It was a night, all right. It was one of those. You know the kind…….the kind where you’d rather be nowhere else. An act of life’s goodness.
I was wholly involved, taken over by an otherworldly groove coming off of a bandstand in a small club, name of Al’s Bamboo, some weekend night in Dallas, 1981. The groove was being crafted by this guitar man and his rhythm section, a trio blasting out unbelievable electricity. This guitar man was Stevie Ray Vaughan. His rhythm section was Double Trouble and the rocket splitting blues riffs were being fired off from this dimly lit stage, searing into me through the top of my skull.
I was fairly new to Texas so I didn’t know, but I soon found out. My ears became a witness to several of these SRV parties over the course of the next 9 years, but this show was my introduction. That night, for some reason, I thought of Slowhand Clapton and what he would think of this mind-shifting player of guitar, wondering perhaps if the master had even heard of this band.
So yeah, the kind of night where you know you’d rather be right where you are and nothing else matters. Those moments do repeat themselves…….
Friday, August 24th, 1990: Flying the friendly skies from Austin to Chicago…………. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying United Airlines. Let’s hear it for our 1st officer, John Hill, who just completed his second flight and made his FIRST landing. Let’s make him feel real good and shake his hand on your way out of the plane.” As the stewardess hung up her microphone and passengers began shuffling off, the only other person this proclamation apparently had any effect on happened to look right at me. His exhaling eyeballs mirrored mine. I don’t recall seeing anyone shake John Hill’s hand. MY hands were shaking, and not from extending congratulations, as it was a bit rough coming in on the landing there cowboy. I looked at my watch that I didn’t have, estimating it to be about noon. Chi-town for a night, and then off into the woods of Wisconsin for a couple days of rock & roll heaven up at Alpine Valley. Anticipating greatness, expecting nothing less.
Saturday, August 25th, 1990: Cruising up Highway 47 through the wooded countryside of northern Illinois, about twenty four plus two hours after 1st officer John bounced me to earth, good friend and fellow Eric Clapton worshipper Mitchell Toda and myself were highly close to being right on our invented schedule for the aforementioned two days of magic at Alpine Valley, not too far up into Wisconsin past the state line. Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Robert Cray on the bill. An exploding water pump in Mr. Toda’s engine compartment delayed us a bit, but like I said, we were highly close to where we needed to be. The road ribboned by as Clapton’s scorching guitar leads, from a Royal Albert Hall show earlier in the year, pumped out of the tape deck. Fueled by a backseat case of momentum (iced down Old Style bottles can make for an occurrence of happiness) we propelled north.
So we arrived. Alpine valley was waiting for us. The acres and acres of grass and dirt parking fields were swarming with stoned and happy revelers, far as my red eyes could see. It felt very calming to be amongst thousands of stranger friends. The usual concert scene open air market was open with everything priced to sell. Opium, acid, hash, shrooms. The normal offerings. We held off. Did buy a couple of bootleg t- shirts though and I didn’t notice till later that E.C. was depicted playing left handed and wondered if I could get my dough back but the guy disappeared into the human cattle drive so I just shrugged. I have never put it on.
Geographically, Alpine Valley is a fairly wonderful idea. Close to not much, it’s out of the way of the mayhem of Chicago and Milwaukee and surrounding ‘burbs. Access getting in not too bad. The marquee with the names on it for that particular show rises out into the sky, like a country drive-in theater. I’d only been up one other time, for an Aerosmith and AC/DC double bill back in the late 70’s. Memory of that was a bit foggy, but fairly positive of being there.
13th Row Center seats is what we had that Mitch had bought off a scalper earlier in the summer. You just can’t put a price on experiencing greatness without having to use binoculars. Had to go through a phalanx of ticket ushers to get from the biergarten (couldn’t drink at your seat) to the lucky 13th, but all mojo was not totally lost. And then it was showtime.
So, 5:00 rolls around and it’s time to get down to the musical matters at hand. In order of appearance were Cray, Stevie and Double Trouble, then E.C., but an unannounced opening band hits the stage and their name to this day escapes me and I remember not a note that they played. Such is the life of an unknown heater. Then they were gone. I looked around. The hill was filling up fast. I looked up. A helicopter was circling. I elbowed Mitch, “Maybe that’s Clapton.” A quick look with binoculars revealed nothing.
