Stevie Ray Vaughan


By Syd Weedon

It is a sweltering summer night, like the night in August two years ago which took the life of Stevie Ray Vaughan. I push aside the mental picture of wreckage on a foggy hillside and load Texas Flood into the CD player.

The News couldn't resist the urge to compare the wreck to the crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper: a last-minute substitution of seats and flights which brought the star to his sudden and premature end.

I saw Stevie Ray live with Jeff Beck at Louisville Gardens. Besides the music, the most memorable feature of the event was the stickiness of the floor. I won't speculate on the origin of the ooze, but it made me want to wash my shoes off before I walked into my own house. Jeff Beck didn't impress me much that night, but then he never has.

Stevie Ray had the presence of a rough-cut genius from the bad side of the tracks. I don't like the sound quality of most live concerts, but this one was good enough to get me listening to his albums. The hard edge in his music spoke to me. For at least a little while Steve Ray played the background anthem for the changes I was going through,". . . stranded, caught in the crossfire.. . ."

Stevie Ray Vaughan. Photo by Stephanie Cernakowski

My days of idolizing rock stars are past. I feel pity for them more often than not. Stevie Ray never got to the level of rock godhead for me, not a Lennon or Hendrix, just another Texan with a weird fire in his guts and the map of the meanest southern roadhouses etched into his music. There was a sort of connection I felt with him, not identification, but a connection. Being a Texan is something you never really escape; you just learn to live with it.

When I was coming up, Texan boys were raised with a hero myth: The Alamo. One hundred and eighty Texans and Tennesseeans held off the entire Mexican Army for a while, ostensibly to give Sam Houston time enough to raise an army. But military tactics had nothing to do with the deaths of these men. They died to prove a point: some to prove to the Mexicans that no compromise was possible; some to prove that they were as brave as the next guy; some, I'm sure, did it simply to prove something to themselves. The Texan hero goes to any length it takes to make a point and pays any price for honor and personal integrity. Stevie Ray was raised with at least as a sort of nagging background noise. People were trying to build a hero in Stevie Ray a comeback kid, the winner in a hard fight with addiction and self-destruction.

Stevie Ray didn't die a hero's death. He was just a fatality. He got into the wrong place with a machine and it was over in a second. No great words, no point made, his life just ended. He won a personal victory over his addictions. I assume he died in possession of himself. Maybe no greater victory is possible. But his death seems like just another random tragedy that makes no sense and doesn't win anything for anybody.

Maybe that bothered me, or maybe it's only the loss of someone whose songs I was beginning to memorize, but I found myself grieving over Stevie Ray. Maybe I cherish Vaughan, blues men who grow old and sagely like revered medicine men and I don't like it when the story gets cut short. Maybe it was just an unwelcome reminder of how fragile and tenuous everything is. As St. Don of Hanley said, "In a New York minute everything can change."

I don't want to eulogize. I don't think that's called for. The cable news didn't carry the story very long. Stevie Ray was no cuddly crooner like Pearl Bailey. There were no memorable sound bites or anthems burned into the consciousness of a generation. Jimi, John and Janis had those, but Stevie Ray was still working on his. His human form was never very clear, obscured for most of us by the dark Spanish hat and serape a dark hulk against the southern sky. Even in concert, it was only the guitar that was projected and it was a singular and undeniable force. You could tell he was proud of his music's power.

His was a seasoned, grown-man sort of blues and rock 'n' roll, the kind that if you walked into the bar and heard him playing, you'd buy a beer, sit down and listen. You'd stay through the last set, even though you knew that each passing minute increased the odds that some cowpoke would either propose marriage or try to rip your face off. The bar would have a neglected pinball machine, a neon Lone Star Beer sign, the smell of smoke, beer and people closer to each other than they usually get. The upholstery would be vinyl and wood and a little bit Sticky (the unknown ooze again). There would be one guy at the bar in a grey suit and loosened red tie. Everyone else would be in denim, black leather and truck-stop Tshirts. There would be a lot of boots. and pickup trucks in the parking lot. The bathrooms would have wet floors and condom dispensers decorated with pictures of sexy girls whose most interesting features have long since been obscured by multiple retracings with ball-point pens.

Assuming that you made it through the evening without marrying a cowpoke or having your face torn off and assuming that your car started promptly and you didn't sideswipe a pickup with "born to Lose" air-brushed on the fender, you would come away with a feeling that some kind of victory had been won. The blues man had made his point, although, were you asked to put it into words, it would be hard.