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Grammy Nomination Carries Dick Dale on Another Wave of Success

February 25, 1988|Mike Boehm

Next Wednesday, Dick Dale will sit in the gilded cavern that is New York's Radio City Music Hall, his accustomed shorts, sneakers and shades exchanged for a borrowed tuxedo.

Around him will be people coveting something that many in the recording industry covet greatly: a Grammy award. But Dale, who has a chance to win a Best Rock Instrumental award at next week's award ceremonies, says there is little in life that he covets these days, Grammies included.

Considering the strange ride Dale has had in the '80s, the statement is not that hard to believe.

But in speaking of Dick Dale, the ride that always will matter most is the wild run on the crest of a wave. In the late 1950s, Dale surfed by day, played guitar by night in a Balboa peninsula dance hall called the Rendezvous Ballroom and invented a style of rock 'n' roll that was of, by, for and about the burgeoning surfing subculture.

Dale took up surfing after his family moved to Los Angeles from Quincy, Mass., during his senior year of high school. "As I'd go out learning to surf, I'd feel the power of waves coming over my body," Dale, now 50, recalled. "It's like you're with God." His attempts to capture that divine presence have resulted in a guitar style that crosses the staccato high drama of flamenco with the sound of a revving beach buggy in need of a muffler.

By the early 1960s, Dick Dale and the Deltones had scored a couple of national hits, and they had inspired other bands, most notably the Beach Boys, who took the California sound worldwide.

If the '50s and '60s gave Dale renown and a title ("King of the Surf Guitar"), the '70s brought him substantial wealth, largely through real estate deals. But then came the '80s and trouble heaped upon trouble, like waves driven by a storm.

First came a divorce, then, in 1983 and 1984, a prolonged (and ultimately successful) defense against allegations that he had sexually molested a 13-year-old girl. A few months after he had put the criminal case behind him, Dale was in the hospital with severe burns that threatened the use of his strumming hand. Dale overcame that, too. He was less successful when it came to fighting foreclosure, however. In 1986, he was evicted from the mansion overlooking the Wedge, a prime surfing spot on the Balboa peninsula. He moved into a mobile home parked in his parents' driveway in Fountain Valley, living there for a year. By the time the Grammy nomination came, Dale had moved to a modest house in an unassuming neighborhood in Garden Grove. Modest and unassuming, that is, except for the shiny brown 1967 Rolls-Royce parked in the driveway--an emblem of high-living days that survived Dale's years of economic rout.

Seated in a comfortable sprawl on his back patio, looking like a surfing Sioux with his wide, furrowed face and a cascade of long black hair graying at the roots, Dale delivers an upbeat discourse about his life. He digresses elaborately to show how each twist and contretemps--from being bullied as a boy back in Quincy to losing his money in Balboa--carried a philosophic lesson that compensated for the setback.

Dale says this sense of equanimity grows from his study of Buddhism and the martial arts. But if the substance is Zen, the style is gonzo. In delivering his philosophic nuggets, Dale will cut the air with his burly arms or tap a listener on the knee, as if the contact will help the saying sink in. He attacks the job of communicating the world according to Dick Dale with the same wild enthusiasm he attacks his Stratocaster --the one with the gold glitter finish that he has used since his Rendezvous Ballroom days.

Dale's sunny mood darkens just once, when he recounts how it hurt to have his parents read the news accounts of his divorce and the criminal case.

The news about Dale began to improve last year, when he got a call from the makers of "Back to the Beach," a movie that has Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello revisiting their old fun-in-the-sun milieu. Dale had provided music for the original run of beach flicks, and he was recruited to play the surf-rock standard "Pipeline" (originally done by the Chantays) in a guitar joust with Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Dale supplied his trademark riffing, soaked in electronic reverb for that epic effect, and he added noisy, divebombing descents to punctuate Vaughan's taut, stinging solos. It is surf rock for the high-tech age, and it won Dale and Vaughan a Grammy nomination for best rock instrumental.

But he is up against some big-name competition. Vaughan is a rival as well as an ally, as he also has been nominated for best rock instrumental for "Say What!" from the "Live Alive" album recorded with his regular band, Double Trouble. Herbie Hancock's remake of "Wipeout," also on the "Back to the Beach" soundtrack, has been nominated. Rounding out the field is the Frank Zappa album "Jazz From Hell" and "Paradise by the 'C"' from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's monumental live album.

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