‘How I wrote the story’: Wrestling with obscurity
Mike Boehm makes you want to know more about somebody you never heard of
Mike Boehm, an entertainment writer in my newspaper’s Orange County edition, had a problem a few years back: He had a great yarn to tell, but the yarn was about somebody many readers had never heard of.
Mike proposed to write a very long profile of an aging rock guitarist named Dick Dale, who was about to release his first studio album in nearly three decades. There was a wonderful artistic tension in this endeavor, but Mike needed to make sure everybody–not just us dinosaurs–came along for the ride.
What I like about the piece, and Mike’s accompanying essay, which will begin after you read the story’s first 17 grafs, was a combat tactic: When obscurity is the enemy, compensate with highly purposeful writing. Make sure the reader, especially the uninitiated reader, feels in good hands every step of the way. The essay is an intimate exploration of how the writer put human-interest values ahead of appearing hip for hip’s sake, a tendency that undermines many intertainment-section pieces.
To be honest, I care more about sharing the essay with you than I do the article. I love the piece personally, but then I love the electric guitar more than most of you, and I’m not sure I can justify the story’s length (89 inches) beyond my prejudices.
Certainly, this story could have been told more quickly. (It’s essentially a 40-graf introduction that transitions to a 45-graf chronological journey through Dale’s life, followed by an eight-graf contemporary ending.) It’s not that it’s hard to follow–Mike made it quite easy to follow. It’s just that in the real world, your boss is highly unlikely to allow you to write more than 3,000 words on anybody, let alone Dick Dale. (Along those lines, this piece would be a great exercise in trimming for either writers or editors, if you’re looking for a workout. Imagine yourself with an 89-inch story and a 55-inch hole and four hours to find a solution.)
On a minor level, I found the story’s occasional use of parenthetical inserts (like the three I’ve used in this posting) annoying. But when I first congratulated Mike and found out he’d written this whole story in one long evening, I was inclined to be forgiving. It reinforced my belief in outlining–not rigidly, but comfortably–so that you don’t have to plan and write at the same time, an implausible form of multitasking. God spare us from the conceit that we can “discover” the story while we write it.
Here’s the top of Mike’s story, with a few of my observations sprinkled in italics:
CRESTING A NEW WAVE
By Mike Boehm
May 20, 1993
The opening gets your attention with a human-interest contrast that transcends music:
Dick Dale isn’t the sort of person one would expect to cherish silence.
Dale took the electric guitar, an already-raucous instrument as wielded by ’50s blues men and rockabillys, and turned it into a noise machine that shrieked and sputtered, skidded and crashed.
Good explanatory language of the music, the noise, the technology in the next two grafs:
That was in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Trying to capture the rush he felt when surfing the Southern California waves, Dale zoomed in a staccato frenzy along the fret board of his gold-flaked Fender Stratocaster, sprayed juicy gushes of aural foam with his then-newfangled reverb unit and invented the surf-rock sound.
He thereby became not only Orange County’s first significant rock musician, but the godfather of all rock genres in which the object is to overwhelm the listener with a tidal surge and a palpable blast.
Good perspective on what Dale hath wrought
Whether they have known it or not–and the most savvy among them do–the punkers, power-trios, grunge-rockers and metal-heads of subsequent rock-guitar generations owe a debt of discovery to Dale for his pioneering 35 years ago in a Balboa Peninsula dance hall called the Rendezvous Ballroom.
Bringing the tale back to the now:
Now Dale is 56. He lives 150 miles from the waves that inspired him and from the long-gone beach-side haunts where he perfected his sound. His home is an 81-acre spread on the fringes of Twentynine Palms, not far from Joshua Tree National Monument in the San Bernardino County desert.
Wheeling a visitor around the property on a golf cart, Dale, who can talk almost as prodigiously as he can play the guitar, launched into a proudly animated, characteristically free-flowing and scattershot narration.
He talked about the local flora and fauna, the history of the region, the background of his ranch and the airstrip it holds (hence its name, the Dale Skyranch) and, above all, about the happiness he has found here with his young wife and their infant son.
Returning to the contrast of the lead as a way of revealing more in the next several grafs about this cat:
Then he stopped and asked his guest to sit still for a moment and take in the vastness of sand, mountains and sky, and the sound of nothing in the middle of nowhere.
“When there’s no wind, it’s like a vacuum,” said Dale, whose legal name is Richard Monsour. “It’s like a think tank. It preserves my strength to live here. It’s a healing factor. I get to charge my batteries in total silence.”
Here, beside his long, boomerang-shaped, single-story concrete house, Dale can spend his days in nothing but a bathing suit and beach sandals.
