BE WILD, NOT EVIL:
THE LINK WRAY STORY
Link Wray, bassist Ellwood Brown and the band hearse, mid sixties. "If anything was gonna go down, we were cocked and locked," said Brown. "Armed to the teeth."
(photo courtesy Ellwood Brown)
A tribute by Jimmy McDonough © 2006
(Part 4 of 6)
Let us now praise Swan-era Link. Where to begin, the pleasures are so many... the urbane, ultra-cool bounce of "The Black Widow," with its jazzy high-hat intro, leading into a roll on the snare as the snappy "What I'd Say?" organ kicks in... the slow grind of "Good Rockin' Tonight," Link's supreme take on Elvis... the forlorn ‘lone cowboy on his midnight ride' organ on "Cross Ties"... Link's crazy version of the "Batman" theme, with its opening ‘scroink!' courtesy of Bobby ‘the Kid' Howard's malfunctioning amp (gravel-voiced Howard, sounding more like a Dead-End Kid, also performs the nutty Robin dialogue)... the long dark tunnel of churning chords that is "Fatback," with Doug's ride cymbal splashing around Link's bee-sting guitar, down to the whammo, turn-the-key-on-the-headstock finale... the heavy metal power chord crunch of "I'm Branded," Doug smashing the cymbals--he's pounding, not tapping--while a tinkling hurdy-gurdy piano adds to the general mayhem. Punk! According to Ed Cynar, this is the first of Link's one-handed dying-insect solos, warped by whammy bar action.
A few more, I can't stop:
On "Deuces Wild," Wray's rubbery guitar bounces off the walls like Plastic Man. Doug's great double-tracked drums: toms, a chugging train beat on the snare, a great tribal drum break, cymbals going whole time. So loose, but the groove's never lost. Said Link, "Was Doug a big part of my sound? Oh, he was the sound. I played the wild guitar, but he was the beat, man. He was amazing. He'd beat with the butt end of the sticks just as hard as he could and his foot would be flying. I don't know how he got the technique for his foot, ‘cause his foot's so heavy--he never went to drum school, took lessons... Doug understood me more than anybody. He loved me."
Wray's bird-on-a-bum-trip soundtrack "Run, Chicken Run" was invented on the spot at a Cornell University frat show. Recalled Link, "They were throwin' beer all over me, all over themselves. Crazy animal people! I said, ‘Here's a song for ya' and just for fun I went ‘Brak brak braaaak' on the guitar. They loved it." When Link heard Nirvana's "Breed" for the first time--a song that definitely owes a big debt to "Run, Chicken, Run"--he paid it his highest compliment: "Link Wray music with words."
The magnificent "Big City After Dark" opens abruptly with a disheveled, ultra-distorto, absolutely screaming guitar part. It's sublimely dislocating, like joining a drunken conversation in the middle. A lowdown bump and grind that conjures up an inebriated, blurry midnight crawl of strip joints and burlesque houses, this is music by the seat of your pants, barely controlled and always on the edge of losing it beatwise and songwise. Riding a wave with Link--is he going to play something absolutely retarded? Is he going to reach and miss? Or is he going to sink the eight ball in the side pocket? Wray wrings every drop of bad feeling out of the guitar, bending the strings with such force you can actually heart them hitting the fretboards.
Wray's very idiosyncratic take on Dylan's "Girl From North Country" comes complete with a great, characteristically weird vocal. According to Ed Cynar, Wray was a Dylan fan after seeing him perform with the Band in Baltimore in 1965. Wray would get to know Dylan after he showed up at a Link gig in the early seventies. "He comes in with his whole family, and I'm playin my 1910 Gibson with no back on it with a kitchen knife," recalled Link, who went on to say Dylan told him he'd wish he'd written a song on Wray's latest Polydor album, "Walkin' in the Arizona Sun.'' I said, ‘Well, if youda done it, it woulda been a smash hit, HAHAHAHA.' After that night, I'd play and here's Dylan showin' up at my gigs--‘Hi, Bob.' ‘Hi, Link.'"
