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Steve Vai reflects on his role in Crossroads: “The guitar duel was energetic and well laid out – kids responded to that”

Steve Vai
(Image credit: Frans Schellekens/Redferns)

Steve Vai has rarely spoken in-depth about his role as Jack Butler in Crossroads, likely because most of the questions he’s been asked were focused on his gear, how he achieved the sounds, which parts he actually played and who wrote the music. 

And anyone who has ever met Vai will tell you that the only terrifying thing about him is his ferocious guitar playing. 

But it turns out that portraying the possessed-of-evil character on film, especially as a first-time actor, required the famously warm-hearted and wise virtuoso to call forth some rather unpleasant feelings… the demons we all have within us. 

In this previously unpublished Guitar World interview from 2004, Vai opened up about his experience making the film and how he delved into his dark recesses to embody a character so unlike him, but one that ultimately became Generation X’s unofficial guitar antihero.  

Musicians, including yourself, often talk candidly about the spiritual connection they have with their instruments. Did you find the movie and its supernatural theme a unique opportunity for you to showcase that connection through the music and performance? 

“There was a time in my life when I was very willing and able to project a very dark aura. I discovered that it was having a detrimental effect on my mental and physical health and I actually spiraled into a black hole. Fortunately for me I was able to claw my way out after several years.

It was an honor to have worked with Ry Cooder. He is truly brilliant and talented in a very earthy way. Being a part of a movie was a hoot

“During the filming of Crossroads, I allowed that aura to permeate me once again. It was difficult because it’s easy to be sucked back into that way of thinking and behaving again. The music was more or less secondary to the attitude. I don’t usually go to that particular place very much anymore. You become what you create, and in those early days I was creating a lot of dark stuff.”

Why do you think the Jack Butler character had such an impact on young players?

“I think people responded to Jack Butler because I was projecting so much intensity into the character. Kids respond to that kind of thing. Take a look at most video games, blockbuster movies, contemporary rock record releases, rock videos, etc. The majority of them are centered around sex and violence. Those elements light up the senses. 

“It’s a frightening proposal to look into the future and imagine the type of stimulating, psyche-manipulating sensory output we will be eating. But I also think there are many socially redeeming and uplifting things out there too. But back to Earth. I believe the music in Crossroads and the whole idea of the duel was energetic and well laid out, and kids respond to that too.”

Butler’s Bag and the duel that followed are some of the most memorable and widely learned amalgams of blues and metal ever recorded. Does the music, guitar or film have a special meaning for you as well?

“It was an honor to have worked with Ry Cooder. He is truly brilliant and talented in a very earthy way. Being a part of a movie was a hoot. I had a lot of fun with Arlen Roth. The movie is like a snapshot for me of a particular time in my life. I was growing at a fast rate and was luckily surrounded by great people. 

“I’m not a part of the fast lane Hollywood scene, and I don’t particularly desire to act but I sure did have a good time doing that film. In a nutshell, I got a call from Ry Cooder and he asked me if I’d like to play on the soundtrack because they needed a hot rod guitar player for this guitar-duel scene. I read the script, built a duel concept and we recorded it. 

“After the director [Walter Hill] had met me and heard the recording, he asked me if I’d be interested in being in the film. I told him no at first, but then I read the script again and felt that a certain side of my personality could relate to the character of Jack Butler. Celluloid history.”