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The Freedom of Music: It Was Twenty Years Ago Last Friday…

August 29th, 2010


One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

In the minutes following midnight of August 27, 1990 music fans were leaving the Alpine Valley Music Theatre near East Troy Wisconsin. Moments earlier they had seen guitarists Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Jimmy Vaughan join sidebar-6Vaughan’s brother Stevie onstage to play a 20 minute rendition of Sweet Home Chicago. A two hour drive from Chicago, the performers left the stage and headed for cars to take them to the Second City.

Backstage there were four helicopters. Stevie Ray Vaughan was due to drive to Chicago with his brother and sister-in-law. Instead, he opted, Ritchie Valens style, to take the last seat available on the helicopters. At 12:40, as the last of the fans straggled out of the concert site, the helicopter – piloted by Jeff Brown – who was probably unfamiliar with the tricky take-off procedure at the ski hill site – crashed into a man made ski hill. Stevie Ray Vaughan, age 35, was dead, along with Brown, Bobby Brooks (Clapton’s Hollywood agent), Colin Smythe (Clapton’s assistant tour manager), and Clapton’s bodyguard, Nigel Browne.

I saw Vaughan: it was not his finest moment. He was, frankly, pretty bad. However, it’s hard to blame him. He was opening up for Dire Straits on their Brothers in Arms tour. Dire Straits were at the peak of their fame, as big as they would ever be. Vaughan himself was a well known entity, two years since David Bowies Lets Dance put him on the map, he had two solo albums out, including possibly his best, 1984’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather.

For that, somehow, when the two came to Toronto in July 1985, they played Varsity Arena, a small, concrete building with a low corrugated tin roof. You can imagine the hell it played with the sound. Dire Straits, more laid back, and with more sound check time, managed the problem. Stevie Ray Vaughan, on the other hand was inaudible. His scuttle-buttin’ rhythm style with lead fills just blurred into one big mess. Damned if I know what he played that night other than noise. He may, in fact, have been brilliant, but unless somebody has a soundboard recording we’ll never know. Like I said, hard to blame him, but it wasn’t a good show.

But make no mistake, Vaughan was a phenomenal performer and most people who were fans of Vaughan’s usually came there via a live performance. He was an outstanding guitar player and a vastly underrated singer. For the former, people like to point to things like his version of Jimi Hendrix’s Vodoo Child (Slight Return). I prefer Tin Pan Alley, a slow minor blues that reminds a person of Jimmy Page at his absolute best, playing Since I’ve Been Loving You.

I spent a Friday night in the mid ‘80’s at a friends house, a seriously good guitar player who was a big SRV fan. We spent the night trying to learn the rhythm for Mary Had a Little Lamb, that off-beat shuffle that Vaughan loved so much. I don’t remember if we ever got it right, but I do recall we had a hell of a time trying to get it. It sounds simple enough, like the easy part of playing a Stevie Ray Vaughan song. Simple enough, that is, until you try it.

That he was a brilliant guitar player there can be no doubt. But as a singer, he was better than most guitarist/front men. My favourite SRV song is not one of most usual, it is the simple, elegant Life By The Drop. Vaughan was a heavy drinker and addict. His early performances he would have a bottle of whiskey on stage with him, and drink from it between songs. By 1986, he decided he had a problem. He sent himself to rehab, and came out clean and sober. Life By The Drop is a testament to his sobriety:

Hello there, my old friend,
not so long ago it was ’till the end
We played outside in the pouring rain,
on our way up the road we started over again

You’re livin’ a dream, woe you on top
My mind is achin’, Lord it won’t stop
That’s how it happens, livin’ life by the drop

Up and down that road in our worn out shoes,
talkin’ ’bout good things and singin’ the blues
You went your way, I stayed behind
We both knew it was just a matter of time

You’re livin’ a dream, woe you on top
My mind is achin’, Lord it won’t stop
That’s how it happens, livin’ life by the drop

No wasted time, we’re alive today
Churnin’ up the past, there’s no easier way
Time’s been between us, a means to an end
God it’s good to be here walkin’ together my friend

You’re livin’ a dream, woe you on top
My mind is achin’, Lord it won’t stop
That’s how it happens, livin’ life by the drop

No electric histrionics, it is accompanied by a lone 12 string acoustic guitar. Not to suggest it’s a simple piece to play, it’s not, but the effect is simple and elegant. A song in which the pain of the past, the dull ache of alcoholism flows through with poignancy. It’s in this song you realize what a strong, emotive voice he had, how good a blues singer SRV was.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was, after all, a bluesman first. In the flash and circumstance of the pop era, we sometimes forget that blues is, at it’s heart, a simple music. Vodoo Child (Slight Return) is a blues, however complex it’s guitar part. But Life By The Drop is the blues stripped back to it’s basic element. A single guitar, a single voice, expressing so much emotion, pain and joy at once. It’s what the blues is supposed to be, and in leaving it behind for his fans to find (it was released posthumously), Vaughan leaves no doubt about his status as a premier bluesman.

Twenty years ago this week music fans were stunned by the news that Stevie Ray Vaughan’s helicopter went down at the Alpine Music Theatre. Twenty years ago this week the world lost a unique voice. And twenty years ago this week that friend who I spent a night trying to get a handle on Mary Had a Little Lamb with crawled into bed for a week – because Stevie Ray Vaughan did what every good musician does  for somebody, he touched  him deeply.

Talkin’ ’bout good things and singin’ the blues indeed.

The Freedom of Music

  1. real conservative
    August 30th, 2010 at 23:19 | #1

    That would have been a good show with Dire Straits. Their shows are stripped down but give opportunity to Knoppler to solo a lot based on videos I’ve seen. (real conservative)

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