Among his companions are Dusty, the brown, mixed-breed dog he has taught to ride a surf board across his swimming pool, and Habib, a magnificent Arabian horse he has trained to answer his gentle commands as precisely as a battery-operated racing car responds to the twist of a remote-control knob.
There are also the desert lizards Dale coos at with childlike fascination, and the large rat that inhabits the trunk of his gold Rolls-Royce.
“I don’t have the heart to kill him,” he says. The Rolls, a holdover from a more financially flush period for Dale, now sits in a garage on flat tires, gathering dust on its hood and roof and clumps of soft, tangled, chewed-up rat’s-nest debris in its trunk.
Most of all, Dale can cocoon here with his wife, Jill, a slender, soft-spoken, delicate-featured woman for whom he shows marked tenderness and affection, and Jimmy, the 16-month-old first-born on whom he dotes.
Two-graf transition that will take us to the music, and the time peg:
To keep up the payments on this idyllic retreat, to go on relishing its silence, Dale has to make some noise. With the release this week of “Tribal Thunder,” his first album of new studio material since 1964, he hopes to bring that noise to a new generation of hard-rock fans.
For the first time in a long but haphazard career in which he never has mounted a real tour, never played in a foreign country and seldom performed outside of Southern California, Dale says he is willing at last to approach rock ‘n’ roll as a sustained, on-the-road campaign.
Now here’s Mike’s self-analysis:
I had known for months that I’d be doing a major feature on surf-rock innovator Dick Dale, timed to the release of his first album of new material in 29 years.
I knew from seeing him in concert over the past few years that he was still a vital musician, and my enthusiasm grew when I got an advance cassette of ”Tribal Thunder” and it turned out to be a hoot that captured his untamed essence.
The Dale saga had already been well-documented in the Times, but there were a couple of interesting new angles to explore: his prospects for a successful comeback as a recording artist and touring attraction, and his new life as a family man in the desert, far from his old surfing haunts.
I devoted a day or so to phone interviews with his manager, record company, producer and past and present band members, to cover the comeback-prospects angle and get some perspective from people who had watched him at close hand. My Orange County Edition Calendar colleague, Jim Washburn, suggested I call Steve Soest, a former sideman for Dale who gave some valuable insights on his down years during the 1980s.
Dale was the main quarry, though, and I set aside the Saturday before the story was due to drive out to the desert and hang out at his ranch. I’d soak up the atmosphere, knowing that a description of his home life would be an important part of the story. And I’d question him about his life and times — only in more detail than I had in previous interviews with him. I knew from past experience that getting Dale to talk about himself is easier than getting a retriever to chase a stick. However, I also knew that he’d run off with that stick in a direction of his own liking, rather than neatly bringing it back and depositing it in my hand. My chat with Dale would be a long ramble, but I figured if I made him comfortable and waited him out long enough, he’d eventually ramble where I wanted him to go.
Sure enough, asking a simple question about how he got his start as a wild animal trainer led to a long dissertation on his childhood that never really got back to the subject of animal training. But his digression yielded lots of interesting stuff about his childhood hurts and his thorny relationship with his father that I doubt had ever come out before in print.
The idea for the lead came to me as I drove back to Orange County: I had come expecting a lot of chatter from Dale, and I certainly got it. But I hadn’t expected that moment when he asked me to just sit still and listen to the desert silence around us. The idea of a man famous for making a lot of noise being at home amid silence was something I knew could be developed.
When I have a long story to write, I type up my notes, make printouts (one for each source), and go over them before I start to write, marking usable bits in red ink. Then I can be confident I’m in command of the material.
I make an outline for almost every story that’s going to run longer than a few grafs (the main exception being record reviews; for some reason, I like to just wing it when I’m writing a record review). It’s never a formal outline, but more of a point-by-point, telegraphic write-through, a rapidly rattled-off short-hand of all the ideas and many of the facts I want to incorporate, in the order I will incorporate them. Sometimes usable fragments of language will pop out while I rattle off those ideas. When the outline is finished, I have a blueprint for the construction job that lies ahead. While I might depart from that blueprint as the story unfolds for me, it gives me a clear sense of the basic design, and the materials to be used in realizing it.
I always type the outline in note-face, and leave it on the screen as I proceed to write the story above it. As I make progress, I delete the portions of the outline pertaining to ground already covered, leaving the rest for reference until I’m finished. Usually, I hardly look at the outline after I’ve written it.
The Dale story was going to run on a Thursday, and I had left myself the last day possible, a Tuesday, to write it. I did my final phone interview that morning (with young rocker Frank Black, who I used for the MTV Generation perspective on Dinosaur Dick). Then, unexpectedly, I had to do a now-or-never, hour-long phone interview for another assignment, a feature story about Bushwick Bill, a dwarf who lead the infamous rap group, the Geto Boys. I wouldn’t have missed my chat with Bushwick for the world, but D-Day was turning into a marathon.
