Dick Dale isn’t, nor has he ever been, your typical veteran rock & roller. At 81, both he and his wife, Lana, are suffering with crippling health issues, and Dale could be forgiven for taking it easy. The expected route at this stage in his career would be the one taken by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis — occasional but high-profile shows that he cherry-picks and schedules when he’s feeling up to it.
But that’s not Dale. He’s not ready to be put out to pasture with the oldie crowd just yet. At least not completely. Rather, Dale plays shows to young and adoring audiences at venues like the Viper Room. He’s managed to remain utterly relevant and, perhaps more important, exciting.
Yet the man remains something of an enigma. He’s considered a father of surf guitar but also more extreme forms of music such as metal and punk, due to the fact that he’s entirely self-taught and has a style that music teachers might consider unconventional. He's a lefty and he plays his instrument upside down. He’s always played loud, his way.
Perhaps it's as a direct result of that manic unpredictability that he's managed to cling to a youthful fan base (in addition to the longtime faithful). And then there’s his 1962 rendition of the traditional Eastern Mediterranean tune “Misirlou,” which gave his career a ’90s bump when Quentin Tarantino gave it prominent placement in Pulp Fiction.
He might not have a Chuck Berry/Little Richard level of rock & roll stature to mainstream eyes, but the people who love Dick Dale really love Dick Dale. Depending on who you ask, he’s a legend, or a cult hero capable of generating near-mania.
In conversation, he’s both self-assured and humble. He won’t call himself a legend — he leaves that to his dedicated and adoring wife (and publicist), Lana, who champions her husband with fervent intensity. We speak to Dale for a full hour but ask only three questions. In between, Dale takes the bull by the horns, talking without restraint, occasionally audibly prompted by Lana.
He doesn’t stay on track for long, ducking and diving through a variety of subject matter. He’s telling us that he used to take care of big cats (tigers, jaguars), and would stitch himself up when he was playing with one and it got too excited (staff at the ER didn’t believe his excuse that it was a dog bite, so he had to take matters into his own hands). Then he’ll change direction, and he’ll tell us that infamous Elvis manager Colonel Tom Parker also wanted to manage him but was concerned that he couldn’t effectively split his time when taking care of Presley.
Dale has lived a fascinating, eventful and ultimately successful life. And today, he’s pragmatic:
“When I wake up in the morning, I reach up as high as I can and, if I don’t hit wood, I’m having a good day,” Dale says.
It’s a cute twist on an old joke rooted in truth. In 1964, Dale was diagnosed with rectal cancer, and the prognosis wasn’t good.
“They gave me three months to live,” he says.
But he’s still here. He suffers with renal failure, and diabetes. Lana was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her teens. Today, they take care of each other. They have a massive mistrust of the pharmaceutical industry, and both claim that they’ve never put a drug in their body. Lana cleans her husband and changes his equipment herself, believing that to be safer than taking him to the hospital (something we don’t recommend, but it clearly works for them).
That hatred of drugs stretches beyond medical practices; Dale claims to have never had a drink in his life, never touched a cigarette or joint, and certainly nothing more seedy. In fact, while speaking to us on the phone, Dale gets angry because somebody passes his car looking for “drug money.”
“I once fired my whole band, mid-tour, because I caught one of them smoking a joint,” he says. “I had to cancel shows. But I won’t have it in my band. When I was 18, I studied martial arts with Buddhist monks.”
That latter fact is in and of itself fascinating. Here we have a clean-living guy who trained in martial arts with monks and then played with tigers, occasionally stitching his own wounds. He’s like every ’80s movie combined, with a surf soundtrack. And even at 81, his health a constant concern, he’s charismatic as hell.
But his health really is a concern. When we ask him what keeps him getting up onstage at this point in his career, he’s honest about the brutal necessity of it all.
“The back of our car is filled with the medical supplies we need to take on the road,” Dale says. “And it costs $3,000 a month. That’s why I have to keep working. That, and I want to show people that it can be done — that you don’t have to lie in bed sick.”
Dale might not have released a new album since 2001’s Spacial Disorientation, but he’s had a career for the ages. He hung with Elvis, and Buddy Holly opened for him, as did The Ramones and Righteous Brothers. He’s loved and admired in the worlds of karate and surfing, as well as rock & roll.
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And he’s done it from here. Dale is fiercely proud of his Boston roots, using it to excuse his occasional harsh outbursts, but surf music isn’t a Massachusetts thing. Cult hero or mega-star, it really doesn’t matter. Dale forged his own style of playing that has been much imitated ever since but never faithfully re-created.
As he prepares to perform at the Viper Room on Saturday, we ask him what encourages him to perform at a venue that, while wonderful, isn’t exactly known for clean, healthy living. The guitarist says it has something to do with a favor, while also citing River Phoenix’s tragedy. He is, he says, excited to be there.
Here’s the thing — we can’t all train with monks, raise tigers and hang with Elvis. But we can follow the example of a man who has proved that it’s possible to be 100 percent badass, the epitome of rock & roll, without the aid of illicit substances.
Dick Dale plays with Isaac Rather & the Phantoms at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 2, at the Viper Room.