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The last time I saw Link Wray in concert was the last time I should have seen the man alive.
It was 1998. He was 68 years old and in theoretically frail health. He'd been functioning on one lung for nearly half a century; he lost the other to tuberculosis during the Korean War, before anyone outside his native North Carolina had heard his name. He was led onto the Coach House stage by a semi-fetching young valet I assumed was his wife or girlfriend; she handled him the way you'd bring your grandmother into a cockfight. He was ashen-faced and emaciated, tottering and trembling on his old-person pins. And then, to my astonishment, feeble little George Burns transformed into Satan's throbbing scrotum. He took center stage in beat-up Converse high-tops, skintight Levi's torn asunder, a beat-to-shit black leather jacket framing his Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, evil-looking biker shades, and an elaborate, white-trash, sky-high pompadour with a ponytail trailing all the way down his back. He assumed a cocky, spread-legged, Johnny Ramone stance; his lip curled into a sneer to make Jerry Lee Lewis' cock shrink in his pants like a salted slug, and then proceeded to wring such menace from his axe that I felt pinned to my seat. Shrieking, manipulated feedback interspersed with malevolent, minor-scale licks took wing from his amp and fell like fresh-butchered, blood-spattered meat.
He created black magic on that night; he was still the scariest guitar player on the planet, and that concert remains among the most memorable I've witnessed.
Some history: Wray's legendary single "Rumble," recorded back in 1954 (but not charting till '58), was a foreboding summary of juvenile-delinquent attitude woven into two-and-a-half minutes of instrumental snarl; some say it's the first punk rock record and the birth of the power chord as well.
As a teenager who grew up reading GuitarPlayermagazine, I can't even recall how many interview subjects cited Wray's "Rumble" as the song that first compelled them to pick up a guitar; suffice it to say his influence among the elite of the six-string world far outpaced his notoriety among the general citizenry. Back in those days, none of Wray's recordings was even in print; the song remained some enigmatic holy grail to me until the punk era, when '50s rock records first started seeing wide rerelease.
That's when I discovered that Wray had followed "Rumble" with even more sinister work, songs like "Jack the Ripper," "Black Widow," "Big City After Dark," "Law of the Jungle," "Run Chicken Run" and "Switchblade." His twanging version of "Dixie," titled "Dixie-Doodle," was so brimming with hackle-raising rebel yells from his band of chicken-eyed hillbillies that it sounded like he and his Ray-Men should have been cast in the film Deliverance, ogling Jon Voight's "purty mouth" and making Ned Beatty squeal like a pig.
This is precisely why Wray never charted with another single after "Rumble." Ill-advised attempts to scrub him up and present him as a teen idol failed miserably and predictably; our hero wasn't buying into that jive. Link Wray was the first and certainly the darkest rock & roll guitar instrumental hero, preceding such axemen as Duane Eddy, the Ventures, Dick Dale and Lonnie Mack—all great guitarists in their own right, though none ever evoked the aura of sleaze and danger that was Wray's stock in trade. He was to Eddy, say, as Gene Vincent was to Elvis Presley. He didn't want to love you tender and be your teddy bear; Link wanted to stick a shiv in your guts and jack off while watching you slowly bleed to death.
Like many other '50s rockers buried by the ensuing hippie epoch—even the socially acceptable ones—Wray disappeared from the scene for a time before returning as a second-billed sideman to neo-rockabilly crooner Robert Gordon in the '70s, cadging a mini-comeback in the process and releasing the occasional so-so solo album before moving to Denmark in the '80s and basically disappearing from sight on these shores.
He re-emerged in 1997, returning to past form with the very fine ShadowmanCD, in which his terrifying guitar work was accompanied by an odd, one-lunged wheeze 'n' howl vocal method that somehow seemed perfectly suited to Wray's sway. It was in support of that album that I saw him live at that amazing, memorable concert at the Coach House, but he disappeared again after that and has recorded nothing new since.
For the past two months, I've been communicating with Wray's publicist, trying to get Link on the phone for an interview. Needless to say, it didn't happen. I was told that Wray doesn't even own a telephone, which is perfect, somehow: I like to picture him living in a squalid trailer by a polluted creek outside Baltimore; his quarters smelling like the piss of a one-eyed pit bull, drained bottles of bathtub gin, and crotch funk from his unwashed, old-person loins, having fornicated with a local, underage preacher's daughter.
Now 76, Link Wray will be this year's token old person at the Hootenanny greaser fete in Oak Canyon Ranch. If the other performers of the fest are still around performing at peak form with one lung at an age when most people's main concerns are executing a successful bowel movement and hoping they don't run out of Alpo for dinner, then they can claim to be real, live bad-ass rockabilly veterans. But not until then, and not so long as Link Wray still struts the earth, nossir.
Link Wray at Hootenanny, Oak Canyon Ranch, Past Irvine Lake, Santiago Canyon Rd., Orange, (714) 740-2000. Sat., noon-8 p.m. $49.50-$100. All ages.