BE WILD, NOT EVIL:
THE LINK WRAY STORY
Gregg Turkington, Jack Nitzsche, Olive and Link Wray, 1997. "Just Think Link," Link told Jack. (photo courtesy G. Turkington)
A tribute by Jimmy McDonough © 2006
(Part 6 of 6)
YELLOW CURRY AND KLING-KLANGS
Link Wray's long absence from the States only served to fuel his legend. In 1972, John Waters used Link's "Rumble" B-side "The Swag" in Pink Flamingos and by the nineties, filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez followed suit. The Cramps did much to keep Link's name alive, as did a slew of reissues here and overseas. So by the time I encountered Wray on his 1997 comeback tour of America, a new audience was discovering him. Wray was plugging Shadowman, yet another thrown-together affair of retreads and covers, but at least Ted Carroll had talked him into recording with a live band and the album contained two memorable numbers, "Rumble On The Docks" and an unhinged cover of Creedence's "Run Through The Jungle."
Now sixty eight, Link's youthful spirit and enthusiasm for life was intoxicating. He seemed beyond excited to be in the States--and particularly thrilled that you could drive through Taco Bell and get your own personal hot sauce. After discovering it, Link "went back to the hotel and wrote a song--"HOT SAUCE!" Olive was nuttier than any five records you can name by Huey 'Piano' Smith and His Clowns, but they were a memorable pair. Being around Link and Olive was like being in a spy movie, albeit a very, very low budget one. Everybody was out to get them. Olive was convinced that at any given moment she or Link would be bumped off by one of his ex-wives, children or somebody from Norton Records.
[Norton Records (frequently working with Sherry Wray) have put out the most definitive collections of Link's earlier material. Wray wasted no opportunity to complain bitterly that he didn't make any money off them. "All records we've released on Link were fully paid for," said Norton's Billy Miller in an email. "We paid licenses to all the copyright owners for the masters and to all the publishers for mechanical royalties... Link was not the owner of his masters. If there's a cut due Link for songwriting or artist royalties, it is the responsibility of the owners to give him his cut." Furthermore, Miller states that in 1991, "Olive Wray called and offered Norton an album of new Link Wray recordings to be cut in Denmark. Link and Olive both signed a contract for twelve songs... we paid them the full amount they specified in the contract, but never heard from them again. We tried contacting them time after time and received no response. We still have the signed contract, Olive's letters and bank details."] Olive ranted about pretty much all the players from Link's previous life in the States. "I'm scared of those bastards," she sobbed. "I don't want to lose Link to his former wives or groupies or children. They haven't bothered to put a stamp on a postcard for over ten years. They have the address." Family and friends dispute this, saying they sent numerous letters to Denmark without a reply. Virtually no one from Link's past would get through to see him during the next eight years he toured America.
The one thing I managed to do for Link was to put him together with Jack Nitzsche. Back in the sixties, Nitzsche had recorded a big band version of "Rumble" that Link cherished. These two musical misfits hit it off big time, and it definitely lifted Jack's spirits as he fought a long losing battle with drugs (Link had a relatively simple solution for Nitzsche's problems: "I told him, 'When you get an urge to taste Satan's candy, Jack, just think L-I-N-K'"). Unfortunately Nitzsche died before doing anything musical with Wray, although he'd had his heart set on it.
Wray's live shows were now crazy, shambolic affairs. Louder than God, Link would lurch from one number to the next without a break, making mistakes, laughing his ass off as his young band scrambled to follow. Sometimes he'd play a number like "Run, Chicken, Run" three times in one night. It was often a dimension where utter sloppiness met unlimited emotion. There was nothing retro about Wray. Indeed, his long pony tail and fanny pack sent the immaculately-quiffed rockabilly museum pieces in the audience reaching for smelling salts. He prowled the stage like a big caged cat. As Deke Dickerson has written of Link at the end of his career, "There was something perverse about a 75+ year old man swinging a guitar around while it howled feedback through a Marshall stack. I really liked that, actually."
Wray's backup from 1997 to 2002 usually consisted of bassist Atom Ellis and drummer Danny Heifetz, members of San Francisco outfit Dieselhed. These tours were low rent affairs, Link and the band travelling by van or car. Wray would stay up all night after a show searching out old John Wayne Westerns on the motel TV, blasting the sound so loud guests in adjacent rooms complained. His youthful bandmates were blown away by Link's energy, and struggled to find words to describe how much they got out of playing music with the man.
