Thursday, August 27, 2015

On Being Denied the Pleasure of Their Company

Most of us — if we had our druthers, as the folks in the Li'l Abner comic strip liked to say — would prefer to die quickly and relatively painlessly when we were at the top of our respective games.

Not everyone is granted that wish, of course, just as it is true that not everyone lives to a ripe old age — but if one does live into old age, he/she is not likely to be as fit or as sharp as he/she was at a younger age. Such a person is hardly likely to go out on top of his or her game.

Most of us, I guess, would like to live long lives, but most people can't live long lives and be as vibrant as they were when they were young. Some can, I suppose, but not most of us. Everything in life, it seems, is a trade–off.

(In a way, I'm inclined to think that Spencer Tracy's character in "Inherit the Wind" was saying the same thing when he remarked, "Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, 'All right, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline.'"

(Perhaps, when the subject is quality of life, it depends on what one considers progress — longevity or never having to contend with diminished abilities.)

My mother was denied the old age that my father has had. Mom was a schoolteacher who died in a flash flood 20 years ago. She and my father owned a duplex in Dallas and rented half of it as an additional source of income. The house had been in the family for decades. It originally belonged to my mother's parents, and she grew up there.

A week or so after my mother died, my brother and I crossed paths with the tenant, who remarked that Mom went out at the top of her game, and I couldn't argue with that.

A few hours before Mom died, she was at a carnival at her school. I've seen pictures that were taken that day. Perhaps there are home videos that were made as well in which I might be able to hear Mom chatting with her students or her students' parents. I can't get that from photographs, of course, but the look on Mom's face tells me she was in her element that day — and, for that matter, all the years she taught at that school. The tenant was right. Mom went out at the top of her game.

While I wish she had been with us longer, it is hard for me to imagine Mom in retirement. I know there were times when the job wore her out, but her work with children always seemed to energize her. I wonder where she would have found a source for that energy in retirement. My guess is that, if she couldn't be paid to mentor children, she would have found some way to do it for free — perhaps in a voluntary part–time capacity at a school or library.

There is a conundrum at play in every human life. See, I am grateful to have that mental image of my mother and not the one that my mother had of her mother in the final years of her life — but I still wish I had not been denied the pleasure of her company all these years.

Today would have been her birthday. It is also the 25th anniversary of the helicopter crash that claimed the life of another — and much more prominent — native of Dallas, Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was considerably younger than Mom, but it could also be said of him that he went out at the top of his game.

And I often wish we had not been denied the pleasure of his company.

Stevie Ray Vaughan struggled with substance abuse issues in the 1980s, but he had straightened up and was clearly on an upward trajectory when his helicopter crashed in southeast Wisconsin 25 years ago today. Each album was better than the one that preceded it, and his last album, "In Step," seemed to be the one that would earn him the acceptance of the mainstream audience.

His debut album with his band Double Trouble was called "Texas Flood," which was the name of one of the songs they played on the album — but it wasn't a Stevie Ray original. Matter of fact, it was a blues standard that had been covered by many artists over the years, but it came to be associated with Stevie Ray. Maybe he played it better than anyone else ever did. I don't know if that is true, but I do know that he played the hell out of that song.

I was in graduate school at the University of North Texas — about 35 or 40 miles north of Dallas — when Stevie Ray was killed, and I remember watching the news reports on the Dallas TV stations the night following Stevie Ray's funeral. The list of attendees read like a who's who of popular music — Eric Clapton, David Bowie, ZZ Top, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne. Those are the ones I can remember off the top of my head. I'm sure there are many I have forgotten.

After Stevie Ray's death, the city of Austin, Texas, erected a statue in his memory, showing him wearing his trademark poncho and holding his guitar at his side standing by the river. Some folks didn't like it. I liked it well enough, I suppose, but I think I would have preferred for him to be holding his guitar in his classic pose on stage. To me, the guitar looked a little too much like a gun at his side — until you got close enough to examine it.

I thought it was ironic, in this the 25th anniversary of his death, that we got so much rain this past spring, and the river flooded the area around the statue. At the water's peak, Stevie Ray appeared to be standing on water.

Talk about your Texas flood.

Yes, Stevie Ray Vaughan went out at the top of his game, but you can still feel the loss for the rest of us. He was 35 when he died. He would be 60 if he had been permitted to live. At the time of his death, he had been putting out several records/CDs that soared on the charts; one can only imagine what the future held for him. Hey, 60 is a whippersnapper compared to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, all still out there playing to packed houses in their 70s.

What else might Stevie Ray have done in the last quarter of a century? I don't know, but I'm sure he would have been an influence on popular music. "In Step" would have been his breakthrough album, I'm sure of it, and I'm equally sure it would not have been his last. The entire musical landscape might be different today if he had not died.

"After he cleaned himself up, by 1990, he was back to playing guitar in a ferocious way," Jason Hanley, senior director of education for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, told the Milwaukee (Wis.) Journal Sentinel. "Who knows what he would have done next?"

One thing I do know — if you like blues rock, then you owe Stevie Ray Vaughan a special debt of gratitude. Every day, really, but today in particular.