Here is a reprint of an interview I conducted with the long gone, legendary Link Wray almost twenty years ago, previously published in The Inkbat zine Playbat, long before Frank Garland, when I was Dewey Inkbat. There are some oaths and unfashionable words and deeds in this story which may cause offence to folks who read them out of context, but Link spins a darn fine yarn, so let’s go!
SUNGLASSES AFTER DARK
The history of America is built on the pioneering spirit of the Wild West heroes. As the Frontier was tamed, those heroes grew old and slow. Some lost their lives to a faster gun, whilst others played out their Autumn years as entertainers in Wild West sideshows. The same might be said of the History of Rock’n’Roll.
Of the early outlaws, renegades and pioneers, some wound up in jail, most lay resting on Boot Hill, others became sideshow parodies, and a rare breed never came home. Link Wray is one of those heroes who still rides towards the setting sun.
With a roaring six string in both hands, he scorched a trail into the uncharted Frontier of Rock’n’Roll many have followed in their search for Glory. Many of Rock’s most influential players – The Who, Neil Young, Motorhead,Iggy Pop, The Sex Pistols, John Lennon, The Clash, Bob Dylan, The Cramps – all were inspired by the original Rock’n’Roll outlaw.
While the other kids were rockin’ round the clock, Link was tearing holes in his speaker cones and slashing at our senses with his visceral raw sounds. While The Shadows were entertaining listeners with their warm, twangy Apache, this Indian half-breed was playing Rumble – an instrumental so threatening it was banned from radio play – to bars full of beer crazed knifer gangs.
His music has featured in the soundtracks of many popular movies: Breathless, Johnny Suede, Pulp Fiction, Desperado, and Terry Gilliam’s current hit, Twelve Monkeys – and this year sees the release of two new albums.
When I received a call from The Space Cadets’ Ricky Braun inviting me to the studio to interview Link Wray, I pulled on my boots, grabbed my hat, and strode to the motorway to begin a journey which ultimately took me 600 miles through several days of appalling November weather. [Though, almost twenty years later, I can’t recall why…]
When I arrive at the studio I’m welcomed by the familiar raw chords of The Rumbleman’s guitar being driven by the solid support of a hard rock beat unlike any of his previous work. But then, Link has never been content to stay in one place for too long, and holds no fear of alienating his hardcore fans in his attempts to keep his music fresh. In fact, Link states his case almost immediately on introduction:
“I don’t know whether the guys who are into fifties music will like what I’m doing,” he says, pulling his long black ponytail from his collar. “I’m doing Jailhouse Rock, but it’s a more punky, hard version – but I love Elvis, y’know?”
Link is surprisingly small in stature. His manner is relaxed, his handshake firm, his welcome enthusiastic. He smiles at me from behind dark sunglasses.
“I’m not trying to keep rootsy, ’cause the roots is already there. I’m just gonna be me today – like I’ve always been. When I play live, I don’t play Fifties music, even though I play Fifties songs. I don’t do it like Elvis did it but, when I play live, it’s like The Spirit of Rock’n’Roll is born on stage and, no matter what scene they’re in, the people all come together. And, when I put my music to them, it’s like a spiritual thing. It’s The Spirit of Rock’n’Roll in the heat of the moment. So I’m trying to create in the studio, here, the way I play live on stage.”
Link’s just finished recording the vocals for the Hank Williams classic, I Can’t Help It, charging the lyric with a frustrating, painful torment. “Even though I started off as an instrumentalist, I always wanted to be a vocalist,” Link confesses, “I always wanted to sing.
“When Rumble came out, I was in the R&B charts. They thought I was black! The promotion man, when he met me at the airport, he said, “I thought you was gonna be a big black nigger!”” But sometimes the difference in the life of a half-breed Shawnee to that of ‘a big black nigger’ was only the difference between a lynching and a shooting.
“It was very racial. But not only racial – they wanted to kill you!” spurts the Indian. “The cops, the Sheriff, the drugstore owner – they were all Ku Klux Klan. They put the masks on and, if you did something wrong, they’d tie you to a tree and whip you or kill you.
“When they burned the crosses, my mother would put the lights out. She put blankets on the windows of our shack, and we’d sit in the dark until they left. We done that lots of times.”
