The Sounds of the '60s: How Dick Dale, the Doors, and Dylan Swayed to Arab Music
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "Al' America: Travels Through America's Arab and Islamic Roots", by Jonathan Curiel, The New Press, 2008.
When it comes to pop music, the '60s will always be remembered for Hendrix, Dylan, Joplin, and groups like Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but the early part of the decade produced a sound that was equally revolutionary in the history of rock 'n' roll. Surf music was the music of choice from 1960 to early 1964, producing hit after hit. Emanating from the beach cities of Southern California, this music featured doo-wop-like harmonies and reverberating guitar riffs that made listeners want to move and dance. The Beach Boys were the most successful group in parlaying surf music's softer side to a mass audience, but Dick Dale was the one who begat the genre with his signature songs, including one that remains a hit to this day: "Miserlou." The tune reached new levels of popularity with its inclusion in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction", which overlayed Dale's aural freneticism with a stylish storyline that produced one of cinema's most acclaimed movies.
In fact, "Miserlou" inspired Tarantino to make "Pulp Fiction", so taken was the director by the tune's epic sound and the way it could musically anchor a two-hour blockbuster.
What was Dale's inspiration for "Miserlou"? His Arab roots. Dale's real name is Richard Monsour -- his paternal grandparents were born and raised in Lebanon -- and as a young man growing up in Boston, Dale spoke Arabic and listened to Arabic music. Dale's uncle, who was a musician, taught him how to play the Lebanese goblet drum, called the Al America derbeki.
As importantly, Dale watched his uncle perform a mesmerising song on the oud -- a composition with Arabic and Turkish origins. That song was "Miserlou," which means "The Egyptian" in Turkish. (Misr is the Arabic word for Egypt.)
When Dale was 11, his family moved to Southern California, where (besides really learning how to surf) Dale became a professional musician. The way that Dale explains it, he was performing at the Rendezvous Ballroom, a club near Newport Beach, when a young fan around 10 years old asked if he could play a song using just one guitar string. Dale told the fan to attend the next night's concert and he would get his wish -- except that Dale had no idea how he'd keep his promise. Later that night, Dale remembered his uncle playing "Miserlou" on one string. Dale also harkened back to the goblet drum, whose fast rhythms he adopted for his rendition of "Miserlou."
The result: A surf song with origins in the Arab world. This was in the late 1950s. When Dale released "Miserlou" on a record in 1962, the song quickly became his most demanded number. "So many people call it a Greek folk song, but it's actually an Arabic song because 'Miserlou' means 'The Egyptian,'" Dale tells me, before repeating some of the song's lyrics -- in Arabic. "The words [are], 'Wenak habibi winta habibi.' That means, 'Where are you, my sweetheart?'"
The impression that "Miserlou" is Greek stems from the fact that the first person who recorded it and credited himself for the song was a Greek artist, Nicholas Roubanis. This was during the early 1940s. Historically, "Miserlou" was performed in Greece, but in the country's east, which has large numbers of Muslims and belongs to the region called Thrace, which overlapped with Turkey. Jewish musicians also adopted "Miserlou" from that region. "It's much older than from the 1940s, and it's obviously something from the 19th century. And the rightful composers, we'll never really know," scholar and author Yale Strom told National Public Radio.
"The Greeks will claim it for themselves, and the Turks often say it's theirs. It's definitely from the region where the Greeks and the Turks were."
