Dick Dale, a Great American Original, RIP

The king of surf guitar transformed music (and himself) in a quintessentially American way.


Mike Burns—Flickr: Dick Dale, Creative Commons

Dick Dale was born in Boston in 1937 as Richard Anthony Mansour, but he died on Saturday as "The King of the Surf Guitar." His life encapsulates so much that is great about America, especially our part-mythic, part-real ability to invent and re-invent who we want to be. It's fantastic, and totally to-be-expected, that a son of the Middle East and Central and Eastern Europe ended up creating one of the most purely "American" strains of popular music. That's worth pondering, especially in a moment when xenophobia is on the rise.

Dale was Lebanese on his father's side, Polish and Belorussian on his mother's. He became entranced by Hank Williams as a kid and his paternal uncle bought him a tarabaki and an oud, a Middle Eastern drum and stringed instrument respectively, and he started developing a highly personal guitar style in which he used the guitar as both a lead and percussive instrument.

His family moved to Southern California in the mid-1950s and Dale started blending Middle Eastern music with rock and country. Along the way, he was christened Dick Dale by "Texas Tiny" Cherry, himself a short-lived, 640-pound country music legend. Dale didn't just reinvent himself and popular music styles. He also reinvented the technology to play rock, country, surf, you name it, by helping Leo Fender perfect the first 100-watt guitar amplifier that was not just incredibly loud but precise and durable.

In the early 1960s, Dale became a sensation but, as in all rock stories, tragedy was just a beat or two away. Surf music became a craze and took a hit from the British invasion (even as the Brits marketed bands like The Shadows to co-opt American surf). He contracted rectal cancer, stopped touring and recording, and became a club owner. (In the liner notes to the anthology Better Shred than Dead, he claims that Jimi Hendrix's line in the psychedelic classic "Third Stone from the Sun" that "you'll never hear surf music again" was a lament over his impending death.)

Even if he somewhat disappeared from the scene, his guitar and sensibility completely infused West Coast punk. If the Ramones on the East Coast were essentially a tribute band to early '60s girl groups, California punks ranging from X to the Dead Kennedys to the Angry Samoans and beyond were doing an ironized-yet-serious homage to Dick Dale. He bottomed out in 1986, after another serious health scare and a bankruptcy, but in 1987 scored a comeback hit with a version of "Pipeline," recorded for Back to the Beach, a winking call-back to '60s-era beach movies starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon as parents and a young Lori Loughlin (now best known for buying her daughter's way into USC) as their kid. His 1963 hit "Misirlou" was used in the opening for Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), reigniting his career in a major way. He toured and recorded ever since, despite a recurrence of rectal cancer that made playing both a necessity to pay his medical bills as well as a physical torment. In 2015, he told Pittsburgh City Paper,

"People come to my shows and they show me their scars. I've had paralyzed kids come in on gurneys because they want to see me, and I take time to talk with all of them," he says. "I met a man who was sick and dying, and began talking with him on the phone. He said, 'Dick, you're my idol and I plan to outlive these hospice workers if I have to, but I will be at your show.' And he was.

"I get that. Because I was told 20 years ago that I wouldn't live much longer, but here I am. I believe our maker has kept [wife] Lana and I alive to give hope. We're like Johnny Appleseed, crossing the country and sowing the seeds of survival."

Characters like Dale do more than sow "seeds of survival," of course. If American freedom means anything, it means the ability not simply to persist but to reinvent oneself into some bizarre melange of everything that came before us while alchemizing the past into something unique and different and lovely, which in turn becomes the next generation's base material that it will in turn transmute into some new gold.

Like Prince and David Bowie, Dale was an emissary from a future we didn't know was possible until he invented it. There's no going back to the precise moment or forces that produced Dick Dale and his early hits, which were suffused with a sense of danger, optimism, and adventure. Though there is a vibrant subculture of neo-surf bands, we can't make surf music great again, and we (and he) wouldn't want to. But we can the use example of the former Richard Mansour to create a future that is as loud, lovely, and inviting as the music he played even when in excruciating pain.

Here's a 1995 live version of "Misirlou":