The legendary, unheralded Link Wray's equally legendary, equally unheralded 1975 masterpiece, Stuck in Gear
[click to expand] While it'd be reductive to say that Sister Rosetta Tharpe gave rock and roll its heart and soul and Link Wray gave rock and roll its blood and guts -- the obvious inference being that Dick Dale gave it its mind, spine, and immaculate posture -- it wouldn't be all that incorrect, either. As divine as she was, the good Sister could thoroughly rip, and not just like no one ever thought a devout black woman could, she could rip with the best of them; likewise, Link, the progenitor of rock and roll's eternal, insidious menace, its inherent, malicious danger, was as personally, deeply soulful as his music was unrepentant. It is only through their own personal dualities, and the duality of their seemingly contradictory contributions to the greatest populist/folk art movement since the renaissance, that we can understand them both as individuals and as myths.
It might not make much sense, at least immediately, to tie the good Sister and Link together, but that's only because you've likely never heard "Stuck in Gear" before; while she never really got the chance to merge the divergent aspects of her persona and art together, he did. Link Wray fell almost immediately out of fashion with mainstream audiences, one of the earliest victims of a burgeoning, hungry, and hideously exploitative music industry, but, like so many great artists, creating was as much a compulsion for him as it was a way to escape the meager, often insufferable jobs he would ever be offered. Still, he was Link Wray, and like Gene Vincent, like Dick Dale, like Ike Turner, his name and his reputation carried him along, if only just, often with a creative freedom initial fame never offered. With such freedom he recorded blues, folk, country, and the Americana blend thereof, but it was his gospel and soul tracks that were most revelatory about the man himself, the deeply personal musings we are rarely, if ever, treated to, especially from a man so intertwined with the sound and style of the genre he defined.
Then came "Stuck in Gear". It may be the most criminally underrated and underheard rock and roll album ever released, surpassing even Jerry Lee Lewis's 1979 self-titled album for Elektra. It is irrefutably the greatest melding of all the seemingly competing and contrary facets of any rock and roller's personality and art ever released. It is a country record, it is a blues record, it is a folk record, it is a gospel record, it is a soul record, it is a political record, and, most importantly, it is a rock and roll record, a rock and roll record in and of itself, and a rock and roll record that focuses all its disparate elements through the blistering guitar and unyielding threat of 50s rock and roll.
"Stuck in Gear" is all too apropos a title, coming as Link surely found himself feeling out of time and out of gas in the middle of an artistic and business wasteland dominated by disco, funk, and ballad. He couldn't even record or release the album in the United States. What could easily have been a lackluster bordering on mediocre effort instead found Link with renewed life, renwed vigor and, most importantly, renewed enmity. As if to drive the point home he even focuses disco, funk, and ballad through a guitar and an amp on the verge of breaking apart. Link was never as full tilt a songwriter, guitar player, or singer as he was here, nor would he ever be again, nor were his songs ever as equally capable of astonishing beauty as they were of lethal danger.
Just as we're on the verge of driving this car apart with "BoJack", a song that would have bought the world had it been released in 1960, we're treated to one of the most sublime breaks ever pressed into wax, collapsing straight from searing solo into the ethereal, the otherworldly, a much needed respite after the musical and emotional cannonball run that is the first eight and a half tracks of "Stuck in Gear". As "BoJack" comes roaring back to life, shocking us into frenzied consciousness after lulling us into contented bliss, Link Wray, the greatest guitar player that has ever or will ever live, forces us to question, with a heightening, dreadful sense of impending doom, the ultimate destination of this particular trip. It is a question Sister Rosetta Tharpe asked of us often, and while her answer differs wildly from Link's, his is no less religious.
With the first notes of closing track "Jack the Ripper", those notes in possession of a most ferocious feedback, we're gleefully taken right the fuck off the cliff, passengers on a joy ride we never really had any say in but never tried to get off of in the first place, willingly held hostage by the mesmerizing, grinning, leather clad street preacher at the wheel, switchblade in hand, rock and roll in his veins, fire in his belly, electric chaos on his mind. Southern lady, damnation has never been so divine.