The surf guitar legend talks today about his health, life in the desert, and why he still tours as he approaches 80.

dick dale photo
Dick Dale

When I read surf guitar hero Dick Dale’s memories in this series, I see the thoughts and recollections of someone who has been a physical, assertive man dealing with his decline. You don’t hear it when he plays. His guitar sound remains a richly textured, driven rumble, but as he approaches 80, it’s easy to imagine that his world and social circle are shrinking. He virtually invented a reverb-heavy sound so intense that amplifier maker Leo Fender had a tough time making amps that Dale couldn’t melt down, but he’s not a cutting edge guy these days. In that context, there’s something poignant about his stories.

Dick Dale plays The Howlin’ Wolf tonight, and this monologue began when I asked Dale about his health, and more than a half-hour later in real time, he finally answers the question in grizzly detail. Because he continued to talk without pause for 65 minutes, I didn’t get a chance to ask follow-up questions to clarify some points. I’ve lightly edited this portion for readability, and while some references would benefit from elaboration or explanation, I think you know what he’s saying throughout. 

 "I tell these kids that you’ve got to be very careful because you have a lot of mental abilities. Everybody has—his diabetes that I’m dealing with that takes things away from your brain that you want to say and it bring it back three of four seconds later—but all my chimps, my apes, they would put a ladder on a tree if they can get a banana off of it. They can think. The chimp has more brain power than a human up to four years old, and then a human continues, but this intelligence can become your worst enemy. You start going  down a road and you get screwed, lewd and tattooed, and you’re going Oh my God, so what controls intelligence? Only one word: wisdom. And where does wisdom come from? Age. From making all these mistakes in your life that you learn not to go back down those roads. Unfortunately, some people never learn. They keep going back and they end up destroying themselves

But there are people who do learn, and that’s why I tell these children that I want you to talk to people and meet them if they’re 80 years old. What are the things that you would never do if you had to do it all over again? And what are the things you would, because you’re learning and gaining wisdom? It’s so nice to have a man to tell you that in an hour that instead of spending your lifetime destroying yourself. You don’t throw someone in a box of rattlesnakes to kill them if they’ll kill them. You can show them. 

So, my music. We have to be on the road for two reasons: one is I will die. The reason why I will die is because I won’t have $3,000 it takes every month to buy the attachments to my stomach for my stoma that comes out of my stomach. It’s a bag that I wear and I had another bag for the urine before. I catheterized myself for two and a half years. The insurance companies—because of the government—they will not insure the remainder of the payment, which is $3,000, for me to buy the attachment so that I will not become infected. What they tell these poor people to do with the same illnesses is to change your bag once a week. You can wash it out. It gets infected because your fecal matter, in other words—my Bostonian words—your crap. It eats through your flesh that’s attached to your stomach, and then the nerves start to be infected and they turn black. It’s the most horrific pain known to man if it touches any part of a clothing, or it touches any part of a connection. I went through that in the beginning, and they had to cut the whole thing off of my stomach, all through the flesh, and then reposition the bag on the other side of me.  

Lana turned around and said, This is bull crap. She took care of so many dying patients in the Veterans’ Hospital that were rotting away. She made me take off the patch every day and wash it out, and take off the bags and throw the bags away with the fecal matter in it instead of opening up the bottom and flushing them out because the bacteria, it’s still inside. Hospitals tell you to do these things, and you end up being infected, and you will die. Lana has taught me, and she’s kept me alive now for this last 20 years by doing this with my bag. And God bless, the people send us pictures of their stoma rotting away like they’re dying with leprosy, and we try to help them.  

So, I’m on the road for two reasons. One—it keeps me alive, and so that we can also be Johnny Appleseeds and help the people. They see me on stage—I’ll be 79, and as I say, I just got through playing for 30,000 people—without taking drugs, without taking painkillers, and they say, How does that man do it? And then I speak with them, and I share the illnesses on stage with the people in the audience because I bleed like they bleed. I’m from Boston; I call it like it is. There is no gray matter in my life. It’s either right or it’s wrong, and I tell the people this. They see me admit what I’m going through—the same things they’re going through—and it gives them the strength. 