It was about 3 p.m., I think, when I finally finished going over my notes and began the outline. Just before I began to write, I made one more call to Dale, checking out conflicting accounts as to his birthplace. That one last call is often fruitful: in this case, we chatted a bit more and Dale gave me a poignant recollection about his father visiting him and reproving when he was down and out in Hawaii after his career had ebbed.
I decided to introduce the key noise/silence motif in the lead, but to hold off on painting the picture of Dale at his desert homestead until I’d fully established why this guy was worth a long feature story. The next few grafs described Dale’s signature guitar sound and his place in rock history.
Then I could bring the reader out to Twentynine Palms with me, using the contrast between the surf (then) and the desert (now) as a transitional device.
”At home with Dick” was a key section of the story, the part where I quickly had to turn this figure from rock history into a human being about whom casual readers would be interested in learning more. There was no lack of colorful detail to draw from. It was just a matter of picking the ones that were the most illuminating and interesting. I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to keep things spicy when you’ve got a surfing dog, a trained Arabian horse, and a rat-infested gold Rolls Royce to work with.
Time for another transition. Time to trot out the trusty noise/silence motif again, as we bring ol’ Dick out of his desert retreat and into the wide world of rock ‘n’ roll he once more hopes to inhabit. Having established that Dale is (a) important and (b) an unusual fellow, we proceed to (c) why is this news?
If this story has a ”nut graf” (a concept I’ve never cared for, preferring to emphasize the entire head of the story — which can be many grafs — as the crucial point from which all themes and ideas logically flow) I suppose it’s there in paragraphs 16 and 17, where we finally get around to talking about Dale’s new album and its prospects.
God bless neutral observer Frank Black for his lively and enthusiastic quotes about Dale, which summed up what’s remarkable about Dale as a musician and saved the reader from having to take it all on my own say-so.
I worked a brief description of Dale’s face into this section — as a point of honor, if nothing else. I’d hate to write a long profile without some attempt at describing the subject. I knew that photographer Glenn Koenig’s fine photos would be worth at least 2,000 words. But describing Dale with a comparison to John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn had, I thought, some resonance in placing him as a well-worn veteran still capable of heroics in his field. I think in descriptive writing the key isn’t to trot out a lot of physically verifiable detail, but to provide a telling detail that gives some insight into, or indicates an attitude toward, a person’s story. I think this is the province of great writers, but the rest of us have to at least try. Sometimes we might get lucky.
I think it was around this point, maybe four hours into the trek, that I adjourned to the cafeteria, ate dinner, and watched the fourth quarter of a pretty good NBA playoff game between my beloved Knicks and the Charlotte Hornets. By this point I was pretty confident that the Dale story was in hand.
What remained was the fourth and longest segment: the life and times, starting at the beginning and proceeding logically until we bring him back to the present. The transition from present career to past history consisted of stating flat-out that ”a career resurgence…at this late date would add one more chapter to an already remarkable life’s story.” I backed up that claim in a few subsequent sentences that served as a sort of secondary lead. From there, I just had to elaborate, moving briskly in a chronological line, from childhood to halcyon days of the surf-rock boom to decline, near-fall and resurgence. A classic story line, that. The key transition during this narrative was the reference to ”Dale’s Job period,” which sets up the section about his travails during the 1980s. I love to use Biblical references when they’re apt and not obscure, because they resonate so deeply for so many people.
The idea of the ending was to restate basic themes from the beginning, amplifying them with new quotes and details: Dale on what it’s like to play his brand of music, then back to the contrasting quiet of his home life (that bit about riding horses with his wife ”unencumbered by clothing” was a way of keeping the spice coming to the end), and his closing comment about his ambition to reassert himself in the wider world. Recapitulation of themes makes sense in prose, as it does in music.
I didn’t finish until deeper into the wee hours of Wednesday a.m. than I’d like to admit, and I still had to bang out a review of Dale’s album to run as a sidebar. The last thing I did with the main story was change the lead, which I had read at least a dozen times already. (Rather than writing through the whole story, then fine-tuning it, I fine-tune as I go along; every time I reach a milepost, I’ll go back to the beginning and re-read the whole thing, fiddling with the wording and trying to tighten.) The original lead said ”relish silence,” and I changed that to ”cherish silence,” which I figured was more spiritual-sounding, and therefore more correct, than the hedonistic ”relish.”
