By Marisa Torrieri Bloom
In 2002, I met Dick Dale in kind of a weird way – at the CTIA Wireless trade show in Las Vegas. I had just begun my post-college journalism career and had the distinct advantage of being one of the few young women who wrote about technology. Someone mentioned he’d been hired to perform a few songs, so I decided to swing by the sponsoring company’s booth.
As I watched him perform, he noticed me right away – my eyes transfixed, my whole being completely spellbound by his masterful skills. I’d never heard of Dale before that day, but like anyone who’s seen and heard Dale shred, I was immediately taken with his insane, wild guitar-playing style that made me feel like I was on the craziest road trip in California. He played his big hit “Miserlou” – which I recognized not only from “Pulp Fiction,” but from a belly dancing class I’d taken in Washington, D.C.
I approached him after the performance and told him as much. I also mentioned that I played guitar, but he was more interested in my side gig as a belly dancer.
“You coming to dance at my next show?” He asked, as we strolled along one of the corridors at the Venetian.
“Sure,” I said. “I’d love that.”
I opted to skip the party at the Luxor his bassist invited me to that night, but I made a point to email Dale a day or two later. He responded right away – I still have that email in the recesses of my Yahoo! Account – with his phone number and told me to call him the next time he had a show on the East Coast.
That’s how I became a Dick Dale groupie. He answered all my calls, and I followed him from show to show. He put me on every guest list I asked to be on, but after a while I stopped asking (because I wanted to support him). I belly danced here and there – a deal is a deal — but he didn’t care. He was more excited to see the look on my face – and the faces of his other devotees – when he launched into “Let’s Go Trippin.’”
I think I saw Dale play something like 10 or 12 times in my twenties, between Vegas and Baltimore and a few beaches along the Mid Atlantic. I became a better and more inspired guitarist simply by listening to him, my Surf Guitar God. Absolutely no one put on a better live music show.
And no one played the guitar like Dick Dale, either — not even the highly schooled, beloved guitar teachers who mentored me when I eventually moved to New York City and started teaching guitar. Who could keep pace with his absurdly fast tremolo picking? Very few. Dale wielded his Fender Stratocaster in unreal ways – upside down, hand sliding up and down necks. I wasn’t shocked when I heard that he would actually burn through multiple picks during shows.
His capabilities transcended traditional surf rock. One of my favorite moments of every show was when he launched into his rendition of “House of the Rising Sun,” his deep, dark voice giving the Animals classic a sinister spin, with his signature “heavy machine gun staccato” picking style working the upside-down fretboard.
I also loved it when he’d bring his young son onstage to play along with him. Those were the moments I felt like I had really glimpsed into his heart.
But as I settled into New York City life after graduate school, I let myself lose touch with Dale. I got sucked into the hustle of working and playing shows, of punk rock nights and deadline days. I wish I hadn’t forgotten the feeling I’d gotten when I met him, and I first saw him perform. I wish I had made the time to see a few more shows.
I heard he stumbled on hard times. He developed cancer at one point, and was continuing to tour to afford health insurance, playing shows like his life depended it. Because it did. But Dale didn’t let cancer or age stop him. He played every show as if it were his last.
Rest in peace, my surf guitar king.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.