Behind the Curtain: Rock and Roll Adventures with Stevie Ray Vaughan

Steve RosenCategories:Behind the Curtain

Rock Cellar Magazine

Stevie Ray Vaughan was a special talent as far as guitar-playing is concerned, and though he passed in 1990 his legacy lives on in the music and stories — such as this one, from rock journalist Steve Rosen.  

The Columbia Records complex in Century City is a beehive of activity. The building — made of chrome, polished wood and a thousand windows reflecting sunlight — is composed of offices, archive rooms, cubicles and conference suites. In every corner of the building secretaries, administrators, A&R staff, and promo and marketing people are running around carrying out the day-to-day activities required to run one of the biggest record labels in the world.  Before Sony bought them out in 1988, the label included everyone from Boston and Jeff Beck to the Jacksons and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It is this latter artist’s presence at the label today that has everybody jumping.

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Stevie is in the house, and the word has spread. Secretaries keep popping their heads into the conference room to take a peak at the Texas twister. What they see is that even on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of a normal workday, Stevie Ray Vaughan looks like a rock star.

He wears a gold velvet shirt unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. The sleeves are rolled up several inches to reveal hands rippled with veins. There are rings on both hands — the right one sporting two pieces, including one oversized stone that almost covers his knuckle. There are multiple necklaces on gold chains and one contains what looks like an oversized turquoise piece.

He wears one of his trademark hats but not the black, Wyatt Earp-styled covering he’d put on in concerts. This one is grey and has a bit more of a fedora feel to it. It has a leather band and is encrusted with a large, ornamental jewel in the front. It is pulled down low in front and his eyes are partially hidden.

His hair is a bit above shoulder length, dark brown, and slightly curly where it can be seen below the hat. There is a short brown beard, a hint of a soul patch and mustache underneath a large and flat nose. In fact, he looks like a prize fighter and that nose looks like it has been on the receiving end of more than one set of curled-up fists. When he smiles, Stevie reveals small, discolored teeth that look as if they haven’t seen the inside of a dentist’s office in many years. But they never got in the way of his singing.

Today, however, Stevie isn’t smiling. He is pacing around the Columbia Records conference room like a caged panther. Apparently he has just listened to a final mix of his performance on the Rocky IV soundtrack and he is less than pleased. This native son from Dallas, Texas, is much more than just another good ol’ boy from the South.

He takes his guitar playing very seriously, and when someone messes with it, he is quick to anger. So furious was he about his work on the “Living in America” track with James Brown that he asked some of the label reps in the room if it was too late to have his name completely erased from the package. It was. His guitars on the album had been mixed so low that you could barely even hear them.

“I don’t understand it at all,” Vaughan says in a northern Texas drawl filled with frustration. “It’s kind of, and I don’t want to take it this way, but it’s kind of insulting.  There’s only enough of what I played on there to legally use my name. You can’t really even tell what I played. I can show you what I played on it and where I played. I mean I played on the whole thing. They had me do the whole thing several times so that they could have different parts of the same style to use. And this is the first mix I’ve heard that didn’t use my guitar part all the way through. I’d used parts of a song that I was writin’ and I blew it off. I blew it off so that I could keep this one in a separate place.  Now they didn’t use my parts that are on there. I don’t know — it’s just that I’m kinda shocked.”

This brief interlude with the guitarist on that day reveals so much about who he is as an artist and a person. When he first mentions being insulted by the dearth of guitars, Stevie is revealing a fragile and insecure nature. What he is really admitting is, “Maybe I’m not good enough to be on the album and that’s why they turned my parts down in the mix.” He would never say that — and certainly didn’t allude to it that day — but there was an element of that below the surface of his response.

While it seems impossible to believe that Vaughan could suffer from any kind of self-confidence issue, he probably did. Many musicians do. He had been suffering through a long bout of alcohol and cocaine addiction and many times, artists turn to drugs in order to erase those feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. The artist is easily breakable and with Vaughan — in that moment — you could tell how hurt he was. Shortly after this interview, he would enter rehab for those dependencies.

After several minutes, Stevie cooled down enough to take a seat. He lit a cigarette, tried to arrest his breathing, and we began our conversation proper. This exchange took place on October 29, 1985, just five years short of his passing on August 27, 1990. Unbelievably, Vaughan’s entire career — from the time he signed to Columbia Records — consisted of only four studio albums: Texas Flood (1983); Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1984); Soul To Soul (1985); and In Step (1989).