I wish I’d had the luxury of going back fresh the next day for one more read-through, which would have allowed me to tighten and smooth a little more. There are too many ”he saids” and such that could have been avoided. The last one, ”Dale added,” in the last paragraph, wasn’t my idea. A copy editor stuck it in for no good reason that I can see. Then again, the desk managed to stick the whole long shebang in the paper, practically unchanged, so I’ve got no complaint. For that I can thank Randy Lewis, the assistant OC Calendar editor, who had no advance warning that the story would run this long. Randy covered the pop music beat in OC before I came along, and he knew better than anybody that Dale’s comeback was a big story for us that deserved to be written for all it was worth.
We now return to the Dale profile, beginning with the last graf you read:
For the first time in a long but haphazard career in which he never has mounted a real tour, never played in a foreign country and seldom performed outside of Southern California, Dale says he is willing at last to approach rock ‘n’ roll as a sustained, on-the-road campaign.
“I enjoy living like a hermit, but I cannot live like a hermit,” Dale said last weekend as he sat in a cozy, toy-strewn family room, while his son, a budding drummer, happily banged on a chair with a red hairbrush.
“I’ve got to get out and be known and seen, and I’m going to do that.” Dale adds that he won’t budge without his wife and son, who accompany him to every gig.
“Tribal Thunder” is a well-conceived, exuberantly executed album that captures the bracing style of instrumental rock that Dale has been dealing out on stage with undiminished force since the end of 1989.
That is when he pared his band down to a basic trio. Before that, for many years, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones had been a large ensemble with horns, keyboards, backing singers and an emphasis on vocals rather than the instrumental rock with which he first made his mark.
Dale’s record company is HighTone, the Oakland-based independent label best known for propelling Robert Cray toward his current status as a major-label blues star. The small company also has released a string of excellent, if modest-selling, albums by such roots-and-country performers as Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Dave Alvin and Costa Mesa’s Chris Gaffney.
The object, said Darrell Anderson, HighTone’s director of promotion and marketing, is to promote Dale to college and alternative-rock radio stations in hopes of reaching guitar fans in their teens and 20s.
Here’s the section on aspiration:
This sounds like a wild expectation, considering that Dale is no young stud, but a man of 56 whose broad, creased face, strong, full nose, and flowing ponytail call to mind John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.
“Yeah, but it’s not a 56-year-old-man sounding record,” Anderson said. From sales of Dale’s two oldies collections on the Rhino and GNP/Crescendo labels, “We know he has a solid base (of older fans), and this is a good thing.
“But we expect this to sell to a lot younger audience. There’s the mystique that he’s this great guitar player who nobody hears anymore,” Anderson said, “that this is where it all came from, because without Dick you wouldn’t be subjected to any grunge bands.”
“I would like to see Dick Dale happen again like Roy Orbison did,” says his manager, Robert Fitzpatrick, who used to co-manage Cream in the 1960s. “Not people rediscovering an old guy, but an old guy who’s still happening.”
Then a section on disappointment:
To that end, Fitzpatrick recently asked the organizers of the Lollapalooza tour and an upcoming, KROQ-sponsored alternative-rock fest at Irvine Meadows to include Dale on their youth-oriented bills.
So far, he said, no luck.
“It is so hard to get people to understand who Dick Dale is,” Fitzpatrick said. (Among other things, Dale is one of the players included in Musician magazine’s recent listing of the 100 greatest guitarists of the 20th Century.)
Now Fitzpatrick is searching for an agent to book Dale on a club tour, and a director to make a video for “Nitro,” the remarkable track that leads off the new album with rocketing surf guitar set to a thrashing, punk-rock beat.
Then peer admiration:
If Dale strikes most twentysomething rock fans the way he strikes Frank Black, he should have no problem. Black, the former leader of the Pixies, is one of today’s leading heroes of smart, collegiate rock.
He said in a recent interview that he bought the Rhino compilation, “King of the Surf Guitar: The Best of Dick Dale & His Del-Tones,” a few years ago, then saw Dale play at Bogart’s in Long Beach.
“It was one of the best rock ‘n’ roll shows I’ve ever seen. Blistering,” Black said. “I was with my very quiet, meek girlfriend, and she was up on a chair screaming. It was thoroughly entertaining, and macho to the core. It was a hell of a lot more rock ‘n’ roll, aggressive and in-your-face than any (expletive) indy rock show I’ve ever been to. It just blew that stuff away.
“He’s so much cooler and hipper, and I’m not just being nostalgic about surf music,” Black said. “I’m basing it on the fact that his records are totally ripping, and I went to a show and it blew me away.”
