimes before, he’d been king. The song “Nitro,” from his “Tribal Thunder” CD, hit big on alternative radio stations in 1993, and he became what surely was the oldest red-hot act on the college grunge circuit. By the time the film “Pulp Fiction” was released in 1994 — it opened with the blitzkrieg sound of Dale’s classic “Misirlou” and sent a new generation of music fans scouring the film’s credits: Who was that guy? — his resurrection was well underway.
The “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack went triple platinum, selling more than 3 million copies in the United States. Dale eventually started his own record company, Dick Dale Records, and began doing everything himself — recording, distribution, promotion, booking, contracts. With a fan’s help, he built his own Web site. Last I checked, more than a quarter-million Web surfers had visited the site. His CDs started moving faster. Endorsement deals followed. Dale’s tunes started turning up in television commercials, everything from Domino’s Pizza to Mountain Dew to Nissan Maxima to Barclay’s Bank of London. He did the talk-show circuit — Rosie, Conan, Dave. He has toured internationally, and is just wrapping up a cross-country club tour.
Less than a decade after losing everything, Dick Dale is bigger than he’s ever been.
I’M DRIVING THE STRAIGHT, DUSTY road that leads to Dale’s Skyranch, to the happy place that represents a life rebuilt.
He lives on a high-desert plain once used as an emergency airfield for the nearby Marine base, then later as a staging area for a religious organization’s relief flights. From a distance, the ranch looks like a heavy-equipment storage yard. The house isn’t much, a far cry from the mansion, and not even as nice as the rambling 7,000-square-foot home he designed and built for his aging parents just a few miles away. It’s surrounded by a grown man’s toys: two backhoes, a road grader, a water tanker, a 26-foot scissors lift, a dune buggy with flat tires, four motorcycles, three four-wheel all-terrain vehicles, two tractors and two RVs, including the one he called home during his post-mansion exile. He calls it his “anchor,” always there, just in case.
He greets me in a battered golf cart that looks like something out of a golf-themed “Road Warrior” sequel. Out here, appearances don’t matter. Dale’s a bit heavier, a bit balder, talkative as ever but a little wary. Life is good, he says. Time is money. He doesn’t need publicity. He’s supposed to be getting ready for a summer tour and finishing work on the new CD, which he’ll release in August, or whenever he’s good and ready now that he’s running the show at Dick Dale Records.
Still, he wants to show me around the new world he’s built. I’m an enthusiastic tourist. Having watched him put his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, it’s good to see him here.
He tells me how he and Jill met, and how amazing Jimmy was from the day he was born. He shows videos as proof — Jimmy working his drum set like a pro, Jimmy in his martial arts outfit breaking a pine board with his tiny fist, Jimmy kicking serious butt during a tae kwon do championship. He shows me how, using the stress breaks every 20 feet along his concrete runway, he taught Jimmy to count in increments of 20. Dale points to the roof of his house and one of the outbuildings, explaining that he just put a 30-year shingle on both, then a 20-year protective coating on top of that.
“I want to be buried here,” he says, and clearly, to him, Skyranch is more than just a place.
I take it all in as we ease down the runway, remembering a moment toward the end of that frenzied 24-hour pre-eviction marathon in 1986. With 20 minutes left before the marshals arrived, Dale grabbed a shovel and went to his small patio garden. He’d once planted a mango seed, and through the years it had grown into a small tree. Whenever Dale moved on, the mango tree always moved with him. As he dug that day, he explained that the task of uprooting it got harder each time, but that it always survived.
It was the perfect metaphor for the resilience I sensed in Dale, and my story back then ended on a hopeful note by recounting the tale of the king’s sacred mango tree. It was quite lovely. It was also, perhaps, a bit too gauzy.
“Whatever happened to the mango tree?” I ask, fully expecting it to be flowering, like its owner, out here in the brown-gray Twentynine Palms lunarscape. But Dick Dale shakes his head. It didn’t survive the trauma.
Some things, I suppose, are just hardier than others.
This essay originally was published in the June 17, 2001, issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and also appears in “Mr. Las Vegas Has a Bad Knee,” Smith’s collection of pieces about the people, places, and peculiarities of the American Southwest. Globe Piquot published it on Nov. 1, 2017. For more information about Martin J. Smith, his novels and nonfiction books, or to sign up for his newsletter, visit www.martinjsmith.com. UPDATE: Dick Dale died on March 16, 2019, at the age of 81.