"I remember playing this gig at Iowa University--we did two shows back to back in the cafeteria," said Danny Heifetz. "There were like twelve people there. Link came on and it was just like he was playing for five hundred." There was no way of predicting when a show would be miraculous or terrible. "I never figured out that riddle," said Atom Ellis. "Sometimes when there was the most tension between him and Olive and there was somethin' that he was just holdin' back all day and wanted to get out is when he'd pick up the guitar, finally find his comfort zone and let it rip."
Ellis maintained that when it came to Wray and his music, "it starts getting into the supernatural. There was just a stunning engima to how unconsciously Link played, but how sure he was of what he was trying to do. He was a really honest lifeforce, sort of honest by default--it wasn't driven by some notion of being a good person or ethically proper. He was honest like a wild animal is honest. When he performed you could hear that. It was almost spooky to be around."
While band and crew found dealing with Link to be heaven, everything involving Olive was decidedly hellish. She was perpetually late, threatened to cancel shows at a moment's notice, and would generally go berserk if a female came within fifty yards of her husband. The highest guarantees for any of his tours came from the Washington, DC area, but Olive refused to set foot there, so sure that they'd be bumped off by the ex-wife/children/Norton hit squad.
Gregg Turkington was the tour manager for Link's 1997 American tours, and compared dealing with Link and Olive to "having dysfunctional parents. I spent two months with them. It was me and those two in the car. Olive just does not stop talking. Ever. Ever hear the Raymond and Peter CD of these two elderly gay alcoholics? It wasn't that much different. You'd get the same refrains, the same circular madness. Olive would be going on about their manager at the time and how he was ripping them off, or Norton Records, or whatever Link had done that was wrong. And Link would get into this refrain of, 'I don't wanna hear anymore of your bullshit, Olive. I don't wanna hear anymore of your bullshit, Olive. I don't wanna hear anymore of your bullshit, Olive.' And he'd do that for hours, just say that sentence over and over again. It was just so brutal.
"And Link would be in these moods where he was kinda funny, but what would inevitably happen is he would tell you some story about hanging out with Keith Moon or something and Olive would flip out in the midst of the story-–almost like Link was too happy and loose--and she would start screaming, 'Oh Link, you're gonna talk about your past, and all the groupies you are fucking. That doesn't impress Greg. He knows you are an old man, Link, it's pathetic.'" At times, Link would threaten to leave Olive or send her back home on the plane, but mostly, said Turkington, "he'd clam up, just stare out the window and be completely quiet." Old friends would hear these tales and shake their heads in disgust. Link "had always been the aggressor and was in control of the relationships with past wives," said Ed Cynar. "Talk about having the tables turned! He became fully and completely controlled by her."
Simply eating at a restaurant with Olive was a Herculean challenge. "She was allergic to yellow food," said Danny Heifetz. "Mustard was not allowed on the table." Olive was particularly afraid that one of many her enemies would sneak backstage and somehow rub her out with some surreptitiously planted curry powder. "She'd go into McDonald's and ask about the cumin and spices," said later tour manager John Tynan. Or they'd go to some truckstop diner and Olive would be giving the bewildered waitress the third degree on whether they slipped any saffron into their food.
"We were driving in Texas, and Link bought a box of those dipped-in-chocolate Hostess donuts, ten in a box," said Turkington. "He's sitting in the back eating them, he takes a bite out of one--and it's like yellow inside. Yellow cake. So Olive sees this and decides it's curry powder." Chaos ensued. "She's screaming at Link, 'Oliver's not gonna have a mother, or father! We're all gonna die, I'm gonna die!' Link is like, 'Olive that's bullshit, it's just cake.' And I'm going, 'Olive, it's just yellow food coloring--they don't put curry in Hostess donuts!' She's just going on and on, and finally Link just rolls down the window and throws the whole box of donuts out on the highway."
It seemed to many like Olive was intent on undermining any success for Link. "The second time around, Olive was so much crazier and so much more destructive to the tour," said Turkington. "This sounds silly, but I think it was like a week into it, I started feeling suicidal. I was just feeling the deepest, most horrible depression I ever felt, like there was no way out. It was actually really starting to affect my psyche dealing with these people." Gregg left the tour, and felt so traumatized by the experience that he avoided talking about it for years.
