I would like to submit for your archive the telling of my encounter with the great Stevie Ray Vaughan on 2nd July 1983 at Quinsippi Island, Quincy, IL.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been listening to him again; for hours like I used to when I was a kid. It’s only now that I understand, after the passage of almost forty years what his music has meant to me. Though it was only one small piece, it completes a picture that has made me complete. It is a memory of sitting on an overturned milk crate, wide-eyed and open-mouthed and what was, in my mind, a private concert just for me.
In late June 1983 I had just turned seventeen. I had spent the last six weeks in a hospital room and psychiatric unit recovering after a suicide attempt. The diagnosis was depression, but basically I was terrified by the prospect of graduation; plagued by fear of responsibility. While friends were planning for their futures at college or in the military I couldn’t picture anything for myself. I was bewildered.
I took refuge from the specter of adulthood and its inherent hypocrisy in my record collection; some 300 LPs assembled from frequent trips downtown to Bob’s Be-Bop Record Store, paid for with lawn mower pocket money. I remember it as my favorite place on earth and I can still smell the incense wafting from behind a beaded curtain at the back; an off-limits-to-me den where they were whispered to sell “pipes”. A certain character hung out there; a bearded small time local show promoter named Jack “Mad Dog” Manis, who managed to snag bookings of popular, but by no means top-tier acts passing through the Midwest (a young Sammy Hagar was one). So Jack asks me, “Hey kid, you wanna make twenty bucks this Saturday?”.
I wasn’t a Charlie Daniels fan, but moving stacks for a “real” music show sounded like fun. A slab had been poured on a small island mid-Mississippi river (accessible by a small bridge the insurability was probably doubtful) as the city council was having none of it within city limits and because Daniels would only perform on a real stage.
I was told that the opening act had been added to Daniel’s tour at last minute. A talented, but relatively unknown blues guitarist from Texas who played kinda like Hendrix and whose plans to tour with David Bowie that summer had fallen through because of an apparent falling out. This news sounded great to me because at the time I was deep into both the Blues and Hendrix.
I arrived on a rainy cool morning that would turn by mid-day into a bright and miserable steamy 101 degree summer day. Another kid and I were issued backstage passes for the day though there really was no backstage to be issued access. We were instructed what gear to unload from trucks and where on the slab to carry it. After a few hours of this someone handed me a cold drink. I sat down and gazed off at a cluster of vehicles. The door of a canned ham camper opened and out poked a hang-dog face which looked straight at me as if to ask, “Where the hell am I today?”. It was the face of one candidly and grievously hungover and it’s owner looked directly at me. I will never forget it. Was Stevie Ray hungover? He looked directly at me and I’ll never forget it. Maybe he was just road weary.
A drummer wearing the strangest bright green plastic boots I had ever seen was unloading cymbals and drum kit stuff out of the back of a van.
Jack took the mic and emceed; the concert was to begin. Possessing a pass meant I could sit and watch right on the slab/stage, albeit off to one side. Stevie flew right into Texas Flood. Though I had no idea who I was listening to I soon found that my cheeks ached from grinning so hard. I couldn’t contain my excitement at what was passing through me like a glory train. I wanted to leap straight up into the air as if from the pew of an A.M.E. revival meeting and praise Jesus!
But then I realized I was all alone. Or rather the guitarist and I were alone. He had turned from the audience and seemed to have decided to perform just for an audience of one. For me.
I was a bit confused by this. But when I looked out at the audience I realized that there were so few people who had come. Because of the heat of the day, because it hastily arranged and poorly promoted, the remoteness of the venue perhaps - nobody showed up. Like 150 people. And they didn’t seem to be hearing what I was hearing. They milled about disinterested and apparently uninspired; impatient for the feature presentation of the Charlie Daniels Band to take the stage (slab).
Stevie Ray Vaughan played the rest of the set, most of the material from his breakout record Texas Flood, and played often turning away from the small group gathered there to one there who really could hear what his guitar was saying. I knew the blues even at the age of seventeen and he could tell. I’ll never forget these things.
I remember nothing of Daniels. I was in a trance the rest of the day, the week, the summer. Naturally, I ran to Bob’s on Monday and showed the dude behind the register my backstage pass as I laid a twenty dollar bill on the counter.
I began to see that some things were worth living for.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was great. His music and his person and his obvious values inspired me. These things still do.
I survived adolescence to have a full and happy life. I have four really good kids. I’ve done things I’ve wanted to do. And have met a number of famous people. Saw Johnny Thunders play the Roxy in L.A. But Stevie Ray Vaughan was something else altogether. He was truly one in a million, and I’m convinced that it could not have been mere luck for my path to have crossed with his at that threshold moment in his life. And mine.
Footnote 1: Bob’s Be-Bob Records was a real place. Stood on the southeast corner of 7th and Maine streets in my hometown of Quincy, Illinois on the Mississippi River where I still live, work, and have raised a family. It closed sometime about 1990 or so. Jack was a real person. In the 70’s and 80’s it was common to hear ads for local concert events sponsored by Mad Dog Manis Productions. He seemed to disappear around the same time Bob’s closed.
Footnote 2: Quinsippi Island is an island in the Quincy Bay and is separated from the town riverfront by a channel of river about a city block wide. It had been used as a kind of cheesy amusement park in the 60s and early 70s called Adams Landing with thrown up pioneer cabins, a Ferris wheel, a narrow gauge train, etc. The only access to the island is by a frightful bridge by which only one vehicle at one time can pass. Why it was chosen for the site of the Daniels concert I cannot honestly say. I speculate here that it was due to objections by the City Council, but I don’t really know. Other Manis shows, namely an on the rise Sammy Hagar, had been put on at the Quincy College Auditorium. Perhaps Daniels had been paid without the matter of a stage having been worked out. Anyway, I do know that a stage was built on the island to accommodate the Charlie Daniels Band Decade of Hits tour booking on Quinsippi Island, July 2, 1983.