Because the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries included the Levant, "Miserlou" made its way to Lebanon when Dale's paternal grandparents lived there. Dale's father spent years in Lebanon, too. On his mother's side, Dale is Polish. He looks more Polish than Lebanese, but in so many ways, Dale relates more to his Arab side. For example, his real first name is Richard, but he tells me he was often called "Rashid" growing up, because Rashid is the Arabic version of Richard. In fact, with his close Arab friends, Dale will end correspondence with "Rashid." "A lot of people I talk to on e-mail, I sign 'Rashid.' I have many, many Arab friends that perform and play musical instruments, and from all over the world -- they write to me," Dale tells me. "So, I always sign [with] 'Rashid.' "
Back in 1954, when Dale was a teenager trying to break into the music business, he was prodded to change his stage name by a country and western disc jockey named "Texas Tiny," who told Dale that "Richard Monsour" was too complicated for fans, and that "Dick Dale sounded like a good country name," Dale tells me. This was when Dale was emerging as a country artist -- not yet a surf guitarist -- and performing on a weekly TV show filmed at the Town Hall Party theater in Compton, California. "Texas Tiny wanted me to do a country song called 'White Silver Sands,' and he was going to record me because I was playing with (country musicians) like Johnny Cash and Freddie Hart and Lefty Frizzell and Laurie and Larry Colins -- I played with all those people at Town Hall Party," Dale says. "I always wanted to be a cowboy singer." Cowboy singing was quickly forgotten, though, when Dale made a name for himself with "Miserlou," "Let's Go Trippin,' " and other now-landmark surf tunes. Not long after his stint at the Rendezvous Ballroom, Dale released his version of "Miserlou" (called "Misirlou Twist") on the album Surfers' Choice, which catapulted him into national prominence. In 1963, Dale became the first rock musician invited onto the Ed Sullivan Show, the first to be given cover treatment by Life magazine, and one of the first to be spotlighted performing in toto in a Hollywood feature film. "A Swingin' Affair", which starred William Wellman Jr. (and Teri Garr in her first feature role), has Dale peforming "Miserlou" in a style that accentuates the song's bending notes and Arabic origins. To see and hear this version is almost to bear witness to belly-dance music -- which is what Dale would listen to in his childhood.
In A Swingin' Affair, Dale plays "Miserlou" for a rabid audience that includes a Jayne Mansfield/Marilyn Monroe lookalike, who twists and shimmies practically in Dale's lap.
When the movie was released, Dale had been crowned "The King of Surf Music." There was nobody like Dick Dale, and everyone knew it -- including the Beach Boys, who imitated Dale's sound and recorded their own version of "Miserlou"; and a young Jimi Hendrix, who sought out Dale for musical advice (like Hendrix, Dale was a frenetic left-handed guitarist) and recorded an homage to the Surf King on his seminal 1967 album Are You Experienced? Tucked on side two, between "Fire" and "Foxey Lady," is "Third Stone from the Sun," in which Hendrix imagines himself as an omnipotent being over Earth who marvels at the planet's natural beauty, but "Your people I do not understand, so to you I shall put an end, and you'll never hear surf music again." A lengthy, trippy tune bordering on psychedelia, "Third Stone from the Sun" was an aural bridge between the heyday of surf music and the hard-edged rock that, by 1967, had taken over American culture. Arab music, though, remained an anchor of this more psychedelic music, albeit a mostly unknown anchor.
Listen to the Rolling Stones' "Paint It, Black," which bolted to the top of the U.S. charts in 1966, and you hear echoes of Arab music's quarter tones and minor keys. Listen to the 1967 Jefferson Airplane hit "White Rabbit" -- especially its intro, which climbs a scale of dissonant notes, and its lyrics, which mention a hookah -- and you hear Arabic music fused with psychedelic sensibilities. And listen to The Doors' "The End" or "Light My Fire," both from the group's self-titled 1967 debut album, and you hear the influence of Arabic music. Ray Manzarek, The Doors' keyboardist, tells me that his group's connection to Arabic music is no accident. The Doors' guitarist, Robby Krieger, was a flamenco guitarist before joining the band, and flamenco is based on centuries of Arab music, which infused Spain's culture during Muslim rule over the country. Also, says Manzarek, all four members of The Doors -- he, Krieger, Jim Morrison, and drummer John Densmore -- were interested in Latin music, which (like flamenco) has been touched by Arabic music. "It comes out of the whole Latin influence," Manzarek tells me. "The Doors are a Southern California band, but we're always listening to the roots of things. That combination of jazz and blues and classical music and Robbie's flamenco guitar, and jug band (music) -- all of that is sitting on top of that Southern California Latin influence, which is sitting on top of Arabic influence ... It's that minor harmony -- the Arabic, minor harmonic sense is such an endemic part of The Doors' music." Speaking of flamenco, Manzarek says, "Flamenco guitar incorporates all kinds of Arabic influence. It was just inherent in Robbie's guitar playing because it comes out of his flamenco guitar studies." At least one reference to the Muslim world is embedded in The Doors collection of songs: On the group's 1967 magnum opus "When the Music's Over," Morrison -- after saying, "We want the world and we want it ... now" -- shouts out "Persian night, babe! See the light, babe!" Right after these words, Morrison yells, "Save us! Jesus! Save us!" Says Manzarek: "We blend Islam and Christianity in there."
