Friday, February 04, 2005

In Praise Of: Stevie Ray Vaughan

A section of river runs through downtown Austin, and we call it Town Lake. On the north shore is the impressive new City Hall, some luxury hotels, and Class A office buildings. On the south side lies Auditorium Shores, and the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan. People worldwide went to public spaces and lit candles upon the deaths of John Lennon and Jerry Garcia. In Austin, we also did it the day we got the sad news that Stevie's helicopter had smashed into a mountain on the outskirts of Alpine Valley.

I moved to Austin in 1986, and the live music scene was going through its second great phase, and drawing national attention. The first phase rode in on the backs of Willie Nelson, Kenneth Threadgill, and the Armadillo World Headquarters, a legendary club that played host to everyone from Bruce Springsteen to the Jerry Garcia Band to the Clash. To paraphrase Willie, it was the place where the hippies met the rednecks, and decided they liked each other's company.

The second phase began when Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Timbuk 3 found a national audience in the younger days of MTV, when they actually played music videos. Stevie was by a wide margin the head of the class. He came to Austin at a young age from the Dallas area, and way before he was old enough to drink, he was playing regularly at the legendary Antone's, Austin's Home of the Blues, on the same stage that had seen the mighty presence of Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and all the greats. Stevie quickly earned a reputation as a stone-cold gunslinger, a teen prodigy who not only played the blues, but, improbably for such a young man, felt the blues as well. He also fell in love with cocaine.

You can look elsewhere to find out more of Stevie's background, his rising success, and his eventual triumph over drugs after nearly dying on tour. It's inspirational stuff; even better, I recommend one of his live performances on Austin City Limits, or the early gem from the El Mocambo nightclub in Montreal. I want to bend your ear for a minute with a personal memory. I had the good fortune to see SRV in person on four occasions. I was there when the tapes rolled for the Live Alive album at the City Coliseum; I saw him at Willie Nelson's Austin Opry House; I saw him 0n another occasion that the sands of time have covered from my recollections. The last time I saw him was at the Astrodome, in Houston, TX, as part of a stellar lineup to benefit the Special Olympics.

The lineup was, first, the Fabulous Thunderbirds; second, SRV; and third, the Who. I was there to see the Who for the second time, primarily, but looking forward nonetheless to Stevie's performance. We stopped on the way to Houston at College Station, and picked up an acquaintance who was attending Texas A&M. Much to my chagrin, she wasn't ready to go - not for 15 minutes, not for 30. More than an hour later, we were flying down the highway trying to make up for lost time.

We got to the Astrodome, parked, ran inside, and (this being the college years), got in the long beer line. While standing there, we could hear the roar of the crowd, almost deafening. We knew we had arrived too late for the T-Birds, but after hearing how rowdy it was getting, our hearts sank a bit...the Who has started, and we missed the beginning, I thought.

As we entered the seating area of the 'Dome, I saw one of those sights that stays embedded in your mind even as the years flow by. As you've guessed by now, it wasn't the Who yet. Stevie was finishing his set, and the atmosphere was...electric. 45,000 people were on their feet as one, screaming, whistling, stomping, as Stevie tore through riff after bone-chilling riff. He was already on his last song, but as he finished, the roof just about flew off of the old 'Seventh Wonder of the Modern World'. A full five minutes must have passed before any of us thought to speak, not that it would have mattered, since we couldn't have heard anyone. Finally, as the cheers began to die down, one of my friends turned to me, grinning, and uttered a most appropriate benediction: "Wow."

Wow, indeed, Mr. Vaughan. You're sorely missed.

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