Link enjoyed the warmth of Good Old Fashioned Southern Hospitality from an early age. “We were called ‘The Hidden People’. My Dad tried to pawn us off as white but, when I went to school, they knew better, and I had to fight the kids. I carried a knife on me. They’d say, “You ain’t gettin’ in here,” and I’d say, “I ain’t? Ha-ha-ha!” and I went on in.” Link laughs a good deal. “You’re gonna find out I’m pretty crazy!”
And then some.
As we both agree that talking with our mouths full is both bad manners and good fun, we go in search of food. Link scouts out a Burger King, and we’re soon setting a full tray on the nearest four seater red formica table. The bright lights torment my tired eyes, and I crumple into a plastic chair. Link eases down opposite, and my reflection grows larger in his shades as he menaces with a plastic fork.
“I’ve never used a gun in my life – I’ve always used a knife. Switchblades. This Cherokee Indian boy taught me how to use a knife. He said to me,”Link, what do you do – if anybody attacks you – what do you do?””
Link leans across the table; taunts with his ketchup smeared fork; growls, “You cut ’em across the titty! They’ll cry every time. And don’t be afraid,” Link, as the Cherokee, warns as he skulks away across the pale grey floor tiles. “Make out you’re really scared, and when he closes in – ” the Indian lunges forward, slashing the air before me – “Wap! Wap! Wap! And your guy’s bleeding and he starts cryin’.”
Link slows down a pace, relaxes the deadly white fork. “Then you either kill him or let him run. And so that’s the way I survived.”
The raven haired man stabs into a tray of processed potato chips. “Y’know, I love this stuff! French fries and fish burgers. I don’t eat meat ’cause, when I was a kid, my Dad made me slaughter hogs. My Daddy used to make sow noises to the hogs. He’d go “Hronk! Hronk!”” Link bursts into a sudden rapport of grunts and honks, “Then he’d chop off their fuckin’ heads with an axe!
“I had to stand there as he cut the throat of the hog. But he didn’t drink the blood as it came out of the hog,” reassures Link, as he swabs a clutch of french fries through thick pools of ketchup, “No, he’d take it home for a hot blooded drink. I used to throw up and everything, and he’d get mad at me ’cause I couldn’t do it. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I don’t like that shit, man.”
As he chews, he continues, “So we had big discussions over that, and him bein’ the Dad, and me bein’ the kid, he was gonna make me do it whether I wanted to or not.”
Naturally, I begin to wonder what kind of woman takes a pig blood swilling man for a husband.
Link smiles potatoes at me. “My Mother would name the chickens. When she got ready for the food, she would call the chickens up to her, and they just thought she was bein’ friendly. She’d call “Susie, John, come here! Cluck, cluck, cluck!” and the chickens would come up, and then, all of a sudden – SLAM! BAM!” And Link’s out of his chair again. “The neck was broken,” Link continues, “She’d take it by the neck and wring it like this, and the chicken would go fucking all over the yard. Then she’d dip it in boiling water and pluck all the feathers off it. But she had all of her chickens named.”
Link settles back into his past as he settles back in his seat. “My Mother was a street preacher and a full blooded Shawnee. When she prayed to God, she would pray in another language. I was sure it was Shawnee, but she wouldn’t teach me, because she wanted me to grow up into the white man’s world. But I was just growing up into an alien world,” and an Indian boy grows up very quickly in such a world.
“At ten years old I had to haul groceries for the white people, to make money so we had food to eat. I used to go hungry plenty times. Sometimes two or three days without eating. Crying. I was hungry.”
I’m staring blankly as he shuffles chips. It strikes me that, after eight hours on the motorway, this is my first meal of the day. I’ve half finished my coffee and it’s still too hot to drink. I’m brought to focus as Link’s tone lifts.
“We lived that way until I was fourteen, when my Daddy thumbed to Portsmouth, Virginia, and got him a job in a Navy yard. He thumbed back home and we piled everything we got into an old ’34 Ford and moved into a government trailer set up for people who worked in the yard. That’s when I saw my first electricity. We had electric lights! I was in Seventh Heaven! Our whole life turned around.”
I ask Link when he first got his hands on a guitar. “It was an old acoustic guitar. I was just eight years old. My Dad gave it to my brother Vernon, but he was five years older than me, and wanted to be out with the guys, so I started pluckin’ on it.
There was this old black guy who lived in an old shack next to the field where the circus would stand when it came to town. He saw me sittin’ on the porch, tryin’ to pluck away on this old guitar, and he came and tuned it for me. Then he took it by the neck and started playin’. My jaw hit the floor! I was determined to learn how to play that guitar.”