In Howlin' Wolf's sweaty paws, "Hidden Charms" is playful in its smuttiness; Link's version has about as much in common with Wolf's as Straw Dogs has with The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Wray just grabs the song by the tail and smashes it against the wall until dead. Nearly drowned out by a killing wall of noise, Link sneers out the words with top-o-the-world-ma defiance, a bank robber who's not only gotten away with the loot but is more than ready to ignite the dynamite strapped to his chest. And all for Bertha, the bank teller that spurned him so. What was it a great philosopher said about love? Something about hypnotizing chickens?
And then there is "Alone," a minimal reworking of "Lillian." Just Link's sad, spartan guitar, an organ, and his brothers softly humming a deep wordless tune in the background. Everybody always talks about Link shredding amps and playing louder than a hundred buzzsaws, but he was just as good at the quiet stuff. So understated, yet so drenched in emotion, this one. Link understood melancholy, and I'm not talking about the immaculate, sniffy sadsack pop-radio warblings that get shoved down your throat every time you turn on a TV or enter a mall: I mean a to-the-bone sense of the bittersweet that comes only from crawling through life's gutters a time or ten. This one gets played at my wake.
By 1967, Swan Records went belly up. But Link would blow out the sixties with a handful of his most extreme tunes on the second side of a cheesy looking, home-grown LP that got a one-county release on his brother Ray's Record Factory label, Link Wray--Yesterday and Today. Side one was a compendium of familiar Link hits, but side two was all new, all great, and wow, what racket! There is something majestic about Link at his best. Listen to the open rolling landscape of "The Earth is Crying" and the left turn it takes with all its bendy steel guitar from dimension X. On the next planet out we find the muddy underwater world of "Growling Guts," fueled by Doug's piledriver beat and oddball miltary drum break. But nothing can quite prepare you for the minimalist, discordant misery and madness of "Genocide." Doug's high-hat death march, Wray's guitar acting as the mourner following the funeral procession who wigs out... this is classic Link do-it-yourself weirdness. When I asked Wray what had inspired this one, his response was "A Japanese Classical." Seemed like the right answer to me.
Too bad Link abandoned the direction he was going in here, because I've yet to hear anything remotely like it. When the brothers Wray got down, lightning struck. As his niece Sherry points out, it was never just Link or Ray or Doug, "it was the three of them. I think there's where the magic was."
KING OF THE JUNGLE, THEY CALL ME TIGER MAN
When it came to Link and women, said Ellwood Brown, "It was like a magnet. Usually you'd think, ‘You can't have Link, maybe you'd take the bass player.' Nah, they'd come back the next night. I mean, they just kept on tryin'. It was almost like a line in these clubs. They'd be five, six girls actively pursuin' him, tryin' to talk to him on the breaks, meetin' him outside, waitin' for him when he got off, followin' him home."
Not that being involved with Link was a carefree endeavor. Wray told me of an early infidelity in his life that left him bitter and paranoid. "Link's relationship with the women in his life was often tumultuous and sometimes violent," said Ed Cynar. "He was born in 1929 when men and women had certain roles to play in life (at least there were expectations). He was also very religious. So he felt that any woman he engaged with should be totally loyal and faithful. Now, that concept did not particularly apply to men in those days." Meaning that Link screwed around and went crazy if his women did the same.
Link's married his first wife Elizabeth ‘Sis' Canady after returning from the service, and the union produced two children, Beth and Link, Jr. The marriage ended in the early to mid sixties, in what Link led me to believe was a pretty acrimonious split. Next up was Ethel ‘Kitty' Tidwell, a striking waitress with long, curly hair who worked at Devito's, the Italian joint across from Vinnie's. "Kitty was a pistol," said Ellwood Brown. "She'd knock you on your ass. Kitty was a big girl, probably six feet and mostly muscle." Link and Kitty fought constantly. "They'd squabble quite a bit," said Brown. "Oh man, they used to get into some brawls sometimes. Kitty didn't take no crap from nobody."
