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Mystery Writer Donald Westlake Discusses "The Ax."

Mystery writer Donald Westlake has written 70 novels and screenplays (including "The Grifters" and "The Stepfather"). He is known for his novels which combine laughs with thrills, and which show equally incompetent criminals and law enforcement. His recurring characters include a bungling burglar named John Dortmunder, and a gun-for-hire named Parker. Westlake has also written novels that parody the world of publishing and supermarket tabloids. His latest novel is a crime novel about downsizing, "The Ax" (Mysterious Press/Warner Books)


Other segments from the episode on July 16, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 16, 1997: Interview with Donald Westlake; Interview with Link Wray; Commentary on musician Paul Kelly.


Date: JULY 16, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071601np.217
Head: Donald Westlake
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the field of crime fiction, one of the most versatile and successful writers is my guest Donald Westlake. He's the author of a series of comic caper novels about an inept thief named John Dortmunder. His novels "The Hot Rock" and "The Bank Shot" were adapted into films.

Westlake has written darker crime series under the pen names Richard Stark and Tucker Coe (ph). Westlake wrote the screenplays for "The Stepfather" and "The Grifters," and is currently doing a screenplay for Martin Scorcese.

Westlake's new book, "The Axe," is a crime novel that captures the desperation and anger of the newly-unemployed. The Axe is about a middle-class family man, a product manager in a paper mill, who has been downsized out of his job.

He sends out resumes, but nothing happens. As he slips out of the middle class, he devises a plan to get back his income, health insurance, and security. The plan requires killing off his competition.

Here's a reading from the opening of The Axe:

DONALD WESTLAKE, AUTHOR AND SCREENWRITER: "I've never actually killed anybody before; murdered another person; snuffed out another human being. In a way, oddly enough, I wish I could talk to my father about this, since he did have the experience -- had what we in the corporate world call 'the background in that area of expertise.'"

"He having been an infantryman in the Second World War; having seen action in the final march across France into Germany in '44, '45; having shot at and certainly wounded and more than likely killed any number of men in dark gray wool; and having been quite calm about it all in retrospect."

"How do you know before-hand that you can do it? That's the question. Well, of course, I couldn't ask my father that, discuss it with him, not even if he were still alive -- which he isn't; the cigarettes and the lung cancer having caught up with him in his 63rd year, putting him down as surely, if not as efficiently, as if he had been a distant enemy in dark gray wool."

"The question, in any case, will answer itself, won't it? I mean, this is the sticking point: either I can do it or I can't. If I can't, then all the preparation, all the planning, the files I'd maintained, the expense I've put myself to when God knows I can't afford it -- have been in vain, and I might as well throw it all away; run no more ads; do no more scheming; simply allow myself to fall back into the herd of steer mindlessly lurching toward the big dark barn where the mooing stops."

"This has to work. I have to get out of this morass and soon, which means I'd better be capable of murder."

GROSS: Donald Westlake, let me ask you to describe this character's plan for getting a good supervisory job back at a paper mill.

WESTLAKE: Well, it sort of grows gradually with him. He begins by realizing that every time he applies for a job, a lot of other people in the same -- roughly in the same business apply for the same job. And he's sending out resumes and they're sending out resumes, and one of them gets picked.

And it begins with a kind of desperate curiosity: what are they saying? What are they -- how are they presenting themselves, that they get picked and I don't? And he figures out a way to attract resumes.

He puts a fake ad in a journal of his area of expertise and gets the resumes, just to see what they're like, and realizes that there is always going to be somebody out there a little better than him, and that leads him on to the next step of: do I give in to despair? Or do I choose rage instead? And he says, well, I've got all these resumes. Now what?

And from there, it is somehow both a very large step and a very small step to say: "let me pick out the guys who are better than me and get rid of them."

GROSS: Kill them.

WESTLAKE: Kill them.

GROSS: Now, I like that this is a crime novel, not from the point of view of a professional criminal. This is a murder novel from the point of view of a very middle class, middle-management guy who's been downsized out of his job. He's always played it by the rules until this point, because now he feels incredibly cheated because the rules have been changed on him.

And this isn't supposed to happen to the middle class.

WESTLAKE: Exactly. Yeah. The middle class is supposed to have given up all claim on the highs in return for not being subjected to any of the lows. And all of a sudden, that's not working.

GROSS: Why did you -- how did you decide to write a crime novel about downsizing?

WESTLAKE: I don't know. It's -- I think it was in the air. I've known several people in different parts of it. I know a couple of people who were downsized over the last few years. I know a woman who's just retired from a very large corporation. She was an executive, and she spent much of the last four years firing people.