This one man was sent home from hospice to die. He was full of radiation, everything, and he was an old surfer. His friend contacted me. He says, He’s gotta see your concert before he dies. He’s gotta hang on to see your concert. He had to hang on for two months, so I talked to him on the phone and made him feel good. I said, You gotta hang on, dude—I hate that word “dude” these kids say [laughter]. I call him brother because that’s the way we all surfers would say on the islands in Hawaii. And he hung on. They were gonna bring him to my concert, and then he had a stroke the night before my concert. He was in a coma, and then he came out of it the day of the night of the concert. They used a Skype hookup to have him be able to watch me on that stage. I would talk to him and dedicate the whole night to him. He had 40 of his buddies buy tickets to come and see Dick Dale. They still came, and couple stayed behind with him, and he watched my concert. Four, five months have gone by, he’s still alive with hospice. But he’s still alive, and he’s fighting to come and try to see my next concert, which I’m going to be doing after I do this tour. So there are reasons why I do what I do.  

Now ask me—my wife has over a dozen coyotes. We have about 81 acres in the high desert. We’re 2,000 feet above Palm Springs, sea level. They call her.  She goes out in the night in her bathrobe, sits down with them, they bring the babies to her, she feeds them. We have desert wild dog that runs with the coyotes, and he comes in and jumps in the bed with us. She looks like a pit bull’s head—all white with spots on her—and the body of a lab, and when she comes to the gate, she comes with one of the coyotes. The coyote that used to come right up to Lana finally died, but the young one calls Lana and waits for her to come out and feed her. It has accepted us. She goes back out into the hills with the coyotes, but she’ll sleep in bed with us at night, on top of us and everything else. I guess as a pup she was beaten very severely, but he’s learned all the ways of coyotes. Any sound, any snap of your finger, he’ll spin just like a coyote would. But we can’t put a collar on him to train him to come with a lead because he’ll fight it. We'd try to get it to ride with us, but then we’d have to find a place that takes the dog. It’s gonna kill Lana because we’re going to be gone for weeks, and it’s going to be staying out there.

We have somebody coming to put food out there for all the creatures. We have over a hundred ravens. They all live here in the ranch. They guard the ranch. We have probably 500 doves. We probably have 1,500 finches. We have jackrabbits and cottontails. They all eat the same time the coyotes do. We belong to over 200 animal sanctuaries that we donate to to help them, because they’re killing off the mustangs and everything.  And I had a beautiful black Castilian mustang from the prairie, and they’re just shooting them from choppers because they send the meat over to Europe because horseflesh is a delicacy. We’re advocates trying to save these animals. Everything’s becoming extinct, and I know because I had them as pets.  

I learned how to build a house from my mom and dad, and I always wanted to do it. We just live in an old place that was built in the ‘50s out in the middle of the prairie [laughter]. My dad says, Why don’t you tear the whole damn house down?  And my mother goes, No! Her parents are from Poland, went to school in Russia. She loves it because it reminds her of the farm that I was raised on. My granddaddy taught me how to plow with a single blade with a horse and the straps and the wooden yokes, and we plowed a single furrow—one at a time. I ate potatoes raw from the ground. I tell kids on the stage today, I say, Listen to me. You say, ‘Things have changed.’  Yes, prices have changed.  But, guess what has not changed: you. You came out the same way a hundred years ago as you did today, so that means your character is going to be created, either good or bad. Are you going to help people without getting paid?” I say “would you work—would you dig ditches?  And would you work in a bakery for five cents an hour? Five. Cents. An. Hour!  Would you set a bowling pin for five cents a frame? Would you dig clams? A whole potato sack full of clams, standing up to your knees in the muck, sinking, digging clams and filling up a potato sack, and get 99 cents, a buck, a dollar for the whole bag?  

They go, No, man! They all yell it out like that in the audience. 

I go, I’m going to tell you something pal. I have!  And that’s what it was all about. True, gas was only 12 cents a gallon. True, you could go to a movie for 10 cents, but guess what my friend. You had to work for five cents an hour.  So your body is now different now than it was a hundred years ago, but think about it.  Would you go and help build a little porch for a lady in her house and don’t charge her? That’s your character, my friend.

Lana and I, we’re out there to help the others. We had an interview that went viral about our love story, and we got over 30,000 replies in one day. Lana answered them. Lana answered every single one of them."

Part One, on Liberace, Las Vegas, running a bar, and the Dalai Lama

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