Many of the fights concerned the attention Link paid the opposite sex. "Kitty was extraordinarily jealous when it came to Link," said Ed Cynar. "I suppose she knew him well enough to know he couldn't resist temptation. Much of her actions back then were out of frustration, without malice or harmful intent. She justly felt ignored by Link. I think she did everything she could to make a home for him, but his only interest was in his music." And yet Kitty worked hard to support her husband, in addition to bearing him three more children: Belinda, Mona Kay and Link Elvis. "She loved Link---she'd a-died for Link," said Ellwood Brown. "She'd lay down in front of a car and let it run over her."
Kitty would overlap with wife number three, Sharon Cole, a brunette beauty barely out of high school when she started seeing Link in 1966. When Sharon found out about Kitty, Link downplayed the relationship, telling his young and impressionable new girlfriend that he and Kitty were not married, but just living together. It was the first of many stories Wray fed whoever he was with at the time. In hindsight, Sharon recognized that Link was just telling each woman "what they wanted to hear. It would be from one wife to the next."
For years, Link divided his time between Sharon and Kitty, which made for a lot of turmoil. As Ellwood Brown explains, "He fell so much for Sharon that he realized, ‘Wait a minute--I'm home fightin' with Kitty every night, I'd rather be with Sharon. Of course, Kitty didn't want to let Link go. That ended up with Kitty and Sharon in fistfights. That wasn't a good day at all for Sharon. Kitty could be brutal. You coulda put her in the ring."
Sharon hung in there, despite the fact her romance resulted in her parents cutting off all communication for five years (she alleges that one altercation involving Kitty left her mother with a broken finger). Link finally married Sharon in 1976, and the couple had three children, Rhonda, Shayne and Charlotte. That didn't mean the relationship got any easier. At least one wife had Link thrown in the clink for non-payment of child support.
Link "was a very good person but demanding for his women," admitted Sharon, who recalled a whale of a tale that occurred in New York City after the first time she saw Link playing with rockabilly singer Robert Gordon. "I'm standing backstage and Link says, ‘Well, waddya think?' I didn't know if it was a trick question or what."
When Link asked her what she thought of Gordon, Sharon told him she liked his voice. Link then asked if she thought touring with Gordon would be a good idea, and she responded enthusiastically in the affirmative. Link lunged at his wife. "Oh my gosh, Link took me and shoved me up against the wall pulled out his knife and said, ‘Is that it? You wanna sleep with him?'
"I learned from then on the man had a temper and was very jealous. I learned not to look at band members, talk to anybody. ‘Cause I could always see that Link's eyes were roaming. I'd be sitting right out in front, but I'd better be staring right at him--don't look off at the drummer or the bass player--because I think he would've got off the stage and killed me."
Link even accused Sharon of sleeping with his brother Ray after he saw her merely talking to him once back at the 1023 club. "The next day he had called me and said, ‘I don't want to ever see you again. I'm done with you. You're sleepin' with my brother now.'" When Ray confronted Link and told him it was a ridiculous accusation, he denied ever making it. "Come to find out there was another woman in his life," Sharon said. "I dunno know if it was his guilt talking or what.
"Whether it was ego or whatever, he wanted to make sure it was all Link Wray. It got so I could never go anywhere or do anything--‘Why I can't go to the mall? I've got three kids and I go to the mall for a half hour and you think I'm meeting somebody there?!?' I was a nervous wreck--‘I can't come, I'm not allowed to have friends.' I didn't take a chance, because I loved the man that much. Whatever makes him happy. I was naive and young and thought, ‘Somebody has really hurt this man, and that's why he just can't believe in somebody and I'll keep hangin' in there. I will prove there are good women out there.' I loved him."