You know, there's always the farewell interview with the sympathetic executive. You know, the don't go away mad, just go away. And she was the sympathetic executive and she hated it. She was -- I would see her on weekends and she'd just be distraught.

But she knew that she had -- that she wasn't going to get fired and that she had her own retirement out there in front of her, and that she would survive somehow, but seeing it from that side.

I have another friend who was an expert in financial planning with a big company, and they were downsizing all around her. She was too good to fire and they kept adding things on to her, so she was a victim of it in another way. She was having nightmares and all of her friends were saying get out of that job, and she was afraid to. And then they offered her a raise of $5 a week.



WESTLAKE: And she quit.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

WESTLAKE: Yeah. They're just naturally mean, I think. I don't know what it is.

GROSS: Well, your character is so kind of upset by all the euphemisms that he's been dealt.


GROSS: Did your friends pass on some of these to you?

WESTLAKE: Well, some I got from that, and then there was -- I was about three weeks into the actual writing of the book, and I had been planning it a little bit, and then actually sitting down and writing it. And I think it was three weeks in, and the New York Times did a week-long front-page study of the area of downsizing. I said: "oh my God, the Times has done my research for me."

And very much what I'd already started to do, they described. But I got a lot of the euphemisms and the terminologies from them. And my favorite of them was one that AT&T used, because it was supposed to be a euphemism, but it's actually more horrible than saying "you're fired." And that was: "your job is not moving forward."

Well, out of your peripheral vision to both sides, you can see jobs that are moving forward. I mean, this is death being described to you.

GROSS: This character finds that retraining is not going to be very helpful to him, but he's actually retraining himself to be a killer.

WESTLAKE: Yes, he talks about the learning curve of being a murderer.

GROSS: What do you think it takes for an ordinary man to become a killer?

WESTLAKE: Oh, well, I think it -- if it is going to be possible, and it's possible in some people and less possible in others, desperation -- desperation is the first thing and then combined maybe with responsibility and guilt.

You know, I think if a guy says "what am I going to do for myself?," he is less likely to go that far, than if he says "what am I going to do for myself and my wife and my children who are looking at me trustingly? I'm supposed to be steering this ship and I seem to have lost the rudder."

And I -- that, I think is what drives people to go beyond themselves, much less the idea of going beyond the law, that drives them beyond, you know, what they would normally do in any circumstance.

GROSS: You know, I like your novel The Axe both as a crime novel about, you know, the ordinary person turned murderer, but also I think it's, like, very perceptive about the kinds of things that go wrong in a family when somebody's out of work, and very perceptive about the middle class today.

And I'm wondering why you chose a crime form to write, you know, what's in part a kind of social commentary?

WESTLAKE: Well, because the social comm -- I won't deny the social commentary. That's not, you know, I don't want to be coy about this, but the fact is that I think of myself as a storyteller; that what I do is I write novels and I write fiction. And the novelist's first responsibility is to tell a story, and a story is always about one person.

And you have to have that person in motion for a reason before you can have a story. And I don't see how I could just have him sit and feel sorry for himself and have something that you would like to read as a story.

GROSS: Why did you turn to crime as a writer? Was that just a kind of handy genre in which it was easy to get established and easy to make money early-on? Or was there some deeper interest in you that led to crime?

WESTLAKE: No, it was simpler than that, really. I started quite young and I wrote everything. I wrote slices of life and sent them off to the Swanee (ph) Review. And I did try my hand at science fiction, although I knew nothing about it. I grew up in upstate New York. I was never farther west than Syracuse, and I tried to write Westerns. I did anything.

And the mystery stories started to get published, and I think there's a natural tendency to go where you're liked. And so, the more they were published, the more I wrote them. I spent 10 years saying, well, I'm a writer disguised as a mystery writer, and then I looked back at this pile of manuscripts behind me, and said well, maybe I'm a mystery writer.

GROSS: Well, maybe you're both. I mean...

WESTLAKE: I think so.

GROSS: Do you...

WESTLAKE: I think I'm both. By now, I'm both, yes.

GROSS: My guest is Donald Westlake. His new novel is called The Axe. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with crime writer Donald Westlake. You broke into writing by writing "true confession" stories I think.


WESTLAKE: You know too much.


GROSS: How did you get started with that?

WESTLAKE: Well, I came to New York. I wanted to write, and I was starting to write. And I came to New York and got a job with a literary agency, one of the ones where amateurs send in their short stories with money and the agent -- or an ink-stained wretch working for the agent like me -- tells that person "your story is no good, but send us another story with some more money because you sure have a lot of talent."

