A Focused Stevie Ray Vaughan Comes Clean in 1988 Guitar World Interview
Here's our interview with Stevie Ray Vaughan from the September 1988 issue of Guitar World, which was a special "Blues Power!" issue. The story, which started on page 50, ran with the headline, "Stevie Comes Clean: The new, improved Stevie Ray Vaughan is stone-free … and drug and alcohol-free, too. Now, he can play the blues."
Stevie Ray strides into the room, looking sharp, as usual.
He’s sporting his signature snakeskin boots, a grey Late Night With David Letterman T-shirt tucked into his blue jeans and a cool black denim jacket over that with the face of Dr. Martin Luther King boldly emblazoned across the back.
And though the apparel hasn’t changed that much –- the same flamboyant Texan bohemian fashions he flaunted some five years ago when we first met -– there’s still a new look to the man, a new vibe.
Gone are the bleary eyes and telltale stagger. Gone is the booze and coke haze that hung over the band and crew like a heavy shroud. A new spirit of positiveness permeates the entire entourage, right down to the roadies, soundmen and lighting crew. Like Stevie Ray, they’ve all come clean.
Two years ago, he’d more than likely be waving a bottle of Old Crown whiskey in your face as he answered your questions. When I first interviewed him for Guitar World, Stevie Ray seemed shy, inarticulate, guarded … maybe even a little frightened. He gave one-, two-word answers and rarely offered eye contact.
But on this bright day in Orlando, Florida, a few hours before his show at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, just across the road from the Omni Hotel where he and the crew are staying, Stevie Ray is a different man. He speaks with a kind of urgency and conviction that was lacking in his repartee the last time we spoke. And when he makes a point, he stares you down with an intense gaze, just to make sure you’re copping his drift.
He seems focused, physically together and spiritually anchored. He's learned about things like humility, commitment, responsibility. He's got a new lease on life, and he's glad to be sharing the lessons learned on the road back to sobriety. In concert now, during the anthemic ballad "Life Without You" (a soulful "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay"-type set-closer), he warns his young audiences about getting caught up in bad habits and making the kinds of mistakes with their lives that he made.
On the 1986 Grammy-nominated Live Alive album, he used this same song to lecture about the evils of apartheid in South Africa. Now, after having fallen off stages, succumbing to a total physical collapse and finally entering a treatment facility in Georgia back in October of 1986, he uses "Life Without You" as a moving, musical backdrop to his current crusade against the evils of drugs and alcohol.
The fervor of his rap gives Stevie Ray the aura of an evangelist preacher working the crowd. And this is no hollow pitch; he means every word he says, from the bottom of his heart. He had hit rock bottom and is now rededicating his life to his music, his friends, to appreciating each new day as it comes. Every day that passes without a drink or a snort is another victory for Stevie Ray Vaughan. So far, he's winning big.
"I can honestly say that I'm really glad to be alive today," he begins, with that dead-serious gaze, "because left to my own devices, I had too many vices and I would've slowly killed myself."
He takes a sip of coffee and continues in a contemplative mode, ''I'm just doing the best I can now to keep this going … trying to grow up and remain young at the same time. I got a lot of paradoxes in my life. I guess I'm a real confused person, but there are some focused parts to my life now, and I'm slowly trying to put all the pieces back together."
A big part of his remedy is hard work. For the past eighteen months, Stevie Ray has been touring relentlessly. Backed by Double Trouble (drummer Chris Layton, bassist Tommy Shannon and keyboardist Reese Wynans), he opened the first leg of Robert Plant's North American tour before flying to Europe to headline summer blues festivals in Italy, Germany, Belgium and Holland.
He's been so booked solid with one-nighters that he probably won't get into a studio to begin working on his next album until August, maybe as late as September. Meanwhile, touring remains good therapy. And now that he's in the peak of fit (He and the crew now work out with weights and play hoops on the road instead of working out with bottles of Jack Daniels and Old Crown), he's performing with a newfound vitality and boundless energy that just wasn't there before.
