In 1962 my sister came home from college with an album that would forever change my life. It was called “Surfer’s Choice,” the musician was Dick Dale, and we turned up our parent’s gigantic wooden hi-fi all the way. The enduring hit from that album, “Miserlou” provided a soundtrack to accompany a rush that only a surfer knows. Later that year, at the Rendezvous Ballroom on Balboa Island, I heard Dick Dale and his Deltones blast out the sounds of surfing live, as the gentle rocking of the waves I had surfed that day was translated into sound waves that moved me along with hundreds of other surfers and hodads in a Surfer’s Stomp.
About a year later my sister came home with a Beatles album. I hated it, believing what Jimi Hendrix would later say, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” (Apparently Hendrix’s quote is out of context and completed by his adding, “That seems like a lie to me.”) Recently I was told that Hendrix, like many of us, had been turned on by Dick Dale’s electric adrenaline in the early ‘60s. I believe it, since, to me, Jimi was playing surf music. If you doubt it, take a left turn at “Rainbow Bridge.”
It was the early ‘80s and my friend, surfer Chris O’Rourke was dying of cancer. In response, we decided to hold a concert at the La Paloma Theater. Somebody I knew had Dick Dale’s phone number and I cold-called him to ask if he would play, to help raise money for our friend. He immediately agreed and brought the entire band out to play free, all on a phone call from a stranger. I’ll never forget it.
It would be years before Quentin Tarantino found the switch to “Miserlou” in “Pulp Fiction” and new audiences were fueled by Dick Dale’s surf beats. Recently, Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas added vocals to “Miserlou” and it still retained the power to move us toward the surf. No matter how that song is packaged, it will forever be among my favorites.
I hadn’t thought much about surf music until last week when I was invited to Studio West to hear 17-year-old James Clifford record seven of his own songs. With hints of Sound Garden and Led Zeppelin hanging in the strings on some notes, Clifford blends his influences to create something all his own with stunning tracks like “Black Sails.” But there was something vaguely familiar in the guitar solos. Clifford himself might not call it that, but this was surf music. And how could it not be? The author of the songs is a surfer and no surfer ever strays far from the organic rhythms of the sea. It didn’t hurt that Gregg and Matt Bissonette, who have backed up such notables as Ringo Starr, David Lee Roth and Joe Satriani were on hand in the studio to thicken up Clifford’s waves of sound.
Closing my eyes I was back in my front room, mind surfing to yet another new vibration. Just as I had in ’62, I imagined a long lined up wall, peeling fast. This time it was “Black Sails,” not “Miserlou” that helped carry me through each threatening section. It became immediately apparent that Clifford’s music is best taken with salt water or concrete. The good news is that I did hear surf music again; it just took a little while.
Filed Under: Sea Notes