Robert Cray and his band hit the stage and played an hour’s worth of what he does. No explanation needed. An extraordinary player, highlighting a few new tunes from “Midnight Stroll”, an album unreleased as of this show. Bonnie Raitt appeared and was hanging out stage left during Mr. Cray’s set, all radiant and smiling in her own red halo. Dancing when Cray moved her to do so. Then she was gone. I wondered if Eric would bring her out later on. I looked around again. The place was at capacity. I looked up again. A helicopter was circling. Stevie Ray, maybe? Two more choppers were circling, aiming for the helipad backstage.
Cray finished. Then came back out and served up “Smoking Gun” for an encore. The band exited, leaving happy hands and a sunset behind them. I nudged Mitch, “Man, what if you were a performer and didn’t like being shuttled in and out of here aboard a helicopter? What if you didn’t like to fly in one?” He shrugged and said something to the effect about not having much choice in the matter, now do they? Then I shrugged.
Another half hour set change. Another two helicopters whirred overhead. “We’re close Dougie, we’re real close.” I turned to Mitch, his eyes alive with anticipation. “The real thing is about to happen.” Fifteen minutes to Stevie. As many times as I’d seen Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble since that first night at Al’s Bamboo, with no idea of a number, I had to admit that my feelings were alive too. This just seemed different. The atmosphere was incredibly electric.
Chris Layton was the first to come bounding out onto the stage. Then Tommy Shannon. Then Stevie. Reese Wynans climbed up to his keyboards. The crowd erupted. Stevie Ray acknowledged everyone with a slight grin and quick nod and then proceeded to take over the world, pinning 40,000
pairs of ears to the backsides of just that many heads. The man never sounded more cleaner or powerful. Never sounded more sure of himself. Ever.
Something very special was taking place and we were only like 5 minutes into the set. Something that maybe was hidden, a force of some kind. Where he pulled this from will forever be a mystery. Never a secret to how good SRV could play, but this was putting him on some higher plateau. A beautiful, crescent moon was starting to skirt the southern horizon. Myself and thousands of others were on the receiving end of what may have been Stevie Ray Vaughan’s finest hour. Mitch was dancing in the aisle. Never had seen Mitch dance in the aisle before. Never had seen him dance. The crowd was frenzied through the entire set. Stevie’s fingers lurched and glided and went south so fast, I was almost in doubt as to if this was really happening or not. But there was no doubt. And then there was no Stevie. Set over. The band took their ceremonious bow through the smoke and everyone reached around and grabbed their ears and pulled them back to where they were supposed to be.
As they were clearing the stage for the master, I sat down, stunned in my own thoughts. Heard some great, great sets in my life but this……was epic. “We’re close Dougie, we’re real close,” Mitch shook me out of my reverie. I noticed my good friend alive with anticipation again. Doubly so. Not many people in the universe dig Clapton as much as G.Mitchell Toda. I had already seen an earlier show on this tour. An early April gig in Houston, where I bluffed my way through the backstage door at The Summit to hear the soundcheck only to discover that, because of bad weather, the band was still in Dallas, the flight was delayed, and there wouldn’t be one. So I’d had one Clapton fix this year. But Toda hadn’t, since the ’88 tour. Suffice to say he was ready. The soundman faded down on ‘All Right Now’, the old Free hit. And then E.C. was ready.
The lights went down. The crowd went up……. the first riffs of ‘Pretending’ and all was beautiful. Clapton looked incredibly intense from the first note on. His fingers were ripping like barbed wire. The crowd was in chaos. We weren’t even through the first song. Anticipating greatness, expecting nothing less.
The tune ended. “Thanks very much and good evening. I’ve been listening from backstage and, my God, I hope you’re appreciating what you’re hearing. I know I have been.” I flashed back to Al’s Bamboo. To the night I wondered what Clapton would think of SRV and Double Trouble. My mind was racing and then it was swallowed up by the first strains of ‘No Alibis’. E.C. was keyed up. Maybe because of the great sounds before him, or maybe because he just felt like it. But he was so on it was frightening. Into the stance. God in white lights. The riffs he pulled out of the solo in ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ riding into ‘White Room’ were off the charts. I actually did peer through the binoculars at that point. I felt weak. Mitch was yelling, “No one can do that. No one can do that.”