"I was running out of gas and there were no pumps inside," he explains. "It was getting to a point where ... you know, you can't give somebody a dollar if you ain't got one. You can try all you want, but if you're out of gas, you just cannot give anymore. This was around the time we were mixing the Live Alive album. It was a real crazy period for all of us, because for a long time we had a schedule that was just completely out of hand.
"And the only reason we put up with it was because we thought we were superhuman, partly from the situation we were in and partly from doing too much coke. I mean, the whole deal is when you walk onstage, you're up there bigger than life. People idolize you. And if you let that go to your head, then you're in trouble. You have to keep those things in perspective, but that's hard to do when you're high on cocaine and drink all the time."
He pauses, sighs a bit and continues. "We began to see that this schedule was taking its toll. During that period we were touring and making a record. My trick was not to sleep at all. I would stay in the studio all night long doing mixes of the live stuff and choosing tunes. I'd leave the studio about noon, go to the hotel to grab a shower, go to the sound check, play the gig, come back to the studio, stay there all night doing mixes, come back to the hotel the next noon, grab a shower, go to the sound check, play the gig, come back to the studio and the whole thing would start over again."
He shakes his head and mutters in disbelief, "For two weeks straight I did that. We had spread ourselves way too thin, tried to put our fingers in too many parts of the pie at the same time. It was taking its toll, and the only way we could see to deal with that was, 'Oh, you 're too tired? Well, here, snort some of this.'
And between the coke and the alcohol, it had gotten to the point where I no longer had any idea what it would take to get drunk. I passed the stage where I could drink whatever I wanted to and hold my liquor, so to speak. One day I could drink a quart and then the next day all I'd have to do was drink one Sip and I'd get completely smashed."
He doesn't remember exactly how much he drank the night he fell off the stage in London. Maybe two, three drinks. Maybe a quart. But it was painfully obvious at that point that something had gone dreadfully haywire with the reigning star of the rock and blues scene. John Hammond's promising protégé was drowning in a morass of self-destruction.
"I would wake up and guzzle something, just to get rid of the pain I was feeling. Whiskey, beer, vodka, whatever was by me. And it was getting to the point where I'd try to say 'hi' to somebody and I would just fall apart, crying and everything. It was like... solid doom. I had hit rock bottom and there really was nowhere to go but up. I had been trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps, so to speak, but they were broke, you know."
His mental, physical and spiritual decline was exacerbated by his bad habits, which included pouring cocaine into his drinks to keep the buzz on longer. "I had torn up my stomach real bad by doing that. I didn't realize that the cocaine would crystallize in my stomach and make cuts inside there. I was really messed up and finally I had a breakdown. I mean, everything fell apart. And I finally had to surrender to the fact that I didn't know how to go without the stuff. In my mind, I had envisioned myself just staying high for the rest of my life, you know? But I had to give up to win, 'cause I was in a losing battle."
Around September of 1986, he entered a clinic in London under the care and supervision of Dr. Victor Bloom. "He filled me in on the disease of alcoholism, and made me realize that this thing had been going on for a long time with me, long before I ever started playing professionally. Fact is, I had been drinking since 1960, when I was six years old.
"That's when I first started stealing Daddy's drinks. Or when my parents were gone, I'd find the bottle and make myself one. I thought it was cool ... thought the kids down the street would think it was cool. That's where it began, and I had been depending on it ever since.”
Stevie Ray readily admits that just before the breakdown, the constant intake and build-up of drugs and alcohol in his system ultimately wrought negative effects on his playing and the band 's overall performance.
"Sure, it affected my playing, ‘Course, to my ears a lot of times it was, 'Boy, don't that sound good?' And there were some great notes that came out, but they were not always necessarily by my doing. It was kind of like I was getting carried through something. I just wasn't in control. Nobody was. We were all exhausted. You could hear it on the tapes of the stuff we had to cull through for the Live Alive album. Some of those European gigs were okay; some of them sounded like half-dead people.
And part of the deal was that this kind of behavior is so accepted in this industry. It's the classic line of "Gollee, he sure is screwed up, but he sure can play good." And I found out that if I stayed loaded all the time, my ego got patted on the back and I didn't have to worry about things that I should be thinking about. It was a lot more comfortable to run from responsibilities. There were a lot of things I was running from, and one of them was me. I was a thirty-three-year-old with a six-year-old kid inside of me, scared and wondering where love is.”
