By Buddy Blue
The last time I saw seminal rock & roll guitarist Link Wray in concert was 1998, up at the Coach House in Capistrano. He was 69 years old at the time, in theoretically frail health - having lost a lung to tuberculosis as a soldier during the Korean War - and I held limited expectations that Wray might recapture more than modicum of his considerable past glories. Those qualms were seemingly confirmed as Wray was led to the stage, ashen-faced and emaciated in appearance, tottering on trembling, old- person pins, aided by a fetching young valet whom I assumed to be his wife or girlfriend, the lucky old coot.
And then, to my astonishment, Clark Kent became Superman.
Wray took center stage adorned in beat-up Converse high-tops, skin-tight Levis torn asunder, a black leather jacket over a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, evil-looking biker shades and a bizarre 'do that featured a sky- high pompadour with a ponytail trailing all the way down his back. He assumed a cocky, spread-legged, Johnny Ramone stance; his lip curled into a sneer that Jerry Lee Lewis would envy, and he proceeded to wring such extensive aural evil from his axe than I felt pinned to my seat by the sonic razors directed at my ears and throat. He created black magic on that night: I felt ready to start hacking at myself with a cleaver, punch the nearest mullethead in the face, drink a gallon of gasoline and pledge my soul to Satan. Somehow - through a Faustian bargain, perhaps? - stinky ol' Link was still the scariest guitar player on the planet; that concert remains among the top ten most memorable I've ever witnessed.
Some history: Wray's legendary single "Rumble," recorded back in 1954 (but not charting till '58) was a foreboding, attitude-copping summation of juvenile delinquent malevolence woven into two-and-a-half minutes of instrumental snarl; it's considered by many to be the first punk rock record and the birth of the power chord as well. Wray had poked holes in the speaker of his amp to achieve a primordial distortion, he played slightly (purposely?) out of tune and attacked his strings like a school of hungry piranha on a 'gator carcass. Eisenhower, Nixon and Hoover must surely have disapproved, believing Link Wray to be a Maoist-spawned threat to the American way of life, then still in full, "Father Knows Best" bloom.
Wray followed up "Rumble" with even more sinister slices of JD swagger; songs with titles like "Jack The Ripper," "The Black Widow," "Big City After Dark," "Run Chicken Run" and "Switchblade." Wray was the first and certainly the darkest rock & roll guitar instrumental hero, preceding such axmen as Duane Eddy, the Ventures, Dick Dale and Lonnie Mack - all great guitarists in their own right, though none ever evoked the aura of sleaze and danger that was Wray's stock in trade.
It's a mark of Wray's mood-conjuration that in ensuing years, such cult directors as John Waters and Quentin Tarantino used his music in their film's soundtracks to evoke all manner of warped menace (who can ever forget the sight of Divine's atrocities set to Wray's "The Swag" in Waters' classic gross-out marathon, "Pink Flamingoes?").
Like many other '50s rockers buried in the hippie epoch , Wray disappeared from the scene for a time, before returning as a second-billed-sideman to neo-rockabilly crooner Robert Gordon in the late '70s, cadging a mini-comeback in the process and releasing the occasional so-so solo album before moving to Denmark in the '80s and basically disappearing from sight on these shores.
He re-emerged in 1997, returning to past form with the very fine "Shadowman" CD, in which his terrifying guitar work was accompanied by an odd, one-lunged wheeze 'n' howl vocal method that somehow seemed perfectly suited to Wray's sway. It was in support of that album that I saw him live at that amazing, memorable concert, and I'm hoping against hope that now, at age 76, Wray can still somehow repeat the feat when he plays at the Casbah on Saturday night.
Wray's return is a homecoming event for all lovers of real rock 'n' roll, and hopefully a wake-up call to pea-green poseurs - if you boys from NOFX, Green Day, Rancid, et. al. are still onstage in a half-dead physical condition but playing with the same fury as ever in the year 2050, then you'll get to claim that you're really punk, too.
But not while Link Wray still lurks the earth, nossir.
Link Wray, May 28 at the Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd. in San Diego, 9 p.m., $17 advance/$20 door, 619- 232.HELL.
BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue
This week we're here to play a round of "Pick a Geezer" in San Diego, as three grizzled veterans of varying past and present merit all appear in concert on Saturday night at different venues.
