Dick Dale broke a string the time I saw him, and he never faltered. He played heavy, heavy strings—16 to 60, strung upside-down on a left-handed guitar, a series of improvised solutions to the problem of using existing equipment to make something nobody had heard before. Even with that, they broke. The picks, forget about it; he had a whole magazine loaded with them mounted on the left-handed guitar and he just kept destroying them one after another.
This was in the mid ’90s. Everything was being revived then, one little characteristic aesthetic moment after another in little modules of the past, not as nostalgia for anyone’s personal experience per se but as a choice of mood, a tribute to the idea of things having had coherence and integrity: swing dance, cocktail music, bourbon, old kung-fu movies, midcentury modern design. Quentin Tarantino, the curator of that moment, had brought Dale’s “Misirlou” all the way back from 1962 to give the viewer a certain feeling at the beginning of Pulp Fiction, and Dick Dale had been brought back in the process. He had a new or newish album, with a new version of “Misirlou” on it, and he had been a musical guest on late-night TV, almost like someone up-and-coming.
Dale was a musical legend, although it had been easy enough to live through the previous two decades without hearing his music or even hearing anyone talk about him. A legend is not the same thing as a rock star. The thing he’d figured out how to do with his inverted guitar and his special hyper-strong amplifiers, the fluttering overloaded echo he called “surf guitar,” had two main results: a craze and an influence. First, briefly, was when everyone in the world was cutting their own instrumental surf-guitar records; then no one was, but rock guitar thereafter all sounded a little bit more like Dick Dale. This process didn’t leave much room, for a long time, for someone whose goal and purpose was to make music that sounded the way Dick Dale wanted music to sound.
And then the attention market turned again, and there he was, in Baltimore, age 60-something, the King of the Surf Guitar filling a dark club with the trembling boom he’d come up with to conjure his idea of the essence of the living ocean. “Misirlou,” before it was part of a here-and-gone rock-and-roll sensation, had been a folk song in his Lebanese immigrant household, an older tune and an older vision. His son, a small child, was hanging around in the grimy dimness, beside amplifier stacks taller than he was; for one number, I believe the boy came onstage and played the drums himself. The Washington Post had a harrowing story today about how Dale had to keep touring, year after year, because it was the only way he could afford the medical expenses that went with his recurrent cancer and other lifelong ailments. In the club, though, there was no sense of the weight of that toil, nor of the weightlessness of a remembered fad. There were only the hands flashing over the guitar, so fast the craft of it was funny, like a magic trick, each guitar pick while it lasted chopping the notes so fine and small they flowed back together, in surging unity.