The master never let up. ‘Before You Accuse Me’ so fluid and effortless with a solo that one could go on a ride virtually forever. Then topped it with the ending solo to close ‘Old Love’. The everchanging ‘Badge’ was beyond what you would want to hear from him. For two hours and thirty, Clapton took us on the ride of our lives. ‘Layla’ closed the set. Majestic to the end. Eric walked off to the chant of “E.C., E.C., E.C.”, women throwing roses, and general madness. Rock & Roll.
As Clapton came back out for more, he brought out alongside him one Mr. Jeff Healey, who thereupon took on ‘Crossroads’ as if it was his own creation and wasn’t gonna let it go. Eric had to put his hand on Healey’s shoulder to get him to stop playing eventually. ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ was next and last. E.C. now had an outta control blind man on his hands. Healey was walking, jiving, strutting, trying to find his chair. All the while mashing down with such force on his slide that I thought the frets were going to spark right off of his axe. Clapton was amused for awhile. Finally, he took the guitar out of Healey’s hands and led him offstage so Ray Cooper could do his percussion solo. Mr. Cooper finished up, and Eric waltzed out for the final notes. There came Healey again, to participate in the mop-up, as the song came to a thundering conclusion. Pandemonium reigned. The closing bows. Gathered my brain up off the ground as ‘Happy Trails To You’ came skipping out of the speakers to tell us it was time to go. Mitchell and I surveyed a spot for our general admission inclusion for
night 2 as we climbed the hill along with everyone else. Then we slid out into the uncertainty of the remainder of the night.
I had no problem navigating us back through the fields to the car with the newest water pump around. Along the way I had to haggle with a program vendor who insisted on selling us programs that were all scratched to hell on the cover. Free was my only price for that. I would be damned if I was going to spend Mitchell’s money on faulty merchandise. The first order of business of grabbing cold beers out of our backseat cooler turned into the second and third as well. For there was no way out of this vehicular confusion for at least a couple hours. Very easy to get into Alpine Valley proper, not so easy to get out. The hang-ups were in the fields themselves. Once to the road, it was smooth sailing. After draining said Old Styles, into ourselves and out, we were able to finally creep out to the entrance, pausing under the marquee with all the boys’ names up there. As I looked up, I thought of how much of a groove it was to have them all together like that………
Sunday, August 26th, 1990: I was solidly into a dream with Willie Dixon when Mitch groused awake complaining about the dawn sunlight hitting him square in the face. It took me a couple of seconds to remember that we’d crashed, seats in total recline, at a state park just outside Lake Geneva. Apparently, I’d been driving. “Move the car over there in the shade, you idiot.” Toda was still grousing. We rolled in about four in the morning feeling bulletproof rock & roll supremacy. You know, because we were at the concert, man. Somehow we didn’t impress any park rangers with this unspoken attitude, because three times we were asked to move on or pay. So we are awake now, what the hell. Let’s try to find some breakfast. We would’ve eaten before the full on pass out at the park, but Harry’s all night grill was at capacity with all the crazed concert going attendees who beat us there. A wait as long as it took to get out of Alpine Valley, so we blew it off. So as we sat in a Lake Geneva restaurant slurping coffee and jamming pancakes looking out at the morning, I heard a guy two tables behind say that last night was his Woodstock. “Alpine Valley was my Woodstock, man. I didn’t need to be in New York. Last night was it.” I laughed through bleary eyes…….
Mitch and I decided to get to the gig early for night 2, but we had some afternoon hours to kill. Those hours were spent riding around the country crafting the perfect buzz, getting prepared for the second night of rhythms. Pulled into Bong State Park, remarkable for its name but otherwise a colorless parcel of land. All the while listening to three new cassettes we’d bought while in town. An Elmore James collection, a Patsy Cline tape that Toda yanked out after ‘I Fall To Pieces’, and a Muddy Waters tape, went by the name of ‘Sweet Home Chicago’. Truck stop cassettes for 99 cents apiece. Those kind. The afternoon drifted on…….
