By Buddy Blue
When I saw Link Wray in concert a few years back, he seemed very much the dead man walking. Or rather, limping. Or rather, tottering to the stage on frail, trembling pins, aided by his wife, who looked young enough to be his granddaughter. Where it not for his dyed hair, Ramones-styled get-up, impenetrable shades and the fact that he turned 25 again the moment his guitar was strapped on, Wray might have been just another ailing codger bound for the glue factory.
So I wasn’t outwardly shocked when I heard that Wray -- best known for malevolent ‘50s guitar instrumentals with titles like “Rumble,” “Run Chicken Run” and “Jack The Ripper” -- had died at 76 on November 5 in Copenhagen. On the other hand, I subconsciously figured the old fella would never go and kak off on us. He seemed very much a Mephistophelian figure whose personal connections with the bigwigs in Hell would preclude something so mundane as death from afflicting him.
Link Wray was and shall ever be the personification of every nightmare several generations of clenched-sphincter Falwellian types ever suffered over the sinister, corruptive, blasphemous nature of rock & roll. In his music and in his image, Wray was an anthropomorphized switchblade purchased illicitly in a Tijuana alleyway, honed to a razor’s edge and harboring the DNA evidence of countless victims.
“If you sit down and learn his songs, there’s an inherent violence in the structure,” says Dave Alvin. “There’s a raw, ominous dread inside those songs. He cut it down to the basics – bass, drums and very, very loud guitar. There’s a sense of menace and a threat inside all his instrumentals, like a film noir thing. It made you want to pick up a guitar and have that kind of power yourself.”
Alvin is hardly alone in that assessment. I recall reading “Guitar Player” magazine as a teen in the early ‘70s, and seemingly every contemporary axe-slinger interviewed cited Wray’s “Rumble” as a primary motivation for adopting the instrument. It was frustrating, as this was an era before obscure ‘50s rock & roll records were being reissued. Nothing by Wray was in print, and all I could do was wistfully wonder what Quicksilver’s John Cippolina meant, exactly, when he enthused, “Link Wray made his guitar bitch, man!”
Because of his hardcore greaser image, Wray was often wrongly cast as a rockabilly guy; in fact, his sound was far more innovative. In its primitive approach, square-one use of power chords and unambiguously “fuck off, Jack” attitude, Wray’s playing was nothing less than the foundation of punk rock. With his emphasis on volume over finesse and his rudimentary backing bands, Wray was also the originator of the hard rock power trio – rock minus the roll.
“With most guitar players, you can trace where they came from,” say Lee Rocker, “but Link Wray just came out of the blue. He invented something, tone and playing-wise…he just pulled it out of thin air. Nothing preceded it. To me, he’s the godfather of players like Hendrix, Page and Townshend. It’s like, ‘Where the hell did this guy come from, and how did he come up with this sound?’ He was an unbelievably unique talent.”
It’s a mark of Wray’s dark, enigmatic persona that his death wasn’t even reported until two weeks after it had occurred. The reams of glowing prose accorded the recent passings of rock & roll innovators like Johnny Cash and Ray Charles weren’t evinced in the mainstream media; there was no awkward Blitzer-babble to be endured. At the end of the day, though, Wray’s legacy and impact on rock & roll was perhaps no less profound than Johnny’s or Ray’s. This was borne out when Bob Dylan opened his November 20th concert in London with a hellfire version of “Rumble.”
Even more to the point of Wray’s sway, some stinky outlaw somewhere out there is likely getting a garish tattoo of Link inked into his chest even as you read this memorial. The guess here is that Wray would have appreciated that tribute most of all.