Killing the Blues

by Published on
photo by Kelly Lynn James

It’s kind of painful to admit, now that I’ve come to appreciate the late, great blues master. One night in the early ’80s, I pulled the plug on Stevie Ray Vaughan.

During what’s often now referred to as Austin’s “good old days,” I was there, but not entirely there. People who know me find this fact shocking. At 54, I’m Austin bona fide. I’m a jazz flutist who plays in a renegade marching band. I’ve been through a couple of adventures with tech start-ups. I’ve worked as a nonprofit staffer and computer programmer, and played everything from salsa to Texas blues. I helped found the Austin Music Co-op, which provided affordable housing to musicians. I work with the ACLU on criminal justice reform. I realize I’m sounding defensive. Anyone who knows me imagines that back in the day, I would have been helping Vaughan wire his guitar directly into the city’s emergency address system. Instead, at a party at the University of Texas, I single-handedly cut him off in mid-guitar orgasm.

I was a less enlightened creature then. I blame it on growing up in Dallas in the ’70s. There I learned to resent my fellow youth. What teenager doesn’t feel like a visitor from another planet at least half the time? Most people acquire a tight-knit posse and cope through rebellion. I didn’t form any trusting bonds with my peers in high school, partly because of shyness and partly because the TV of the Silent Majority era had convinced me that the other kids were all freaky, drug-munching, subversive criminals. I never considered myself part of “the youth.” Though I was raised in a liberal political environment and was raised to be skeptical of society’s institutions, I was equally skeptical of the youth movement and the counterculture. I never heard anthems of freedom in rock and roll. I found freedom in the elegance of classical music, the order of mathematics and the solitude of practicing my flute. I was a geek. I loved anything obscure or technical because it was a salve for my angst. If I couldn’t be cool, at least I could be superior.

I discovered expressionist composers from the post-WWII era in Europe during my senior year, and it changed my life. Fellow modern classical music geeks will recognize names like Webern, Liggetti, Penderecki and Schoenberg. The pathos in these men’s art came from having watched their lives torn apart by world war, while my agony was more a function of being a high-strung suburban teenage music snob who didn’t know how to relax. But their spare, atonal scores—the stuff others have called “squeaking gate music”—gave me solace and, most important, drove my mother up the wall when I put it on the record player at home.

I was determined to become a composer. I threw myself into studying scores and music theory, and listening to everything obscure I could get my hands on. In the fall of 1976, I left home in suburban Dallas to enroll at the University of Texas to study composition. It was a revolutionary period, barely more than a year-and-a-half after the Watergate scandal. Texas politics was still in the shadow of the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal. This affair had purged the Legislature of a sizable number of well-connected good ol’ boys and brought many progressive reformers into office. On the Drag, there was Nothing Strikes Back, a windowless ice cream joint that was lighted by black lights and always played Jimi Hendrix on the stereo.

To save money, I moved into one of Austin’s student co-ops and found myself in the center of the youth movement I had spent my teenage years avoiding. It was $175 a month for room and board, and $125 a month if you could stand a roommate. It offered the dorm experience without the restrictions. We didn’t abide by campus restrictions about alcohol or having a member of the opposite sex in your room.

One particularly hedonistic night, a new resident of the Ark and her suburban parents blew in from the highway. As the parents came through the front door, luggage in hand, all set to settle their daughter in her room, they were greeted by a cloud of pot smoke. Even at the Ark, pot smoking was prohibited in the common areas, but a fluke in the air conditioning ducts sometimes deposited the fumes right in the front vestibule. A couple of steps farther on, they encountered a man dressed as Carmen Miranda and sporting a giant bottle of champagne and a Groucho Marx mustache. They turned on their heels and walked out, never to be seen again.

By 1980, the divisions between the hedonists and the serious students had become institutionalized. One wing of the Ark was named the “SDR&R Hall” (for sex, drugs and rock and roll). A soft drink machine dispensed bottles of beer.

The SDR&R faction liked its sexy clothes and knew its cigarette and liquor preferences. A couple of film students in the house became members of one of Austin’s pioneering punk bands, The Huns. One night at Raul’s, Austin’s original punk club, The Huns made a national media splash when our housemate, the lead singer, was arrested for greeting a cop who had come in to serve a noise complaint with a kiss on the lips.

Around this time, Stevie Ray Vaughan began to emerge as the crown prince of Austin hedonists. At an Ark Social and Recreational Committee meeting, the SDR&R faction pushed hard to get him to play the Ark on Halloween. Vaughan wanted $600, and the “Serious Student” faction wouldn’t hear of spending more than half of the annual recreation budget on one band at one party. The SDR&R camp proposed a cover charge to defray the cost. The Serious Students countered, “What about my friends who don’t care anything about this guy?” Our compromise plan was to hire Vaughan for the party and ask for $5 voluntary donations.

When Halloween night came, Vaughan dressed up as Jimi Hendrix with the iconic flat-brimmed hat and bright, silk scarves. Crowds at Ark parties generally danced nonstop, but that night 300-plus people stood gob-smacked, hanging on every note. The record crowd left about $1,500 in “donations.” When another party was planned in the spring, people wanted to get Vaughan back. This time, he was only available on a Sunday night.

Again an epic Social and Recreational Committee meeting ensued. SDR&R argued that Vaughan was a great artist and that this was the chance of a lifetime. The Serious Students argued that you just can’t have a giant party on a school night. As one side swilled coffee and the other drank beer, the long evening turned into our national political debate in miniature. On one hand, SDR&R assured everyone that having Vaughan would be an ecstatic, transformative experience and that the Serious Students had to loosen up and become more tolerant. On the other side, the Serious Students said we had an obligation to look after those who were disadvantaged by all this exuberance. Freedom was essential, they argued, but there had to be limits to protect the quiet from the loud.

Another compromise was reached. We would try out the SDR&R plan for unfettered exuberance until things became intolerable, at which time the Serious Students’ restraint would take over. We would have Vaughan play at the Sunday night party, but the music would have to stop exactly at midnight.

When midnight came, Vaughan was in fine form. It was becoming apparent that no one had said a word to him about stopping at midnight. By 12:30 a.m., some of the Serious Students were coming out of their rooms and insisting that the music stop. The SDR&R camp was pleading with them to forget the agreement and go with the flow. While Vaughan’s guitar poured out mean electric blues by the gallon, a crowd gathered behind the stage, and the tension mounted. “You made an agreement!” said the Serious Students. SDR&R said, “But, but, it’s Stevie Ray Vaughan, man! I can’t just stop him!”

We were on the tipping point of a brawl.

I had recently become the chair of the Building Maintenance Committee and, as such, knew where all the plumbing cutoffs and electrical breakers were. I had been entrusted with a set of master keys. When I realized the fight was turning ugly, I opened the utility closet and put my hand on a breaker’s switch. I wondered if I would receive the brunt of the violence if I killed the power. But my overwhelming thought was, I have to do this, or else one or more of my friends are probably going to get their faces broken. I threw the switch.

The stage went from loud and thunderous to dark and quiet, except for the drummer, who carried on for two or three more beats. Everyone started to chatter and ran toward the stage, which was, fortunately for me, away from the utility closet. Before anyone could figure out what had happened, I locked the closet door and slipped out the back of the Ark.

There’s my confession. If there’s a rock and roll purgatory, I’m surely doomed to suffer an eternity of Kenny G music. Until then, I’ll freak as freely as I can muster and hope that Vaughan will look down from his rhinestone-and-feather-studded cloud and absolve me. 

Joe England is a writer, musician and bon vivant living in Austin.