And I worked for him, and he would get assignments from little publishing -- publishers of paperbacks, book publishers or magazine publishers. And you never knew what kind of job offer would show up. You know, go write a story about this or that.

And so when I first got there, his assistant, or another guy there, said: "if that guy ever says to you 'do you know anything about,' say 'yes,' whatever it is and you'll get an assignment."

So he said: "do you know anything about confession stories?" And I said: "oddly enough, yes, I -- a friend of mine and I did a content analysis on confession stories in college." And so I went on from there, and I pulled out that old content analysis and just did every recurring shortstory and they loved them.

GROSS: What were some of the things that you got from your own content analysis?

WESTLAKE: Let's see -- the -- probably the most popular one was the woman who goes to bed with her husband's boss in order to get him the raise, and then discovers he would have gotten it anyway. That was big. That's about the only one I can remember now. It's been a long time ago.

GROSS: So, did you write one of those?

WESTLAKE: Oh sure. I think that's the first one I did.

GROSS: First person, of course, 'cause it's meant to be a confession.

WESTLAKE: Oh, those are all -- yes. Somebody described the formula for those things as "sin, suffer, repent."

GROSS: Was this a useful exercise for you as a writer?

WESTLAKE: Yeah, I think so in a funny way. I mean, after a while, you know, it's like candy: some of it is good and too much of it is bad. It was a learning experience in a couple of ways: in speaking in that female voice all the time and in getting in and out of the story quick.

You know, you've got 3,000 words to paint a life, really, with this serious or perhaps serio-comic event in the middle of it, and then come out on the other side. That was -- it was like good etudes, you know? It was good practice.

GROSS: You've written a lot of books over the years under pen names, including Tucker Coe and Richard Stark. Did you have commercial reasons for using pen names?

WESTLAKE: At the beginning, yes. I was writing an awful lot, and publishers are afraid of that. They say readers don't want to keep hearing from you too often. And I also was writing different kinds of things. It turned out that I didn't like to keep doing the same thing over and over.

So partly it was brand-name -- you know, if you want something lighter, except by now that doesn't hold anymore because The Axe isn't lighter -- but in those days if you want something lighter, then here I am as Westlake. And if you want something colder, then here I am as Stark. And if you like a good emotional private-eye type thing, then here's this fellow Coe.

Those lasted for a while, and then Coe sort of dried up after five books and Stark went away for 24 years and is returning. All of a sudden, I'm -- I could not be more surprised myself, but Richard Stark has another book coming out in September.

GROSS: How has the market for crime books changed since you started writing them?

WESTLAKE: Drastically. When I -- mostly for the better. I think it may have peaked. I hope not, but it may have -- it may have started down the other slope. But when I was first starting -- my first book was published by Random House in 1960.

And at that time, except for Simon and Schuster, in every hard-cover publishing house in New York City that published mysteries, the mystery editor was also the cookbook editor. They were just two little unimportant money-making things off in the corner that nobody cared about.

And it's been a long time -- there are always writers in there who said "I don't care what you think, I'm going to have some fun and write this." But gradually it changed, and it changed over a course of 15 or 20 years, and for the last maybe 15 years, it's been terrific.

There's been a lot of attention paid to the field. The cookbook editor is somebody else now. And there are entire stores devoted -- I mean, the idea in 1960 that there would be entire -- four or five stores in New York City alone devoted exclusively to mysteries -- would have been absurd.

GROSS: You've written in the first person voice of both, you know, burglars and private eyes -- the cop and the criminal.


GROSS: Do you get into a mental state depending on whether you're writing from the criminal's point of view or the investigator's point of view?

WESTLAKE: Oh, yeah. Well, I always go along with my characters. I say "oh, yeah, I see what you mean." You know, even in The Axe, I said "oh yeah, right, I see what you mean."

Because I couldn't have written The Axe unless I had found his voice and his conviction in his own properness. So I -- while the book is underway, while I am telling myself the story, I have to buy into what he thinks or there's no way for me to do it.

I know -- Evan Hunter is an old friend of mine, and he always maintains is that everybody has a motive. People don't just behave in irrational ways. They can look at rational from outside, but if you're going to write a story, the first thing you have to do is figure out what that person's motive is -- why would he do that?

So that's why Evan hates things like locked room murders, you know -- there's no reason to do that, not if you, you know, have a gun.

GROSS: This is Evan Hunter aka Ed McBain?

WESTLAKE: Ed McBain, yeah.

GROSS: You've been doing some screenplays in addition to novels. You wrote the screenplay for The Grifters, adapted from...


GROSS: ... a Jim Thompson story.