After Morrison's drug-related death in 1971, the surviving Doors' members made two albums, one of which, 1972's Full Circle, featured a song, "The Mosquito," that Manzarek says is their most obvious Arab-inflected song. The Arab influence is noticeable in the tune's keyboard interlude, played by Manzarek, which features a sliding scale of quarter tones. The song opens with a slow Latin flavor and the lyrics, "No me moleste mosquito . . . Why don't you go home?," before segueing into the Arab interlude, and then a raucous mix of guitars and keyboards that is The Doors' trademark sound. "It goes from a Latino/Norteño song to an Arabic song," Manzarek tells me. "The beat was from something that (drummer) John Densmore came up with, but we were all into Arabic-style playing because it's so much fun to play with Arabic rhythms and Arabic harmonies. From a keyboard perspective, and certainly from a guitar perspective, we were using Arabic modal lines. That's a great deal of fun to play that stuff. Robbie came up with the [song's] melodic line, John came up with the beat, and I came up with whatever else is left. It's basically Densmore having an affection for the doumbek and Arabic music."
Since 2002, Manzarek and Krieger have performed The Doors' music as a group that was first called The Doors of the 21st Century, then Riders on the Storm. "Interestingly enough," Manzarek says of "The Mosquito," "it's one of our most popular songs in Europe. It's a very popular song in [Europe's] Northern countries. The Scandinavians and Germans are very fond of 'The Mosquito.' When Robby and I are out playing as Riders on the Storm, it's one of the songs that's always asked for, and when I do interviews [there], the northern Europeans ask, 'Will you play "The Mosquito"?' They just love it. It brings passion. It's got the passion of Mexico, and it's got the passion of the Arabian Peninsula." This passion is also inherent in a new version of "Strange Days" that Manzarek penned for his reworked Doors group. Manzarek and Krieger have performed this version of "Strange Days" in Europe and the United States. "The introduction I've added is completely Arabic," Manzarek tells me. "We did it in this last European tour. Everybody loved it. We got rousing applause. I'm looking forward to getting the re-recording on a disc one of these days." This "Strange Days," Manzarek tells me, is emblematic of "music that [acts] as a perfect bridge. Rock 'n' roll, our Western beat music, and Arabic music, the harmonies and loveliness of it. Music will bring us together. We have to get together with Islam." Referring to Arab music, Manzarek says one of his regrets is that "I wish we had gotten in more of it [into The Doors' music]. You can't do everything. You just don't have time to do everything you want to do, dammit."
Manzarek lets out a laugh as he finishes his thought. Later on in our conversation, he tells me I was the only observer in his 40 years of playing to ask him about The Doors' connection to Arab music. "People don't even get as far as the flamenco connection," he says, "let alone to the origination of the connection." The connection to Arabic music remained alive in the American pop, rock, and folk-music scene long after the '60s were over. In 1975, the Grateful Dead released Blues for Allah, an album whose title track is a spare medley of Islamic praise music. Against a backdrop of bending guitar notes, the song begins with the Dead as a chorus singing the words, "Arabian wind,/The needle's eye is thin ... /What good is spilling blood?/It will not grow a thing;/Taste eternity the swords sing:/Blues for Allah Inshallah." The Dead modulate their voices according to centuries-old principles of Arab musical scales, which employ deep quarter tones that are nonexistent in traditional Western music. Blues for Allah is an atmospheric eulogy for Saudi Arabia's King Faisal, a Grateful Dead fan who was assassinated in early 1975. Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who wrote Blues for Allah, once described Faisal as "a progressive and democratically inclined ruler," a reference to Faisal's championing of women's rights, his prohibition of slavery, and his other [for Saudi Arabia] liberal measures.
