Sweltering August night, air so thick you dont want to breathe it, so close that it seems to crowd you in your own skin. Stevie Ray Vaughn was killed on a foggy hillside in a Bell chopper yesterday or the day before; Im not sure. People noticed that the wreck had similarities 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. What was left of the machine was hard to recognize as a helicopter. I saw Stevie Ray live back in November with Jeff Beck at Louisville Gardens. It was the first rock concert Id been to in years. Besides the music, the most memorable feature of the event was the stickiness of the floor. I wont 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 didnt 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 tacks. I dont 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, Stevie Ray played the background anthem for the changes I was going through, "...stranded, caught in the cross fire... "
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 road houses 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 Tennesseans 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, Im sure, did it simply to prove something to themselves. The Texan hero goes to any length to make a point and pays any price for honor and personal integrity. Stevie Ray was raised with this, 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 didnt die a heros 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 bite-in-the-ass tragedy that makes no sense and doesnt win anything for anybody.
Maybe that bothered me, or maybe its only the loss of someone whose songs I was beginning to memorize, but Ive thought about it for the two days since I caught the report on Cable News Network. Maybe I cherish blues men who grow old and sagely like revered medicine men and I dont 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 Henley said, "In a New York minute everything can change.
I dont want to eulogize. I dont think thats called for. The cable news didnt carry the story very long. Stevie Ray was no cuddly crooner like Pearl Bailley. There were no memorable sound bites or anthems burned into the consciousness of a generation. Jimi, John, and Janice had theirs but Stevie Ray was still working on his. His human form was never very clear, obscured for most 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 musics power. His was a seasoned, grown mans sort of blues and rock-n-roll, the kind that if you walked into the bar and heard him playing, youd buy a beer, sit down, and listen. Youd stay through the last set, even though you knew that each passing minute increased the odds that some cow poke 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 business suit and loosened red tie. Everyone else would be in denim, black leather, and truck stop t-shirts. 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 didnt sideswipe a pickup with "Born to Lose" airbrushed 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.
© 1998 Syd
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