GROSS: Wrote the screenplay for The Stepfather -- two really good movies, I think; very different; both really good screenplays.

And now I believe you're doing a rewrite of the film "A Double Life," and this is a film that Martin Scorcese had brought out on video as part of the "Martin Scorcese Presents" series a while back.

WESTLAKE: Aha, I hadn't realized he'd done that.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

WESTLAKE: He's the producer on this. Actually, I'm doing two things with him, but you know, until he and the Dalai Lama are finished with each other, nobody's doing anything with him.

GROSS: Right.

WESTLAKE: And they're both remakes. We're in an era of remakes, I'm afraid. But one is A Double Life, in which Ronald Colman won an Academy Award for his performance as an actor who goes mad while playing Othello and very nearly kills his wife, who's playing Desdemona, and does kill a waitress played by Shelley Winters.

Very interesting -- it was written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, and the original was directed by George Cukor. And it's a very, very interesting story of this guy's helplessness before what's happening to him. It's got a nice downward projection to it.

And then the other one, we go back to Ed McBain all of a sudden, is the wonderful Kurosawa movie "High and Low," which was based on an Ed McBain novel called "King's Ransom."

The idea of that story is a well-to-do businessman at a very tense moment, when he's got all of his money committed to trying to take over the business, and kidnappers kidnap his nine-year-old son, except they get the wrong kid. They get the chauffeur's kid.

And then they say: "that's all right. We want the money anyway." And he would -- he would put himself at risk for his own child, but will he put himself at risk for the chauffeur's child? And that's a wonderful moral question.

So that -- and I sort of have dealer's choice on this, because Evan and his book, in his Ed McBain book King's Ransom, he answered the question one way, and Kurosawa in the movie answered it the other way.

GROSS: Well Donald Westlake, I want to thank you very much.

WESTLAKE: Thank you.

GROSS: Donald Westlake's new novel is called The Axe. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Donald Westlake
High: Mystery writer Donald Westlake has written 70 novels and screenplays. He is known for his novels which combine laughs with thrills, and which show equally incompetent criminals and law enforcement. His recurring characters include a bungling burglar named John Dortmunder, and a gun-for-hire named Parker. Westlake has also written novels that parody the world of publishing and supermarket tabloids. His latest novel is a crime novel about downsizing, "The Axe"
Spec: Books; Movie Industry; Authors; Donald Westlake;
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
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End-Story: Donald Westlake
Date: JULY 16, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071602np.217
Head: Link Wray
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Link Wray was one of the first guitar heroes. His 1958 instrumental hit "Rumble" suggested something new -- a raunchy, distorted guitar sound that could carry a band. The record influenced guitarists who came later, including Pete Townsend and Neil Young.

Wray had other hit records, including "Rawhide," but he left his American recording career in the '60s. He lives on an island off the coast of Denmark with his wife and son. He hadn't performed in the states for about 30 years, but his music was revived recently when it was used in such films as "Pulp Fiction," "Desperado," and "Independence Day."

Now at the age of 68, he just wrapped up an American tour. His latest CD "Shadowman" was released in England earlier this year. Before we meet Link Wray, let's hear his first his, Rumble.


GROSS: Rumble was named by the producer of the record, whose daughter said the sound reminded her of "West Side Story." The record was banned in Boston because the title was too suggestive of gang fights. Earlier this month, I asked Link Wray if he had gang fights in mind when he recorded it.

LINK WRAY, MUSICIAN: No, not really, because I mean, I've always worn the shades, and -- but that was just a Southern thing. I mean, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. I mean, they all wear leather jackets and had long hair and wore shades. It's just a Southern thing that we did, you know.

And -- but I was playing like Western swing music, if you will, you know, like Bob Wills (ph) Western swing. I had the -- always had the heavy beat because my brother Doug, you know, who played on Rumble and all my early hits, he was a real loud drummer, you know. Frankie Avalon's manager said "that's the best drummer and loudest drummer I've ever heard in my life." You know?

So Doug was a great drummer, you know, and even when we was playing our Western swing music, you know, I guess we were -- we were playing early, early rock and roll in the '40s. I played live on "Sheriff Tex Davis' Show" (ph), the guy who wrote "Be-Bop-A-Loo-La" (ph) for Gene Vincent (ph) in the late '40s. I did live music on his show in Norfolk, Virginia.

And we were playing that really heavy, heavy music on his country show, you know.

GROSS: Now, Rumble has incredible distortion on it, and this was in the really early days of guitar rock. Why did you want that sound?

