Death has certainly been going through his Rolodex of late. (You thought a guy who carries a scythe would be on LinkedIn?) The most recent to be made late were two giants of the OC music scene, Dick Dale and Greg Topper.
Dale was the world-renowned one, the self-proclaimed yet undisputed King of the Surf Guitar. He originated the propulsive style—based, he said, on Gene Krupa’s drumming and the Middle Eastern oud music he heard in his Lebanese-American household—and he didn’t just play his gold metal-flake Strat; it was more like Thor striking his mystic hammer, bringing lightning, deluges and shrieking Valkyries down upon his audiences.
I first likened Dale to Thor in a review I wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 1991, back when Chris Hemsworth was 8 years old. That was three decades after Dale became a Southern California sensation in 1961 at the Balboa Peninsula’s Rendezvous Ballroom, where he played tremendously loud music with an elemental force to packed crowds of surfers and gremmies.
I enthused in the ’91 review, “As Jimi Hendrix would do a couple of years later, Dale painted with sound, going beyond musical logic with expressionistic splashes of screaming reverb and rumbling, surging bass lines to create palpable seascapes that touched on the full majesty of nature.”
Dale’s career never took off the way it should have. It was other surf bands in his wake that had the big national hits (notably Santa Ana’s Chantays with “Pipeline” and the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out”). He didn’t want to tour, so he remained a local sensation, until surf music became instantly uncool when the Beatles hit in 1964.
Dale soldiered on, running a nightclub and switching to lounge-y “Let’s go to rock & roll heaven!” shows. (The urging of ’80s band members Steve Soest and Richard Smith finally convinced Dale to become his old thunder-lizard self again.) Offstage, he continued to live larger than life, in half of the old Gillette mansion on the peninsula, with a tiger and other toothy critters. A divorce left him living in an RV for a while, one with painted murals of him on the sides.
He eventually wound up in a house in the desert. Dale invited Jonathan Richman and me to stay out there once. He showed us how he’d taught his dog to surf in the pool. A discussion about martial arts led to us moving furniture so Dale and Richman could spar for hours.
He told us about a movie he wanted to make, in which a kid tells a superstar guitar player that he’ll never be king “because Dick Dale still lives.” The enraged superstar decides to stage a concert with Dale to honor him, but the real intent would be to destroy him in a guitar battle. First, he has to find the elusive legend. Tracking a rumor that Dale is in the Himalayas, the superstar is climbing when thunder and a chorus of terrifying animal shrieks rolls down from the peaks, frightening off his entourage. The superstar reaches the summit alone, to see a generator powering a Fender Showman amp and reverb unit, connected to a Stratocaster played by a figure in a weathered serape. On opposing peaks, bears and wolves are gathered, howling along with Dale’s guitar. The superstar immediately recognizes Dale’s primacy and wisdom and convinces him to return to the civilization that needs him.
This is how Dale saw himself, an extension of him always referring to himself in the third person. Maybe that and the wild fibs he told—claiming he taught Hendrix how to play, or helped Leo Fender design the Strat and Telecaster—were the ungainly result of him knowing the importance of his art, while the world at large had relegated him to being a footnote.
That changed when Quentin Tarantino chose Dale’s “Miserlou” to set the tone for Pulp Fiction in 1994. Dale was playing at his peak then, in a “power trio” format, and he finally attracted some of the international acclaim he deserved.
Dale died on March 16, at age 81, after a long battle with rectal cancer and other health issues. That’s the official story. I prefer to think the King of the Surf Guitar has snuck off to the Himalayas.
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Dale was preceded in death by four days by another king, Greg Topper, OC’s King of Rock & Roll. His heart failed him on March 12.
Topper didn’t originate any style of music. He hardly ever wrote a song. What he did do was sing and play the lascivious hell out of old rock songs, especially ones waxed by piano players such as Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino.
“There was no one alive who could play rock & roll piano with the feeling and fire Topper had,” his friend and ofttimes guitarist Bobby Cochran said at a small wake for Topper last weekend.
British guitar legend Albert Lee (who has played with Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Emmylou Harris, the Everly Brothers and others) would frequently drive down from Malibu Canyon to sit in with Topper at a bar in Costa Mesa.
Reached on tour in Germany, Lee said, “Sad news indeed. I always looked forward to making it down to play with Topper. His style was quite unique, and he often left you guessing, launching into a song you hadn’t thought of in years. I shall miss those gigs with him. May he rest in peace.”
These shows were decades after Topper’s heyday, when he’d pack hotel ballrooms several nights a week, bringing in so many hard-partying, money-dropping patrons that owners forgave him for destroying their nice grand pianos.
Topper was a dynamic showman, working his band to exhaustion, wearing capes with his name in electric lights, getting women to sit on the piano so he could sing to their crotches.
And he’d routinely set the piano on fire, using Bacardi 151 as the accelerant. He’d also splash some on his crotch and light it, since he was singing “Great Balls of Fire.” The flames usually went out on their own, but one infamous night, Topper’s polyester pants lit up for real, and he was rolling on the stage in an effort to put them out. The audience thought it was part of the act.
Lest anyone doubt what the world nearly lost that night, Topper carried a photo of his considerable penis around in his wallet.
I got to know him after those glory days, when he was playing bars such as Balboa Island’s Village Inn (“Where the debris meets the sea,” Topper would exclaim, along with his signature “Get drunk and be somebody!”)
The big gigs had dried up thanks to changing times and tougher drunk-driving laws. Topper had health problems. He had a defibrillator in a pouch in his chest, and his singing sometimes had a tentative quality, as if he were afraid of setting it off, though he still pounded the keys with feral abandon.
After being Mr. Nightlife for decades, Topper couldn’t stand being alone at night. I was somehow deputized to be his Tuesday dinner company. Most of his meal came from a hip flask, and he could be utterly infuriating, affronting his liver with booze and me with conspiracy theories (Sandy Hook was a “false flag” operation; Bruce Springsteen was hiding his Jewish name) and his insistence on detouring to the Taco Bell drive-thru at 1 a.m. so he could bellow at the microphone so incoherently the server must have thought a wounded sea lion was in the passenger seat.
But beneath all that—as many will tell you—Topper was one of the most big-hearted, caring, lonely guys on Earth. I already miss him like the devil. And I have had quite enough of death for a while.