Six years later, Link begins to earn a living playing his guitar on the Portsmouth ferry. Of this, a handsome sum regularly found it’s way into the pockets of The Phelps Brothers. “I used to pay them twenty dollars to allow me to sit on stage and play with them, so I could get used to playing with them – so I could get used to playing in a band. They were friends to all the big Western movie stars – Tex Ritter, Lash LaRue, Sunset Carson – and he introduced me to them…but he always took the twenty dollars.”
A group of teenagers enter the restaurant, and I’m prompted to take the conversation down a different road, down the backstreets of his youth in a teenage gang.
“I joined this gang in Portsmouth, The Alexander Park Gang. They’d look out for me. This guy by the name of Sweets – he was the leader of this gang. And the lookout who was working with this gang was a sergeant on the police force. He’d tell ’em what stores to rob. But when they went to rob the stores, that’s when I went home. I said, “I don’t mind running with you an’ gettin’ in fights with you, but I’m not gonna rob anybody.”
“Sweets would say, “That’s okay, Link. You go home. We’re gonna rob the telephone company. The sergeant’s got it set up.”
But then our hero received a personal invitation to a big party some important people were throwing in Korea and, word was, he just had to be there.
“I was in the medics. It was like M*A*S*H*, but it wasn’t as funny. But then I got TB – everybody gets tuberculosis in Korea. And so I was in the Death House, throwin’ up blood, and the doctors thought I was goin’ to die. Then they discharged me when I was fit to come out of the hospital.
“After I left the service, I met this girl. She was the babysitter for my older brother, Vernon, who was married by now. At thirteen years old, she was too young for me. She had to get her mother’s permission just to be with me – not to fuck or anything – before I married her I never touched her. Her mother had to sign the marriage papers in front of the preacher ’cause this girl was just fourteen!”
Fully aware of the new responsibilities wedlock would bring, Link committed himself to making thorough preparations. “I was goin’ out with a taxi driver, and she taught me all the rules; she was my teacher and my lover. But this little girl, she wanted me to touch her, but I said, “No, I got this chick who’s teachin’ me everything and, when we get married, I’ll show you how it’s done.””
The wiley old fox laughs, “She could hardly wait to get married, so she could join in the fun!”
The education was not lost on Link, who applied his newfound knowledge earnestly. “She was fifteen when my first daughter was born, and I was twentyone. She had to get her mother’s permission to bear the child.”
It was around this time that Link and his brothers were playing country and hillbilly numbers as Lucky Wray and The Palomino Ranch Hands, with Vernon as frontman, Link on lead, younger brother Doug on rhythm, cousin Shorty on bass, and Dixie Neal on lapsteel. Together they would play regular slots in sailor bars in Portsmouth and live broadcasts on the local radio station.
1953 saw the first anniversary of Hank Williams’ death, and the boys travelled to Nashville to pay their dues. “I met Hank’s mom and his sister, and we sat on their porch, shellin’ peas. All over Nashville they were holdin’ country shows with people like Ernest Tubbs, Floyd Tillman and Little Jimmy Dickens playin’. So me an’ my brothers went down and played and Curtis Gordon got up and jammed with us.
“I saw something happenin’ that day when he got up on stage. He wasn’t doin’ the country music like country music. Right then I saw the spirit of what was to become Rock’n’Roll in Curtis Gordon. I saw the feeling! The Spirit! But sadly, I couldn’t go along with that first part of it ’cause I broke down in hospital and I missed that whole year.”
Both Link and younger brother Doug were admitted to hospital with tuberculosis in ’56, whereupon life took yet stranger turns. Link’s infection got the better of him and he lost a lung in the struggle. Although the doctors weren’t sure whether he would pull through, Link received reassurance from an event that would change his life dramatically.
“I was talkin’ to these black guys. We were just bullshittin’ each other, and he says, ” Link, why do you believe what you believe?” and I said, “I don’t believe – I know! And these fuckin’ churches in that day didn’t believe Jesus, so they stuck him up on a cross.”
“So this guy says, “Well, if he’s a God, why didn’t he come off the cross?” Then there he was! Jesus! Right in front of me! He was lookin’ down at me and he didn’t say a word. Then all of a sudden – WHAM! He lifted me thru’ the air!
