One day I will be an old man, sitting in a rocking chair with a glass of rum in my hand and a long white beard in my lap. Surely legions of people young and old will gather from all over the globe, sitting nearby with ears cocked in my direction, waiting to hear tales of my life as a semi-professional concert goer. In my gravelly, old man voice I will spin yarns both true and imagined, each one more unbelievable than the other. And one story that will surely become famous among the flock will be the evening of August 10th, 1989.
A month before this date I had arrived at the Moncton Coliseum around 7am and found only two guys in front of me waiting in line for tickets. I was amazed. I thought the return of The Stray Cats opening for Stevie Ray Vaughan would have had people out in droves. I snagged 2nd row tickets dead centre on the floor for me and five of my friends.
My friends and I took our seats with me sitting on the aisle. The stage was set up mid-ice facing sideways, there were perhaps 7,000 people in the room. The Stray Cats came onstage and went from zero to ninety in four beats flat; ultra-danceable rockabilly boogie-woogie bounded from the speakers and got me right out of my seat. I ran up to the stage and danced at the feet of Brian Setzer for the whole set. The double bass player had these long hooky things on his picking fingers and he was absolutely relentless for the entire 45 minutes, furiously plunk-plunk-plunking away at his oversized fiddle, giving it the occasional flashy spin, like he needed to show off.
The drummer was another thing altogether. Playing whilst standing on his feet, he filled that room with a solid ratatat with nothing but a snare and a cymbal, his arms flailing. The whole thing was an awesome thing to behold.
At one point I looked behind me and saw that I was the only person in the entire room that was standing up, let alone dancing. I couldn’t believe it. I was not a dancer, you’d never, ever catch me on the dancefloor at a bar, but how could you not stand up and shake it for these guys?
At the end of the set Brian Setzer leaned over and gave me a hippie handshake. This was in the days before there would be a five-foot barrier between the band and the audience, so I was literally standing right below him with my arms resting right on the stage.
Just before Stevie Ray Vaughan came on I again took my place with my chest pressed against the stage, waiting to be awed. This time about a hundred people also stood up and filled out a three-person deep standing section around me. This was my second (and final – sigh) time seeing the great SRV, a pair of privileges I will cherish as long as my memory will continue to serve. The first time I had gone to Fredericton to see him on a whim – at the time I barely knew who Stevie Ray Vaughan was but said “sure, why not?” when a friend from school suggested I came along.
That Fredericton show had been among my first concert roadtrips. Though I had stopped toking a year or so before that show (cut me some slack – I was in high school) I recall thinking I should try and get my hands on a joint, it being a fun road trip and all. Ultimately I decided no, I’ll stand firm on being clean and just enjoy the show straight up.
Of course Stevie Ray Vaughan blew my mind at that first show but when he took the mic late in the set to talk about his drug abuse and how he woke up crying half the time not knowing what city he was in, when he said he wasn’t telling anyone what to do but he just wanted us all to “be good to one another,” when he told us how he made the choice to get clean and stay clean so he could “do what I have to do for you tonight,” and tore into the very core of that beautiful, beat up guitar of his and pulled out of it the most gut-wrenching solo you ever heard, well I was tingling with bliss knowing I had made the right choice.
Back to the Moncton show, SRV and his band were on fire. They played every song I wanted to hear and songs I had never heard before. I can’t say for sure, but I think he played Little Wing and if he did it would have been the first time I heard the remarkable Jimi Hendrix classic. And again, I was pressed up against the four-foot high stage at his feet the whole time, and again he delivered his no-drug spiel.
At one point he dropped his guitar pick. He grabbed another off of his mic stand while I stretched to reach the fallen souvenir. My feet dangling straight out behind me I just managed to grab it, a pick gouged and grinded from just an hour of play and embedded with the DNA of one of my heroes.
A soon as the show ended I approached a teenaged security kid-for-hire and offered him $5 for his backstage access pass. He was almost as delighted as I was with the transaction.
The backstage meet-and-greet wasn’t backstage at all, it was in the floor section of the arena, where the band members milled around chatting with about a dozen or so backstage pass holders as employees packed up the floor seats around us.
I spoke with Tommy Shannon and the other members of Double Trouble and got some autographs. I spoke with Brian Setzer and sputtered about how great the set was, and likely told him how I regretted missing the band when I had the chance to see them several years before in Toronto. After a while I noticed only two people speaking with Stevie Ray Vaughan so I sidled up and waited my turn.
He greeted me with a big smile steeped in Southern hospitality and I sputtered about how much I liked the show, how I was a budding guitarist myself and blahblah-blather. At one point he interrupted me.
“Well, what’s you’re deal, what do you do for a living?” he asked.
A bit taken aback I told him I was in high school. He mentioned that I looked a bit old to be a high school student so I told him how I had quit school for a few years and moved away and worked and had eventually returned to school with plans to attend university. Believe it or not, we talked about the reasons I left school and all kinds of things, until I finally mentioned the story about that time I saw him back in Fredericton and how inspired I was with his sobriety soliloquy.
He looked at me and said, “Todd, I can’t tell you what it means to me to hear you say that. I’ve been standing up there for months saying my piece every night and I always think people are just waiting for me to shut up and get back to playing. To be honest I usually feel pretty dumb up there saying all that stuff.
“It’s so good to hear that it actually reached someone,” he told me.
I swear we spoke for five to ten minutes, just he and I and nobody left waiting to speak with him. He signed his autograph “To Todd, thanks for caring” in the most immaculate handwriting you can find. Brian Setzer’s autograph is on the back.
We had stood eye-to-eye, Stevie Ray Vaughan and I, two men talking real talk. The significance and emotion of the moment grows in me over the years, and while I can’t possibly put my feelings into words maybe, just maybe as an old drooling relic spewing stories alone in some asylum I’ll have honed the tale well enough to fully express the experience.
And then a year and eighteen days later he was gone. One of the greatest blues guitarists of all time, stolen from our realm at the tragic age of 35, pilot error.