We gave it a B+
Anyone who has gone to high school remembers someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan: the shy, awkward ugly duckling who couldn’t communicate with students or teachers, preferring instead to hide behind a musical instrument. At least that’s the portrait painted by Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford in Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire (Little, Brown, $19.95), the first published biography of the Texas guitar hurricane who died in a helicopter crash in 1990. Vaughan may have had a wife, a guitar-playing brother, and party-hearty pals on the Austin music scene, but his best friend remained his six-string. In one of the book’s most telling anecdotes, Vaughan’s wife asks him to hold a guitar while they’re having a heart-to-heart so he can feel more at ease.
As Patoski and Crawford point out, that same ax helped Vaughan reinvent the concept of the blues guitar. Rather than play the role of reverent traditionalist (as did his older brother, Jimmie, of the Fabulous Thunderbirds), Stevie Ray attacked the music. He may have worked within the structure of standard blues chord progressions, but the flurry of frenzied notes he wrestled out of his guitar sliced through the genre’s clichés like a barbed-wire cutter; in his hands, the blues became a living, breathing specimen. For that and his Hendrix-like showmanship, Vaughan may be the last true guitar hero rock will ever see.
Even so, given that Vaughan’s career in the big leagues lasted only seven years and six albums, is there enough for a book? Surprisingly, yes. By the time Vaughan became a more-than-overnight sensation in 1983 — with his Texas Flood debut and an appearance on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album — he had been kicking around the Austin and Dallas club scenes for nearly a decade. Patoski and Crawford, two Austin-based writers, trace his slow rise-and his quick fall. By 1986 Vaughan was in rehab, hopelessly addicted to drugs and alcohol. After cleaning up his act, he proudly got his personal life and music back on track; when his helicopter crashed into a hill near Alpine Valley, Wis., after a concert, he had just finished recording his first album with brother Jimmie, with whom the book suggests he had a rivalrous but deep relationship. Pop- music deaths rarely get as tragic as Vaughan’s.
Patoski and Crawford let that story speak for itself, partly because they had to. The Vaughan family and members of Vaughan’s band, Double Trouble, didn’t participate; they’re planning their own, family-sanctioned memoirs. Yet except for the obvious absence of quotes from Jimmie, you barely notice; the authors have done their research, interviewing friends and coworkers and seamlessly working in discussions of the Austin music scene, Texas guitar styles, and even Vaughan’s salvation, Alcoholics Anonymous. The authors are clearly fans, and their clean, straightforward prose downplays the lurid aspects of Vaughan’s addiction to cocaine and whiskey. But they aren’t afraid to point out his penchant for mooching money and drugs off his friends and for excess-related debacles like his shoddy 1986 live album, Live Alive!
What mattered most for Vaughan, Patoski and Crawford’s sturdy book implies, was the music — a horrid cliché that, in his world, was all too true. The guitar framed his life: It gave him an identity, brought him into a world of reckless abandon, and ultimately helped save him, as one listen to ”Wall of Denial” on his 1989 comeback album, In Step, reveals. Someplace, somewhere, Vaughan is probably teaching God how to boogie. B+