Wednesday, May 16, 2012

shoot me with your wray gun...


Since I’m thinking so much about the guitar these days – its potential, approaches to playing, ways of learning, tone, sound, vibe, feel, etc. – I thought it’d be fun to use this space as a way to think out loud and articulate my views as they evolve.  This is strictly something I’m doing for myself to work out my ideas, but if readers get something out of what I have to say, all the better. …One of the ways I learn is by trying to assimilate the sounds that hit me on an emotional level.  Technical prowess, as an end in itself, doesn’t move me at all.  I think of a band like King Crimson and the two guitarists who shaped their sound so distinctly, Robert Fripp and, later, Adrian Belew.  Both are unbelievably gifted players, but both strike me as being technicians.  Neither plays with what I would consider any real emotion.  Actually, though, that’s not true.  They’re both capable of playing with feeling when someone else’s vision dictates the approach.  So they’re both good session players.  Some of the most memorable David Bowie songs from his New Wave period – basically the five-year stretch from Station to Station to Scary Monsters – feature great, emotionally affecting playing from Fripp and Belew.  Fripp’s playing on Teenage Wildlife, for instance, is quite visceral, and he’s also made great contributions to some of Brian Eno’s best music.  But in the context of King Crimson, with some exceptions, the playing is dry and lifeless.  You feel as if you’re listening to an infinitely complex but also bruisingly dull lecture on music theory.  I want the opposite of this.  Technical expertise with no heart is always forgettable.  The antidote to this is the late Link Wray, who played with nothing so much as furious passion.  His playing conveys deep inner pain but somehow induces ecstasy in the process.  It’s like flossing the sensitive regions of your gums.  It hurts, yet there’s something about it that makes you wanna do it more.  Wray’s playing takes me to the same masochistic threshold.  It’s ugly, and it’s beautiful; it’s angry, and it’s joyful; it’s a big, mean bully, and it’s your outsized guardian angel who protects you from bullies.  He keeps things very simple. “Rumble” is really just three or four chords and a pentatonic scale, but he creates an unmistakable sound, which he apparently discovered by poking a hole in his amp with a pencil. One wonders if this was some kind of stand in for self mutilation. He was half Native American, and proudly so, which likely accounts for the intense anguish that comes across in his playing.  Nothing like being the wretched of the earth to inspire raw feelings of betrayal and oppression. Those who can turn this into great art are the truly gifted people in the world.  There’s not much virtuosity involved in Wray’s playing.  He doesn’t need it, and this gives hope to all of us who want to be able to play but are all too aware of our limitations.  …My other passion in life besides music is baseball, and I’ve always had a huge soft spot for players who overachieved simply on the basis of heart and grit, guys like Larry Bowa, Brian Downing, Darryl Porter, Tug McGraw, Rusty Staub, Wally Bachman, Tim Salmon...It’s the same with guitarists.  Don’t get me wrong:  I love me my Clarence White, Eddie Van Halen, and Johnny Marr, just as I love me my Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Keith Hernandez.  But while all these guys have or had incredible ability, it’s the passion with which they play that makes them great. Link Wray plays with passion above all else. If he has a distinct approach it’s simply to play with unbridled feeling and intensity.  Have a listen to this performance of “Rumble.” Try to imagine the dark, sinister vibe it created in 1958, and then marvel at how fresh and ferocious it still sounds 20 years later.  He plays it especially slow here, which suits the song just fine.  It’s incredible stuff.  It puts you in the dark parking lot, out back behind the bar, face-to-face with a tall, lanky sick fuck with a shaved head and a thousand-yard stare, interrupted only by a tiny little sadistic glint. He’s swinging a heavy chain in a way that tells you he lives for this shit. He loves breaking heads open and watching pools of blood form on the pavement in the same way most guys love having their cocks sucked.  The hard, dull steel is about to smack you in the face, knock your teeth out, break your nose. You might even feel one last boot to the stomach before evertything goes black.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  Nothing.  But that’s ok.  It’s gonna be such sweet, sweet pain…



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