Then came the horror that goes by the name of the kling-klang. In 1997, Link got a great break--a spot on the Conan O'Brien Show. The day of the appearance, Olive suddenly announced that she had to buy a tambourine, or as she called it, a kling-klang. She insisted that she was going to appear with the band for the taping, even though she had no known musical talent. "I thought she was jokin'," said tour manager John Tynan. The band shuddered, praying this whimsy might just flit back out of her mind. No such luck. At the studio band rehearsal, Olive, still without tambourine, "went insane," said Tynan. "She was crying, 'People will not believe that I am the real wife and Oliver will not have a mother!'" The band, cast and crew were all stunned by her performance. "We all just started seeing these tears streaming down her face," said Atom. "Pathetic, yet so devisive, this display of emotion--to the point where we all just felt horrible. And we understood there was nothing anybody could have done to stop that force of nature. She was going to be onstage. The building would be burned to the ground before she was stopped." Ultimately, Olive got her kling-klang, and thus made her network tambourine debut that night on national television.
"From that night on, guess what?" said Danny Heifitz. "Olive played tambourine in the band. She had no right to be up there, she wasn't in any way a musician. Appalling. It just drove me fucking crazy. She was throwing me off." By the end of the tour, Heifitz was so frustrated he threw a drumstick at Olive, hitting her in the back. "It was probably one of the best feelings I ever had. Everybody else was really jealous that I got to throw something at her." According to John Tynan, they got so tired of Olive's kling-klang that "we used to put superglue on the cymbals to quiet it down."
Yet Olive was truly unstoppable. At one gig, a fan came up to Link with an old original vinyl copy of one of his albums. "Links grabs it, signs it, starts to hand it back," said Turkington. "Olive grabs the record out of Link's hand, grabs the marker and signs the front of it herself."
Deke Dickerson did a week-long tour of Spain with Link in 2000. Thrilled to be sharing a stage with his longtime hero, Dickerson was yet an other who found dealing with the wife to be a trial. "Olive was the most annoying, self-centered, horrible person I've ever met. She kept Link from his friends, his family and his fans. Somehow she convinced Link that he was this huge star and needed to be protected from the surge of guitar fans and what she called 'kindergarten pussy' (young girls--as IF!)."
But Dickerson exacted his revenge. "The last night of the tour, we decided to play a trick on Olive. She was always rattling on about how people were trying to assassinate Link. So during the tour, we formulated this plan to freak Olive out at the last show. We accumulated monster masks, wigs, devil horns, etc. until all the members of all the bands had something creepy to wear. We waited until Link's encore, and then about fifteen of us got on stage wearing masks, running around Link, grabbing Olive's tambourine, jumping up and down, falling down, acting crazy, and Olive literally was losing her mind. She literally thought that Link was going to be assassinated! The only person that stood a chance of getting assassinated was OLIVE!"
Link's son Shayne showed up at a 2002 gig at the Village Underground in New York City. Olive had gotten word he was coming, and both she and Link "were freaked out," said John Tynan. During the show, Link went into an embarrassing rap seemingly for the benefit of any family members present about how the record companies had stolen all his money. He then announced that his son was in the audience, and pulled the wrong person onstage. "Link was blind!" said Tynan. "He didn't know which one was his son." But Shayne says that at the end of the show while Olive was looking the other way, Link actually made contact from the stage. "He knelt down and said, 'I know you're here and I love you' and tears came from his eyes. Olive pulled him back."
With visions of God knows what nefarious conspiracies dancing in her fevered brain, she rounded up the tour manager and said they had to leave immediately, no encores. Shayne, who'd caught on that they were making a getaway, ran out of the club and headed straight for the van containing Link and Olive. He begged to talk to his father. "The guy was just crying--this last-chance look on his face," said a shaken Danny Heifitz. Overcome with emotion, Shayne began banging against the window with his head. "He nearly smashed the window," said John. Link was in the back of the van oblivious as Olive screamed for them to take off. "Olive was claiming it was a black man--'Quick, John, it's a black man!'" recalled Tynan. Everybody felt terrible for Shayne, and disgusted by Olive's ruse. "What an evil thing to do, y'know?" said Atom Ellis. "Not even allow a guy to see his family. It was his fucking son! He was banging with his head, yelling, 'LINK!'" A devastated Shayne would never see his father again. "They ran over my foot and sped off," he said.
Link's ex-wife Sharon scoffed at the notion his family had never tried to contact him in the years he'd been gone. When Link left the States for good, "the kids gave him their phone numbers--'Dad, keep in touch'--but he never called. As much as he believed in the Lord Almighty, I just can't believe the way he did his kids. How do you believe in the Lord Almighty and forget your kids? How can you believe in God and let somebody tell you that you don't have any kids in the U.S.? I lost Link then."
