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MUSIC

Being in the Right Place at the Right Time
Catching a Stevie Ray Vaughan Concert
Jeffrey Beyl

Remember the opening scenes from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark? Remember when that huge rock ball was rolling and thundering toward Indiana Jones? Did you ever see the movie Twister? Remember when the F-5 at the end of the movie was roaring and raging through that farm and tearing the shit out of everything? Think about that a moment and let me tell you about when I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan.

I have always had a soft spot for the 12-string guitar. They sound so mystical and otherworldly. If six strings can elevate me to a higher plane then twelve, especially in the hands of a master, can put me in the company of angels. Once in a while the gods smile on us, as they say, and bring those masters to town. Ralph Towner and his very progressive and talented jazz band, Oregon, were coming to town. They were to play at one of those outdoor, world music festivals in Portland, Oregon. I was going to listen to the band weave their magical, musical thread then I was going to try to talk with Ralph afterward about his approach to the 12-string guitar. I had brought my own 12-string with me. I was going to make a day of it.

I arrived at the park early. I had my guitar, as I said. I had brought along a small pack with a lunch, a book to read, a pad of paper and pen to write letters with. I was going to make a day of it. I had nothing else to do. I looked forward to hearing Oregon and talking to Ralph Towner. I wandered around the park. It was a sunny, summer day. I stopped occasionally to listen to someone play some kind of ethnic instrument, African talking drums, Australian didgeridoos, Bamboo flutes from South America, Chinese Pei-Pa’s. This was during the "New-Age" wave of music back in 85’. Remember that?

I was enjoying myself. I was being "new-aged". I was feelin’ fine. I ate my lunch. I wrote a letter. I lay on the grass with my face to the sun. I drifted and waited for Ralph Towner and Oregon to arrive. When the time neared for them to go on I packed up my stuff and wandered over to the small stage where they were to play. I found a good seat, took out my book to read and wait. I was doin’ fine.

When they came on they cast their spell and afterward I did, indeed, get to speak with Towner. We discussed the 12-string guitar and the different tunings he uses. Then I wandered off through the park again. I found a tree to sit against and took out my 12-string and began to play. I was off in my own little world and actually thought I sounded pretty good.

I’m not sure how long I played. I like to tune out all distractions when I play the guitar. I like getting to the point where it almost seems as if the instrument is playing itself. I’m just there to hold it or cradle it. This is what I mean by my comment about being in the company of the angels. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, oh man!
The 12–string guitar is the perfect instrument to put me there. The sound of a 12-string guitar is so ethereal. It is spirit-like and spectral. It is unearthly. It is eerie yet magnificent. It is…But wait! What is that?
Oh, excuse me, back to the 12-string guitar. They have such a full, yet airy sound. They sound as if….Wait! What? What is that?

I could hear something in the distance, something that sliced into my little world. It sounded like, hell, it sounded like that F-5 at the end of the movie Twister. It wasn’t really "slicing" into my world. That’s too clean and neat a description. It was more like an aerial bombardment. It invaded. It came crashing through the trees like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I couldn’t ignore it.

Off to my left, over a little rise I could hear some of the, well let me just say, some of the ass-kickinest electric guitar I’d ever heard. This was not some guy, like me, plucking absentmindedly on an acoustic guitar in a park at a world music festival trying to join company with the angels. NO, no. Fuck that! This was somebody pouring every ounce of emotion; love, rage, you name it, into every note. This was a guy on a rampage. This was a guy set on furious boil. Did you ever see the movie The Perfect Storm? If the power behind that storm could pulse from an electric guitar this was it. This music bulldozed into my 12-string reverie. Who the hell is that? I had to find out. I quickly packed up my stuff and headed in the direction of the frenzy.

It was evident right away that this music pounding through the park was causing quite a commotion. It had caught the attention of many more people than just me. It had caught us with a big treble hook and was winching us in. A large crowd was gathering around a small stage set up in the middle of a grassy field. I could feel this music hitting me square between the eyes. It was exploding like an M-80 in my face. It wrapped around me and took my breath away. This guy, whoever he was, was like an erupting volcano. He was relentless. He was a tsunami. He was not gentle with his guitar as Ralph Towner had been an hour or so earlier. Quite the opposite. This guy pounded his guitar like a boxer pounds a heavy bag. He gripped and shook the neck of Stratocaster is if he were shaking the life out of a moray eel.

