Link Wray: "Armed to the teeth"

Link Wray violence Pelecanos.jpg
Was Link Wray the father of violence in rock and roll? Sometimes truth is better than fiction. Here's a passage from the George P. Pelecanos novel Hard Revolution (Warner Books, 2004 ), where characters show up at a 1959 Link Ray concert that makes Black Flag's 1980 shows look touchy-feely: "They switched cars at the doughnut shop, bought more beer down below the line, and drove into the District, looking for something or someone to fuck up... Their next stop was the Rendezvous, down on 10th Street in Northwest. The bar was jammed with rough old boys, bikers, and women who liked their type. The place smelled like alcohol and sweat. Link Wray and his Raymen were up on the bandstand. Link was wearing leather and rocking the house."

Stewart and Hess stepped up to the bar and ordered a couple of drafts. Stewart got a man's size and Hess ordered a fifteen-center. It looked like a girl's glass, but Hess didn't care. The fifteen-cent glass was tall, fragile, and skinny. You could break the head off it easy, if you had to, and use the jagged edge to open up some joker's face. Hess had a sip and put his back to the bar.

The band did a number with sometime vocalist Bobby Howard, then another. The Raymen were at their most raucous on their instrumentals, but Howard had a good voice for this kind of rock. It was known that Link couldn't sing. He had caught TB overseas when he was in the service, and the doctors had removed one of his lungs.

"Here he goes, " said Stewart happily, and they watched Link use a pen to punch a couple of holes in the bands' speakers. It was how he got that fuzz tone out of his ax, and it was a signal that the band was about to lift off.

Which is how it went as the band kicked into "The Swag" and then an extended version of "Rawhide." It was a sound that no one else could seem to get, a primal, blood-kicking kind of rock and roll, and it energized the room. People were dancing into one another, and soon punches were thrown, and many of the people who were fighting still had smiles on their faces. Link himself was said to be a peaceable man, but sometimes his music incited righteous violence.

"You in?" said Hess, his eyes on a fight that was building in numbers on the edge of the room.

"Nah," said Stewart, who just wanted to enjoy the music for now. "I'm good."

Hess put his glass down on the bar, made his way into the crowd and started swinging. His first punch met the temple of some guy who turned his head right into it, knocking him clean off his feet. Hess thinking, Some nights you just get luckier than shit, right before some other guy, looked like Richard Boone, up and split his lip with a straight right.

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Now here's Jimmy McDonough's new 2006 biography Be Wild, Not Evil: The Link Wray Story, which just went online at Perfect Sound Forever (thanks to Patti Pagan at TCPunk for the heads up). This article draws heavily on candid 1997 interviews with the "Rumble" guitarist himself:

To play notorious DC clubs like the 1023 or Vinnie's, a Rayman had to be prepared. "If anything was gonna go down, we were cocked and locked," said Ellwood Brown. "Armed to the teeth." If things didn't seem quite right out in the street after the gig and you had the ears of a bat, you just might hear the collective click of the band's switchblades. One night, bassist Ed Cynar even had to pack real heat: a loaded Rutger .22 he kept onstage and within reach atop his bass speaker cabinet. Link had been dating a blonde bombshell named Kay, and one of her hoodlum ex-boyfriends didn't take the news well. "Several threats were made against Link," said Cynar, adding that Wray "was sneering from the bandstand that night with a 'bring-it-on' look... It was a tense night."

Located at 1023 Wahler Place in Southeast DC, the 1023 was "a squat, deep cinderblock cave built into the side of a hill," as the Washington City Paper put it. Link and the Ray Men played there Tuesday through Saturday, five sets a night with Link occasionally showing for a Sunday afternoon jam session as well. Surrounded by housing projects, the 1023 was a stomping ground for gangs like the Pagans, the Kamikazes and Satan's Few, and a haven for "throwbacks to another long-gone era where hillbillies and greasers ruled the neighborhood streets," as historian Mark Opsasnick puts it. "People got knifed in the club, people got knifed outside the club," recalled Ellwood Brown. The Ray Men's tenure finally ended at the 1023 when a brick came flying through the window and nearly connected with Link's cranium. Race riots all but demolished the club in the late summer of 1966.

With a bandstand about the size of a postage stamp, Vinnie's, at 10th and H streets NW, was a much smaller, even more intense place, frequented by the sort of customer who got their unsmiling photo taken not only head-on but in profile. The 1023 had its bikers, but also welcomed young semi-innocents who just wanted to cut the rug. Vinnie's catered to thugs. "One could be pretty sure he or she would leave the 1023 alive or at least not too bloody," said Ed Cynar. "That was not the case at Vinnie's." Link wisely planted himself onstage near an exit, and if things got too rough the band would rip their guitar cords right out of their amps and hightail it over to DeVito's, an Italian joint across the street. The bouncer at Vinnie's was a bruiser named Dutch, and Ray Man bassist Richie Mitchell recalled a particular rumble between Dutch and some reprobate. "This guy takes a razor, cuts his face, and just lays his cheek open to where you could literally see his tongue."

"I drew all these here bikers, different gangs from different parts of the city," said Link. "While I played 'Jack the Ripper' they'd be down in the audience cuttin' each other. A lot of those guys coulda said, 'Oh fuck, let's cut Link Wray.' I guess God just had an invisible net between them and me. They loved my music. One night a stranger came in sayin', 'Link Wray is tryin' to imitate Elvis.' When I went outside he was layin' there. They beat the shit outta him 'cause he ridiculed me. So he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, y'know?"


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