We talk of Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Jaco Pastorius -- all musical geniuses who drowned their fears and sorrows and anger in drugs and drink. Stevie Ray might have been added to that list.
"I didn't have the nuts to do it all the way," he confesses. And I had a lot of help and support from people, so I was able to see my problem. I came to realize that the alcohol problem, the drug problem and the fear were all symptoms of an underlying problem that's called lack of love. Once you really become an addict or an alcoholic, the drink and drugs just take the place of people you care about and those people who care about you. You forget how to love, you reject love. You become consumed by fear.
"I was walking around trying to act cool, like I had no fear at all. You know ... 'Scared of what?' And that's why I stayed scared. I was scared that somebody would find out that I was scared. And now I'm finally realizing that fear is the opposite of love."
Now when he sings 'Ain't Gone 'N' Give Up On Love" in concert, the song has new, deeper meaning for him. And when he comes to the next verse "Love's not gonna give up on me," he's quick to add ... "or you!" He's seen the light and he's spreading the message, reaching out to those hordes of guitar freaks and blues lovers who have loyally followed him and admired him through all the good times and bad scrapes.
"The music, to me, has become really important. All along, there have been good reasons to play -- I like it, a lot of other people like it, it's fun. But beyond that, it can help us out in all kinds of ways. Music really is a way to reach out and hold onto each other in a healthy way. I'm finding that out now. It's helped me to open up more and take a chance on loving people, instead of just isolating and suspecting everybody that I run into.”
A smile breaks across his somber face as he adds, "There's just a lot more reasons to live now. I can't blame the music for what I got into. I had just kind of misplaced what was really going on with my life. There were a lot of mistakes made, and now I can try and learn from those. It took all the crap I went through to come out on this side, and now I can try to make amends wherever I can. I've been sober now for eighteen months and six days, counting today I'm discovering that it's really a wonderful world out there; I just have to open my eyes to it.
During his month-long stay in the treatment facility, Stevie Ray was able to slow down, take stock of himself and begin building a new, healthier perspective on life. The battle is far from over, as he explains.
"To show you how crazy this disease of alcoholism is, on the way to the treatment center I borrowed ten dollars from my mother. I told her I was going to buy some duty-free cigarettes, but instead, I went straight to the bar and spent all the money as quick as I could on double shots of Crown, 'cause I realized that I had never been on a plane sober before.
"Here I had just come out of the clinic in London, had gotten some information about what was wrong with me, learned all about what the problem was and how to deal with it, and still fell right back into that old thinking. I mean, I was on my way to go into a treatment facility, and had a quick thought of, 'Wow, I've never done this straight before. 'That's the type of thinking that we alcoholics have to defend against for the rest of our lives, though we take it one day at a time. Take care of today -- that’s the idea."
While in the Marietta treatment facility, Stevie Ray got some visits from special friends who had been pulling for him all along. "I had tremendous amounts of support," he sighs. "I still do, from other people in the band, the road crew, my mother, my girlfriend, other people who were in the program themselves. A lot of people wrote, called and gave support, cause they had gone through things like this. Those people saved my life, and now every day that I live, it never fails; somewhere along the line, in the course of a day, I get reminded about those people."
Jackson Browne is one of those people. He had initially met Stevie Ray in 1982 at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland, before the Texas bluesman had a record deal. Jackson was so knocked out by Stevie Ray's mighty blues prowess that he invited him and his band to use his home studio at no cost. They remained friendly through the success of Texas Flood ('83), Couldn't Stand The Weather ('84), Soul To Soul ('85) and Live Alive ('86). And when Stevie Ray finally crashed, his old pal Jackson was there with a helping hand.
Another visitor to the treatment facility was Eric Clapton, himself no stranger to the evils of self-abuse. Clapton had tried to talk to Stevie Ray about his drinking problem years before, but as Vaughan recalls, "Back then he could sense that I wasn't ready, so he didn't push it. See, you can try, you can let somebody know what's going on, but if they're not ready to quit, you can't make 'em quit. You just can't.