Soul To Soul had just been released and would eventually go to number 34 on the Billboard 200. It was a much different record than the previous Couldn’t Stand the Weather album, and revealed Stevie as a growing composer and vocalist. But ever the tortured artist — and always feeling like he could have done more — he still found minor fault with it. “I like the record a lot but the sound quality could be better on it,” he admitted. There is another cigarette in his right hand, the smoke curling up and framing his head in a white plume.

“The way it was mixed originally was a lot stronger. It was re-EQ’d and remastered in California after we had been through with it as far as we knew. Someone took it out here and tried to make it their record and it turned out to be this little skinny sounding thing with a hole in it. We took it back to New York and in two hours we put some balls back in it. As far as what’s on there song-wise, I like the album a lot. It meant a lot to us what we went through to get this record. There were a lot of odds and we still stayed strong. We grew a lot with the people in the band and immediate friends around us. We learned a lot and grew a lot closer. That has a lot to do with why it’s called that.”

I truly realized in talking to Stevie on that Tuesday afternoon 33 years ago that what made him special was exactly that: soul. Every note he played and each chord he strummed was plump to bursting with passion and energy and spirit. Like the truly great players — Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Edward Van Halen — Stevie was blessed. The God of Guitars, sitting on top of a Marshall 100-watt stack somewhere above in the heavens reached down with his — or her — hand and touched him. The Guitar God said, “I will make you special. I will give you a gift. Your hands will be magic and your fingers will be made of fire.”

Stevie was simply better than everyone else. He took blues guitar to a place it had never reached before. But he still had his doubts and insecurities, and it was precisely those emotions that pushed and pulled him into exploring areas of the blues where no one had ever trodden. I mention this to him and say how his playing doesn’t sound like anyone else and how he’s taken the blues to a very new place.

He seems pleased with the comment but almost embarrassed by it. The idea that Stevie Ray Vaughan would be embarrassed by someone telling him what a wonderful guitar player he is is simply too endearing for words. He stutters for a moment as if he can’t accept the fact that the renewed interest in the blues is all because of him. “We, we think that fans are getting a chance to hear it because it’s being accepted by record companies. A lot of bands have opened up a lot of doors for other people. We’re trying to do the same thing and it seems to be workin’ pretty well. There’s more of a trend by the marketing of this kind of music to make it more accessible and that’s a wonderful thing because blues and rhythm and blues is pretty much the roots of damn near every kind of American music I can think of.”

We talk for about 40 minutes. Stevie has found his groove and seems pretty comfortable sitting there and talking about himself. The conversation is coming to a close and I say something about how pleased he must be with the progress of his career. Rather than saying, “Yeah, everything is great” or slinging some other form of bullshit platitude, he refers back to the opening of our dialog. “I hope I don’t sound like a old biddy,” he admits. “Hell, I just kinda got a shock. I wasn’t ready for that Rocky IV soundtrack. I was all pumped to hear it. I guess I’ll have to find out what happened.”

After all of this, that’s still the main thing on the guitarslinger’s mind. Well, that and locating a guitar. Stevie was told to bring a guitar with him for photos but he’s forgotten. A mad scramble takes place all over the building as everyone scurries about looking for an instrument. You’d think in a record company this size, there would be at least one dusty six-string sitting in a corner somewhere. And there is. One of the A&R guys has a white acoustic/electric Chet Atkins model and brings it in.

Stevie cradles it in his arms, eyeing it suspiciously at first. You wonder if the musician is even willing to take a photo with this type of guitar — not to mention that it’s a Gibson and not a Fender. Adding to the confusion is the fact there’s no pick to be found. But Stevie is okay with that and in fact they could have brought in a ukulele and he would have posed for pictures.

The Chet Atkins has a leather strap and he tosses it over his hat and across his shoulders. Though he’s never played this type of guitar before, the instrument looks as natural around his neck as a bowtie on a salesman. It is part of him. Without a pick, he still manages to finger a long and devastating blues run on the nylon strings.

Assembled label reps and publicity people have gathered around to watch and they are stunned to silence. Stevie smiles and becomes one with the guitar. A photographer comes in and snaps some shots of SRV with the guitar strapped around his neck. He grins and stares straight at the camera, his hat tilted low on his forehead.

He has a big smile on his face now but deep inside him you know he’s probably thinking, “I could have played that lick better.”

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