At the entrance to Alpine Valley, we drove another couple hundred feet or so and parked right near the road on someone’s private land. For $10, it was to save a major hassle after the show. We hung out, slamming down cold ones out of a freshly stocked cooler, before making the long trek to the gates of musical heaven. Standing by the car scanning the scene, I suddenly looked up to the marquee and noticed something very odd. All the letters of the names were all in place. Just like last night. All of them except Stevie Ray Vaughan. They were a jumbled mess. I kept staring, trying to figure it out. How could the wind have blown his name all around and the others were left intact? Maybe it just wasn’t the wind.
I didn’t think any more of it and then we started the walk. Part of the way there, I turned around and went back to the car to grab a couple ponchos because the sky was turning very dark to the north. I shot the marquee another inquisitive look locking up the trunk, and, starting the walk again, I immediately felt like I was transported into a late 50’s deserted black & white movie in this field of nowhere. Unbelievably eerie. There was Mitch standing about 100 yards away looking at me curiously, 6 guys in a beat up old Ford fishtailing and yelling as they tore around the dirtweed field, a couple hundred pigeons alternately jumping up and down crazily flapping their wings. And me. Waiting for Gregory Peck to land a B-52. We were early all right. Later on, that movie would be filled with Midwestern license plates.
Arriving early meant being able to pick out a prime location on the GA hill. Staked out our turf and headed to the beer garden and stayed there through that same opening act’s set. Who were those guys? Since I wasn’t listening to them, I kind’ve tranced off to Friday, where I spent a couple hours in a suburban library waiting for Mitch to get off of work. Searching for blues books, I found none. But I did find a book about dead rock stars, leafing through it trying to decipher, along with the author, as to the why or why not of the longevity of life of rock & roll musicians. A pretty girl in a miniskirt winking at me behind her boyfriend’s back brought me out of the library and back to the present tense. A pretty girl puttin’ the tease on.
By the time we got back to our tarp, the hill around us had completely filled up. All the way up, people were dancing their way in. A girl behind us offhandedly mentioned she heard Jimmie Vaughan was gonna show up and play with baby brother and I’m thinkin’, yeah maybe he will. Last night somebody had mentioned that Jeff Healey was showing up, so what the hell. I looked up to see a helicopter making its backstage descent.
I was trying to figure out how many Buddy Guy t-shirts I’d seen during the last two nights when I heard the booming, grating voice of Evan Johns, an Austin guitar thrasher, wanging out a tune called ‘Boomerang’ over the P.A. Some between acts down home flavor. A quick trip up the hill and back and out stepped The Robert Cray Band. Same tight, pretty show as the night before. A little less inspirational, perhaps. Maybe he wasn’t digging being on so early these past couple nights. I gazed around. Alpine Valley was alive. Beautiful women with sparklers in their eyes. Magic gatherings like this tend to elevate the beauty in the soul. Cray ended his set to rapturous applause, took his curtain call and exited for the weekend. The crowd was becoming electric again, just like Saturday night. A chick yelled, “Clapton is God. I can commute from here. He’s God, man.”…………
The lights faded down and that’s the last sane moment that I can recall for the remainder of the show. Stevie Ray pinned ears back last night. Tonight was a Maxell ad, the gust from the sound staggering us backward. The man in the black hat proceeded to impossibly top what went down 24 hours earlier. My opinion, it was the best I’d ever heard him play. By the time he got around to ‘Pride and Joy’ about midway through the set, not only was there no one sitting anymore, there were 40,000 people singing. Loudly. The energy that was feeding back to the stage had to be of G force proportions. Stevie choked tears out of his frets playing ‘Riviera Paradise’. A passionate worker on top of his game. He held nothing back, but did stop short of grandstanding or stealing any thunder from the revered headliner. Most likely it was out of respect, but not once during the two nights did I recall him play behind his head as he so often would at other shows. No theatrics. A solid, out of sight performance. The last tune of the set was all of a sudden upon us………
Out stepped Jimmie Vaughan. Out came the first notes of ‘I’m Going Down’. A flood of emotion warbled home. It was so cool to see the brothers onstage together again, sharing the goodness that the evening was producing for us all. They actually reversed roles for this one as Stevie let Jimmie handle most of the lead chores as he himself stood back and chunked out the freight train rhythms where Jimmie usually lives. The crowd was going nuts. The girl who declared earlier that Jimmie might be there looked to be swept away by angels. When it was over, older bro didn’t want to put his guitar down. Stevie and Double Trouble were taking their bows and Jimmie was still holding. The band strutted back out for the encore. ‘Voodoo Chile’ and it was over. The blitzkrieg had ended. Stevie introduced the boys in the band and then brother Jimmie. His parting words to the crazed army assembled: “My name is still Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
I couldn’t move after being such a witness. Unable to speak, I slapped high fives with Mitch and sat down, trying to work it up again, knowing Eric was about to return……..