"They're gonna despise you for it. They'll resent the fact that you tried to tell them how to live their life. When a person's in that spot, it seems like those people really don't care at all. All they wanna do is take this away from you, so you get defensive. You turn on them. You try to act tough and you try to convince yourself that, 'Oh, they don't know what they're missing. ' And you die inside that way. You really want to say, 'I need help,' but you don't know how anymore."
Clapton met Stevie Ray a few years ago when both were on tour in Australia. "He was leaving the hotel and I went out to talk to him, hangover and the whole bit, you know? He was sober, of course, and was really calm the whole while I sat there downing two, three shots of Crown. And he just sort of wisely looked at me and said, 'Well, sometimes you gotta go through that, don'tcha?' He understood that if I had been ready to stop then and there, he would've gone on with the next part of it. But I wouldn't reach that point until I was literally falling off stages, about a couple years later."
Another person who had tried to set Stevie Ray straight along the way was Albert King, a hero and father figure to the young Texas bluesman.
"He's someone I've respected all my life, somebody I've looked up to musically and as a person. In fact, there have been several times when he said he was like my Daddy. I've always looked up to him that way He tried to talk to me on several occasions, but I never listened. Why? Because I was hooked, man. I had to learn for myself. I had to reach the bottom before I could see clearly
"But anyway, I remember this one time in particular ... we were doing a show together and he walked in backstage and said, 'We gonna have a heart-to-heart. I been watching you wrestle with that bottle three, four times already. I tell you what, man. I like to drink a little bit when I'm at home. But the gig ain't no time to get high.’
"He was trying to tell me to take care of business, to give myself a break, but I was doing my usual deal of trying to act like I had it all together, you know? 'Hey, ain’t nuthin' wrong, man. I'm leading the life,' and all that bullshit. I was trying not to see it, but I realize now that it 's like this: I don't drink because I have all these problems; I have all these problems because I drink. And I didn't get high because I had all these problems; I had all these problems because I got high. Now, I realize that nothing's so bad that getting drunk or getting high is gonna make it any better. Period.”
He smiles again, laughs out loud and adds, "Man, sobering up really screws up your drinking. And for that I'm real grateful."
Stevie's doing the stroll on "Pride and Joy," a little crowd-pleasing trick he may have picked up from fellow Texan and personal hero Albert Collins. He's beaming as he comps on his beat-up '59 Strat, raking the strings in smooth, circular motions to accentuate the shuffle groove. A white plume in his black Zorro hat flutters behind him as he stalks across the huge stage of Fort Lauderdale's Sunrise Music Theater.
On the slow blues of "Texas Flood," he digs for roots, dipping deeply into the Albert King bag, just as Jimi Hendrix did on "Red House" or on "Rainy Day, Dream Away" or on "Dolly Dagger" or a host of others. Then, on the crowd favorite, "Say What!," he stomps firmly yet strategically on the Vox wah-wah pedal in this answer to Jimi's "Still Raining, Still Dreaming."
On Howlin Wolf's "Tell Me," he reaches for some of the raunch of Hubert Sumlin or Lowell Fulson' or Jimmy Rogers. And on the slick blues of "Mary Had A Little Lamb," he pulls out those smooth, fleet-fingered licks that made Buddy Guy a guitar hero.
He pays tribute to Freddie King with the classic instrumental "Hideaway" before launching into his own hard-rockin' instrumental, "Scuttle Buttin'," stretching each tune to ten minutes or more with searing solos. His throat is hoarse this night, so he tries to save it as much as possible. Backstage before the show, he had a certified massage therapist work him over with a little shiatsu on the back of the neck, trying to loosen up those tight muscles and alleviate strain on the voice box.
"I've got an acupuncturist who does wonders for me," he says, "but he's back in New York and he won't travel, so I gotta do what I can on the road. "
After a rousing shuffle blues version of the Beatles' "Taxman," which the band just recorded for a full-length animated movie due out next summer, Stevie Ray introduces special guest Otis Rush. The Chicago bluesman, another hero of Vaughan's since his boyhood days in Austin, steps out onto the Sunrise stage, decked out in cowboy boots, cowboy hat, workshirt and jeans and toting his trusty righty Gibson stereo 345 (which he flips over and plays lefty, just like Albert King and Jimi Hendrix).
