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Stevie Ray Vaughan & The Unforgettable Concert Never Seen

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August 27, 1990: Headed to play golf with Tony and we hear on the radio that Stevie Ray Vaughan had died. Something inside you is immediately shredded and it’s as much about the news as it is what you learned from it. You know instantly that you’ll catalog this moment and be keyed into everything that led up to it forever. You can’t forget the lesson because it’s burned in your core. You live by it and let it change you.

Oh, the times we’ve so badly wanted to make other plans but were unable to because of work.

These inescapable shifts — when you can’t find anyone to cover for you — are usually the worst because irony will remind you at all times just how much what you’re doing blows; the overriding thought in your mind is that at the exact moment you’re there, you could be somewhere else really enjoying yourself. At 25 years old, with the freedom to do anything, the only limits are, well, hey, there aren’t many.

Well, money is one. So we work.

A restaurant job is usually tolerable because of the interesting people you work with, otherwise the stress almost always exceeds the pay and it can be brutal. The experience enriches you in more ways than wallet and it most certainly better enables a person to understand others. Everyone should have to wait tables for at least one month of their life. It would eliminate a lot of the problems in the world. I can almost guarantee that the lady who didn’t want a lime on her Cape Codder — but got one anyway — would simply place it on her napkin instead of demanding the drink be remade (you know who you are) had she had some prior food service experience.


New Year’s Eve 1989: I’m closing the night shift with Tony, a good friend and someone I worked with for nearly a year before realizing we lived directly across the street from each another. One day, I looked over, saw his red Yugo and felt like a moron for not being less of a dumbass. And yes, I said “Yugo.”

Not like my sweet ride was any better — a Renault Encore I purchased new in ’84 and it always felt like a souped-up version of something someone might cut the lawn with. The car never worked in the rain. We tried everything mechanically and I once prayed in French for a réparer but it only made it rain harder. Guaranteed a few minutes into a storm, the engine would sputter and skip. Water in the distributor cap. “We can’t take my car, it looks like rain,” was a common phrase I’d say.

It rained on December 31st, 1988. I know this because Tony pushed my car down an incline so I could jumpstart it on our way to a party we hoped to get to before midnight. We made it in time and vowed to improve our car situation in 1989.

New Year’s Eve 1990: Closing the night shift again with Tony, who’s having a small party at his house and fingers-crossed we get there before midnight. It’s 11:30 pm and now it’s my turn — I push the Yugo while he tries to pop the clutch on a straightaway. Once again, we vow to improve our respective means of transportation in the coming year.

July 3rd, 1990: A day when situations and events conspire against you and you’re the only one who can possibly work a certain shift. You ask for the night off but it’s 4th of July, everyone else is out of town and you’re all the staff that remains. You’re stuck. Nothing to do but deal with reality — on this night, you will not be seeing Stevie Ray Vaughan in concert.

The show was in Essex Junction, VT and we could walk there, it was that close. I didn’t know a lot about him and only knew a few of his songs but I wanted to see him live with the understanding that I’d be blown away and a fan for life. Tony loved him already. He’d never seen him live and wanted to pay homage to a master but he couldn’t get out of work either.

It was a dual act show, I think with Joe Cocker, and we didn’t know who was opening for who. Using wisdom forged through unreliability, Tony and I took separate cars to work just in case the weather changed and we needed a back up. The thought was that if we closed the restaurant fast enough and Stevie Ray ended the show, maybe we could still catch a glimpse.

Excruciating night from hell as irony plays Stevie Ray on the kitchen radio; in Muzak form on the restaurant floor. Diners ask for checks, mentioning specifically the need to get out quickly so they can go to the show. Customers named Stevie sitting next to customers named Ray, always reminding us we could be somewhere else enjoying ourselves and that some things were just meant to suck.

We rush home and it’s quiet, we assume the show is over. It was an outdoor gig and notes carry on an otherwise quiet summer evening. We’d hear it if they were still playing, not always clear but you get the point a mile away. Cracking open beers to big, audible sighs, we vowed to catch him next time out — under no circumstances to be denied.

Then we heard music, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan. This was the encore and the silence before was the break in the set. We didn’t know this at the time. Was the concert just starting very late and this was the beginning of his set AND WE WERE MISSING IT? How long can his encore possibly be? Who’s car should we push?

We determined that by time we got there, it’s over and we’d lose what we were hearing where we stood. The moment we make our move, Stevie Ray stops playing — we had no doubt karma was prepared to pull that crap. So we stayed.

Stevie Ray plays another song. And another. Tony and I spend 25 minutes second-guessing the decision, completely paralyzed but very much able to enjoy what we’re listening to. He ripped through four songs and I can only imagine what we missed; what it was like to be there. Nobody was so seemingly effortless while playing such a monster guitar, as I later learned to appreciate. Hearing a sample was a spiteful tease that only made us each more determined to see him next time he toured.

Less than eight weeks later, this became impossible. Dead at 35. That he’d been sober for two years and had turned his life around only made the loss harder to bear. Now 20 years later, it’s no easier.

There isn’t always a “next time,” certainly. The lesson is also that sometimes you have to work and you don’t get to see Stevie Ray Vaughan in concert. But you and a good friend do get to hear him tear apart a few songs from a distance and it wasn’t a tease, it was a bonus. We weren’t supposed to hear or see anything that night yet were able to part with a taste. This was a gift and I’m glad to have received it. And Tony, if you read this, I hope you still embrace what we learned in the summer of 1990, you’ve used it every day to shape your decision-making and are overflowing in reliable transportation. But if you ever need a push, I’m here.

Lookin’ back in front of me in the mirror’s a grin,
through eyes of love I see I’m really lookin’ at a friend
We’ve all had our problems that’s the way life is,
my heart goes out to others who are there to make amends

— Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tightrope

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