WRAY: Well, you know, I was in the Korean War, you know. I was -- I had -- I lost a lung. They had me in a VA hospital, and I was, like, hemorrhaging blood. Every time I'd breathe, I'd hemorrhage blood out, you know? And the doctors would say, the Army doctors, say: "well, he'll be dead tomorrow," you know.

But I'm very spiritual. I was raised and born to a Shawnee mommy, and I'm very spiritual. I'm not religion. I don't believe in organized religion, but I'm very spiritual and I have a guardian angel who looks out for me, because if I didn't have my guardian angel last night, I would have probably had a broken leg instead of a sprained leg, when I fell off the stage last night playing my wild rock and roll.

And so my God took me out of the death house, you know, where I was -- they thought I was going to die. And they took my lung out, and God takes me out of the death house, and zaps Rumble in my head, and I had a 4 million seller in 1957, '58.

GROSS: I want to ask you again. I want to get specifically to the distortion. I think Rumble was one of the first records that really had a distortion in the guitar -- really, kind of like distorted.

WRAY: Yeah, I forgot to tell you about that.

GROSS: Yeah, so ...

WRAY: OK -- I -- all right, the night -- Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1957, this here disc jockey name of Milt Grant (ph), he had a local TV show in Washington, DC. And he was -- and the stars would come and play on his show, you know. And he had, like, a dance show, you know, where the kids would dance. And then he'd bring them to the record hop that night.

All right, that night -- 1957, he had "The Diamonds" on his show, which had the number one song in Billboard called "Strolling." He brought them to the record hop that night, jumped up on the stage, said: "Link, play be a stroll." I said: "I don't know a stroll." And my brother Doug said: "well, I know the beat of the stroll." And he -- so he was playing drums, you know...


... pa da da dum, da, da, da, dum. You know? And so my God zaps Rumble in my head and I went baum, baum, baum, da, da, da, dum. You know? And my brother Ray takes the singing microphone and sticks it to my amplifier, and the little small speakers from the singing amplifier starts rattling, because I'm playing so loud, you know. And the kids started screaming, coming up to the stage hollering "we want that song" and they were screaming over me.

And they didn't care about The Diamonds anymore. They was really going wild over this here wild song I was doing, you know, wild instrumental I was doing. And I played it about four times for them before I left. And so Milt Grant, he smelt a dollar. You know, he could smell there was money there, you know.

So him and my brother Ray got me into a studio, and when we started playing Rumble, you know, it was too clean. I couldn't get that sound I did in Fredericksburg at the show that night in Fredericksburg, Virginia. So I took a pencil and I started punching holes in the speakers, you know, on my amplifier -- both tweeters, not the big speaker.

And so that was the first time that distortion was born, you know, 'cause I didn't have boxes like Jimi Hendrix did when he came out, you know, 1968.

GROSS: Now let me play the second hit that you had...


GROSS: ... which is Rawhide.


GROSS: And tell me about making this record?

WRAY: Rawhide, I was -- after I did Rumble and it went up the charts and left. Then Milt Grant wanted to put me on a bigger label, so he took me away from Archie Blauer's (ph) Cadence (ph), put me on Epic Records -- and I made -- Rawhide was my second hit; came out; Dick Clark was playing it every day. He even rated it on his show -- best rating on his show. And it -- 98 with a bullet in the charts.

GROSS: Well let's hear your second hit, Rawhide. My guest is guitarist Link Wray.


GROSS: That's Link Wray's second hit, Rawhide. Now, Dwayne Eddy (ph), another one of the fathers of the guitar band, started recording in between your first two hits. What was his impact on you and your impact on him?

WRAY: Well, no, when Rumble came out, he was on the Milt Grant Show, the guy that I got started out with, you know, when I was doing all these record hops. And he said: "Link, I've just put out a brand new song called "Rabble-Rouser" (ph).

And he said: "I hope it sells half as much as Rumble did." I said: "why shouldn't it, man? You're the twang guitar." I said: "my music is just those teenage gang fights. Yours is a twanger, you know, you're the twanger, you know."

He did most of his recordings and his guitar work was on one string -- dow, dow, dow, dow, dow, dowwwwww, dow, dow, dow. You know, where I was going: blowwwwwn, bloowwwwn, blowwwwn -- wild sound, you know? So we had two different sounds there, you know. And both of us had hit records in the '50s.

GROSS: Did you like his work?

WRAY: Oh, yeah. Oh, he was a beautiful guy. I did -- I did some -- I did one GAC (ph) tour with him, you know, where he -- we played loud -- you know, one day had these here package tours, you know, GAC package tours, with all the stars. We were getting on -- in this here chartered bus, and was driving all over America playing drive-ins and theaters and places.