Then a reflection on Dale’s broader life, taking us to the chronological rendering of his career:
A career resurgence for Dale at this late date would add one more chapter to an already remarkable life’s story. Besides inventing surf-rock, Dale has made himself into an accomplished animal trainer who at various times has kept a jaguar, a mountain lion and a Bengal tiger as house pets.
He is a student of karate, a pilot of small aircraft and something of a surf-guru pop philosopher who will dispense theories, opinions and advice on every facet of human behavior from courtship to religion to child rearing.
Lately, he has added do-it-yourself architecture and home-building to his repertoire (Dale’s parents, James and Fern Monsour, live in Twentynine Palms in a big, lavish house he designed and largely built, paying special attention to the needs of his ailing mother, who uses a wheelchair.)
Along the way, Dale has overcome serious illness, career-threatening accidental burns, financial setbacks and two harrowing trials in which he successfully defended himself against criminal charges.
Here’s the transition to the chrono:
“If I ever wrote a book, people would never believe it,” he said.
And away we go, for 45 grafs:
He was born and raised in Quincy, Mass. Dale’s grandparents were immigrants: Polish on his mother’s side, Lebanese on his father’s. Both of his parents worked, and Dale, brought up under strict, don’t-spare-the-rod discipline, carried a heavy load of household chores.
He cherished summers spent on his maternal grandparents’ small farm, where he nurtured a deep love of animals. Dale says he used to walk to a nearby dairy and spend entire days petting the cows.
“My father never put me on his lap and said he loved me. The old-country type of people, they’re hard,” Dale said, adding that he doesn’t blame his father, and sees the strictness and use of corporal punishment as legitimate antidotes to a youthful wild streak.
“I could give (animals) love and affection. Maybe it’s what I didn’t get from my parents. But they were busy working to stay alive. Now, with my son, I hug him and tell him I love him every day, and take him with me wherever I go,” he said.
Dale recalls that his first musical instrument was his mother’s set of kitchen-storage canisters, which he banged on with knives. He earned a licking for this early experiment in rhythm. He picked up the piano, played trumpet in a school band and, inspired by Hank Williams, whom he says he once sneaked into Boston Garden to see, took up the guitar.
Dale’s father was a machinist and inventor who held a succession of jobs, usually more than one at a time. In 1954, he got a job at Hughes Aircraft and moved the family to Los Angeles. There, Dale finished high school and began playing professionally on the local country circuit (he got his stage name from a country disc jockey who suggested that Richard Monsour wouldn’t do).
Excellent description of the roots of Dale’s weird style:
But as Dale progressed on the guitar, he began experimenting with the Middle Eastern music he’d heard played on the oud at family celebrations on the Lebanese side, and the Gene Krupa-inspired beats he’d heard on big-band records.
The result was the driving, dramatic surf-guitar sound.
As he began to draw crowds at the Rendezvous Ballroom, Dale became a guinea pig for Leo Fender. Through a process of trial and error that Dale says involved 48 blown-up amplifiers, the Fullerton-based guitar innovator tailored an amp, the Fender Showman, that could deliver the massive sound Dale sought.
Dale was a big draw in Southern California, but he remained largely a cult artist elsewhere. His biggest hit, “Let’s Go Trippin,’ ” from 1961, only reached No. 60 on the Billboard singles chart.
Dale signed to Capitol Records but made only one brief trip to the East Coast, to play on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and perform at venues in Virginia, New Jersey and New York.
Looking back, Dale says he lacked two things necessary to make him a national star: business muscle and high ambition.
“If I would have had the right promotion team, we would’ve been as big as the Beatles,” said Dale, who is not reluctant to put his career in a magnified light. (According to one longtime associate, Steve Soest, Dale may not be a modest man, but he is “a real genuine person who lets you know exactly what he is. He’s got a lot of ego, and a lot of people read it wrong.”)
“My dad was the manager,” Dale continued, “and he really didn’t understand the makings of show biz. He would get me gigs, and make sure I didn’t get in trouble. All I cared about was playing on weekends and surfing all week.
“For me, music was only a facet of my life,” he said. “I never looked at it to become an Elvis Presley. I’d rather be a Jack-of-all-trades than master of one. If I became an icon, where my whole life was music, I would probably have become a vegetable. I wouldn’t be able to have all these talents I have today and be an interesting ‘character.’ ”
By 1965, with singing British invading and Beach Boys harmonizing, the wave had crested and broken for Dale’s instrumental surf rock. As musical styles changed against him, Dale says, his father “wanted me to really bear down, put my nose to the grindstone and be a real top professional entertainer.
“My dad knew the bills had to be paid, and I was more interested in surfing and playing with my lions and tigers. My parents wanted the best for me; my father saw I had a talent, and we would get into arguments about where I should play and how I should play and when I should play,” he said. “I was saddened because I was hurting my mother and father, and I was going through tremendous turmoil.”
