Blood and Memories
There's one memory of Stevie Ray Vaughan so powerful it comes to my mind whenever his name is evoked. A blues guitarist was onstage playing at the original Antone's some forgotten night around 1975 -- Albert Collins, maybe, Luther Allison? Buddy Guy, Fenton Robinson, whoever it was I don't recall, not because it was insignificant, but rather because I was watching Stevie. He was standing off stage left, his curious brown eyes transfixed on the player's fingers. The fingers of his own oversized hands were mimicking the notes being played, and Vaughan bobbed his head, not in time to the music, but to what he was feeling in his heart.
The local guitar hero never quit playing those notes -- not even in his sleep -- remembers his ex-wife Lenny Vaughan in Michael Ventura's new liner notes to Texas Flood, the first of SRV's four studio albums re-released by Epic/Legacy recently. Ventura paints a colorful portrait of the rising star ("His fret hand and his pickin' hand moving hard and fast, his face scrunched up the way it was on stage"), one familiar to anyone who ever witnessed Vaughan's hands wrapped around his guitar with the Nightcrawlers at the One Knite, or with Paul Ray & the Cobras at Soap Creek, Lou Ann Barton in Triple Threat, and eventually, Double Trouble. In his naked and succinct way, Ventura had written in those pre-superstar days that SRV's music had "blood and memories" on it. They were words of frightening portent.
This kind of intimate revelation by a writer who saw Vaughan in his early days offers a rich subtext to the ball of fire that was Texas Flood, the first album for Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chris Layton, and Tommy Shannon, known collectively as Double Trouble. Texas Flood re-established blues-rock as a popular musical genre in such inimitable fashion that it's difficult to recall that blues was considered largely unmarketable before this 1983 release; even blues-rock had the taint of Southern boogie on it and was laughably outdated in those New Wave days. The opportunity to re-view Vaughan's studio output in this new reissue series, then, is irresistible.
Although to many present-day locals he's just a big green statue on Town Lake, Vaughan cut his teeth musically in Austin. They probably don't remember that before the success and the superstar status, Vaughan lived the traditional musician's lifestyle in this town -- surfing the couch circuit, mooching off girlfriends, playing for food and beer money, and playing just to play. Nothing was going to stand in the way of Vaughan and his guitar. Double Trouble's four studio albums -- Texas Flood, Couldn't Stand the Weather, Soul to Soul, and In Step -- are screaming witnesses to that, and in the clarity of hindsight it's hard to believe they span a scant five years, 1983-1989. Nevertheless, taken together, Vaughan's catalog documents the growth of his seven-year professional recording career from bar blues cover band to a fully realized songwriter.
Accompanying the re-release of Vaughan's studio work is Real Deal: Greatest Hits 2, a hits package containing what will be largely unfamiliar titles to the average listener. Thanks to Austincentric radio like KLBJ-FM and 107.1 KGSR, however, Real Deal seems uniquely tailored for the Texas fans who know material such as "Wall of Denial," "Superstition," and "Willie the Wimp" as standard radio fare. "Everything we recorded was a radio song here," notes Chris Layton, so it seems almost unthinkable that "Love Struck Baby" wasn't on the first greatest hits compilation. As the opening salvo on both Real Deal and Texas Flood, "Love Struck Baby" has lost none of its power, a wild and wicked guitar romp that was also his first video.
The second hits collection also increases not only an appreciation for the bluesmen who influenced Vaughan, but so too those musicians who worked alongside SRV. Not just Tommy Shannon, Reese Wynans, and Chris Layton, but the songwriters as well: Bill "Willie the Wimp" Carter and his wife Ruth Ellsworth, who wrote "Crossfire" with the Double Trouble rhythm section; Mike Kindred and W.C. Clark for "Cold Shot"; and most especially Doyle Bramhall ("Dirty Pool," "Life by the Drop"), whose influence on Vaughan's life can't be overstated. There's no gestalt here; parts are crucial as the whole. Each of the four studio album reissues are digitally remastered, and augmented by interview segments and bonus tracks. Some of the additional material is remarkable, some token, but all four albums neatly weave the tale of a man and his guitar; it's no coincidence that the cover of every SRV studio album features him playing or holding his guitar. Like the image of Vaughan's hands on his Stratocaster from The Real Deal. For Stevie Vaughan, there was nothing but the guitar.
