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The Missing Link

Link Wray virtually invented modern-rock guitar. So why haven't you heard of him?

Link Wray is American to the bone. "I'm half Shawnee Indian, you know," he declares, his heavily accented voice imprinted with the unmistakable twang associated with his hometown of Dunn, North Carolina. But even though his guitar playing on his trademark Fifties instrumental, "Rumble," laid the groundwork for hard rock, heavy metal, punk, grunge and heaven knows what other forms of music that have blossomed in these United States during the past forty years or so, he no longer lives in the land of his birth. He's resided in Copenhagen, Denmark, since 1980, and last stood on a U.S. stage in 1985, when he appeared on Guitar Greats, an MTV special that also featured Johnny Winter, Steve Cropper, Dickie Betts, David Gilmore and Journey's Neil Schon. But if you think Wray fled to the Old Country after discovering that people there have more respect for roots music than do the folks for whom such sounds are essential components of their cultural heritage, think again. He's in Copenhagen for two reasons--his wife, Olive Julie, and his fourteen-year old son, Oliver.

"The whole thing started 'cause of Olive Julie," he says in an exuberant torrent of syllables that tumble over each other at a terrific rate. "I came over here to play a festival, you know, 'cause all the Americans come over here and play festivals every year. So I played the festival and I met her, and we sort of, like, got together, if you know what I mean. And then I moved to L.A. up on Hollywood Boulevard for one year, but Olive Julie had to go back to Copenhagen to go to her university. Because she's a university student, you know--she goes to Copenhagen University and studies Mayan cultures, Aztec cultures, stuff like that. So I figured, let's move to Denmark, because I can play the whole world from there. And I'm glad I did, 'cause Denmark is a beautiful, clean little country, and everything is so close here. The buses and the trains are so good, I don't even own a car anymore. Really--I don't."

Apparently, Olive Julie is in no rush to graduate: Seventeen years after Wray trailed her to Scandinavia, she's still working toward a degree at Copenhagen U. Oliver's pursuing his education, too--and because of concerns about his well-being, Wray prefers to keep a low profile in Copenhagen. "I don't play here 'cause of him goin' to school," he concedes. "I don't want everybody to come up to him at school and say, 'Your dad's a rock-and-roller. He wears a leather jacket and shades.' I just want him to live a normal Danish life. And you know what? He don't even like rock and roll--and he don't like my music much, either." He erupts into laughter. "He likes that techno music. Him and them schoolkids--they're all into that techno music."

As for Wray, he has no interest in jumping on the techno bandwagon. "You know, I like to feel what I'm playin'," he says, "and that techno music don't have no feelin' at all. It's all computers, you know. It's brain music, it's not music from the heart, and that makes all the difference--to me, anyhow. But my kid, well, he just loves that techno music. Or that's what he tells me. Maybe them kids at school brainwashed him to like it; maybe he just does it to get along with them. But I respect him to like that techno music, just like he respects the way I play and everything. And, you know, he's only fourteen. Maybe he'll come around one of these days."

And why shouldn't he? While many vintage cuts that have been annointed as classics by the rock intelligentsia sound like period pieces to anyone who comes to them secondhand, Wray's work has proven cross-generational appeal. The creative forces behind two of the bigger movie blockbusters of the Nineties, Pulp Fiction and Independence Day, didn't employ Wray's songs as background music in their opuses because of nostalgia value. They used them for the same reason that director John Waters placed a Wray scorcher at the top of the reissued soundtrack to his Seventies cult flick Pink Flamingos--because the passage of time has only enhanced their cool, dark, thoroughly menacing qualities. Wray has never enjoyed enormous mainstream popularity: Two of the best collections of his efforts, Epic/Legacy's 1992 release Walkin' With Link and Polydor's 1995 set Guitar Preacher: The Polydor Years, have just one modest Top 40 success between them--1959's "Raw-Hide," on Walkin'. But listen to the vast majority of his full-lengths--even Shadowman, a new offering just issued by a small London imprint, Ace Records--and you'll hear music that stubbornly, adamantly refuses to date. In Wray's words, "I'm 68 fuckin' years old, man, but my music feels like it's twenty."

Actually, Wray's age has been a matter of some dispute. The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll claims that Frederick Lincoln Wray Jr. made his debut on May 2, 1935, but the man himself says his first appearance took place six years earlier. Much of the confusion over such details can be traced to the backwoods conditions in which the Wrays lived. The family didn't have electricity in their home until they moved into a Portsmouth, Virginia, trailer in 1944.

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