The "King of Surf Guitar" talks today about pain pills, Liberace, selling out Las Vegas and the Dalai Lama.

dick dale photo
Dick Dale

For years, Dick Dale seemed to be a poster child—okay, poster man—for how to grow old gracefully. He didn’t hide his age onstage, but nothing about his performance hinted that there might be an AARP card in his wallet. He sawed his guitar strings on “Misirlou” and countless surf instrumentals with punk intensity, on more than one occasion holding up his pick to show the damage he had done to it with the fury of his playing. His ferocity and love of a big, distorted rock ’n’ roll are the kind associated with people more than half his age.

Dale is now 74, and he has had a long-standing relationship with The Howlin’ Wolf, where he’ll play Monday night with Mahayla opening. One night in the old Howlin’ Wolf—now The Republic—he left the stage and played as he walked through the crowd, out the door, and into S. Peters Street, where he soloed in the face of oncoming traffic.

In recent years, the Dick Dale narrative began to shift as stories of health problems became more common. With aging musicians, illnesses almost inevitably exert a gravitational pull on the way their stories are told. As his ailments became more and more a part of how Dale made news, he revealed that he was first diagnosed with rectal cancer in 1966. Now, he deals with cancer treatments, diabetes and assorted other conditions while his wife Lana lives with MS.

Recently, I interviewed Dale, though “interviewed” implies I was more active than I was. After the first question, Dale spoke for 65 minutes, talking about his health, his life, his career, his values, and whatever was on his mind that afternoon. For most of that time, my part in the conversation was limited to interjections such as “Wow,” laughter, and the occasional “Hmmph” just to let him know I was still there. Some of his soliloquy was boilerplate that shows up in every interview he does, while some of it was fresh. There are a few enigmatic references that I would have followed up on if Dale’s stream of consciousness wasn’t more of a raging river, and there are a few details that I can’t verify by factcheck. I’ve left both because these details are a part of his reality, and they help make this a portrait that I can’t improve on. 

When you read Dale’s speech, read it with in the confident voice that comes with being self-made and still able to do the thing that made your name almost 50 years earlier. The content may be that of a meandering lion in winter, but we’re still talking about a lion. Dale may share a love of rambling with The Simpsons’ Abe Simpson, but he has none of Grandpa Simpson’s dithering anxiety.

For the next few days, My Spilt Milk will run the interview in its entirety, edited lightly for readability. Thanks to Emily Tonn and Raphael Helfand for transcribing this.

My Spilt Milk has two pairs of tickets to see Dick Dale at The Howlin’ Wolf. Register here for a chance to win. 

How are you doing?

Never ask somebody how they are because they’ll unload on you for about two hours. My achin’ back! Oh my sacroiliac! Oh my kidneys! [laughter]. I always tell people, Hey, you’re lookin’ great! And, Hey, you sound great today, and stuff like that. Hey, did you lose weight? You have to be a Kissinger.

Wait a minute. (off-phone) Tell him what, Lana?

Lana (In the background): About your major medical. 

You tell him about my major medical. I don’t pay attention to that stuff. We’ve had some rough nights within this week. Because of the plane, she was going to cancel the tour, and I said, You can’t cancel the tour. The people paid their money and we can’t do that. I’ve never backed out of anything, but both of us have been—you know, Lana has had MS since she was 14, and she’s in pain around the clock. She never takes drugs, she never takes pain pills, never done anything. We’ve never put alcohol in our bodies, we don’t smoke, we don’t eat red meat. Strictly with herbs. We don’t believe in pain pills. Those things will kill you, so we fight it out. She fights hers out by moving constantly in PR.  She was voted by AP Release, which is the largest in the world, in the top five PR people because she’s so articulated in what she’s done.  

All her life, it’s been that way. She was trained by a World War II nurse. She saved Orson Welles’ life. Lana was destined by the angels to come to me when I was dying. They told me I had three months to live when I was 20, and then about 20 years ago, they told Lana that I wasn’t gonna get off the table after having three operations, two of them being nine and a half hours long with three surgeons. And now I’m in renal failure. The kidneys don’t work. They keep getting infected. The last tour I was on, on my day off they had needles in me pumping fluids into my body, and they said, We've got to put you into the hospital. I go, What are you talking about? I’ve got another concert. This is my day off.  [Laughter]. I did my last four concerts sitting on a wooden stool.  

But then, I always learned by watching people like Liberace. He used to come and watch me, and he used to tell this guy at the bar, That young boy’s going to be a big star one day.  And that guy he was talking to, the guy he was talking to was my father! [Laughter]. I learned from watching him. You play to the people; you don’t play to musicians. You play to people’s feelings. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they walk, by the way they talk, by the way they sit and stand and sign their names and dress. 

I get people in there from five years old all the way up, they bring their little children. In fact, I just did Viva Las Vegas, and we out-grossed the last one we did. They never hire the same artist back, but this was our the second time. Lana talked to them to say, Hey, you better hire Dick back, because we outgrossed the last time we played. There were over 30,000 people. Lana really helped with AP Release and promoting with Tom Ingram, who produced it. It was such an incredible success. We had 2,000 company cars, over 30,000 people.

When I built my nightclubs from the ground up, I started with a little old beer bar, and I had all my animals out there. My lions, my tigers, all the animals I was raising, protecting them from being killed by poachers. They would run loose on my properties and come into my living quarters, jump on the bed and break it, and everything else like that. It was just the life that I lived with them, and I learned that you take your ego and throw it out the window because I’ve been with monks. In fact, Lana spent a whole day with the Dalai Lama. He loved her, and they were both born in the same month. She had him bless the rosaries that I wear around my neck.  

Lana has been through many windows, like me, in life. She’s interviewed killers in prisons. She’s taught children. She had over a hundred kids on drugs that she tried to work with, and she could only save one. That’s how bad the drug situation is. The kids tell me How can I play the guitar like you? And I say, Sit down, my son, let me cleanse your mind. [Laughter].  And then I sit ‘em down, and then I talk about the main thing. It’s not the music. It’s not playing an instrument. It’s not anything. It’s yourself. This is what the masters have told me. When an earthling talks, you have to be so very careful because what comes out of their mouth is not what goes into the ears. And the ears, they consecrate it within themselves the way they want to assimilate it, and it usually is nothing like that that was said and meant by the perpetrator. So you have to be careful what you say. It can be such a devastating thing, or it can be a pleasurable thing if it was taken the proper way, but 90 percent of the time, it’s not. They have their own vision of what their ears hear. 

Talking that way becomes a habit, and when you develop this habit, it’s in everything that you do. Not only talking, but in the way that you think about things. It becomes your character, and your character, my friend, becomes your destiny. That’s why monks don’t speak.

Part Two, on Jesse James, Joe DiMaggio, musicians, and smoking

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