Allow me to got back to my past where I was simply a teenager, just met a blonde woman who would one day turn my world on its ear, and was an aspiring guitarist.
In 1989 and 1990 I had just learned to play the guitar and had bought a used 1985 Fender Stratocaster. It was tobacco sunburst, the color a dark, almost black stain going to red then yellow with the wood grain showing. I had joined a band after playing only a year and thought I was the cat’s pajamas.
Here’s my first band, Drastic Measures:
Yeah, I know, ignore the bad hair and uplifted collar.
The salesman at Schmitt Music Center in Omaha sold the virtues of the Stratocaster, talking about the “Lynyrd Skynyrd tone” and all that. He didn’t have to try that awful hard, I already knew about a Strat. I wanted one early on because Eric Clapton played one. By this point, though, I had seen the guy in the video up there playing a beat-to-hell, dragged behind the bumper of a car looking Stratocaster. Stevie Ray Vaughan. This evening, right before heading to bed, the internet alerts started pinging with the musician’s official page letting me know that Friday would have been his 60th birthday.
If you’re not a musician, you may very well not get the point of this post, but I’ll try to get it to you.
I certainly, at that time, idolized Eric Clapton. The reality was, though, that I never really thought I’d get to play with or meet the man. It just seemed too far off, too high on a pedestal for me to reach there. Yet, as much as I loved the songs, the playing and the style the Clapton utilized, I felt even more when I heard Vaughan play. He seemed to channel a varying stream of blues greats and reform their own styles into a raucous, flambouyant, never-ending stream of notes coming out of his guitar.
In this era, the late 1980’s, when hair bands like Bon Jovi and Whitesnake were reaching the ebb of their peak this seemingly dead genre, blues and blues-rock, came rocketing back into mainstream because this guy with the boots and the black hat and shitty-looking guitar just wouldn’t be ignored. He didn’t scream, he didn’t yell, he didn’t partake in theatrics, he just wailed on the guitar. He beat it into submission, imposing his will on the instrument not so much by beating on it – though he did plenty of that – but by caressing the stream of ideas that flowed like a river out of him.
I know, flowery words and praise for a guy playing the guitar. Understand, though, that I was hit like a shockwave when I first heard him. As a result, I bought that guitar . . .
So when he died in 1990, just when I was starting to play on stage, my breath was taken away. I couldn’t go to class. Those crazy stories of people weeping because the Beatles broke up made sense.
Clapton was God . . . people said so on the walls of the London Underground.
But if he was God . . . who cared?! Vaughan was Hercules. He cared nothing for gods, he was paving his own way. He would walk onto a stage with Buddy Guy, BB King, Clapton, tour with Jeff Beck, and just wanted to play. That, to me, was the mindset I felt. I didn’t want to meet these people or even idolize them. I went to concerts and my fingers ached because all I wanted to do was go up there and play the music with them.
Whether you knew of SRV or not, he paved the way for music to change. In an era when music was all synthesizers and pop ballads and hair metal . . . this guy walked in with a Stratocaster, playing blues and Hendrix and jazz and caring little for what people thought of genres or styles . . . and gave us musical whiplash from the speed and grace he gave us.
Having dealt with drugs and alcohol he’d cleaned up his act . . . and was even more on fire than than before. Just when he preached that he was living on borrowed time . . . he was gone.
I was hurt because I wanted to meet this man, play with him, share a stage – even if it was just a living room or porch – and share in the love of the music he adored. I ended up with a Vaughan model Strat, the closest I ever will get to him . . . but it’s close enough for now.
I came to the conclusion years ago that, like Hendrix, I’ll never play like Stevie, and that’s okay. The lesson I learned, hearing pieces of the three kings, Clapton, Beck and Hendrix and Hubert Sumlin and T-Bone Walker in his solos . . . you shouldn’t try to imitate. You should play. Just play what you feel, what you hear.
My kids see that when I play and they know his material. They can hear just a couple notes and know it’s him because his playing is just so striking.
Losing Stevie Ray was a Cold Shot, to use one of his songs . . . but live on he does.
Because he just couldn’t be ignored.