Dick Dale: 1937-2019

I always thought of Dick Dale as a local phenomenon, but his recent death got national coverage.  The most thorough and best article was one in The New Yorker, a magazine which might well have turned up its nose during his great days during the Kennedy administration.

Instrumental rock was common before the Beatles arrived, and it had existed from the very beginning; Duane Eddy, one of its exemplars, was probably Arizona’s leading musical light during that time.  And the Ventures, from the Pacific Northwest and remote from surf culture as it was at the time, did not consider themselves a ‘surf rock’ band.  However, Dale’s innovations made ‘surf rock’ the standard form of instrumental rock, and the Ventures found themselves sucked into that culture!

Dick Dale was born in Boston of a Lebanese immigrant and a Polish-American mother, and his natal name was Richard Monsour.  His father and family exposed him to Arabic music in his childhood.  Nonetheless, his initial dream, oddly enough, was to be a country singer, and he adopted his new name with that in mind.  [On the other hand, the Beach Boys, who pioneered a very different kind of surf music, would probably be considered country musicians if they had appeared today.]

Dick Dale and his family moved to Southern California in the 1950s during the aerospace boom, and Dale discovered surfing!  [Of all the Beach Boys, on the other hand, only Dennis Wilson actually surfed.]  With that in mind, Dale wanted to use his guitar to make music that reflected the excitement and ethos of that sport, and Leo Fender of Fender Guitar in Fullerton made a new electric guitar for him.  Because he was left handed, Dick Dale played it upside down!

It has to be said that Dale did vocals too, such as “Peppermint Man,” which his fans at the Rendezvous Ballroom appreciated, but as a vocalist he was a – well, great guitarist.  It is rumored that a young Jimi Hendrix was in the audience once [it was a bold thing for a black person to show up in Newport Beach in the old days, I won’t deny it] and was inspired.  In one of Hendrix’s songs from 1967, he spoke the line, “You’ll never hear surf music again.”  It was perhaps more of a lament than we knew.  Anyhow, as we see below, he was wrong.

I was in junior high school when Dale’s signature tune, “Misirlou,” came out.  It was a song of the Greek rembetika school, and the title means ‘Egyptian Woman’ in Turkish.  During the forced 1923 population exchange between Turkey in Greece – which was as drastic as the Nakba of 1948-49 –  one was relocated based on one’s nominal religion.  So Greek-speaking Muslims went to Turkey, and Turkish-speaking Christians went to Greece.  [You see plenty of Turkish-rooted surnames in Greece today beginning with Chatzi- or ending with -oglou.]

“Misirlou” was not a well-known song, but it circulated a bit as an instrumental, [although it has had lyrics].  Arthur Lyman of the ‘exotic music’ school [popular with older people in that era], whose “Yellow Bird” actually hit the charts in 1961, had covered it slightly earlier.  Then Vince Guaraldi, a jazz musician from San Francisco later known for “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” and most of all, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, released a very different version of “Misirlou”on an album which was released virtually simultaneously to Dale’s version.  In some older posts, I opined that the difference between these two versions really highlighted the contrast between Southern California and the Bay Area in the days before the Berkeley uprisings and the hippies.

I never learned to surf, and neither did many of my friends, but culturally we were ‘surfers’ in about the way the average American is a Christian.  We were set over against the ‘greasers’, the black-jacketed and pomaded culture celebrated in the musical Grease.  I think there was a class aspect to it, to be frank.  ‘Surfers’ tended to be middle or upper middle class, while ‘greasers’ more proletarian.  [Earlier, ‘greaser’ was a bad word for Mexican.  But by my time, Mexicans were ‘beaners’.]  I can safely say that every garage band in Southern California in those days got its start on surf instrumentals; they were kind of the Bach of rock music.

After the Beatles, most of this was forgotten.  But in 1994, Quentin Tarantino included “Misirlou” on the sound track of a movie called Pulp Fiction, which was decidedly not about surfing or anything resembling it.  And that’s when Dick Dale caught the attention of Generation X.  [Gen-X is a generation that gets no respect, but they redefined ‘cool’ for every generation afterward.] While not at the top of the media gaze, Dale continued to perform for his entire life and had some upcoming gigs on his calendar when he died.  Unfortunately, by then he had gone into Native American and Eastern spirituality.

In any case, it is delightful to see that his passing was so worthy of coverage nationwide.  [Perhaps when I die, I and this blog will be ‘discovered’ in a similar way.]  And, the fact that his music was originally ‘regional’ delights my Regionalist self.  Nowadays we seem to focus either on a NIMBYish defense of our immediate neighborhood, or on what is going on in Washington, DC.  I’d like to see more regionalism.

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