I must’ve drifted off into happy thoughts about how blessed to be able to hear this 2 nights running, because the next thing I knew the lights went black, the piano intro was playing, and the shadow of The Master loomed center stage. The first riffs of ‘Pretending’ and lights splashed everywhere. Clapton, for this night, actually did look the part of God. Hair slicked back, the beard, the white shirt. A saint at the very least. It WAS Sunday, after all.
As the set was progressing, I was trying to compare the two nights musically. Clapton once said that he didn’t care so much about releasing live albums, because they were, after all,” just one night”. That actually was the title of a live release from him in 1980. And that every show he performed was different than the next, or the one before. Where he was going to reach for his solos, his mood, feedback from the crowd, and so on. So I noticed little differences in each song. Saturday night, the segue from ‘Sheriff’ into ‘White Room’ was mind rippling. This night, he merely glided into it, but was literally sneering the lyrics like a cocky teenager getting away with some unnamed deed “at the sta-shhunnn”. Looked a little less intense than Saturday night, his playing masterful, smooth, and poetic. All around, the masses were dancing. The solo that closed ‘Old Love’ was more dramatic than the night before. Soundwaves cascaded around and off of everyone there, performers and audience alike.
We were slowly riding through to the end of the set. The Sly tune, ‘Thank You For Lettin Me Be Myself’ bounced off of the band and ricocheted our way, but without the lyrics tonight. A spirited ‘Layla’ to close. The band walked off, elevated from the applause.
After what seemed like an eternity, E.C. finally came out and launched his band into ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, which I thought was strange because the order of the encore for this tour had been ‘Crossroads’ and then ‘Sunshine’. Something was definitely up. Consequently then, the version was rather hurried and lacked the usual punch. So that’s over. What’s goin’ on?
What happened next almost defied believability. Buddy Guy walked towards center stage. Then Stevie and Jimmie. Then Cray ambled out and grabbed an axe. Clapton stepped up to the microphone, “We’ve got something very special for you. In truth, some of the best guitar players in the world.”The crowd reached apoplexy. An avalanche of noise from the assembled. I believe the ground might have moved. Mitchell yelled at me, “What are they gonna do, what are they gonna do?”Slowhand called out, “It’s in A, no it’s in E. E natural.” Then Buddy, whose grin was as wide as the stage, led his disciples into the first riffs of ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and Alpine Valley came tumbling down. For the next twenty minutes the teacher, his #1 pupil, and three who studiously copied and learned, weaved the sweetest electric guitar sounds that you could ever imagine. THIS was the crossroads that we were meant to experience.
Buddy, still grinning, took the first solo, his fingers flashing like a lightning strike. Then he tossed it over to SRV, who did his thing and passed it on to brother Jimmie, who took the spotlight for a few bars, then saddled back into his role of being the greatest rhythm guitar player this country has ever borne. Then it was Phil Palmer’s turn, Clapton’s second guitarist and then over to Mr. Cray, far stage left, wielding a silver Strat. A nod to Eric, who unleashed the Slowhand fury for a minute or two, and then who seemed totally inclined to step back and cruise rhythmically and enjoy the proceedings from his amp and watch the boys duke it out.