GROSS: Would you share with us one of your memories of being on the road with rock and roll shows in the early days of rock and roll?

WRAY: Yeah, when I had Rumble out, you know, I was touring with "The Bell Hops," who had "I Had It." They're beautiful guys. And in a restaurant, I was eating a pizza, and they just led me right down into -- in the restaurant while the old people were looking, and cramming pizza down my throat. We were just having fun, you know.

And Jan and Dean came -- Jan came in with a bloody nose where they had a pillow fight in the bus, you know. Nose was bleeding, with his white pants all rolled up, too, and barefooted. You know, it was just a life on the road when we wasn't on the stage, just having a good time, you know, with each other, because it was like 40 stars jammed in this one bus, you know.

And we were just having a private rock and roll life, you know, when we wasn't on the stage. Then when we went on the stage, man, it was just -- all those little girls were screaming so loud, I couldn't -- I had to stick my fingers in my ears. I couldn't even hardly play my rock and roll because they were screaming louder than I was playing.

It was brand new.

GROSS: I think your very earliest music was singing in church.

WRAY: Yeah, well that was -- that was when I lived in North Carolina. My Shawnee mommy, like I said, I'm very spiritual, you know. I have a guardian angel and I believe in my Jesus God, right?

Because I was singing at this here "Blue Light" -- it's like a light -- it was around my mother. You know, she wore a brace ever since she was 11 years old because a girl put her knee in her back and broke her back on the way home from school.

And so she, like President Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, she wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked: would he give her a brace? You know, so he came down there with a certificate, and she went over to Lewinton (ph) Hospital in North Carolina and got herself a brace, and she went out into the fields and was preaching to the blacks and to the Cherokee Indians and to the poor whites, saying, you know: "keep your morals high. Believe in God," you know.

And I -- me and my brothers, we were singing, you know, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" and all those gospel songs behind my mom, you know, when she was out there in the streets preaching, you know?

GROSS: So, FDR sent her a back brace?

WRAY: Yeah, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent her a certificate, you know, because he was in a wheelchair. He was crippled, you know, from polio. And so when she wrote him, you know, the Cherokees, you know, they made her a brace.

After she was -- she was, like, paralyzed from 11 years old until she was 16 years old, you know. And she had to quit school after that in fourth grade, you know. She never went back to school.

But she was paralyzed, and she couldn't stand up, you know, because of her back -- her spine was completely broken; her back was broken and her spine was like pushed over to one side.

So the Cherokee Indians, you know, made her a homemade brace out of deer hide, and then she wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he sent her a certificate. And his personal driver came down to our little hut in North Carolina. You know, we didn't have electric lights, you know. I didn't have any electric lights 'til I'd a moved to Portsmouth, Virginia.

And so he came down here with the certificate, and my dad took my mom over to Lewinton Hospital, and they gave her a brace.

GROSS: My guest is Link Wray, best known for his 1958 guitar hit Rumble. He now lives in Denmark, and he just wrapped up his first American tour in 30 years. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with guitarist Link Wray, whose records include the '50s instrumental hits Rumble and Rawhide.

After you had a lung removed as a result of the tuberculosis that you got when you were fighting in Korea, you couldn't really sing.

WRAY: There was -- there was -- I was talking like this -- so I poured all my heart and soul into my music, you know.

GROSS: Eventually, you started singing, even though you'd had a lung removed. And I want to play one of your early vocal records. This is "Ain't That Lovin' You, Babe." Tell me how you decided to start singing on record, and...

WRAY: You know, that's amazing. You said you were gonna play this one song, you know, and I get a lot of kids asking me for that song. I don't know why, because I couldn't hardly sing. I went -- you know, because I was -- I couldn't hardly catch my breath trying to strain to get some words out, you know?

GROSS: Well, let's hear it, and this is Link Wray singing and on guitar Ain't That Lovin' You Babe.


WRAY SINGING: There's a new me, baby
I tell ya how I love you
Well, you could toss me in the ocean
I'd swim to the bank and
Crawl right home to you

Ain't that lovin' you baby?
Ain't that lovin' you baby?
Ain't that lovin' you baby?
Ain't that lovin' you baby?
Ain't that lovin' you baby?
Ah, but you don't even know my name.

GROSS: I should mention that this record that we just heard is actually reissued on a Rhino CD called "Rumble: The Best of Link Wray."

You stopped recording after several years. You just gave up commercial recording. Why did you give it up?

WRAY: After "Jack the Ripper" came out, just before the Beatles, you know, Jack Nitchey (ph) recorded Rumble with this big band sound -- the guy who had "Lonely Surfer," you know. And he had Rumble in the charts when President Kennedy got shot. And when he got shot, my type of music -- the Elvis music -- and all that early music died with President Kennedy.

