Friday, March 20, 2015

Dick Dale

"Every song is like a painting."

"You surf, right?"

"Yeah.  Well, usually."

"You must like The Beach Boys."

"No, not really.  It's not really surf music."

"It isn't?  I thought surf music was just The Beach Boys."

I have had this conversation and variations of it whenever some well-meaning individual tries to understand my eccentric hobby.  It's natural since most normal people understand surfing through either the music of The Beach Boys [only one of whom, the drummer, actually surfed] and the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello movies of the mid-1960's.  [Frankie and Annette didn't surf, either.]

Also, the "surf lifestyle" has been mainstreamed in fashion and graphic arts to the point of parody.  Even those of us who engage in the sport/hobby, and thus are more familiar with its reality, can fall victim to it.  We sometimes bleach our hair, we use obscure slang when describing waves and technical maneuvers, we see the invisible line that exists between those who surf and those who don't, and we have a hierarchy of achievement, the highest level being that of "Waterman". 

Just for fun, if one enters the term "surf lifestyle" with a popular Internet search engine, one will receive almost 37 million references [what the puzzlewitted call "hits"] in less than one second.  In fact, so pervasive has the "lifestyle" become that I've dropped my long-standing subscriptions to both Surfer and Surfing magazines, as both now seem nothing other than bound, glossy, and colorful adverts with little reference to the hard science of hydrodynamics and its adherents.

I have noted elements of surf culture before, especially with the art and car customization of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, and their influence on mainstream culture, but I wonder how many realize that a sound that we commonly associate with the electric guitar as used in rock and other forms of pop music actually is from the true and original surf music.  Its originator is Richard Anthony Monsour, known by the stage name of Dick Dale, who, despite rapidly approaching his 78th birthday and having twice survived cancer, is still displaying in live performances the technique that made the surf sound popular and evocative.

Oh, yes, unlike those mentioned above, he actually is a surfer.

Dale was born in Boston to a working class family that, in the great Western migration of the post-WWII period, moved to southern California when he was a teenager.  Personally, I can't imagine how great it would be to transfer from the snow, ice, and grime of Massachusetts to the sunny climes of L.A. County in one's formative years, but it clearly made a difference to Dale.  Already a self-taught musician, proficient in ukulele, tarabaki, oud, and drums [Dale was of Lebanese descent, which explains both some of the instruments in his repertoire and also the Arabic rhythms in his own compositions], once in California he became both a surfer and, naturally, a guitarist.

I could describe his technique, but it's much easier to display it:

Sharp-eyed viewers will note the the strings on Dale's guitar are, in effect, upside down with the higher strings on top.  This was because Dale was left-handed and, as guitars favoring lefties were rare in the 1950's, simply re-strung a right-handed guitar to favor his style.  Even after left-handed guitars became more available, he was set in his technique.

The rapid pick work and lighting fast scales that were his hallmark were in evidence from the very beginning.  However, in addition to what was required in the actual playing of the instrument, another, previously passive, element was necessary for the sound.  While electrically amplified guitars had been in use for over a decade, the guitar was making its pilgrimage from an ensemble to a lead instrument and the amplification equipment was becoming more and more important.  Dale realized that it was not just his fingers that could shape the sound, but changes in the flow of electricity from instrument to amplifier, especially when using absurdly thick guitar strings.

When played in ensemble with an orchestra or combo, the guitar amplifier is generally set to #3 or #4 on the volume dial.  Dale would turn his amp all the way to the right to the #10.  While this produced the volume and some of the sound quality for which he was looking, it also ensured that the amplifier, or at least its speaker cone, would not survive too long without becoming a casualty to culture.  In short, they blew up.

This was such a predicament, especially as Dale had gone from performing in small venues to being the weekly headliner at the 3000 seat Rendezvous Ballroom in Newport Beach, that it was Leo Fender himself who came to the rescue by developing what is now known as the Single Showman Amp.  Thanks to this deus ex machina provided by the inventor of the guitar pickup [that's the device that translates sound into electric impulse], no one had ever played louder than Dale, to the delight of the teenagers who gathered at the Rendezvous and the horror of their parents and audiologists.  Between the two of them, Dale and Fender created the "heavy metal" sound.

Thus it was here that the first, true "surf" song was heard, complete with all of the elements of style that have since become the convention of the genre.

By 1963, Dick Dale could safely label his second album The King of the Surf Guitar.  That same year, the first in the series of "beach movies" made by American International Film studios, and starring the previously-mentioned Avalon and Funicello [and Donna Michelle...sorry, I got lost in thought for a moment], would be made and naturally featured some brief performances by Dale, hinting at the energy that he brought to his live shows.

Unfortunately, that same year The Beatles would arrive in the United States and behind them a vast collection of other English bands in what is known to musicologists as The British Invasion.  Suddenly, instrumental based music was no longer popular and, save for The Beach Boys and their harmony-driven songs [and massive Capitol Records publicity machine], surf music was relegated to a niche within the very broad world of pop.

It refused to go away, however, much like Dick Dale himself.  Surviving both cancer and an infection caused by polluted waters off of the southern California beaches, Dale would become an environmental activist and would return to the stage in the late 1970's to perform for environmental and cancer charities, revivals, and fans of his particular sound; the one created all those years ago in a grubby and under-used facility on Balboa Harbor.

Nowadays, one may hear evocations of the Dale sound offered by contemporary groups too numerous to mention, although a complete, and rather massive, list may be found at the Surf Rock Music website.  [I'm partial to Los Straitjackets, myself.]  Dick Dale has been and is regarded as a legend by some of the most impressive guitarists in history, including the late Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn.  [Dale may be found playing with the latter in the video below.  While I can't explain his hair, other than to note it was the 1980's, one can see how much of pop culture found its soundtrack through his musical style].

Oh, and just to reiterate an earlier point, Dale is also a surfer.  In 2011, he was given his own position on the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, California.