By this time the crowd was out of their minds, singing the chorus loud enough for Chicago to hear. Everyone took a second stabbing at their solos with Stevie Ray dominating the proceedings, playing like there was no tomorrow. Buddy screamed out the verses again and then he looked over to Jimmie to see if he was up for another row. With Stevie pumping and egging him on, Jimmie Vaughan shrugged and politely refused. So one Stevie Ray Vaughan took over again, pummeling those telephone wire thick strings that he uses, seemingly not wanting to stop. SRV finally glanced over to Clapton and with a wave of his arm and bowing like a servant, granted E.C. the final solo in a gesture of, your show, you take us sweetly home. The Master obeyed………
The dream was over. The masses let loose. It became even louder. Nobody wanted to leave the stage. Buddy hugged Stevie. Jimmie hugged Eric. Everybody was hugging each other. Mitch was screaming, “That’s the greatest song of my life. I can’t believe it.” Strangers were hugging strangers. All I could do was stare. Then Stevie and Eric embraced, a long respectful loving embrace. Again I flashed back to Al’s Bamboo. They all finally, slowly, made their way off the stage, savoring every moment. Buddy was still grinning. Stevie Ray Vaughan was the last one off. With a final wave of his black hat, he disappeared into the darkness………
Mitchell and I numbingly made our way up the hill and over it. I glanced back one last time towards the stage. My mind was still hearing them play. The exit this night was much smoother, as we had planned it. The white light marquee was its same jumbled self through Stevie’s name. After an Old Style and some fine ice chest dining, we drove off, heading north into the Wisconsin night. Into the fog that rolled down from the sticky summer sky……..
Monday, August 27th, 1990: I woke up in the morning with that I don’t know where the hell I am feeling. Quickly piecing events together, I remembered Mitch having a hard time seeing thru the windshield and across the fog shrouded highway to get us up to his friend’s lake house an hour or so north of Alpine Valley. I looked out the window anyway, based on confusion. The fog must’ve seeped into my brain. Found a transistor radio in the corner on the floor and made the decision to hear what was going on in the world. Like what time it was. Finally, located through the inevitable static of AM radio, in the woods, WMAQ –AM out of Chicago, and I heard the tail end of a story that made my heart drop into my liver. “…..On it were some crew members of Clapton’s entourage, as well. The pilot of the copter was also killed. In other news…….”I sat bewildered for a minute then went to wake up Mitch in the other room. A really bad awakening. We huddled around the transistor until the story came back on. “Guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan and four others were killed in a helicopter crash at Alpi……….”. Our world just kind of went in slow motion as we both yelled “NOOOOO…” at the same time. Stevie’s not dead. He can’t be dead. What is fair? “No other musicians were on board, but………” The radio voice went on to list the people from Clapton’s camp who were also on the chopper. “Why do these things have to happen, Dougie? Why is this?” I couldn’t come up with an answer. I watched these friggin’ helicopters take off and land for 2 nights at this venue and wondered. And now this. Alpine Valley is a ski resort. There are hills surrounding the stage. Senseless. Helicopters taking off in the fog. This didn’t seem to be real. We sat dumbfounded because that’s all we could do. He was dazzling us with his guitar prowess and 45 minutes later he’s dead? WTF? Finally, we just toasted one for Stevie and boogied on down the road. SRV’s name was tumbled over on the marquee….What? Why?
I was teetering on being in a state of shock as we headed west towards LaCrosse. A destination of just because. I was staring up at the clouds and ‘A Little Help From My Friends’ came on over some obscure station we were dialed into and I teared up. Anger, denial, acceptance kind of thing. Which is not just reserved for family members and those that you know closely. Mitch put on a tape of an SRV show recorded live in Philadelphia, 6/30/87. Our tribute to the man. I was still sorting out the unbelievability of it all when the tape ended. “That’s the end of Stevie,” Mitch reached for the eject button. Yea, I guess it is. Maybe this Roy Buchanan tape will make me feel better…….
The reason we headed across Wisconsin to LaCrosse was because in our college days we’d had one or two good times there. So those memories were there. But that was a mid 70’s kind of rememberance and, as it turned out, nothing of much substance was happening there in 1990. We found a campsite, pitched a tent amongst swarms of mosquitoes and headed for town. God’s country, as the Old Style ads used to proclaim. Absolutely nothing going down in town. But as we shuffled out of our last tavern of the evening, the spirits awoke. A young girl, maybe 21 (maybe not) walked up to her friend jamming money into the jukebox. “Hey,” she was hopeful, “play Sweet Home Chicago”. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I don’t think she even knew…..
