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By Nate Jackson
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When I saw Link Wray in concert a fewyears 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. Were it not for his dyed hair, Ramones-styled getup, 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 Nov. 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 Mephistophelean figure whose personal connections with the bigwigs in hell would preclude something so mundane as death from afflicting him.
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 Wolf-Blitzer-babble to be endured. At the end of the day, though, Wray’s legacy and impact on rock & roll were perhaps no less profound than Johnny’s or Ray’s. This was borne out when no less a figure than Bob Dylan opened his Nov. 20 concert in London with a hellfire version of “Rumble.”
“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. In Guitar Player magazine in the early ’70s, 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 Cipollina meant, exactly, when he enthused, “Link Wray made his guitar bitch, man!”
“‘Rumble’ was one of the first 45s I ever had,” says Billy Zoom. “I played it with my first band back in 1963. That was a very cool song, a great recording.”
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” 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,” says 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.”