Yet, the sounds he made, my god! Nobody plays guitar like this, I thought. Now, I had seen Hendrix. I had seen Clapton. I had seen Jimmy Page and Duane Allman and Alvin Lee and Michael Bloomfield, but this guy? Nobody did what this guy was doing. He did it all. He played behind his back, up behind his neck, with his teeth. He played soft and sweet. He played fast, lightening bolt runs like a demon on steroids. Hell, he out-Hendrixed Hendrix. Who is this guy?

He wore a black, flat-brimmed, Billy Jack style cowboy hat. He had long hair that hung damp and dripping down the sides of his face. He was awash in sweat. He wore a Mexican serape draped over his shoulders and his pants were tucked into moccasin-style boots. He wrenched the sounds out of his guitar. He gritted his teeth, closed his eyes and beat the shit out of his instrument and us, the audience, at the same time. His guitar showed it. It was scratched with battle scars and war wounds and it wailed and screamed like a thousand onrushing warriors. Who the hell is this guy?

I never found out that day. No one ever said who he was and I was in too much of a daze to ask. Hell, I could barely walk; he had beaten me to a pulp with his blues guitar. But about six months later I was in San Francisco at my brother’s house. We were listening to some music one afternoon when my brother suddenly said, "Oh, I gotta play this album for you. Check it out. You gotta hear this guy." He put a record on the stereo and handed me the LP cover. And it was that guy! It was the guy from that day in Portland a few months ago. It was the same guy who had kicked my ass in that park.

It was Stevie Ray Vaughan.
If you have never seen Stevie Ray play guitar then my suggestion is to go, no, run to the nearest video store and buy a concert video of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. Then run home. Don’t even stop for a beer. Run home, put it in the machine, and turn up the volume and watch. Do it now, don’t wait, don’t read the rest of this piece. Do yourself a favor.

Remember the opening scenes of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark? Remember that huge rock ball rolling and thundering toward Indiana Jones? THAT was Stevie Ray. Did you ever see the movie Twister? Remember that F-5 at the end of the movie roaring and raging through that farm and tearing the shit out of everything? THAT was Stevie Ray. To use the well worn phrase, he blew me away. Still does. No one, not Hendrix, not Clapton, not Page, has ever done what Stevie Ray Vaughan did He was a monster. He was a natural. He could play the electric guitar second to none. When that helicopter went down in 1990 it was damn tragedy to the world of music.

Stevie Ray Vaughan! I got lucky in 1985. He had been around a while. The album my brother had played for me had been out for almost two years already. I always thought of myself being pretty hip to what was up in the music world but somehow I was behind the time on this one. He just happened to be sitting in with, wait a minute; I still don’t know who he was sitting in with that day. He just happened to be jamming with some guys and I just happened to be there. I was in the right place at the right time.

I remember, too, the day he died. I was in my car heading to lunch from work. The radio was playing a Stevie Ray song. I was diggin’ it. Then on came another Stevie Ray song. After that, another, then another. I remember saying out loud to no one, "What’s with all the Stevie Ray? What? Did he die or something?" It was an innocent thing to say but it was the wrong thing to say. When the DJ came back on the radio he announced that Stevie Ray Vaughan had died in a helicopter crash. I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. Oh shit!
I introduced my father to Stevie Ray’s music a couple years ago while we were driving to Montana. We were driving through Idaho and I put a CD in and clicked forward to the song "Texas Flood". We listened a minute when my dad suddenly said, "Damn, who is this?"
"That’s Stevie Ray Vaughan," I answered.
"Wow! This guy is really in your face."
We now call that stretch of I-90 from Washington State to Montana the "Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial Highway". We listen to him every time we pass over that particular section of highway on our annual fishing trips.
Stevie Ray Vaughan! What a show he put on. He put that kind of show on every time he took the stage. I just happened to be there that day back in 85’. I was lucky. Right place-right time.

© Jeffrey Beyl June 2003
Jab168@yahoo.com

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