Live Report: Link Wray

The Middle East, Cambridge, Mass., May 22, 1998

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"This song busted in 1958," drawled the timeworn, guitar-wearing, pony-tail-sporting gentleman wearing dark sunglasses and a sleeveless T-shirt on stage downstairs at the Middle East. "It was right here -- in Boston -- that it first busted," he mumbled. "It's called ... "

It sounded like he said "Rocket." Or maybe he was just issuing a two-word rockabilly-style command to the two young, punkish dudes he had up there playing bass and drums -- you know, like "Rock it!" Or it could just be that, having spent the past few years as an American guitar wolf in Scandinavia, when sixty-eight-year-old, North Carolina-born guitarist Link Wray says "Rumble" it simply sounds like "Rocket."

Whatever the case, there was no mistaking the creepy, overdriven two-chord riff and slow, thudding backbeat that filled the room with anything other than Wray's proto-garage-punk psychobilly classic "Rumble," a tune released in 1954 (at least that's how legend has it) that didn't chart until four years later when, if you believe its author, radio stations in Boston started a trend by putting it into heavy rotation. Either way, there were a good 250 to 350 people here tonight -- the majority of whom weren't around back in '58 -- reverently cheering as Wray tore into his signature tune for the first of three times in a ninety-minute set, backed by former Pansy Division drummer Dustin Donaldson and Dieselhead bassist Atom Ellis. Wray's tambourine-playing wife, who stood off to one side offering more in the way of moral support than rhythmic, was also technically a "member" of the band, and he lovingly acknowledged her presence by crooning a song dedicated to her -- "You're so young and I'm so fucking old ... You're not my first love but you are my last."

Yes, Wray sings. Quite well, in fact. But his best known tunes -- the million-selling "Rumble" and the 1963 minor hit "Jack the Ripper" -- were both instrumentals, owing to the fact that he lost a lung to tuberculosis during the Korean War, compromising his ability to sing. And, though roughly half the tunes in the set were vocal numbers, the instrumentals are still where Wray's at his most compelling.

He's obviously well aware of that, because he played each of the salient instrumentals -- including a raucous cover of the "Batman," the "Rumble"-style "Ace of Spades" (not the better known Motorhead song of the same name), the novelty tune "Chicken Walk" -- twice, and both "Rumble" and "Jack the Ripper" three times over the course of the night.

Nobody seemed to mind the repetition -- he probably could have gotten away with segueing back and forth between "Rumble" and "Jack the Ripper" for an hour and a half if he'd been so inclined. Because ultimately, Wray's a one- or maybe two-trick pony to begin with. His style sort of splits the difference between the revved-up buzz of Dick Dale's surf and the countrified twang of Duane Eddy. But Wray's sense of style -- from the cheap black shades he was wearing to the trashy three-chord riffs he was playing -- is pure punk. He predated the Ramones, the New York Dolls, and the Damned, not to mention trashabilly diehards the Cramps, by well over a decade. But he still owns, in every sense of that word, those couple of riffs he contributed to the rock canon.