Three years after releasing Blues for Allah, the Grateful Dead performed in the Muslim world's historic cultural capital, Cairo, where they jammed with a Nubian oudist, Hamza el-Din, whose songs are an amalgamation of African and Arabic music. El-din, who arranged for the Dead's performance at the base of Egypt's great pyramids, was a strong influence on American music of the 1960s and 1970s. Like Ravi Shankar, el-Din performed at U.S. folk festivals (most notably the 1964 Newport Folk Festival), and though Shankar had a much higher profile because of his association with the Beatles, el-Din -- who was born and raised in Egypt -- was a musician's musician. Among his fans was Joan Baez, who helped secure el-Din a contract with Vanguard Records, which released albums in 1964 (Hamza El Din: Music of Nubia) and 1965 (Al Oud: Instrumental and Vocal Music of Nubia). Guitarist G.E. Smith, the former Saturday Night Live music director who has performed with Bob Dylan, tells me that "His [el- Din's] records were around, and people listened to that stuff. Guitar players would listen to it. It might not be heavy rotation, but we'd listen, and we'd go, 'Oh, listen to that. Listen to how he negotiates those notes.' It [his music] is similar to [American rock music] but it's different. You'd throw in little things. The sitar thing was much easier to go, 'OK, here's a little phrase; here's seven notes that I can just lift and play, and if I do the vibrato right, use really slinky strings, I can kind of make it do that.' The oud was much subtler. I think the Arabic influence is certainly around, but not as overt as the Indian was."
Some bands blended both Indian and Arabic music into a rock mélange that listeners gravitated to. Led Zeppelin, whose songs have long been mainstays on American and British music charts, was the most successful group to break through using this banquet-table approach to rock 'n' roll. "Kashmir," Led Zeppelin's 1975 hit from the album Physical Graffiti, is a supercharged paean to Arab music. Robert Plant wrote the song's lyrics (" ... All I see turns to brown,/as the sun burns the ground,/And my eyes fill with sand ... ") while traveling in Morocco's Sahara Desert. The song's bending notes, and Plant's interpretation of those notes, conjure up images of an Arabian Nights orchestra playing not in India's Kashmir but North Africa's sand dunes. "They probably overtly used Arabic music more than anybody," Smith, who is half-Lebanese, says of Led Zeppelin. "Me and my buddies would talk about the difference between, 'Oh, that's the Indian thing, and that's the Arabic thing.' " Plant freely talks about his blending of different music styles, telling rock critic Robert Palmer that he learned to love Indian film music at age 17 ("it was all very sensual and alluring") and that his multiple visits to Morocco "moved me into a totally different culture. The place, the smells, the colors were all very intoxicating, as was the music. On the radio you could hear a lot of Egyptian pop like Oum Kalsoum, and depending on where you were, Berber music. I never tried to write anything down or to play it. I was just developing a love affair. But I know it did something to me, to my vocal style. You can hear it in the longer sustained notes, the drops, the quarter tones. You hear that in 'Friends' [from Led Zepplin's 1970 album Led Zeppelin III] or in 'In the Light' [from 1975's Physical Graffiti] for instance, lots of other places too."
Plant's reference to Oum Kalsoum is another important connection between American and Arab music. Kalsoum, whose last name is often spelled Kalthoum or Khulthum, was Egypt's greatest singer -- the equivalent of Barbra Streisand, Billie Holiday, and Maria Callas rolled into one inimitable voice. The daughter of a Muslim cleric, Kalsoum was taught to recite the Quran before she found fame as a secular singer of love songs -- songs that were as musically intense as Quranic recitations but eschewed religious proselytizing for lamentations about heartbreak, longing, and plan- ning for a better day. Dylan found inspiration in Kalsoum's music, telling Playboy magazine for a 1978 interview that "She does mostly love and prayer-type songs, with violin-and-drum accompaniment. Her father chanted those prayers and I guess she was so good when she tried singing behind his back that he allowed her to sing professionally, and she's dead now but not forgotten. She's great. She really is. Really great."
G.E. Smith, who got to know Dylan well, even going to Istanbul with him for a 1989 concert, told me, "He is the most erudite musicologist I've ever been around. The guy has spent his life listening. I was with him for four years. We sat on the bus and talked. He'd go [imitating Dylan's voice], 'Well, there's this song by ... ,' and he'd tell you about it. He absolutely told me about African stuff, and we talked about Arabic stuff, because he knew I was Lebanese. He named specific Arabic musicians that I had never heard of."
