It was 20 years ago today that a helicopter crashed into a ski hill in heavy fog at Wisconsin's Alpine Valley Resort, killing the pilot, three members of Eric Clapton's entourage, and guitar hero Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan had just finished performing in front of 30,000 fans, jamming with Clapton, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and Vaughan's beloved older brother and biggest influence, Jimmie.
Stevie Ray was 35 years old.
I remember first hearing about the tragedy as I walked along a sun-drenched sidewalk near my old party house in South Van. A shocked roommate relayed the terrible news, but I didn't believe him at first—just like I didn't believe that the equally gifted Randy Rhoads had perished in a plane that crashed after buzzing Ozzy Osbourne's tour bus. It didn't make any sense. I guess these things never do.
I've been crazy about the sound of electric guitar all my life, but the soulful blues-rock noise that SRV created with such passion and apparent ease was something very special. I was fortunate enough to have seen him play live in Vancouver several times, at arenas (the Pacific Coliseum), soft-seaters (the Orpheum Theatre, where he was joined by local protégé Colin James), and, most enjoyably, at the Commodore Ballroom. I also got to interview him on the phone a couple of times, and he was about as ego-less and down-to-earth as a rock god could be. But the best thing by far was when I got to meet him in person.
It was shortly after the release of his stunning 1983 debut album, Texas Flood, and he was opening up for Aussie pop-rockers Men at Work, who were flying high at the time with the hits "Who Can It Be Now?" and "Down Under". Both acts were signed to the CBS imprint Epic Records, and the local CBS rep at the time, a go-getter named Dave Chesney, arranged for a quick meet 'n' greet at the Coliseum (this was way before cash-strapped rock stars started charging for backstage access, as they do today). Vaughan came out and signed my copy of Texas Flood, as did the unbeatable Double Trouble rhythm section of bassist Tommy Shannon and Chris "Whipper" Layton. I'll never forget the strength of Stevie's handshake; it was like a fucking vise.
The last time I saw him in the flesh was when he played the Coliseum on a double bill with Joe Cocker on July 22, 1990. A couple of weeks before he'd called me from a tour stop in Montreal and chatted about a variety of topics, everything from Colin James ("He's a great musician and singer... Shoot, anybody would take him in!") to the rigours of the road ("I really haven't had time to look up!"). He had been touring heavily behind his fourth studio album, the Grammy-winning In Step, the title of which referred to the 12-step program he'd used to keep drug-abuse at bay the last few years. Hearty bursts of laughter punctuated most of his conversation, and, overworked or not, he seemed to be flying high on life itself. When asked about where he found the inspiration to play his ass off night after night, he offered a somewhat prophetic comment on his own mortality.
"You never can tell what kinda turns a gig's gonna take," he said, "but I try to play the best that I possibly can every night. And besides, I would hate to get caught playing my last gig not trying, you know what I mean? If it was the last one it sure would be a drag if I didn't try."