Wray's friends all attest to the fact that Sharon was worth her weight in solid gold. "Link had the closest thing to a real family life with Sharon and their children than he did with anyone else," said Ed Cynar. "The kids adored him - and still do, even though Link's behavior towards them was less than fatherly after he left. I have always believed that Sharon was the only wife Link ever had who was completely supportive of him. She did not exhibit the jealousy of some of the others and she was confident in her relationship. I believe she also knew down deep that Link had a wandering eye and that someday their relationship would end. That did not stop her from helping him regain a measure of success in the seventies. Sharon did things for Link, not to him. She made sure his business deals were advantageous and that he was not getting swindled like before. She's a class act." But Link would leave his third wife high and dry as well. "Link just always wanted a younger woman," said Sharon, laughing a sad little laugh.
Link was typically inscrutable when it came to his failed relationships. When I probed a bit about the early infidelity that had hurt him so, all he said was, "Well, it was a setback for me. It's not the kind of pain that you hear in a Hank Williams or Roy Orbison. It didn't bother me that way, Jimmy." He wanted it understood no dame ever got the upper hand with Link Wray. One night on the phone I asked him whether one song in particular had been inspired by a particular woman. "No fuckin' cunt is the source of my pain, Jimmy," he snapped. "It comes from watchin' my Momma sell butter door to door for five cents a stick, and seein' my daddy standin' in the corner shakin', his hair and teeth all fallin' out and nobody givin' a shit about it. That's where the pain in my music comes from." Link was downright offended that I could think a mere female could inspire him so.
IT WAS A BAD SCENE
After the demise of Swan, Link Wray retreated for a bit. He was not crazy over the path rock music had taken in the sixties. Was Link a fan of the Beatles? "Not really. They wasn't playin' rock and roll, hahahha. It just wasn't. English pop. They said they were fans of Link Wray's, but they were disciples for Satan's candy. Timothy Leary said he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, all that shit... I just didn't want to be part of that. That's the reason I retreated to the Two Thieves club in Maryland. While all this hippie music was goin' on and they were takin' this LSD, I was playin' Creedence Clearwater Revival and Elvis to the rednecks."
Then an Italian producer Steve Verroca who claimed some sort of involvement with (of all things) "Volare" came out of nowhere to coax Wray into recording another album, bringing out his inner hippie in the process. Recorded at the Wray Shack-Three Tracks and coproduced by Ray Vernon, the 1971 Polydor album Link Wray introduced a far different Link to the world: a pompadour-less singer-songwriter in granny glasses, playing acoustic guitar, rocking on his back porch a la J. J. Cale or Leon Russell playing earthy, good-time rock with titles like "Juke Box Mama" and "Scorpio Woman." It was a far cry from his ferocious Swan recordings. For the next ten years, there would be few instrumentals, and in their place a lot of songs that revealed Link's biggest weakness: sketchy, and at times, downright generic lyrics. Link Wray was to be the last album to a production credit for brother Ray and the Wray family as a musical entity, and after recording it, Link and Ray relocated to Tuscon, Arizona. Doug stayed behind in Maryland to open a barber shop. It was the end of an era. To make a clean break with the past, Ray bulldozed a bunch of unreleased Shack recordings into the Accoceek earth before they left.
Link moved into a trailer out in the desert and for the first time visited a few Indian reservations: "I wanted to see how the other half of me lived." The sun might've shone incessantly in Tuscon, but there was little more than darkness on the horizon for Link--more dischord with producers and managers, advance money disappearing, Shack tapes released in England without Link's involvement. Be What You What To, Wray's second album for Polydor, was a woeful 150G San Francisco hippie superstar session produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye that featured the likes of Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Bruce Bromberg and very little of Link himself.
"That whole title--Be What You What To--that record was anything but what Link wanted to be," said longtime friend Bruce Steinberg. "He was whupped at that point. Link had had the rock and roll beat out of him. All the guitars on the album were somebody else." Link got so fed up he tried to walk out on his own album, but Jerry Garcia talked him into staying. "Jerry was sorta gearin' me in the right direction, ‘cause he didn't want me walkin' out on my contract--‘Don't give ‘em the pleasure, Link. They'll blackball ya, it'll kill yer music,'" recalled Wray. "So I went along and fulfilled my commitment, just like they used to make me march in the Army. It's a producer's music. I don't consider it my music."
