In the summer of 1987 I stumbled upon something that had never crossed my radar before. Sifting between satellites – in an era when satellite television was reserved for those in a rural community where you had a giant mesh dish in your back yard, I was looking for something on the television. In those days you had to dial in the satellite name and coordinates on the satellite and then watch the dish as it crossed the myriad of communications satellites in the sky.
In this era we found the feeds for Star Trek the Next Generation a week before they aired in syndication across the country, including the interviews and commercial feeds. No commercials.
While switching the satellites, in-between the locations I’d dialed in, there was a blast of blues music, the likes of which I’d never heard before. I immediately stopped the dish’s movements and eeked the signal in clearer. On the deck of a riverboat, the paddle spinning behind, was a figure in a black hat with a gigantic white feather flowing behind. Slung over his shoulder was a beat-to-shit Stratocaster with the letters SRV – in those rainbow letters you used to be able to buy back in the ’70s. He had a tendency to play licks that sounded like Albert King, but then flashes of Jimi Hendrix would fly out of his guitar. I was mesmerized. The guitar player was in complete control, seemingly beating the guitar into submission while simultaneously coaxing the most amazing tones from his fingers. He seemed to have an endless supply of notes that would shape together in the most amazing ways. He never played the same lick twice.
It wasn’t until the end of the concert – I only saw the last half – that I heard them say who the guitarist was. A guitarist from Austin Texas named Stevie Ray Vaughan. I still had not learned to play the guitar but this man made me want to do it in the most frustrating way. He played the guitar on the stage in a way that showed he was not only enjoying but savoring every second and every note that he himself was blistering through the air. I wanted to hear it again and that next day, after realizing I’d just watched a live feed of Vaughan for MTV’s Mardi Gras coverage I spotted a live tape in the store. On it was blues, rock, even Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).
Over the next few years I saw Vaughan twice. I waited in line for tickets to his Omaha show. I went to Red Rocks to see him play a blues festival with BB King and Taj Mahal. The same weekend I saw Eric Clapton in Ames, Iowa and then Vaughan in 1990, just a month or so before he died. When Vaughan played the Omaha Civic Auditorium he blistered through a version of the signature Hendrix tune and when he finished, making the guitar amplifier’s feedback change pitch, seemingly at will, he threw the guitar to the ground and watched it writhe in sonic chaos. The crowd’s collective mouth was agape and the crowd was near silent for what seemed an eternity. They blew into applause and nobody left without knowing what an amazing piece of musical mastery they’d seen.
I was always taken with Stevie Ray. He seemed approachable and willing to play with the most and least talented of players. He talked about the craft and the musicianship, not the need to be famous. He talked about the fact he’d been given another chance and each day was now precious to him, a gift that he’s borrowed. He seemed genuinely happy to be alive and willing to impart wisdom and music to anyone who would listen.
Twenty-two years ago this very day I heard that he’d died after the helicopter he’d been riding in slammed into the side of a mountain in Wisconsin. The initial reports had said that his brother Jimmie and Eric Clapton were on board as well. I had just joined my first band. I was playing and had a sunburst Strat, just like Stevie’s. I wanted someday to be onstage and say this amazing man had been waiting in the wings to come out and play with me. I simply wanted to meet the man and tell him that I wanted to play the guitar when I listened to Clapton so badly . . . but when I saw him play, I ached to do it. I made it happen, though slower than he probably did, and my chance to tell him had now passed.
Like his idol, Jimi Hendrix, or Keith Moon, or Janis Joplin, his musical flame blew out too soon. Unlike them, he’d turned it around. He’d seen drug abuse, collapsing on the streets of Germany and seeing that he was killing himself, slowly, drop by drop. Up until then he was a great musician and wonderful player. After he cleaned up he was blisteringly furious on the guitar and had a speed and intensity that are to date unmatched. I saw him in those last months and even at his worst he excelled far beyond the norm. He was simply a master of the Stratocaster.
I play Stevie Ray in the car, in the house, and whenever the ache strikes me again. I have the official recordings, from the short seven years he was a signed artist. It’s somehow fitting that the man who discovered Robert Johnson and brought him to the world – legendary producer John Hammond – also discovered Stevie, his last gift to us all. I have the live recordings. I have the bootlegs. I was given the chance to obtain a soundboard recording of the first show from the festival the day he died. It’s something I debated long and hard about – like the legendary night the Allman Brothers played until 5am . . . yet nobody managed to record it. Was the night that stellar, or has the legend surpassed the reality? Legend told that Stevie was otherworldly on that night in Alpine Valley. I don’t have his last performance, but this is the same day, just before that. I bought it. Why? Because even if it wasn’t Hendrix incarnate, it was going to be better than 99% of the people playing. It lived up to the hype and expectations.
I own a signature Stratocaster, modeled painstakingly after his beat to hell number one Strat. It’s one of the first off the line, partially built by the custom shop. It remains one of my favorite guitars.
I still wonder what he might have told the twenty-year-old me if I’d gotten to meet my hero. That weekend, seeing two of my idols, I wanted to burn my guitar in frustration for the amazing work I’d seen. What made me keep going was the fact that this wonderful, gentle, happy man would have told me that I cannot play like he does – and that’s OK. I’m not Stevie. Stevie wasn’t me. It’s good to copy the people you love, he said in an interview once, but it’s what you make your own that makes you an artist and not just a cover band.
He was a uniquely talented artist with the ability to make sounds the world is still trying to understand today. If I had half the talent he had in his pinky I’d be happy. I am honored to have seen him play. I’m even more honored to pass his legacy on to my children.
At this time twenty-two years ago I pulled over, disbelief coursing through my brain because I didn’t want it to be true. I went home and tried to find coverage on the TV or radio. I listened to the radio station play his and Clapton’s music all day because they were honoring him. I couldn’t go to class and couldn’t go out.
I just couldn’t stand the weather.