In retrospect, it's little surprise that 1983's Texas Flood was such an eye-opener. Produced by legendary A&R man John Hammond, SRV's debut was a huge success with his local base of fans; these were songs Vaughan had played hundreds of nights at Soap Creek or Steamboat or Rome Inn or Antone's or Alexander's or the One Knite. Texas Flood's title track, for instance, by a long-forgotten Houston bluesman named Larry Davis, had been Vaughan's signature tune since the Seventies, honed during his days with the Cobras. Its clarity in the remastered version gives it a new sheen, but with the addition of "Tin Pan Alley," an outtake from the album sessions, as well as three live tracks from 1983 ("Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Testify," and Lonnie Mack's "Wham"), the album seems more rounded. By way of introduction, the interview segment of the disc features Vaughan talking about playing "from my heart instead of my mind."
That "Texas Flood" was indeed such a heartfelt tribute meant it was susceptible to excess when played live. Chris Layton is more than willing to suggest the song could have easily ended up as much of a warhorse as "Proud Mary" or "Stormy Monday." "I know," he says. "I had to play it." The wistful tone in his voice makes it clear there's much he would trade for the chance to do it again. "When I listened back to the tracks [of this series], it really struck me: We were a damn good band."
Couldn't Stand the Weather (1984) was hotly anticipated and well-received, in part because Texas Flood had garnered such critical acclaim. For their sophomore effort, Vaughan & Double Trouble were still dipping into the tried and true bar band repertoire that they'd customized into aggressive blues. By '84, MTV was dictating musical tastes that had once been radio's territory, and while Vaughan was hardly the moussed-up pretty boy wearing spandex the video channel loved, he, Layton, and Shannon gamely made videos for "Couldn't Stand the Weather" and "Cold Shot." If the guitarist had been showing off on "Rude Mood" from Texas Flood, he was showboating on "Scuttle Buttin'." Couldn't Stand the Weather's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" let the world know that Jimi Hendrix was as important as Guitar Slim or Howlin' Wolf in the Pantheon of Blues.
The interview segment from Couldn't Stand the Weather finds Vaughan talking about Texas shuffles like Freddie King's "Hideaway" and illustrating his points with licks. Appropriately, a bonus track culled from the Couldn't Stand the Weather sessions features the guitarist throwing himself into "Hideaway" (as well as "Give Me Back My Wig" and early takes on "Look at Little Sister" and "Come On (Pt. III)," both from Soul to Soul). The touring machine was in full force by this point, and if Double Trouble thought they were road warriors before, they were quickly becoming battle-weary. The next foray into the studio, then, would prove to be a turning point.
1985's Soul to Soul was a wonderful mess. Wonderful because Double Trouble (which now included Reese Wynans) had never sounded better, and a mess because Vaughan was playing with a fury unleashed by his massive drug and alcohol intake. That wall of denial would later become the subject of one of his finest songs, but for the moment, life was a whirlwind of tours, recording, and publicity, with little to slow it down. Armed with critical praise and carte blanche as the white savior of blues, Vaughan's choice of material for Soul to Soul was surprising in that it was as new to the hometown audience as it was to the rest of the world. By now, of course, the guitarist hadn't been Austin's for a while -- he belonged to everyone. Those weekly gigs so common in 1982 were nonexistent by 1985, replaced by homecoming concerts and set lists. "Though we were an improvisational outfit, we did those songs entirely different every night," says Layton.
Even in the blur of Soul to Soul's furious, drug-fueled tracks, however, hints of change to come were evident in the album's tender closing ballad, "Life Without You," which found Vaughan poignantly wishing for something else. Unlike the interview segments included on the first two albums, Soul to Soul's talking track reveals a more personal, introspective side of Vaughan, one that was rarely touched upon. The shy guitarist wasn't always the most eloquent of talkers, chiefly because his music spoke for him, but he could turn a phrase when he needed to. On the new enhanced version of Soul to Soul, Vaughan talks admiringly about Jimi Hendrix's "soft, clear" sound. Most striking about Vaughan's words is not what he says about Hendrix's playing, but the way you can hear how impressed he was by Hendrix's ability to express spirituality through his music.
For the Soul to Soul bonus tracks, almost 14 minutes of "Little Wing"/"Third Stone From the Sun" is followed by "Slip Slidin' Slim," but the medley is singular in the way each band member radiates in the glow of Hendrix's exquisitely crafted music. Hendrix knew his music would be played by his trio, so Layton and Shannon shine in jazzy solos that illustrate their growth from musicians who once needed to please only an Antone's crowd into fully developed musicians capable of entertaining the Rolling Stones or the White House. The pure pleasure of playing is almost palpable. Of the length of the song, Layton laughs, "We loved to play so much that in between recording songs we'd record songs."
Shannon agrees, but remembers with a laugh the the reality of playing Hendrix tributes live. "About halfway through 'Third Stone From the Sun,' all I doing was playing, 'Bom-ba-dom-bom-bom' on bass, and I'd start thinking, 'Let's see, did I feed the cat? Did I unplug the coffeepot? What do I want to eat tonight? Oh wait -- I'm playing!'"
