Birdwell Blog

Remembering Dick Dale
Dazzling Blue #101

On March 16, Dick Dale, king of the surf guitar, passed away. He was 81. “I try to get the feeling of coming off a 10-foot wave combined with the scream of a jaguar—and it becomes a roller coaster of sound,” he once told the Vancouver Sun.

 

 

Dick was endlessly quotable—

          “I don’t play pyrotechnic scales. I play about frustration, patience, anger. Music is an extension of my soul.”

          “When I first played the guitar without plugging it into an amplifier, the people at Fender were blown away. They couldn’t believe the sound. I said, ‘See, gentlemen, the world is no longer flat.’”

          “I blew out amps like they were made of tissue paper. Once I blew out the sound system at Royal Albert Hall in London.”

 

 

          I have a Dick Dale story, though it will be eclipsed by this story: In 1987, Paramount Pictures made a movie called “Back to the Beach”—an open parody of the beach party films of the ‘60s. They shot lots of it at my then home break, Zuma Beach. I got hired on as a stunt double—or more like a “surf double”—for one of the lead characters. Dozens of my LA surfer friends got cast as extras. There was a wonderful blur between the film production and real life, because those LA surfers hired as extras would hip their friends to the day’s or night’s events, and the friends would show up and crash the production. It may have been a film set, they might have been trying to shoot, say, Pee Wee Herman singing “Surfin’ Bird,” or Fishbone doing “Jamaica Ska,” but for the Malibu surf hedonists it was the best party in town.

          As a stunt double, I was hired to show up everyday with the hope that the waves would deliver and they could shoot my part, which was simply a couple of decent rides. Much to the producer’s chagrin (and much to my pocket book’s joy), the surf was uncooperative. I’d get paid the SAG scale day rate, and hang out with a bunch of fun folks.

          There were a lot of night shots, and on one of them I met a girl who was working as an extra. In the middle of a huge beach party/bonfire scene, we found our way into exactly what the scene called for: real-life engagement, deep conversation, shared sips from brown-bagged tequila, and later, in a tent, while the DP could be heard calling “Roll sound, speed, action!,” a full-on make-out sesh.

          It was a fluid, synchronistic, maybe genetically favorable kiss that all these 30-plus years later I remember vividly. If my early teens kisses were knee-high, onshore Huntington Beach, then this was six-foot and glassy Kirra. She was dark-haired, light-skinned, with a perfect oval-shaped birthmark on her cheek.

          Some of the scenes in “Back to the Beach” called for the hell-raising rebel surfer type, and many of the extras they cast were exactly that. One day at lunch, under a massive tent, the room full of cast and crew wolfing down plates of food from craft services, my rambunctious surfer friend Donnie decided that the story his friend Emil was telling him was total bullshit. His response was to throw a cherry tomato at Emil. It was a terrible throw. The cherry tomato flew over Emil’s shoulder and whacked the bald guy sitting behind him square on the head. The bald guy scooped up a wad of mashed potatoes and heaved it at both Donnie and Emil, and so began The Epic Food Fight on the Set of “Back to the Beach.”

 

 

          But back to Dick Dale. There is a self-referential campiness to the film, and in one of the early scenes, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, who play retired former beach party film actors (i.e., themselves), pull up in front of a club called Daddy-o’s. On the marquee it says, “Dick Dale & at least 2 Del-Tones.”

          “Oh look, Dick Dale’s on tonight,” says Annette. “Let’s go say hi to Dick.”

          “Honey, we can come back in the year 2000 and say hi to Dick,” says Frankie.

          They go in. Dick’s on stage, standing next to Drew Steele from the Surf Punks. Frankie greets him, and they fall into a bouncy version of “California Sun.” Dick delivers a wild solo. He’s great.

          But there’s an even better scene where Dick and Stevie Ray Vaughan do a revved-up version of “Pipeline” by the Chantays. This one took place at the Trancas Bar, a spot where we LA surfer kids would go to see live music. It was surreal to be watching it from the crowd, knowing that this was in fact a scene in a movie, a kind of meta-moment before I knew what meta meant. Stevie was fantastic. Dick was totally brilliant. There were girls clad in fluoro neoprene dancing atop surfboards that doubled as tables. Dick and Stevie got lost in the song. They pushed way beyond the silliness of “Back to the Beach.”

 

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