Dick Dale, the legendary ‘King of Surf Guitar,’ still rocks

Dick Dale performing earlier this year. He will headline the 27th Guitars by the Sea festival at Rossport Farms in Eastport on Saturday.
Tim Cox | BDN
Dick Dale performing earlier this year. He will headline the 27th Guitars by the Sea festival at Rossport Farms in Eastport on Saturday.
Posted Aug. 07, 2014, at 4:58 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 07, 2014, at 5:43 p.m.
Dick Dale
Tim Cox | BDN
Dick Dale

EASTPORT, Maine — Old rockers never fade away. They just die. That’s how Neil Young envisioned it in the lyrics to his song “Out of the Blue,” which includes the lines, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

That could very well be the credo of Dick Dale, who built a reputation as the “King of Surf Guitar” in the early 1960s.

Dale songs? “Miserlou,” his signature anthem. You may have heard it in the opening credits to the hit Quentin Tarantino movie “Pulp Fiction.” The song typifies the high-powered, staccato-picking style for which Dale is known.

Dale will appear in concert at Rossport Farms in Eastport on Saturday. In a phone interview while he was in the Boston area Tuesday, the 77-year-old, who has a long ponytail and sometimes wears a headband, talked enthusiastically and energetically — the same way he still performs.

“My whole show is unpredictable,” Dale said. “I never follow a list … make it up as I go along.”

“I’m really going to love [performing in Maine],” he said. “We love the forest. … I can see the indigenous tribes in my mind …”

Dale tours throughout the country every year. He goes on the road for about five or six weeks and typically does about 35 appearances. His current tour began in Colorado and has taken him across the country. After the northern tour, he will go home to California, take a month off, and then tour again in a different region. He has other tours planned for the South and the West, and he also performs in Europe.

“There are two reasons why I’m on tour,” Dale explained. One is, “I have to take care of the people.” Dale and his wife, Lana, both battle health problems. “We try to help people who are going through the same thing,” he said, by performing and setting a positive example.

The other reason he tours, Dale said, is to pay for medical expenses. He has to spend more than $3,000 a month out of pocket for medical appliances for a stoma. Dale battled rectal cancer when he was in his 20s and again several years ago.

“I’m in renal failure as we speak,” Dale said, whose bladder was destroyed 20 years ago. “The next stop is a machine.” Doctors have urged him not to perform, he said.

He has eschewed drugs — even marijuana — and the raucous rock lifestyle throughout his career. According to Dale, a vegetarian, he has not taken painkillers for his health problems.

He unabashedly urges young musicians to steer clear of drugs. “Don’t do it. … Walk your own path. The people will follow,” he said. “Your body follows your mind. Don’t destroy yourself.”

Asked what artists he admires, Dale said, “I admire anybody who works hard on stage.”

He enjoys listening to Hawaiian music, “because it soothes me.” He also likes Vince Gill and Patsy Cline. He and his wife sometimes will listen to a song repeatedly, over and over.

He also praised Charlie Daniels. “He’s incredible, but he’s a gentleman, a true gentleman. He’s got a soul. Kids today, they don’t respect nothing. Nothing.” Their only focus is “making money” and “becoming wackos,” Dale said, who described himself as a “romantic.”

“Some of the music today, it’s such a pile of garbage,” Dale said. He derided some singers who are “screaming in microphones” and sound like they have “hemorrhoids in their throats.”

“They’re not polite,” he added. “They’re not humble.”

The best American music was produced during the big band era and the early heyday of country music, he said.

Dale already was an established artist with his first record under his belt when he met Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s. Hendrix, described by the Rock and Roll Hall of fame as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music,” was playing bass guitar in a band that was performing in a bar before about 30 people. Hendrix asked him for tips on playing guitar. Like Dale, he was left-handed.

“Jimi was a good kid in the beginning,” Dale said, but he tragically succumbed to peer pressure and used drugs. Hendrix died from an overdose of barbiturates at age 27 in 1970.

According to Dale, a lyric in “Third Stone from the Sun” on the Hendrix “Are You Experienced” album of 1967 pays tribute to him. The song is mainly an instrumental with Hendrix speaking a few lyrics, including the phrase near the end, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” The lyric was considered a dig at the music genre; Hendrix also was critical of the Beach Boys.

However, Dale wrote in the liner notes to his “Better Shred Than Dead” anthology album that the lyric was the reaction of Hendrix when he got word that Dale was fighting colon cancer and might die. He was in the hospital at the time, Dale recalled, and someone told Hendrix during a recording session that he was dying.

Dale has no plans to slow down. “When I die, it’s not going to be in a rocking chair,” he said.

Dale is the headline performer in a group of 12 bands from throughout New England Saturday during the 27th Guitars by the Sea festival at Rossport Farms, a 64-acre farm on the shores of Cobscook Bay.

 

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