Steinberg managed to dig Link out of the hippie pit and get him back into leather and shades for a more rock and roll Polydor album, Link Wray's Rumble (he also cut some very raw demos of Link doing Sun-era Elvis covers yet to be relocated), but the damage had been done. Wray left Polydor to record a 1976 album in England for Richard Branson's Virgin label, Stuck in Gear, but it was another snoozer. "Right in the middle of recordin', my mother passed away. I wasn't even there at my mother's funeral. Richard Branson took me to his home, taught me how to play snooker, and he was very, very soft with me--all Virgin staff was really nice to me--but my heart went outta the recording and the record just went nowhere."
More interesting than the music was the fact that while recording at The Manor, Branson's country studio, Link had an encounter with the devil. After a long day in the studio, Link was about to conk out for the night when "all of the sudden I felt these here hands crawlin' all over my body, invisible hands all over my chest, all over my neck, and this voice sayin', ‘Get outta the room.' I thought I was losin' it. This voice hollered at me again--‘I said get out of this room.' I jumped up, took my clothes and shoes, and I ran out. I went down and slept on the kitchen table. That sure wasn't God. The only thing I could say is that was something evil."
In 1977, Link Wray teamed up with punk-era rockabilly waxwork Robert Gordon for a pair of albums aimed at the safety-pin set. Springsteen threw in a tune, "Fire," he and Link becoming chummy in the process. Teaming up with Gordon did much to rehabilitate Wray's popularity, even if the sound and presentation was a bit on the poodle skirt-retro side of things. In a stunning bit of reverse stardom, live gigs with Gordon featured Link played with his back to the audience, spinning around to confront them only when he tossed off a solo. Wray wanted the live show to be spontaneous, while Gordon insisted on replicating the albums note-for-note. "As it went on, it became difficult, because Robert was very rigid in his desire to recreate the period---he was trying to preserve that heritage, while Link had lived that heritage," said producer Richard Gottehrer, who somewhat amusingly maintained that both men would hand their switchblades to the road manager right before doing a set, only to retrieve them upon leaving the stage. "In the hottest weather, Link would never take off his leather coat," he said.
Soon enough, Link split to go solo, taking a new and younger audience with him. "I would never do it again, back up anybody," said Link in 1997. "I tried to do as much as I could for him, but I didn't consider those two LPs I did with Robert Gordon Link Wray music. It was more of an image with Robert than it was pure music, even though I like Robert's raw voice and we got a hit record from it. Live Robert just didn't come off. Too phony."
Gottehrer went on to produce two albums on Link, 1979's Bullshot, a return to a rawer sound that had a number of killer rockers including "Good Good Lovin'," "Just that Kind," and the wild "Switchblade"; and Live at the Paradiso, a bare-bones trio record released a year later. Thankfully, Link was revisting the great instrumentals of his past, but the songs were getting longer, weirder, louder. "It was almost bordering on the abstract at times," said drummer Anton Fig, whose alliance with Wray for a few years starting with the Gordon albums. Richard X. Heyman, who also beat the skins for Link during this period, recalled a crazy gig playing for a niece's private party. Wray had forgotten his amp, so Heyman lent him a Fender Pro Reverb.
"I never played that amp past four or five," said Heyman. "Link turned this thing up to ten and scared the entire party out of the room. I thought he was just gonna blow the whole amp up, he was so frustrated he couldn't get it louder than that. We played the rest of the night to nobody." Heyman marvelled at Link's energy, his enthusiasm, his tone. "I've played with a lot of guitar players--I've never heard anybody get such a good sound. I'd sit there at the drums and hear each string glisten as he went across a power chord--and yet it was dirty at the same time. He had this great clarity, yet with dirt. My one complaint is he stretched out every song to twenty minutes. I was having palpitations. I couldn't keep up."
See Part 5 of 6 of our Link Wray tribute
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