The death of Stevie Ray Vaughan struck a deep chord in me. Back when he was making his breakthrough in the early ’80s, an upstart Akron radio station, WONE, became an early supporter of the guitarist and his band, Double Trouble. I had listened to ONE since it took to the airwaves; therefore, I quickly became a fan of Stevie Ray and his remarkable talent. As his legend grew and his life story became available (this was before the Internet, so whatever information you learned about your favorite artists generally came through the voice on the radio), I soon learned that Stevie Ray had an older, less flashy brother, Jimmie, the longtime axe slinger for the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The T-Birds were enjoying their own wide success in the mid-’80s, with their “Tuff Enuff” single and album. As I found out more about the Texan brothers, I became fascinated at how the Vaughan brothers it mirrored my own life in a small way.
I grew up worshiping my older brother, Budd, especially his drumming skills. He is a more nuanced drummer than I ever was, and much better technically. Budd had a knack for playing any song thrown in front of him, be it Rush, Chicago, Missing Persons or even the fusion jazz of Maynard Ferguson. You name it, he had the patience and diligence to master what was on the record before making it his own. That he was always a beatkeeper first, choosing his moments to display his own pizzazz, speaks volumes about his personality: Finish the job at hand before showing off and having fun. I, on the other hand, never met a drum fill I didn’t love, or an empty space in the music to place them. It would be years later before I would appreciate what Max Weinberg and Stan Lynch were doing with the E Street Band and the Heartbreakers, respectively. You can see how I would correlate my life with Stevie Ray’s: Younger brother who lives in the shadow of older, more talented brother, goes on to become flashier musician, maybe even trying to outshine the sibling. That’s not to say I was bitter. Hardly. Like Stevie Ray, if anyone asked me who my influences as a drummer were, at the top of my list was Budd (just like Stevie always mentioned Jimmie as one of his).
On August 27, 1990, Stevie Ray boarded a helicopter to fly to Chicago after finishing a gig with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Jimmie. The helicopter crashed in the dead of the night and Stevie Ray Vaughan died at age 35.
The news was a blow. It was the first time in my life one of my idols had died suddenly. Stevie Ray’s struggle with alcohol and drugs, his redemption through sobriety, and the phenomenal Double Trouble album In Step all made his death all the more tragic. Moreover, he and Jimmie were set to release their dream project, a duo album called Family Style in which the brothers shared lead guitar and vocals. The album was released days after Stevie’s death and featured a sleeker, funkier side of the Texas musician, possibly due to Niles Rodgers’ production. Every track crackles with soul and life-affirming joy. The first single was the spiritually tinged “Tick Tock,” in which Stevie sings simple, yet heartfelt lyrics about time running out for the people of the world to come together in harmony. Listening to “Tick Tock,” so simple in its message of harmony, sung by a man whose life was taken too soon, the song became all the more poignant for me. I imagine my experience hearing it for the first time was what people must have felt the first time they heard “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding’s glorious, deceptively simple song, released immediately after the soul singer’s death.
Nine months later, an internship at a makeup effects studio saw me traveling across the U.S. and living with Budd and his fiancÃ©e, Karyn, for the entire summer. While my experiences working and living on my own for three months is a Horatio Alger story of its own, another, more important part of that time in my life was the relationship that developed with my brother. Up to that point in our lives, he still saw me as merely the little sibling. He didn’t know me as an adult. At the same time, I still revered him so highly that any slight on his part felt like a dagger. I didn’t understand how and why he used humor to protect himself, and I didn’t understand how to stand up to him. Throughout the summer, I got to be a first-hand witness to Budd’s triumphs and mistakes. In turn, he got to know me, learning that I struggled daily with a lack of confidence. By summer’s end, I was a stronger person, and I have him to thank for that.
We went out often, taking in some of the famous Sunset strip bars; we experienced a Dead show at the L.A. Coliseum; and we toured many of the seminal Hollywood hangouts and beaches. However, the moments I remember best, my favorite moments, were the nights the three of us hung out in Budd and Karyn’s one-bedroom apartment on Camino Palmero, getting to know each other. One night, around Father’s Day, we called our dad back in Ohio at 12:00 AM. Even though it was 3 AM in Cleveland, he patiently listened to us drunkenly babble on. At one point, I told my dad how much I loved him, difficult words rarely spoken in our household. Being able to say them, even though I was hammered, was monumental. For, once I got past that first time, eventually I was able to tell my old man how I felt without the booze. I credit being around my brother and having him guiding me along. During those long nights of impromptu partying, we would all play DJ, whipping out songs from all over the music spectrum. Budd would play Steve Miller, Karyn “Magic Carpet Ride,” and I would invariably choose something by Tom Petty. Still, it wasn’t just the camaraderie that would have a lasting effect; it was that he and I were able to reflect on our childhoods, the good things and the not so pleasant. For the first time in his life, I believe he saw me as an equal and not just his dorky brother.
Budd owned Family Style, and it got frequent spins during our time living together. He had been living with the music and calling it his own long before I ever walked through his front door and banged my head on the Swiss Alps overhang in the kitchen (inside joke). Whenever I hear the opening of the first track, “Hard to Be,” I am filled with joy. There is still something special about listening to the Vaughan brothers with my own brother. Because of my experience and the epiphanies shared that year, “Tick Tock” will always hold a special place in my heart. To me, that song and Family Style will always signify the important time in my life when my brother and I stopped just being siblings and became friends.
I sometimes wondered what sort of impact that summer had on Budd’s life. Did it have the same effect it had on me? Did his feelings as a brother and friend strengthen, even if he couldn’t openly admit it? I got my answer a year later. A month after my father had open heart surgery, Budd returned to Ohio for a visit. It was Father’s Day, in fact. For one of the last times, our entire family sat together for a Sunday lunch. In the middle of the table conversations, I said to Budd, “I always thought of us like the Vaughan brothers. I’m like Stevie Ray and you’re like Jimmie.” Without missing a beat, he said, “Yeah, but I’m not letting you get on any helicopters.” Then he took another bite of macaroni and cheese casserole while the comment hung in the air.