Dale said the stress led to a heart attack in 1966, when he was still in his late 20s. Shortly after that, he underwent surgery for rectal cancer.
Dale then moved to Hawaii, “feeling sorry for myself and wanting to get away from everything.” He says his father visited Hawaii during that period to see whether he was all right, and found him playing in a small bar for $20 a night. “My father goes, ‘You’re belittling yourself, playing in this bar for peanuts.’ I went, ‘But Pa, I like it.’ ”
By the early ’70s, Dale was back in California with a wife, Jeannie, who had been a Tahitian dancer in Hawaii. They started a musical revue that played locally and on the Las Vegas-Reno-Lake Tahoe resort circuit.
In a publicity shot from the early ’70s, reprinted in Robert J. Dalley’s book, “Surfin’ Guitars,” the couple appears to be patterned after Sonny and Cher–with Dale in long hair, bell-bottoms and showy psychedelic shirt.
Dale and his wife also invested in nightclubs and real estate. Soon enough, he was riding high with a fortune made on investments.
He lived with his big cats in a mansion built in 1925 by King Gillette, the razor-blade magnate. The last house on the bay side of the Balboa Peninsula, the mansion stands just a few yards from the Wedge, the surfing spot Dale had helped make famous in one of his songs.
There, Soest recalls, he hosted jam sessions with his band and enjoyed waving at passing tour boats whose guides would point him out as a local celebrity.
A swift transition to dark times:
Then came what might be considered Dale’s Job period.
He went through a bitter divorce, which cost him much of his wealth. In 1983 and 1984, in what he described at the time as “a vicious scam” instigated by his ex-wife, Dale was tried on charges that he had sexually molested a 13-year-old girl. He was acquitted on 10 of the 12 counts against him, and the others were dismissed after juries twice failed to reach a verdict.
The memory of the episode remains deeply wounding to a man who says he always strived to keep a clean reputation and often used the stage as a platform for preaching good values and a message of drug- and alcohol-free fun to his young audiences.
Dale’s bleak period continued in 1984 when he badly burned himself while making popcorn. The accident, considered career-threatening at the time, has left permanent mottled patches of skin on much of his left hand. To complete the cycle of bad luck, he lost the mansion to foreclosure in 1986, and moved into a motor home in the driveway of his parents’ house in Fountain Valley.
Steve Soest was Dale’s bass player and band leader throughout those years. “Amazingly enough, he never changed his demeanor,” recalled Soest, who now runs a guitar repair shop in Orange.
“He’d be joking. He never seemed depressed about it. He’d go out and do the shows, and he was never bummed out. Even after he got burned and they told him, ‘You’re not going to be able to play again, you’re not going to have any sensation, you’re not going to be able to hold a pick,’ I went over his house, and he was stretched out on the couch (in his bandages), showing us tunes he wanted to play.”
“You could tell when he played it was an outlet for him,” Soest added. “He’d come off exhausted and sweating. Everything he was mad at would come out” in a surf-rock exorcism.
“I’d rather not even get into it,” Dale said of his troubles during the 1980s. “I don’t dwell on anything that’s negative. Now I’ve got the most wonderful thing. I think the Lord wanted me to experience every bit of anguish and pain you can go through, so I can appreciate somebody as wonderful as Jill.”
Dale met his future wife at a party in Huntington Harbour in December 1986. It was a dressy affair, she recalls, and they were the only two people to show up wearing motorcycle jackets.
Dale says he was smitten at first sight with the young woman, who worked as a veterinary assistant, shared his love of animals and didn’t know Dick Dale from Dale Evans.
Not wanting to give him the wrong impression as the relationship blossomed, Jill concealed the Rolling Stones flaming-lips-and-tongue logo tattooed on her right shoulder, an icon from her punker days. Before he could notice, she says, she had it hastily removed, leaving a scar.
The first sentence of the next graf is another example of a quick, clean transition:
As his personal life improved, so did Dale’s career prospects. In 1986, Rhino issued its “best-of” collection (later released on CD in 1989), bringing his music back into circulation. In 1987 he was recruited to play on the soundtrack of the film “Back to the Beach,” a sequel to the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach movies in which he had played cameo roles during the early ’60s.
Teamed with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dale pulled off a blazing guitar duet on the Chantay’s surf-rock classic, “Pipeline.” In 1988, the track was nominated for a Grammy as best rock instrumental.
Dale credits Jill, a Ramones fan, for persuading him to strip down his band to a raw, basic trio and leave behind the last vestiges of his 1970s Las Vegas show ethic.