Link Wray was a grown man. He could've addressed the situation with his family in the States, but chose not to, and any investigation into the reasoning behind his decision seems to end up with Olive. I once asked him what was the hardest thing for his wife to accept about him. "My past," he piped up. "All these wives and all these kids I had, that's still her biggest pain. Olive did marry me, she is takin' care of me, she straightened my mind out, and when I wasn't together she kept me together, so I'm tryin' to understand her side of it. She said, 'What if I was married to a bunch of guys that had all these kids, how would you feel?" I said, 'I probably wouldn't be married to ya.' I do love these grown kids, but if they're on the mother's side against me and against Olive, then I don't want to see 'em. I'm handlin' it. I mean, I'm out here on the road and they're calling up, trying to give me trouble and I just hang up on everybody. And to the people at the club, I say, 'If anybody calls for Link, I'm not here, you don't know how to get in touch with me.'"
The 2002 tour was Dieselhed's last with Link, and it was a bumpy ride. He'd already cancelled one tour due to a mystery illness months before. "Link looked terrible when he came off the plane-- really pale, really skinny, really bad cough--he was definitely not fully recovered," recalled Danny Heifetz. "He was saying repeatedly, 'Why did you take me on this tour, Olive? Never should have brought me out here.'"
On the opening night of the tour, it became apparent that Link's mental faculties were starting to fade. "The only song he could really remember was 'I'm Branded,'" said Atom Ellis. "It went on and on for fifteen minutes. Then he finally ended the song, started another, and his hands went back to playing the first song. I don't think we played three different songs the whole show. We thought we were gonna have to pull the plug."
Link thankfully improved, but a sense of doom persisted. "There were times on that tour I felt he knew that death was near," said Ellis. "We'd be in the van I'd turn around and expect to talk to him about a western, and he'd just be staring out the window doing like an ancient Indian chant. It was a really spooky thing--he was in the middle of this half speaking in tongues, half chanting."
Was Link Wray afraid of death? "Not at all," he told me in 1997. "No. I'll walk in that room right now if it was meant to be. Olive don't like to hear me talk like that, y'know? It's like when I went back to bury my brother Doug. The priest said, 'What do you think about all this, Link?' I said, 'Aw, he's not dead. NO. He's just like goin' from one room to another. I won't see him again for a long time until I leave this body. Then I think I'll see him.'"
One eerie night was spent in Link's birthplace--Dunn, North Carolina. After going out on the town, the band came back to the hotel to find Link, who never ventured out of hotel room TV range, sitting alone under the stars in a chair he'd dragged outside. "He was just kind of rocking back and forth, looking into the sky," said Ellis. "Whatever those days were, he was relivin' it." The next day Olive was panicked that Link had seen ghosts the night before.
Widmark Clark was one of the few old friends who'd been able to make contact with Link on the '02 tour, in New Orleans. When Clark asked about Doug and Ray, Link got quiet. "He said, 'Bobby, they're all gone... all gone.'"
Clark tried again when the tour passed through New Orleans in 2005, but this time, Olive blocked him. "As soon as she found out I had ties to Washington, D.C., she wouldn't let me near him. The promoter came up and told me, 'She told me for you not to go near him.' And I never spoke to Link again. He wanted to talk. The man was alone."
Before Link was whisked away, he told Clark his hearing was nearly gone and he needed an operation for cataracts. "His life couldn't have been good," said Clark. "You leave out of New Orleans sleepin' in the back of a Ford van? Link was beginning to get frail. He had no business out on the road but it went on and it killed him, okay? He should've been sittin' back enjoyin' some of the fruits of his labor, someplace signin' autographs, writin' a book, makin' a movie about his life. Well, it didn't happen. Link was in the middle of a river, and he couldn't climb out on either side."
The 2005 American tour would be Link Wray's last. Deke Dickerson noted that Link needed help getting to the audience on at least three of his last shows. "Link could stand on stage and play no problem, but he had to be carried to the stage by two guys on either side of him. Looked like his legs were giving out on him--they literally dragged behind his body while the people carried him to the stage." Even on this last tour, I got raving middle-of-the-night phone calls from friends who'd just seen Link for the first time and were immediate converts. "He was so fucking loud! So great! I'm gonna tell my grandchildren I saw LINK WRAY!"