There's been no rehearsal and Otis barely had time for a soundcheck. He had literally just stepped off a plane in Fort Lauderdale and was quickly taxied to the gig, and he's not used to these big rock concert amps. He's playing through a Marshall stack and his semi-hollow Gibson feeds back something awful through the first couple of songs, until the soundmen finally zero in on the proper EQ adjustments.
They jump into a mid-tempo shuffle. Otis is warming up now and the crowd is clearly warming up to him. By the time he lays into "Stormy Monday" with that soulful holler and singing guitar voice of his, he has this auditorium of young blues fans in the palm of his hand.
Many in the crowd probably never heard of him before, but after a blazing rendition of "Got My Mojo Working," they're well-acquainted with the man. Some will no doubt head to their local record stores the next day and peruse the blues bins looking for Otis Rush albums. And for that, Stevie Ray Vaughan deserves credit.
Sure, he's riding high as the most popular, most widely exposed blues celebrity these days; his drawing power at the box office is even greater than that of B.B. King. But Stevie Ray reveres his blues fathers -- B.B., Albert and Earl King, Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers -- the list goes on and on.
And whenever possible, he goes out of his way to pay back some of what he got from them. We're seeing that in action this night at the Sunrise Music Theater as the crowd whoops and hollers for the mild-mannered bluesman from Chicago's North Side, Mr. Otis Rush himself.
On the Riverboat President, which floats down the Mississippi River as part of the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival, he brings out special guest Albert Collins, and the two exchange licks well into the night. At the Chicago Blues Festival a couple years back, he mixed it up on stage with Buddy Guy, and down around his home stomping grounds, the Austin-Dallas-Fort Worth network, he regularly goes toe-to-toe with the local celebrity six-stringers. Yeah, he's giving it back, all right.
"Those guys are the ones who really ought to have the recognition," he maintains. "They're the pioneers and the innovators and they deserve respect for that. Listening to all the great records by Albert King and Albert Collins, Otis Rush... B.B. King's Live At The Regal, which is one of the most amazing records I've ever heard ... there's millions of records we could talk about and each one of them is unbelievable in its own right. They're like books, in a sense. You can reread them and gain a new insight each time. They never sound the same, to me anyway there's always something new to learn in each one. So these great bluesmen, they've all been like my teachers.
"And I'm really just another Texas blues guitarist, but I think I've got something special to say with my music. But I have to keep these things in perspective, because they're gifts. It's all a gift, and I have to give it back all the time or it goes away If I start believing that it's all my doing, it's gonna be my undoing. And I'm committing myself to doing the most I can with the gifts I have, so that they do as many people good as possible."
Stevie Ray's stopped running from himself. He's learned about the power of love and the joy of living. He's been through some rough times and now he's all the stronger for it- physically, mentally, spiritually and musically. You can hear it in his voice when he sings. You can detect the new vitality when he solos. There's an urgency there, a sense of conviction and personal statement. All the crutches have been removed and he's standing up like a man on his own two feet. It's the new and improved Stevie Ray Vaughan. He's paid his dues and now he's really got a right to sing the blues.
''And now I realize that I'm responsible to stay sober and to reach out to anybody who's got a problem with it. If I'm in a position to give any kind of help to them and I don't, then what have I done? Hell, if it hadn't been for people reaching out to me, I may not have made it.”
He pauses, puts down his last cup of coffee and points to a small white pin on his lapel that bears the familiar frizzy-haired visage of Jimi Hendrix.
"You know," he begins in an urgent tone, "there's a big lie in this business. The lie is that it 's okay to go out in flames. But that really doesn't do anybody much good. I may be wrong, but I think Hendrix was trying to come around. I think he had gotten a glimpse of what he needed to change and that he really wanted to change. And I found myself in a similar position.
He lets out a long sigh, his voice dropping to a solemn whisper as he adds, "Some of us can be examples about going ahead and growing. And some of us, unfortunately, don't make it there and end up being examples because they had to die. I hit rock-bottom, but thank God my bottom wasn't death."
Amen. And now that he sees clearly, the man is back with a vengeance.