It must have been the school holidays – because I wasn’t at school, I was just sifting about. And I heard the news on the radio: there had been a helicopter crash. Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy and Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan were not dead.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was dead.
I spent the rest of that day moping about – listening to the two Stevie Ray Vaughan albums I had at that point: Couldn’t Stand The Weather and In Step. I wondered why the guy at the dairy down the road seemed his usual chipper self. I was baffled that dad went to work, came home for lunch, and then went to work again. And never mentioned it.
I was devastated.
It was the first time I was crushed by a musician’s death. And really the only time. I was young and silly. (Now I only have one excuse). But the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan really meant something to me – and, crucially, I had only just discovered him months before he died.
My brother had shown me the video to Cold Shot – it was on a recorded VHS. It quickly became my favourite video. And when we travelled to Australia – just a couple of weeks before that fatal day – I picked up Couldn’t Stand The Weather (on cassette tape; happy that I had the album with Cold Shot on it). I had purchased In Step, the album-du-jour, just a week or two before hand. And I couldn’t stop playing those tapes.
From the age of 10-15 guitar-based rock and blues was my main musical passion. I had a subscription to Guitar World even though I didn’t play the guitar. I was obsessed with Ritchie Blackmore and Carlos Santana and B.B. King and Albert King and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. I was reading about music I had yet to hear (Sonic Youth, Frank Zappa) and I wasn’t interested in much that didn’t have an electric guitar component.
And then – that video clip of Cold Shot and the snap decision to buy something/anything with SRV’s name on it (as it turned out In Step) turned Stevie Ray Vaughan, pretty much overnight, in to my new musical hero.
So I was devastated when he died. And, fittingly for a teen, this world-crushing, soul-searching depression would last for most of that day.
My appreciation of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music has continued…
From those two albums and the “Brothers” album, Family Style, released just after his death, I would go back to the debut, Texas Flood and then to Soul To Soul and the concert album recorded on that tour, Live Alive.
There have been plenty of posthumous compilations and previously unreleased live albums and I have snapped them all up – in for a gander. But it’s those five SRV albums (four studio, one live) and the final set of recordings with his brother Jimmie that are the ones I return to most regularly. Everything else has been interesting to hear, particularly In The Beginning – the first live show to surface after his death – and it goes back to a radio broadcast from 1980, three years before Texas Flood.
Vaughan – as many reading this will already know – was the guitarist on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. Famously, he turned down the tour – bailing at the last minute – to record the first Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble album.
From Texas Flood through to Couldn’t Stand The Weather, Double Trouble lit a fire under the blues – the band moving towards rock with Hendrix covers and then diversifying off towards soul and funk, referencing Stevie Wonder and The Meters. It was music that was rooted in the blues and Stevie Ray Vaughan was most certainly a blues fanatic – with a blues-playing pedigree – but he had his own voice, this was no mere copyist. He had found a sound – and he had found it through hard work.
There was an excitement that the blues had become marketable in America for the first time since the British blues boom. But Stevie Ray Vaughan did not arrive overnight.
He was 28 when Texas Flood was released. And he had been playing the guitar for 20 years – making his first recording in 1970 – playing in a range of bands, jamming with his brother, working hard to write and learn covers, building a repertoire and a reputation both as a formidable player and as a showman.
Stevie Ray Vaughan paid his dues – opening for many of his heroes (Kings Albert and B.B., Muddy Waters) and when he found a bit of fame he produced a “comeback” record for Lonnie Mack.
But he also paid the price that addiction charges. It was said that the sophomore album, Couldn’t Stand The Weather, flitted from jazzy instrumentals to his cover of Voodoo Chile via the stop/start intro of the title track simply because every time Stevie disappeared for a line of cocaine he returned with a brand new tracklisting and set of song ideas.
He came out the other side – and Life Without You plays out like his personal A Change Is Gonna Come; a microcosm of what Stevie Ray was about lyrically, spiritually, philosophically (and of how that not only informed his playing, it poured through it).
Stevie Ray Vaughan conquered his addictions, battled his demons – however you want to describe it – and returned to the stage to play better, fiercer songs. His final studio album with Double Trouble, In Step, showed a player in command of more than one voice, musically. Compare Wall Of Denial with the closer, Riviera Paradise.
He visited New Zealand and fell in love with a girl from Lower Hutt. They were to be married. There was even talk – a lot of talk – of how he planned to move here; to kick back in New Zealand, possibly in a state of semi-retirement, maybe dividing his time between here and some annual European/American touring.
There were stories of sightings too.
My favourite one – told to me one day, as a student killing time in a musical instrument store:
The owner told me he and his colleague laughed one day to see a guy walk in wearing a hat and poncho – dressed up, they thought, like Stevie Ray Vaughan. He walked slowly over to the guitars and had a look. He turned to the carousel of tablature books and picked one out. It was a book of Stevie Ray Vaughan songs. He studied it for a second. And then approached the counter, in a relaxed but baffled tone he dropped the book down and pointed out there was a mistake. His eyes were hidden. The staff had a giggle. He looked up and added his own chuckle – saying “that’s not how you play my song; they got that wrong”. It was Stevie Ray Vaughan. He spent an hour in the store chatting with the two guitar-heads, no doubt making their day – and their year. (Well, they told me about it at least six years after it could have happened).
I’m not saying Stevie Ray Vaughan was the greatest – such titles are ridiculous as we all know. I’m not saying he was the spearhead of a blues revival (some would point to his albums as being the key to major labels investing some time and money in blues though). And I’m not saying he was the last great blues player.
But I do think there was authenticity in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s life and playing. He knew blues and that is why he could sing and play it. You could hear the influences in his playing – Albert King, Lonnie Mac, Guitar Slim, Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and so on – but you could hear Stevie through all of this. It’s particularly noticeable going back to that 1980 live recording and hearing the Lonnie Mac-isms; they are far more subtly integrated by the time of 1983’s Texas Flood. By 1989’s In Step the Buddy Guy sound and the Albert King sound and the Hendrix sound is now just The Stevie Ray Vaughan Sound. He still paid tribute to the heroes; he never forgot where he came from – but he had his own sound. And he developed that across his career.
You listen today to John Mayer or to “the British John Mayer” Oli Brown and you hear a cheap, plastic, X-Box version; a Guitar HeroTM version of the real deal. Well, Stevie Ray Vaughan was the real deal.
And it was nearly 30 years ago that I woke up to hear the news that his helicopter had crashed within minutes of taking off. They had finished an all-star jam (Cray, Clapton, Guy, Stevie Ray and Jimmie Lee) and Vaughan, along with some of the road crew, was aiming to get to the next destination ahead of schedule.
Do you remember Stevie Ray Vaughan for his music? Do you still listen? Do you have favourite songs/albums? Did you get to see him perform? Did you meet him? And did you think that he helped ignite something in to the blues across the 1980s?
People still feel sad about Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death because he had fought his battles and still had music to give – that’s what I figure. He was still young, he had, arguably, recorded his finest work just before his death. He had found peace and happiness.
I’ll leave you with what I think is one of his greatest performances – a live version of Texas Flood.