Friday, August 27, 2010

The Late, Great Stevie Ray Vaughan

I was driving along in northeastern Oklahoma one spring night in the mid–1990s.

The sun had gone down, and I was listening to the radio. Fortunately, I had found a classic rock station nestled in among all the country stations in that neck of the woods, but it kept fading in and out on me, and I had to keep adjusting the station to keep the music playing in my car.

I remember listening for about an hour, and the music that was played was your standard issue classic rock. They were all songs I recognized from my youth, which is now more remote than I ever dreamed it would be, but I couldn't tell you exactly what they were.

Anyway, the songs played, one after another. As I say, it was the kind of stuff you usually hear on a classic rock station — I think they played some Dylan and some Who and probably a Beatles song or two, and a whole bunch of what I would consider the lesser lights of the classic rock era — recognizable but not necessarily legendary.

Then one song ended (I don't remember now what it was), and there was something like a couple of seconds of silence before the DJ came on the air and, in solemn tones, simply said, "The late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan."

And the next thing I heard was the opening riffs of "Crossfire."

The date wasn't an anniversary of anything special (that I know of) from Stevie Ray's career, but, when "Crossfire" was finished, the DJ played "Little Wing," Stevie Ray's spine–tingling cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic.

And he capped that with "Texas Flood." I don't think the song was written specifically for Vaughan, but it sure gave him a great opportunity to show off his Texas blues style.

Well, for whatever reason, the DJ played a three–song tribute to Stevie Ray that night. He never said why. He just went on to whatever his next song was after his triple shot was finished.

But it was clearly a deviation. I listened to that station for a couple of hours that night. Sometimes the reception was better than at other times, but I never heard so much as two consecutive songs by another performer — let alone three.

Now, I've never objected when someone wanted to play some Stevie Ray Vaughan — especially in the last 20 years. In case you didn't realize it, it was 20 years ago today that Stevie Ray died in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin.

I remember that day very well. I was working for a newspaper in north Texas (a comparatively short drive — by Texas standards — from Oak Cliff, the section of Dallas where Stevie Ray was born in 1954). I was working for an afternoon paper, so it was necessary to come to the office early in the morning in order to get the paper done in time.

In those days, I didn't usually work on Mondays, but that day, for whatever reason, I did.

On Sunday, Aug. 26, 1990, Stevie Ray played for a sold–out audience in Wisconsin, then boarded a helicopter that was supposed to transport him to Chicago. But it crashed shortly after takeoff.

I slept later than I planned to that Monday morning so I didn't switch on the TV while I was rushing around, getting ready for work. And I don't remember why, but I didn't switch on my radio in my car. So I didn't know what had happened.

But I knew, when I walked into the newsroom, that something had happened. My co–workers were gathered around a small TV in the corner of the newsroom, watching reports from Wisconsin. No one said a word.

As I walked through the door and crossed the newsroom, I could clearly hear the TV reporter recounting how Vaughan's helicopter had crashed some four or five hours earlier. By the time I arrived at the TV, I already knew what had happened.

They had a big funeral for him in Oak Cliff later that week.

Nearly 30 years earlier, Oak Cliff achieved a certain amount of national notoriety for being the home of accused JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. And 30 years before that, criminal couple Bonnie and Clyde met in Oak Cliff.

But Oak Cliff probably never had as many famous people walking its streets as it did that day in 1990. Among those who attended Stevie Ray's funeral were Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton (who had participated in an all–star jam in Vaughan's final show a few days earlier), Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, the members of ZZ Top and many more.

In all, it was estimated that more than 1,500 people were crammed into the church where the service was held, and more than 3,000 stood outside in the heat of a late August day in Texas. All to pay tribute to a boy who, it could probably be said, came from the wrong side of the tracks.

He was 35 when he died.

It's hard to believe he's been gone as long as he has. It's even harder to imagine what he might look like at the age of 55 or what he might be doing today.

But the one thing I don't have trouble imagining is that Stevie Ray would be doing something musically. He might have gone in unexpected directions if he had been alive for the last two decades, but, unless he had to have his arms amputated for one reason or another, I have no doubt he would be playing his guitar.

Like John Lennon 10 years earlier, Stevie Ray Vaughan was taken much too soon, and the world was deprived of the unique contributions he would have made.

As a result, we have all been poorer since that helicopter crashed in Wisconsin 20 years ago today.