“This guy, he got scared and ran into the bathroom. My brother Doug didn’t see anything but me goin’ thru’ the air. He got scared and shouted, “You shot the shit outta me! What happened?!” And I said, “God just paid me a visit.”
“It was The Power of God. Not to hurt me – just to let me know I wasn’t gonna die in hospital.” Link lifts the lid on his coffee. As he drinks, the curling steam leaves a fine mist on the black lenses covering his eyes. He nods. Grins.
“I came out of hospital and, three months later, I had “Rumble” in my head. A four million seller – right outta the Death House!
“In fact, I made up Rumble at a record hop at a hot rod place in Fredericksburg, Virginia. There was about 12,000 kids there, and The Diamonds came to town with “The Stroll”. I’d just come outta the death house. I weighed only 95lbs – death warmed over. Someone asked for a stroll, so I just started playin’. I was in such pain I had to hold my arm in and kinda crouch down. People thought I was bein’ mean ‘n’ moody. All I could do was stand there with my shades on. They thought I was The Coolest Person In The World!”
Link Wray and The Raymen recorded Rumble soon after and, due to the persistent demands of his stepdaughter, Cadence Records chief, Archie Bleyer, released the record to an unsuspecting public. But Link isn’t so happy with the way his success was handled.
“Nobody got no royalty payments – and you still don’t today. Ask for big money up front, ’cause that’s all you’ll see. You don’t see no royalties.
“But it wasn’t the record company who was screwin’ me – it was Milt Grant and my own brother, Ray.” Vernon had changed his name to Ray Vernon to pursue a solo career. Milt was the promoter of the Fredericksburg gig, who was also involved in the band’s management.
“My brother was like my manager, and Milt Grant the TV host in Washington DC. He and my brother Ray, they had all the power. I was just a dumb guitar player, and they knew all the business. I didn’t know the music business. When God gave me Rumble, he didn’t say, “You gotta do that, you gotta do this!” God don’t work that way. That’s Satan who gets his calculator out and sees who he can cheat. Even tho’ I got cheated, I still got my health. I’m here today, and there’s a lot of people who are dead now. I don’t hold it against them – why should I? They’re Victims of Satan.”
Hot apple pie baked inside a cardboard box, just like mother used to make. How do you get into this thing?
Anyway. It wasn’t long before Link and the boys were playing to capacity crowds in swanky uptown clubs. “Every time I played ‘Jack The Ripper’ they’d start cuttin’ each other up on the floor! Dancin’ an’ cuttin’ each other up!
“I’d go across the street to a little Italian place and eat my spaghetti. When I’d come back, the Washington police would be surroundin’ the whole damned club! Inside the place it would be completely fuckin’ empty, with blood spattered all over the walls! Yeah, Vinnie’s was a beautiful place… They finally made it into a parking lot.”
But all the fun of that halcyon era was about to end. The youthful naivety and optimism of the Fifties disintegrated as the politically aware cynicism of the next decade set in. “The whole idea of the fifties thing that Elvis started died with the President,” Link sums up, all crust and breadcrumbs. “I was in Washington DC, Jack Neitsche, The Lonely Surfer, had ‘Rumble In The Church’ in the charts and, right under him, they had Link Wray with ‘Run Chicken Run’. And then the President got shot – and that was it. I was at home when I heard the news, and I said, “Well, that’s the end of Rock’n’Roll.””
And that’s the end of our apple pie.
We step out into the cold night air. “I knew it would never survive, ’cause Elvis was doin’ movies now. He wasn’t doin’ live gigs. He was completely out of reach of the Rock’n’Rollers. I knew that the other Fifties stars couldn’t keep it alive. I knew they couldn’t.”
We had to make a stop at the late night chemist. Upon entering, we we saw a middle aged man conducting an impromptu physical education class with his son, a deadringer for The Milky Bar Kid. “A young man needs his exercise,” the father chirps. “Keeps a growing boy healthy!”
“It’s too late for us,” I return [still a young scamp in my twenties!], “Rock’n’Roll has taken it’s toll!”
“Rock and Roll?” the father smirked in nostalgic pride, “You youngsters aren’t old enough to know what real Rock and Roll is!”
Link Wray simply nods, and from behind his shades, flashes a Devil smile of Switchblade Menace!
If’n ya like this story from my misspent youth, you might like the way I misspend middle age filming Rockabilly, Folk and Americana bands as The Frank Garland Show on YouTube.