And then mourning music, you know, because they were mourning of the president. And then when the music started back up again, it was FM radio, albums. And then here come the Beatles from England, you know, on "The Ed Sullivan Show," on Capitol Records, doing "I Want to Hold Your Hand," you know?

And it was a different type of music. And they also introduced to the audience LSD and all the drugs. I don't mess with drugs, you know. It's killed a lot of colleagues like Jimi Hendrix and a lot of people, you know. And so I -- I'm very spiritual and I don't mess around with drugs, so I didn't want to play to the LSD crowd.

So I retreated down to a little place in Maryland called the "Two Thieves Club," playing to the rednecks, where they were getting drunk off beer and whiskey, and I was doing CCR and Elvis, while the rest of the world was playing, you know, acid music, you know.

GROSS: So you didn't mind people getting loaded, you just didn't want them getting high on LSD?

WRAY: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, I just don't go with the drug stuff, you know.



WRAY: You know, I drink Tuborg beer, and I drink Heineken on stage, you know. I can -- like I say, I'm wild, but I'm not evil. You know, I think drugs is Satan's candy. I -- there's two powers: there's God and there's Satan, you know.

I fell off the pit last night. I think Satan threw me into the pit last night, you know. He went "shoooo" and I fell off into the pit last night while I was doing my wild rock and roll at Bimbo's in San Francisco.

All right -- God said, "OK, Satan -- you might have blowed him off into the pit, but you're not going to break any bones," you know? So I just sprained my knee, you know. It's OK. So, I mean -- I think LSD and all that drug stuff is Satan's candy, you know? It's evil.

GROSS: So what happened last night when you fell off the bandstand?

WRAY: Well, I was out there playing to the kids, and they were hollering and screaming, you know. They were -- you know, I like to take my guitar and hand it to the kids and let them play it, you know. And they even was knocking -- they were pulling strings off my guitar, and I had to take my guitar off and give it to the guitar man.

While he was putting strings on that guitar, I grabbed up my other guitar, you know, my -- my wife Ollachita (ph) bought me -- while I was in Houston -- bought me a promotion guitar that they had for Harley Davidson.

There's not very many of those guitars out. It's shiny. It's metal. It's aluminum, you know, but it's a Strat (ph) -- it's a Stratton inc. -- and it plays fantastic, you know. And thank you, baby, for giving me that guitar.

And I was playing that last night, so I just went over to the side of the stage, you know, where the kids, you know -- I didn't want them to be left out of the show, you know what I mean? So I like to play to all the kids, you know, that come to see me.

So I went -- I was heading towards the kids on the side of the stage, as well as playing to the center of the stage. And when I did that, you know, I just stepped where there was no stage, and I just, oh, went down into the monitor pit -- where the monitor guy was -- freeway -- he was down there, you know, in the monitor pit.

And I fell down on top of him.


Actually, he caught me, you know, but I sprained my leg as I went down.

GROSS: You have a new record now called Shadowman. Do you think your playing or your approach to the guitar has changed a lot since the '50s?

WRAY: Well, I'm played through a Bose (Unintelligible) come now, and I'm also playing through a little echo unit, you know, that I didn't have in the '50s, you know. And I'm playing through a 100-watt, 200-watt Marshall (ph) amplifier. I'm also playing through Fender twins, which is very, very strong.

Back in the old days, my old preemy amplifiers and those little Sears and Roebuck amplifiers, what, with 30 watts? 40 watts? You know, they wasn't very strong.

I had to have a whole bunch of them just to get 50 watts out of them, you know. And so I'm playing louder music, while screaming the rock and roll, you know, Link Wray music, you know, and the kids go: "wow." Like I said, they're pulling my strings off my guitar.

I just hand my guitar to them, and they're playing it. You know, it's just a bunch of noise, you know.

GROSS: Link Wray, I thank you very much for talking with us.

WRAY: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Link Wray just wrapped up his first American tour in 30 years. Rhino Records has reissued many of his records on a CD called Rumble. His latest CD, Shadowman, was released earlier this year in England. Here's the title track.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Link Wray
High: Guitarist Link Wray. He's credited with inventing the "power chord" in the 1950s. His first big recording hit was "Rumble" an instrumental piece that he wrote. When he went to record it in the studio he wasn't happy with the sound on the amp, so he pierced holes in the speaker cone to create additional distortion. Later guitarists like Pete Townsend and John Lennon were influenced by his work. Wray's other hits include "Rawhide" and the Batman Theme. Rhino records released "Rumble: the Best of Link Wray" in 1993. Wray's latest release is "Shadowman."
Spec: Music Industry; Link Wray
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Link Wray
Date: JULY 16, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071603NP.217
Head: Paul Kelly
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Paul Kelly isn't exactly a household name. If he's known at all, it's for one hit he had in 1970, "Stealin' In The Name Of The Lord."