I saw one of his very last gigs in Seattle that July. Wray was very late getting there, so I waited outside. A cab trawled slowly past, and for an eerie moment Link's gaunt visage was caught in the glow of a streetlight. It looked like a deathmask. The show was dismal. Wray could barely play, and said nothing to the audience. It was troubling to witness. But Link had informed at least one of his ex-wives this was the way he wanted to go out: with a guitar in his hands.
On July 16, 2005, Link Wray played "Rumble" for the last time before an audience, in Glendale, California. On November 5 of that year he passed away. Link's death remained a desperately held secret for over two weeks, when the rumors began to fly. Friends and family got the news the same cruel way--via postings on the Internet or phone calls from reporters asking to confirm Wray's passing. Olive controlled Link's death much in the same way she'd tried to control his final years. "Olive never told anyone who cared about Link. I hate that woman with a passion. I hope the good Lord will forgive me for feeling that way," said Wray's old friend Ed Cynar. His family in the States were understandably outraged. "All his children here in the United States were very angry about this," said Link's son Fred Lincoln Wray III. "I don't think it was right of her not to let us know what happened." Daughter Beth added, "Its really been hard on me. I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye."
Olive finally addressed the matter with a brief notice on Link's recently constructed "official" website. In her characteristic broken English, she wrote, "In respect of Link's wishes, he was buried in silence and privacy from the historic protestant Church: Christians Church in Copenhagen Denmark, Friday 18th of November 2005, with attendance of his family Olive and Oliver Wray. Link passed away in their arms, safely in his home in Copenhagen, not ever aware that his heart was getting tired. This was the way he had told us he wanted it." Nothing further has been revealed about Link's final days or cause of death, and emailed interview requests I've sent to Olive have gone unanswered.
On January 10, 2006, Link's eight American children and various relatives gathered together for a memorial service in Fredericksburg, Virginia. His grandchildren opened the service by playing "Tuscon, Arizona," a Doug Wray composition that Link had recorded in the early seventies. "At the end they played 'Rumble,''' said their proud mother Beth, adding that Link's ex-wife Sharon was "back there cryin' her eyes out. Of course, everybody was." Despite being an ocean away, Olive Wray couldn't even let this heartfelt final farewell pass without interference. "You know what she had the nerve to do?" Beth asked in amazement. "Olive called the preacher and told him that she wasn't invited. I said, 'No kiddin'!'"
ACE OF SPADES
It was hard to cut this story loose. I can't say why, exactly. I certainly didn't get to know Link all that well during the brief period I picked his brain. But he had gotten to me. His music was so very great, and in the end, his life seemed nothing more than a pile of loose ends.
"If you rub the edges off music, you really take away the music itself," Richard Thompson said recently. "The music is in the edges, it's in the rough bits." Well, when you talk about rock and roll being "rough," Link was a hunk of human sandpaper. He had the sound, the attitude, the look. Link at the top of his game? I don't know how you can beat it. Wray was more of a rocker than any of 'em.
I like to remember him as he was onstage in Portland, Oregon one night in 2000. It was a crappy club on its very last legs, and one that somehow managed to leave the house lights on for much of the show. Wray loved the joint, and the gig was utter chaos. He stopped playing several times to grab copies of his records being held aloft by rabid fans crowding the foot of the stage, autographing them on the spot. Link passed his guitar out to the crowd, gleeful over the deafening cacophany that ensued.
At one point he sang "I Want to Be Free." Now, you might associate that particular number with Elvis, but let me inform the world right here and now that after that night the song belonged to Link. There was nothing sad or desperate about the way he delivered the tune. Only one emotion was present. Utter defiance. "I want to be free/Free/FREE," snarled Wray.
"I'm like a bird, an eagle," he once said. "I fly wherever the wind takes me."
You cast a big, bad shadow, Link Wray. Fly high.
Natalia Wisdom contributed a great deal to this story, as did Charlie Beesley. I couldn't have written a word of it without the assistance of Greg Laxton, whose website Link Wray's Net Shack is the last word on all things Link. Special thanks to the very poetic Ed Cynar. The Ray Men have reunited! Go see 'em.
Several people failed to respond to requests for an interview, among them Milt Grant, as well as Link's first and second wives, Elizabeth and Kitty.
My thanks to those who have written about Link previously: Mark Opsasnick, Rob Finnis, Patrick Carr, Trevor Cajiao, Tom Zito, Billy Miller and the late Cub Coda.
Thompson quote from In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Sessions, Grizzly Man DVD. Final Link quote is from Chris Gill's interview for Guitar Player, 1993.
Jimmy McDonough's latest book is Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film.
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