Only in retrospect does the driving sound pulsing throughout Soul to Soul suggest the screeching halt was about to occur. Four years and Twelve Steps would pass before another studio album came out from Double Trouble with only the ironically titled 2-CD set Live Alive released in 1987 to pacify fans. The edgy concert recording is not included in the current reissue series, but the Sony Web site coyly refers to the five current titles as the "first wave of releases," suggesting a second wave could perhaps include Live Alive. It could possibly also include 1990's Family Style, which is not officially acknowledged in the SRV Web site, but was SRV's last studio recording.
Double Trouble's final studio studio album, In Step (1989), was a beginning in one sense even as it was obviously the end in another. For starters, it brought the band their first Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Recording. Better yet, the album's lead off track, "The House is A-Rockin'," got some of that precious MTV play, while "Crossfire" got serious national radio play. It was the new model Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, clean, more spiritual, and still blistering paint off the wall on songs like "Tightrope," "Scratch-n-Sniff," and "Wall of Denial." The interview track from In Step has Vaughan talking about the different techniques he learned while he tosses off various riffs from his favorite players before the bonus tracks, live versions of "The House is Rockin'," "Let Me Love You Baby," "Texas Flood," and "Life Without You," kick in.
The spirituality suggested by the title of Double Trouble's last album is a force that Tommy Shannon contends had become the most important part of Vaughan's life just before he died in a helicopter crash in 1990. Vaughan had long sought spiritual enlightenment, years before he needed it to clean up; in the late Seventies, he dabbled in color therapy and liked to speak of vaguely mystical subjects. When he and Shannon entered treatment, it was with a deeper desire to find meaning.
"We had gone through hell together holding hands and then we got a new life," says Shannon. "His death shook the faith I had, crumbled it. Then I realized that real faith was accepting death as a part of life."
It's probably the SRV faithful who are most wondering if they need these newly expanded titles. You do -- fan, friend, or neophyte. Some of the older CD versions came from vinyl, and the packaging was woefully lacking in style and substance. Vaughan's overall catalogue is small: four studio albums in five years, six in his lifetime, and six more since his death, including The Real Deal. The new packaging of the studio albums is lush with color photographs, lyrics, and newly written liner notes from Michael Ventura, Bill Milkowski, and Timothy White plus the bonus tracks. And with the ability to create this music gone forever, the little things are forgiven and what is left takes on a deeper significance. As Shannon says about the catalog's bonus tracks, "We would dismiss a lot of stuff then as being not up to the standard, but I listen to it now, and it's good."
How much material is left out there? Since this expanded series and the greatest hits package took the place of the box set that had been planned for release this spring, Layton and Shannon did little work on this project, having concentrated on the now-delayed box set with The Real Deal compilation producer Bob Irwin. Layton speculates that the label may have plans for some 10th anniversary releases for the year 2000, but isn't personally aware of anything. He does recall talking to a fan in Europe who estimates at least 100 50- to 60-minute CD bootlegs exist and notes that Irwin is actively seeking anything that Vaughan recorded, even picking up material predating the early Seventies Nightcrawlers.
"I thought [the label] was out of stuff," says Shannon, "but then someone recently sent me a bootleg of the last night in Alpine Valley that's real good quality, so there's no telling how much is out there."
The Real Deal is a respectable 16-track, 70-minute auxiliary primer to Vaughan's music that includes "Pipeline" from the Back to the Beach soundtrack, "Leave My Girl Alone" from a promo disc, and "Shake for Me" from In The Beginning, a radio broadcast recorded live at Steamboat, and an album not likely to have ever been released had Vaughan lived. It's a good thing it was, though, as SRV's take on Willie Dixon's "Shake for Me" is the oldest recorded material available on him. The first run of The Real Deal also comes in a limited edition digi-Pak with the SRV logo embossed in reflective foil, similar to what Stevie sported on his later guitars. Old-timers will remember he always had his initials on his guitar, though in the early days, they were the cheap gold-and-black peel-back letters that were on suburban mailboxes across the U.S., and located on the upper crest of his Strat and not on the lower half of the pickguard. Old-timers will also remember Vaughan's soft speaking voice when they hear it on the catalog reissues.
"When I hear his voice I remember how his hands looked, his big ol' hands," says Shannon, his own voice soft, "callused, crooked fingers, powerful hands. They looked like mountain man hands, like someone who'd been carrying lumber all his life. But they were so gentle."
"Blood and memories," wrote Michael Ventura of Stevie Ray Vaughan's music in the Texas Flood liner notes, reminding us how uncomfortably prescient words can be even 20 years later. Memories, especially ones as visceral as those experienced listening to music, are forever. Nine years after his death after a concert, Stevie Ray Vaughan is still playing encores.