Rock historian Ed Ward says Kelly's overall body of work as a singer and songwriter deserves better than that. A recent compilation of his recordings, "The Best of Paul Kelly," should help set the record straight.


If I had a girl to treat me like you treat me
I'd be satisfied
If I had your love, your sweet love
Oh, baby, I'd be satisfied

There'd be no one in my life but you
You can make my dreams come true
If I had a love like yours
I'd be satisfied
Truly satisfied
Truly I'be satisfied
Hear me
I'd never, never...

ED WARD, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Paul Kelly was born in Miami's Overtown (ph) section in 1940, where he started singing as a teenager with his older brother's group "The Superiors" and continued with groups of his own throughout high school.

A chance meeting with Miami's top producer of that time, Clarence Reed (ph), led to a 1965 single "Down With It/Can't Quit It" which came out under Reed's name, but at least it was a start. Reed had connections with Buddy Killen (ph), a white Nashville-based soul producer, and Killen began producing Kelly's next few records.

In 1967, Kelly's life changed dramatically. First, he met Juanita Rogers (ph) and began a relationship that endures to this day.


KELLY SINGING: When I met you
My intentions were to play on your mind
Like I did on others so many times
But you laid it on me so strong
You laid it on me so strong
'Til I find that I'm into something
That I can't shake loose
I'm into something that I can't shake loose
I'm into something I can't shake loose
You got your hooks in me, babe
My hands are tied
My hands are tied, ain't no use
I just can't leave you
Leave you baby
I can't leave you
Oh, I tried many times before
Just can't seem to get past your door
Oh, baby
I'm into something I can't shake loose
Oh, baby, you need me
I just....

WARD: They moved to Brooklyn, and Kelly started playing the guitar, which led to his suddenly being able to write songs. One such song he felt was a hit, and he tried to pitch it to an act he'd known from Miami, "Sam and Dave."

Sam wouldn't take his call, but Kelly heard him in the background saying: "if this song is so good for us, why doesn't he cut it himself?" So he called Buddy Killen, and they did.


KELLY SINGING: There's a man on the corner, raising a congregation
Sayin' that he's the one, brothers and sisters,
That's going to bring us all salvation
Sayin' that he's the one to make a way for us
He's gonna do it with no hesitation
Sayin' step in the light
Can you spare a dim
I heard him say step right on up
How you this evening?
Drop of luck
He said I tell you what I see
A pair of (Unintelligible)
Ain't much difference in what he's doin' to keep you from B and E
That's breaking and entering, you know that man is
Stealin' in the name of the Lord
Stealin' in the name of the Lord

WARD: "Stealin' in the Name of the Lord" is a paradox -- an anti-gospel gospel song, full of the fervor of the church it criticizes. As he himself says: "I have faith in God, but not in religion."

He also had faith in himself, and for his next record, he hit the road visiting radio stations personally. It paid off.


KELLY SINGING: Here's my heart, take any part
But don't burn me, don't burn me
You got my soul if you want it
But don't burn me, don't burn me
I -- I've been hurt before
I can't take it no more
Oh, don't burn me, don't burn me
Don't burn me, don't burn me

WARD: Don't Burn Me didn't do as well as Stealin' did, but it marked Paul Kelly as the sort of guy who steadily produced quality. The trouble was, times were changing.

Disco was coming in, and Kelly is a deep soul artist. He did, however, manage to sell his sound to another Florida-born performer, Jackie Moore (ph) in 1978, which put some money in the bank.


I've been writin' letters, every day now
Since you've been gone
Talkin' to you by the telephone
For what seems like a whole life long
But I've got something here
That the mail man, can't deliver
I can't mail it in, I can't phone it in
I can't send it in, even by your closest kin
I'm bringing it to you personally, personally, personally, yeah

WARD: In 1996, Warner Brothers, who put out most of his latter-day material, released a compilation of his recordings. It's a treasure trove of great songs and performances. With luck, it should introduce him to a new generation of soul fans.

GROSS: Ed Ward writes about music from Berlin.

Dateline: Ed Ward, Berlin; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock historian Ed Ward remembers soul singer and songwriter Paul Kelly. He had one big hit in 1970.
Spec: Music Industry; Paul Kelly
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Paul Kelly
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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