For the last few years, the centerpiece of Stevie Ray Vaughan's live shows has been his "Life Without You," wherein, bracketed between a pair of mountain-leveling guitar solos, the Texas guitar hero typically delivered a passionate speech about opening up fully to life, love and giving one's all to make a better world.
The irony was that for a good deal of the time, Vaughan was fried out of his mind, with a severe alcohol and cocaine problem that he was fueling on stage with grams of cocaine dissolved in bottles of Old Crown whiskey. "There were times when I was too drunk or gicked off to do anything," he says now. On one 1986 show in London, Vaughan toppled right off the stage.
"I mixed them just to keep going," Vaughan said by phone earlier this week, "Getting loaded wasn't fun anymore, but that way it lasted longer. I drank to take the edge off the drugs, and I did the drugs to pick me back up from being too drunk. And both of those were so I wouldn't feel things, to not feel pressure, to not feel whatever.
"What's confusing about 'Life Without You' is I wrote that song when I was very loaded. Things like that don't make sense to me."
After undergoing a treatment program in the fall of 1986, the 33-year-old Vaughan has been drug- and alcohol-free for nearly two years now--he can count it off down to the day. He finds a number of things in his life still don't make sense: "Life's real confusing because it's confusing to have feelings, but I know it's better by a long shot.
"With our music now, it seems to me that we're playing cleaner. It's more wholesome, more right and more off-the-wall at the same time, like the way my brother Jimmie (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) plays. I think we're playing better, and sometimes that makes lots more sense."
Vaughan's "better" must be something to hear, since even hindered by his dependency he was perhaps the most impressive rock guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. (Vaughan's Double Trouble appears at the Pacific Amphitheatre on Sunday with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Santana, and Wednesday and Thursday at the Greek Theatre).
Having assimilated that late master's techniques, Vaughan also gained a chameleonic command of blues styles, and more often than not worked them through his roots-based music with a rare passion and spirit of musical adventure.
Further recognition of his talent arrived this week with news that Vaughan has just been named "Best Electric Blues Guitarist" for the fifth time in six years in Guitar Player magazine's worldwide poll. That retires him from future competitions and makes him the youngest guitarist to be placed in the poll's "Gallery of Greats."
Vaughan's interest in the guitar was initially sparked by his older brother--Fabulous Thunderbirds' guitarist Jimmie Vaughan--and by the time he was in his early 20s his fret-board prowess was already becoming legendary among musicians.
That legend went public in 1983, when David Bowie recruited him to play on the "Let's Dance" album, and the late producer John Hammond signed him to Epic Records. Though Hammond had introduced listeners to such talents as Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, he was quoted as considering Vaughan to be among his finest discoveries.
The overnight notoriety Vaughan enjoyed contributed to his undoing. To capitalize on his success, he was kept on a punishing road schedule. In 1984 and 1985 combined, Vaughan estimates he spent fewer than 30 days at home.
Vaughan said a number of musicians become involved in drugs and drink because "there's a belief that you have to do that. I know when I started playing in bands going out on the road, these guys were getting real loaded. And the first thing I thought was, 'Well that's how you do it. If you do this, you'll sound like these guys.' That's literally what came into my head, and I tried it, and I thought I sounded much better. Yeah, I was getting better, but it was because I was a good musician in the first place, and the drugs hadn't killed anything yet."
After he became famous, that delusion was further supported by his audiences, which applauded regardless of whether his playing was inspired or mired by his addictions.
"That's the deal about compliments," Vaughan said, "sometimes they feel good and sometimes they feel stupid. It seemed like sometimes people would scream because you're playing good, and sometimes some people would scream and yell because you were so (messed) up. And if there's a bunch of them, it sounds pretty much the same."
When Vaughan sought treatment in 1986, "I didn't have much of a choice. I fell apart. I'd wanted to quit for a long time, but at the same time it was too familiar. The only time I'd think about quitting was as I was doing a big blast or guzzling the bottle. I found out later on that's real common." Even when traveling to the treatment center, he found himself detouring to get some drinks.
He credits support from family, friends and fellow musicians with pulling him through. Among the latter was Eric Clapton, who Vaughan had met in Australia two years earlier. "He'd been sober for a time when we first met, and I was drinking heavy," Vaughan said. "He didn't tell me what to do or not to do, he just looked at me drinking and said, 'Yeah, I guess sometimes you've got to go through that, don't you?' He knew I had to hit bottom myself before I could get up. And some of the things he told me turned out to be principles of the program I use now."
Clapton also visited him in the treatment center. "That helped for all different reasons: because I knew he cared; because I knew he had been through this, and we could talk about it; and it also helped just that someone like him came to see me."
Though Vaughan has toured considerably in the last two years, he and his band (drummer Chris Layton, bassist Tommy Shannon and keyboardist Reese Wynans) are proceeding at a less demanding pace, and Vaughan is only now preparing to enter the studio to record the follow-up to his 1985 studio LP, "Soul to Soul."
Starting Oct. 14--two years and one day since his last drink--Vaughan will headline a series of benefit shows at the Austin Opera House to aid the newly established Rhythm & Blues Foundation, which in turn is aiding America's early R&B; artists in rekindling their careers or recouping unpaid royalties.
"It's got a lot to do with seeing people treated fairly," Vaughan said, beginning to sound like his "Life Without You" rap, "and we have an obligation to help. If we don't, nobody else will."
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, Santana and the Fabulous Thunderbirds will perform Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $14 to $18.50. Information: (714) 546-4875.