Twenty five years ago today, Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter crash after a concert at Alpine Valley, a large amphitheater in Wisconsin. I don’t talk about it much, because I was at that concert, playing in the band that opened the show. Most times when it comes up, it is a friend who asks me to talk about it, to tell someone else the story. It inevitably comes out sounding like bragging, and the listener usually either reacts with awe or indifference, both of which feel odd to me. Mostly, I see it as an ultimately sad story that I witnessed, and I don’t enjoy making light conversation about this kind of tragedy. However, discovering on Facebook this morning that today is the 25-year anniversary, I felt like writing about my memories of the event.
My band at the time was called Janata. I had just turned 21; we were based in Bergen County and had had a record out for about five months on the Mercury label. We’d had a lot of success at such a young age. At this point, in August 1990, we already toured with Edie Brickell, The Kinks, Southside Johnny and Graham Parker, and played individual shows opening for legends like Lonnie Mack. We had a song called “The River” getting played on the radio, and we had quickly grown accustomed to playing opening act slots on high profile shows. So when my manager called me one day to tell me we’d be opening up for Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray in a couple weeks, I was excited, but not surprised. It was par for the course. Still, it was a giant show and I was thrilled to be a last-minute addition.
I should say up front that the whole reason we got this show in the first place was that our booking agent was Bobby Brooks, who was also Clapton’s booking agent. He basically gifted us this show, trying to help us out with yet another high profile appearance. It was so last minute that our band’s name wasn’t on the ticket, or the posters, and nobody outside of our friends and fans in New Jersey knew we would be there.
Unfortunately, Bobby died that night in the same helicopter as Stevie Ray. I talked to him minutes before he boarded, and remember him telling me he was exhausted and couldn’t wait to get to his bed in Chicago. I think of that often. I didn’t know him well, but it’s just one of those moments where you learn how unpredictable our lives can be.
The good memories I have of these two concerts, on Aug. 25 and 26, are plentiful. (The accident occurred after the second show, at about 1 a.m. Aug. 27.) On the first night I remember Jeff Healey coming out and playing with Clapton and absolutely killing the guitar solo on “Sunshine of Your Love.” I remember seeing Bonnie Raitt bouncing around backstage talking to everybody, but not going out to sing, which I had hoped would happen. I remember playing our set, of course. Stepping out to a half-empty gargantuan amphitheater and watching it fill up as we did our 30 minutes.
But my favorite memory of that first day involved Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s one of my favorite memories in my life, actually. We had just arrived and were in the backstage area. There were trailers set up, and some catering, and we were feeling pretty excited to get out there and do our soundcheck. As I wandered around I turned a corner, and 10 feet away Stevie Ray was talking to a friend. It was the first time I saw him, and I couldn’t help but stare. Coincidentally, as they were checking the P.A. out front, the soundman was playing the Jimi Hendrix version of “Voodoo Chile,” which Stevie had recorded and used as a showstopper in his set for years. This, of course, wasn’t lost on me, and I stared at Stevie Ray, watching for any reaction to the Hendrix music being blared over the PA, but he just talked to his friend, seemingly ignoring it. The song kept going and it got to the first guitar solo. Stevie keeps talking. But then, there is a part in that guitar solo where it hits a climax with a very high note bent a whole step — kind of the pinnacle moment of that solo. And when it hit, Stevie Ray instantly played the single greatest air guitar riff I have ever seen anyone do. He windmilled like Pete Townshend and threw his arm up in the air, holding his hand in the air and dramatically shaking it along with this piercing high note like he was playing to 50,000 fans, and then dropped right back into his conversation. It was epic. I watched him transform from the biggest young blues star in the world to a 12-year-old Hendrix fan playing air guitar in his bedroom. It was one of the best musical moments I’ve ever witnessed.
By the second night I had talked to nobody famous. It had become standard for me. After more than 20 shows with The Kinks, I didn’t meet Ray or Dave Davies until the final night. I never talked to Lonnie Mack. I never talked to Edie Brickell. My whole band was great at being invisible to famous people. So, on this second day I made it a point to talk to everyone. I tapped Eric Clapton on the back and introduced myself. I introduced myself to Stevie Ray, and he was talkative and humble and friendly. I stood on the side of the stage smoking cigarettes and wondering how I could introduce myself to Buddy Guy, who had shown up unannounced, and before I knew it he approached me and asked for a cigarette. As I fed him as many cigarettes as he wanted, we talked for almost an hour about Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Chess Records … It was fantastic, and I felt as connected as possible to that romantic world of the 1950s Chicago blues scene that I had fantasized about for so long.
Everything about that night was perfect, until it wasn’t. An incredibly heavy fog had descended on the venue around when the encores started. Buddy Guy and Jimmie Vaughan (Stevie Ray’s brother) had joined in onstage, and they played “Sweet Home Chicago,” an old Robert Johnson standard. I had snuck out into the crowd and joined my friend Amy in the seats I had left for her (she made the drive from New Jersey just to be there). We watched the encore, I said goodbye to her, and I went backstage. There was talk of transportation delays getting back to our hotel because of the fog. The van reserved for us might have had to be used for the bigger acts first if the helicopters couldn’t fly in the fog. But ultimately, and sadly, they decided it was safe to fly. I said goodbye to Bobby Brooks, and he walked off towards the helicopters.
The most profound memory I have of the whole experience happened shortly after they took off. The helicopter, the world would later learn, crashed into a small ski hill minutes after taking off, just a short distance from the venue. Everyone was killed instantly. The thing I remember was hanging around backstage and noticing Jimmie Vaughan sitting at a table talking to a friend. He looked tired, and for some reason he looked a little sad. He had no idea that his brother was already gone, but for some reason as I looked at him I remember thinking he looked broken. It still bothers me to this day. The idea that he was sitting there so innocent and fragile, and utterly unaware that his brother lay dead such a short distance away.
Mike Lustig is a guitarist who has played in the bands Ruth Ruth, Janata, Ultra V and the Johnny Powers 3, and is the brother of NJArts.net editor Jay Lustig.