Wednesday, November 23, 2005

RIP Link Wray 1929-2005

Rock and roll legend Link Wray died November 5 in Copenhagen. He's the most important guitarist you probably never heard of. His Los Angeles Times obituary (published yesterday) lists many of the most famous names in rock who were profoundly influenced by him. Pete Townshend once wrote, "He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar." And Neil Young said, "If I could go back in time and see any band, it would be Link Wray and the Wraymen." Bob Dylan, who first saw Wray live in Duluth in 1958, opened his November 20 concert in London with "Rumble" in his honor.

The obituary tells the story of "Rumble," his biggest hit. To get the raw, distorted guitar sound, Wray used a pencil to punch holes in the speakers of his amplifier. In some places it was banned from the radio -- and it was an instrumental! That's some serious rock and roll that can threaten the Establishment without using any words.

Alas, the LA Times' obituary for Wray peters out in the mid-1960s. In fact, Wray was just getting started. He returned to religion (his parents were preachers) and turned his home into a commune. Then he channneled his energies into crafting the greatest hippie Jesus freak music ever made. He had a recording studio in an old chicken coop called "Wray's Three Track Shack."

His 1971 album Link Wray is legendary among music collectors. Wray was able to stretch out as a guitarist, moving deftly from rock to blues, electric to acoustic. His lyrics were deeply moral but came across as heartfelt warnings more than preaching. And for the first time, he was the featured vocalist. He lost a lung to tuberculosis in the Army in 1953 and lacked range, but he had enthusiasm and intensity that suited the material perfectly. Put it on your Christmas list if you don't have it yet. (If you can't find it alone, it is included in the Wray's Three Track Shack and Guitar Preacher: The Polydor Years compilations.)

Wray found new success in the late 1970s when he paired up with retro crooner Robert Gordon for a pair of albums (most notably including Bruce Springsteen's "Fire"). He moved to Denmark and kept recording both live and in the studio. Numerous American bands touring Europe were privileged to have Wray join them onstage for a song or two. Cowpunk legend Jason Ringenberg wrote an eponymous tribute to Wray for his latest album, Empire Builders. In liner notes, he writes
I've known Link Wray for 20 years now and his enthusiasm and commitment to performance never cease to amaze me... In my opinion, he possesses THE soul of the rock and roll guitar. One of my main long-range career goals is to still be able to rock lke he does when I am 70 something.
Wray really did rock right until the end. He finished a lengthy US tour four months ago at age 76.

Tonight Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra played "Rumble" during one of David Letterman's commercial breaks, showing once again why they are undeniably the greatest band on television. I wonder how many viewers noticed and how many recognized this as a farewell tribute to a guitar legend.

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