Back at the campground we managed to get a pretty good fire stoking, even though it was like 92 degrees or so. Eventually I sauntered off into the cluster of pines. Mitch was doing his ‘Train Kept A Rollin’ imitation with every passed out breath and I didn’t really feel like sleeping. So I was off into the piney forest, which became shrouded in fog at some point, to try to fully take in what had gone wrong about 24 hours before. More so just to think, and say goodbye to some sounds I was never going to hear again, and I cried. I didn’t know Stevie Ray Vaughan personally. Worked a lot of his shows. Would say hi. But he felt like a friend. He was an approachable dude who you might see every once in a while wandering about when he wasn’t on the road. He was a rock star, but only to the rest of the world. Austin keeps you grounded, man. I put on ‘Riviera Paradise’ in the car to hear the soul he put into that take, which never fails to move me. Some crickets. A logging train in the distance. Checked on the fire, which I swear Mitchell was helping put out with his chainsaw breathing, then back to the car. The radio spit out the information that the NTSB was investigating the crash. It was 3:40 a.m. It was time to accept……..
Tuesday, August 28th, 1990: We awoke in the mid morning sunlight, packed up, and headed east to grab some Madison blues. Highway 14 to Madison. On the way we passed a truck with some metal scrap on the back that looked like helicopter wreckage. Turned out to be one of those build-it yourself, fly it with your feet contraptions. Why aren’t folks more careful with flying machines? My brain was in the stage of hearing things. As we listened to a Bugs Henderson tape, I swore he introduced a tune by asking, “You got them helicopter blues?” Didn’t want to rewind it to find out.
We rolled into town to see what Madison had to offer us on a Tuesday night. Mitchell and I walked around for a bit until we stumbled into a blues bar. Or maybe it was just a blues hangout on Tuesday nights. The Okayz Korral on E. Wilson Street. A drunken man by the name of Tate was running the proceedings, sang a couple of forgettable blues standards which were painfully loud. He ran the soundboard as well. One of those cats that probably got paid in cognac, and not dollar bills. Everyone took a break and Tate put on some Muddy Waters. Muddy was keeping perfect time with a railroad crossing just across the street, while lightning streaked the southern sky. Turned out to be the highlight of the night. Tate did do a shout out to Stevie, wanting to remember him “as a good note. We’d like to have him as a good note.” The makeshift open mic band then attempted to play ‘Texas Flood’. I’m sure that’s what it was. It went further downhill from there. We split. Tate was at the back of the bar begging for drinks when we walked out.
Wednesday, August 29th, 1990: The day saw Mitchell and I cruising back towards Chicago in a rather subdued state of mind. The sojourn was coming to an end. It went without saying that this adventure had seen us ride up to the top of a musical mountain and then drown in a sea of confounding emotions. We listened to Muddy. It always comes back to Muddy.
I was trying to put into perspective these highs and lows when Mitch dialed in to WXRT, Chicago’s classic rock, and “Blues Power’ came flying out of the speakers. All would be okay. Toda looked over. “Well, this is it. This is the last hour.” When we finally got to one of the roads that borders an edge of O’Hare Field, a United jet rumbled directly over the top of the car. Another safe landing (John Hill?). XRT was feeding our heads with ‘Tales Of Brave Ulysses’ as I followed the plane to the ground.
Mitch and I had shared something very phenomenal. We had shared something very tragic. I was wondering what the mood was going to be like when I got back to Austin. The car stopped. Mitchell got out with me. “You’re on your own, pal.”………. It’s true that I was.
United Airlines. Flight #665 to Texas. As I sat in the next to last row, seat 20C, it struck me that I’d had a whole back row to myself on the trip up here as well. We ended up being backed up for an hour, trying to get out of one of the busiest airports in the world. I stared out the window and spotted a helicopter, amongst all the waiting planes, sitting silently off to the side. After what seemed like three hours, I was finally airborne, leaving Chicago and Wisconsin behind. I would try to sort things out 800 miles away. I drifted off. In time, I was jolted awake as the seatbelt sign rung on. And we hurtled and bounced and veered crazily, 30,000 feet and 400 m.p.h. through the inclement summer darkness.
A special thanks to G. Douglas Seitsinger for sharing his memories of the final show