According to Soest, core members of the oft-changing Del-Tones lineup had long suggested a simpler, more rock-oriented approach, but Dale had resisted because “he was into satisfying the crowd and playing something for everybody, making everybody happy. He’d see an older lady in the audience, and you’d have to play a country song. The band wanted him to do more straight (surf-rock) stuff.”
Dale made the break on Dec. 17, 1989, when he played a benefit at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. Reluctant to ask his full band to play without pay, he appeared in a trio format, backed only by bassist Ron Eglit and drummer Steve Aschoff (lately, Dale has been working in a young drummer, Dave Maneely, to replace Aschoff because the veteran player isn’t free to travel).
The Times’ review of that set described it as “a 20-minute, nonstop explosion of fierce sound and high-magnitude attitude. . . . Dale may be a part of rock history, but this was history that smacked you in the face and left you shaking your head with a silly grin.”
Dale says that the review, coupled with his wife’s continuing exhortations to just “crank on the guitar,” finally persuaded him to drop the show-band approach and play bare-bones power rock (of course, the prospect of having to pay only two backing players, instead of 10 or 11, probably had some appeal, too).
Last spring, the little-traveled Dale played his first-ever concert in San Francisco, at the instigation of Joel Selvin, music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Dale says Selvin, who had first written about him in 1970 for a UC Riverside campus newspaper, called to congratulate him after hearing of the birth of his son in January, 1992. Selvin suggested Dale play a club date in San Francisco, and helped generate interest by profiling him in the newspaper.
“I was really terrified nobody was going to come,” said Dale. But the show–the first in a series of successful San Francisco club performances last year–sold out, attracting an audience divided between faithful surf-rock fans, younger rockers and Deadheads. The Bay Area buzz prompted HighTone executives to scout and sign Dale.
Back to the now, an eight-graf close in which Miked save some of Dale’s most interesting reflections for last:
As he bids to become rock’s biggest comeback story of 1993, Dale says that his chief ally will be terror. On stage, he looks like a furious gladiator, hammering left-handed at his unusually thick strings with such force that the tips of his guitar picks often melt from the friction (Dale and Soest both swear this is so). But he says that his playing does not flow from the larger-than-life swagger he exudes.
“I may appear to have self-confidence, but my (playing) is motion driven by fear,” said Dale, who says he recites a “Hail Mary” before every show.
“My fear is the fear of failing, the fear of not being liked. I’ve never had the fun of playing in my life. Just terror. I’ve got to be creative every single show. I can’t give the people the same 10 songs each time. I go off on tangents all over the place, go into two or three different songs and back into the song I started. People like it. They think, ‘He didn’t do the norm.’ They’re coming to see somebody go off on this Caterpillar roller-coaster ride of sound. When I’m on stage it’s a battle–a battle to create a sound and a ride.”
At home on the ranch, Dale can be out of the storm and enjoy the silence, the precocious play of his son and the moonlit horseback rides he likes to take, unencumbered by clothing, with his wife. At home, to impress a visitor, he will pull out a cassette of “You Make Me Feel Like A Big Oak Tree,” a tender country song he wrote and recorded years ago.
“The (new) album is me cutting loose on afterburners,” he says while the quiet love ballad plays. “But when I can’t rip on that stage anymore, I’m gonna do a country album. This is Dick Dale. This is my heart you’re hearing.”
For now, though, be prepared to hear him rip.
“I’m not telling myself, ‘I’m 56, I shouldn’t be able to do it.’ I want to be able to show those people. I want to play for Europe and the Japanese people.
“These people love the Ventures”–the most popular of the remaining instrumental surf-rock bands–but, Dale added, “they haven’t met the man who started it. It’s like Mighty Joe Young. Somebody went to the jungle and brought me back and said, ‘Look what I found.’ ”
PROFILES IN COURAGE: Writing about the closure of a local book store, the Washington Post’s Linton Weeks decided to have some fun with the fact that it specialized in mysteries. Then he did what most of us wouldn’t have the guts to do: Rather than just be cute in the opening, he extended the theme through the entire story:
THE CASE OF THE BELLY-UP BOOKSTORE
The day was gray as Wal-Mart flatware and damp as a towelette.
Pulled my coat taut and ordered a “small” coffee at Starbucks. I like to say “small” instead of “tall.” It ticks off the steam bunny behind the espresso machines.
The chief had sent me out to perform a somber task and I didn’t care whose ruffles I feathered. Someone had killed MysteryBooks. I was going to find out who.
I didn’t care.