My favorite of the long-in-tooth trio would be Loudon Wainwright III, who appears at Humphrey's Backstage Lounge, although the grounds for my fondness are admittedly as much personal as musical. You see, I was fortunate to have found myself haunting London pubs accompanied by Loudon back in '85 during a Beat Farmers tour, and he was among the finest drinking companions with whom one could ever hope to toss back an immoderate number of pints. His pet ploy was to engage young Irish lassies in conversation, then proceed to rip into the already-consecrated figure that was U2 frontman Bono, calling him out as a grandstanding, megalomaniacal hack. On more than one occasion this resulted in physical attacks upon Wainwright's person, which he delighted in so immensely as to cackle like a demented hyena as youthful female fists flew in his direction. I'm not certain Loudon actually even disliked Bono; he merely seemed to glean inordinate joy from infuriating these poor girls to point of violence. What a fun guy!
This warped merriment has always been manifest in Wainwright's work. A genuinely eccentric singer/songwriter, Wainwright eschews the tired, uber-sensitive folkie method in lieu of composing often bitter-but-bemused songs on myriad oddball subjects, imbued with a dry-to-pitch-black wit to do like- minded satirists such as Randy Newman and the late Warren Zevon proud. On his new CD, "Here Come The Choppers," Wainwright pontificates on topics ranging from obsessive fanboys to Mr. Rogers to the LAPD in the same youthfully nasal tone he employed back in 1972, when his lone hit single, "Dead Skunk" was haunting the airwaves.
It's kind of shame that after his many years of service, Wainwright is perhaps best known today as the father of songsters Rufus and Martha, but hey -- at least he's not responsible for unleashing the likes of Jessica and Ashlee upon us.
Next up, we have the curious case of Leon Russell. The living epitome of the session super- heavyweight during the '60s, Russell partnered up with a daunting array of legendary artists including Jerry Lee Lewis, Phil Spector, Jan & Dean, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, Ike & Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton and, well, far too many others to list here. Russell had a brief but fruitful run as a top-shelf solo star in the early '70s, where his raspy, croaking voice, funky piano work and swamp-blues sensibility called to mind Dr. John sans voodoo accouterment. Russell wrote a number of immortal hit songs during this period - for himself and others - including "Hummingbird," "Delta Lady," "Roll Away The Stone," "This Masquerade," "Tight Rope" and "Lady Blue."
Since those heady days of success, Russell's career has, for puzzling reasons, dissipated to the degree that he performed not long ago in a local dive bar; this time out he appears at the far more respected Belly Up Tavern. Russell still self-releases the odd CD, failing thus far to fully recapture the magic he made in the '70s; his latest, "Moonlight & Love Songs" is the latest entry in the former-rock-star-sings-the- standards sweepstakes. Although he redeems himself relatively well, Russell's June-moon-croon ain't about to make anyone forget Sinatra, Bennett or King Cole. Or even Harry Connick Jr., for that matter.
Finally, Steve Miller will play Bayside Concerts at Embarcadero Marina Park South. Ahh, but which Steve Miller are we discussing here, the Frisco-spawned psychedelic blues-hippie who released a trio of bona fide, five-star masterpiece albums in the late-'60s ("Children Of The Future" "Sailor" and "Brave New World"), or the chart-topping corporate schlock-rock-jockey, rivaled only by (Jefferson) Starship for musical apostasy, who not only tormented my delicate ears throughout the whole of the '70s with such lowest-common-denominator, Bachman-Turner Overdrive-worthy dreck as "Take The Money And Run," "Abracadabra" and "Jungle Love" (cringe! cringe!), but subsequently added insult to injury by dismissing his few classic works as "silly"?
We speak today of the latter Steve Miller, of course. That's because it's been 33 years since the man has released anything that could actually be considered art as opposed to product - and that includes his brief, cynical return to the blues in the '80s, which Miller clearly endeavored because he'd worn out his commercial welcome by that juncture and sought acceptance in a new realm.
Miller's publicist graciously offered "Night & Day" an interview with the Great Man, but only on condition that his countenance adorn the cover. Apparently, they've been jokin,' smokin' and midnight tokin' on some delusion-inducin' fatties.