Many Americans had never heard of the Egyptian pop singer Hakim (he goes by just one name) before his collaboration with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in 2003. In their video of "Lela," Brown shouts out three times the Arabic greeting, salaam aleikum, which means "peace be upon you." The video, which was filmed in Brown's native Georgia, features Brown and Hakim clasping hands and embracing. Another prominent match of East and West came in 1995, for the movie "Dead Man Walking", whose soundtrack spotlights Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder and Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The Muslim world's greatest exponent of the devotional Sufi music known as qawwali, Khan performs in Urdu on the tracks "The Long Road" and "The Face of Love," both of which feature Vedder in a kind of call-and-response format with Khan and his fellow qawwali masters. The soundtrack helped introduce qawwali and Khan's haunting voice to audiences beyond those in the world-music realm who were already fans of the Pakistani icon.
The "Pulp Fiction" soundtrack resurrected "Miserlou" for a generation of young Americans who had never known of surf music. When the movie starts, a couple (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) sit in a restaurant booth discussing their future and the most efficient way to make money -- including the differences between robbing a bank, a liquor store, and a restaurant. The couple decides to rob the eatery right then and there -- at which point Dale's "Miserlou" is unveiled, along with the opening credits. Violence, humorous dialogue, and "Miserlou" anchor the movie. After watching Dale perform in an Amsterdam venue, Tarantino personally asked him for permission to use the song, though it took the director two tries to get through to Dale.
"It's funny," Dale tells me. "He gave a note to my bass player and said, 'I'm Quentin Tarantino; I want to talk to Dick Dale.' And my bass player didn't know who he was, so he threw the note away.
Then he got me in my dressing room and said, 'I've been listening to your music for so many years, and 'Miserlou' is a masterpiece.' He said, 'Can I use that song? I want to play it over and over and over again, so I can get the energy from it. I want to get the energy from it, to create a masterpiece of a movie, to complement the masterpiece of your song.' Most people make a movie first and then they put music later. Well, Tarantino does it the other way: He gets a song and plays it over and over again and creates a movie from the song."
The machete killings, gun splatterings, and sexual violence in "Pulp Fiction" are the antithesis of the innocence of "Miserlou," whose lyrics describe a longing for a dark-eyed Egyptian woman. When Tarantino finished the movie and sent a limousine to Dale's house to take him to a screening at Universal Studios, Dale was apprehensive. He had given Tarantino permission because he liked the director's humility and his rebellious nature, which Dale identified with. Violence was another matter and one that Dale accepts in the real world -- to a degree. "I was born and raised in Boston, and when I was a child, we were watching a parade, and a Chinese man fell at my feet with a hatchet in his back. My father grabbed me and we ran -- that was the beginning of the 'Tong Wars.' I've witnessed violence," Dale tells me. After "Pulp Fiction", "Miserlou" was used in every possible commercial way -- in TV commercials and children's cartoons; in pop albums and rap records; in documentaries and Hollywood blockbusters. In its first incarnation under Dale, "Miserlou" was also sampled multiple times. It even helped inspire the James Bond theme, which borrows Dale's surf twang to evoke the daring life of Agent 007.
On stage, Dale -- now a septuagenarian -- is like a James Bond figure, with endless amounts of energy and resolve. When I saw him perform at a San Francisco club, he bounced around for more than two hours, saving "Miserlou" for the end of the concert, after which the audience -- comprising mainly people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s -- went wild with applause and hollering.
Dale relates to a younger audience. He often peforms with his son Jimmy, a professional guitarist who was 15 at the time I saw Dale in concert. Dale has made sure Jimmy knows some Arabic. "I got a whole bunch of Arabic tapes, because I don't hang around with the people who speak Arabic, and it's such a beautiful, disgustingly terrible language to learn," Dale says, starting to laugh. "I miss listening. But when I go throughout the world, I know enough words to get me in trouble. And so when I meet people in different stores all over the world, I'll speak to them and say, kayf halak ["how are you"] and mapsut ["pleased"]. And I knew all the swear words, because I used to listen to my father swear. But I wanted my son to learn, so I went and got these Pimsleur Egyptian speaking [tapes], and it's amazing -- my son was actually speaking in full paragraphs. I wanted him to learn, because if he travels, there isn't a place that you don't run into someone who speaks Arabic. It's a beautiful language. I love listening to it. In fact, when I would drive down the highway, I'd listen to nothing but Arabic speaking lessons on the CD. It soothes me."
Copyright The New Press, 2008.
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