I hiked up beyond Dupont Circle to the scene of the crime at 1715 Connecticut Ave NW. Not a pretty site. The funereal black awning seemed appropriate. “Going Out of Business” and price-reduction signs were plastered on the windows like bandages on a sucking chest wound. Inside, half-empty shelves stood like broken dreams and the wallpaper cried paisley tears. A jake behind the counter told me the owner was upstairs.
Wouldn’t you know it? The owner was a dame. A blonde. With hazel eyes and a lemon-slice of a smile and a black skirt and a black sweater and black stockings on gams tucked beneath her quite nicely, thank you very much.
Tina McGill was 49 and she knew the store well. And she loved it well. She said it will be buried by the end of the month.
“Who killed MysteryBooks?” I asked.
The question didn’t shock her. “There’s not an easy answer,” she said.
There never is.
The air was acrid with the perfume of burned coffee and the sense of what might have been.
“It was great,” she said, starting at the beginning. “Everything I was expecting it to be.”
She enjoyed opening up in the morning. She loved meeting people who loved reading Elmore Leonard, Dick Francis, Walter Moseley and Nevada Barr. She sometimes grouped her titles by theme — travel or cooking or sports.
Her customers, she said, were faithful. And grateful to her knowledgeable staff who could track down a book from the vaguest of descriptions — a certain dust jacket, an exotic setting. Scores of people showed up for book signings by the famous and the infamous. Regulars bought four or five titles a week.
Sometimes forgetting that they had already read something.
MysteryBooks was alive! It had a pulse and a life and a meaning. Not making a killing, but staying afloat.
Then came trouble. “For the last two years, the struggle started to happen,” she said. A downturn in the economy punched the store’s profits hard in the solar plexus. Ever-expanding publishers produced fewer midlist books — that is, books that aren’t blockbusters. Lack of fresh titles put the squeeze on McGill’s options. Fewer authors took to the road for promotion.
“My store depends on lesser-known authors,” she said.
She began trying to sell the store last June.
To make bad matters worse, readers were becoming more accustomed to buying books online.
“One of my best customers confessed the other day . . .” she said.
Oh yeah? She confessed? Now we were getting somewhere.
“She confessed that she had bought two mysteries from Amazon.com,” McGill said, tossing her blond locks to the side.
MysteryBooks tried to put up its digital dukes. McGill created a Web site, but provided no way for customers to buy her books online.
So the Internet killed MysteryBooks?
Not just the Internet, she said. The economy slapped it around. Publishers choked it. There were lots of perpetrators, like in “Murder on the Orient Express.”
“These were all little blows,” she said. “I always knew we couldn’t take a big hit.”
She leaned forward in her chair. “The fatal wound came from 9-11.”
The lifeblood of MysteryBooks, McGill discovered, was walk-in traffic. “I never realized how much we depended on tourism, on people visiting Washington.”
She said she should have paid more attention to where her money was coming from. But she didn’t.
After the terrorist attack, business dropped off dramatically. “There is no way I’m going to recover,” she said.
Sometimes you can stare at a victim and forget about it. You’re a pro. But this one bothered me in a way I don’t like to be bothered.
Later I’d drop a dime and call James Grady, a local mystery writer most famous for “Six Days of the Condor.”
“Every retailer right across the board got hit,” Grady said. He was talking about Sept. 11. “Customers wanted to get out of the bull’s-eye. Unfortunately this is one time when location, location, location worked against Tina.”
Grady sees mystery book stores all over the country. He isn’t sending home happy postcards. “I think they’re hurting,” he said.
McGill bought the store in 1996 from Susan Morgan and Barbara Friedman. Over the years, mystery writers — everybody from Ellis Peters to James Ellroy to Patricia Cornwell — stopped by the store to sign books. Cornwell said she didn’t want to do a public signing; she was concerned about security.
It was that kind of place: mysterious.
There was even a swiveling bookcase upstairs that led to the hidden bathroom.
Fourteen signed copies of “Hell to Pay” by Washington mystery writer George Pelecanos were stacked on the mantel of the faux fireplace. And I was standing there, smelling death on the way.
I asked McGill what she will do, where she will go, whom she will turn to.
She said she didn’t know. For now, she said, she wants to give her store a proper burial. She spends each morning with a box of tissues at hand, reading e-notes of condolences.
I rose to leave. She helped me on with my coat and gave me a pat on the back, as if I were the bereaved.
As I returned to the misty gray day, her last words rang in my ears like a cheap cell phone.
“There is no bad guy in this scenario,” she said. “There’s just circumstance after circumstance . . .”
And, she added, touching a strand of blond hair, “a tragic and serious death.”
TIRED OF MY DIALECT? Go to http://www.rinkworks.com/dialect and see what happens when you enter www.newsthinking.com, or any other site.