Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan: Alone Together – Rolling Stone
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Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan: Alone Together

The guitar gurus take to the road for a joint tour

Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan

Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan, circa 1989.

Robert Knight Archive/Redferns/Getty

It seemed like a good idea: Take two of Epic Records’ hottest guitar slingers, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and put them on the road together. Beck, 45, had been a mercurial legend since his days in the mid-Sixties with the Yardbirds and the Jeff Beck Group, but he hadn’t toured for almost a decade; Vaughan, 34, had been off the scene for a couple of years himself, conquering a drug and alcohol problem, and while his flashy blues rock had acquired a faithful audience, the pairing wouldn’t hurt to give both their careers a little extra oomph.

“This way,” says Beck’s manager, Ernest Chapman, “we get the built-in audience that Stevie has, which lets us play bigger places, and we give them a certain amount of status by doing the tour with them. I haven’t said that to them, but to me that’s how it works.”

Epic dubbed the tour the Fire Meets the Fury. And then the negotiations began. “The managers were going back and forth forever,” says Vaughan’s drummer, Chris Layton. “We just wanted to play, but it was like ‘Well, Jeff Beck has eight letters and Stevie Ray Vaughan has 16, so if we use the same size type, it’ll look imbalanced.’ Even after the tour started, we’d go into the production office and the managers would be sitting there moving around these little pieces of paper and saying, ‘Well, how about if we do it like this?'”

Then, to complicate matters, there were the bands. Vaughan records and tours with Double Trouble, the band that has backed him since well before he ever had a record deal. Beck isn’t on his own, either: His new album has the cumbersome title Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop With Terry Bozzio and Tony Hymas, and when Beck’s name is mentioned, the others need to be included.

But as the tour arrives in Albuquerque less than a week before it’s due to end, the delicate balance has been achieved. At the beginning of the tour, Beck won a coin flip and took the headlining spot on the tour’s opening night; since then, the bands have alternated each night, which puts Beck, Bozzio and Hymas on first tonight. The backstage passes and tour stationery have the names running along both sides: Read the passes one way and they say, “Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble,” followed by “Jeff Beck with Terry Bozzio and Tony Hymas”; flip them over and the order is reversed.

But that nonsense is visible only behind the scenes. Out in the cavernous barn called Tingley Coliseum, the fans aren’t worried about billing as Beck, Bozzio and Hymas hit the stage. Their 75-minute show, like the new album, adds a twist to the classic rock & roll power-trio format: Rather than guitar, drums and bass, it’s guitar, drums and keyboards, with Hymas supplying the bass parts with one hand and adding layers of sound with the other. He’s the glue that holds this band together; Beck and former Missing Persons drummer Bozzio are the hyperkinetic virtuosos who give the music its flash and fire. Their set is all instrumentals, mostly from the new album but also including oldies like “Freeway Jam,” from Beck’s classic 1975 fusion album Blow by Blow. The shirtless, chain-bedecked Bozzio rattles the walls, while Beck manages to be simultaneously melodic, inventive and ferocious. When they walk offstage after an instrumental version of “People Get Ready,” Stevie Ray Vaughan leans over a railing beside the stage to shout his appreciation.

Forty-five minutes later, it’s Vaughan’s turn in the spotlight. His set is longer — even on nights when he’s on first — and rootsier. It’s barroom blues given a shove over the edge into something rowdier and showier, and while the show includes such Double Trouble touchstones as “Couldn’t Stand the Weather,” “Cold Shot” and Vaughan’s version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” at its heart are a series of songs from his new album, In Step. During the last song of the set Vaughan gives a short speech about how he’s lucky to be alive, then spends a few minutes testifying with his guitar. After a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” Beck returns to the stage for the pair’s celebrated collaboration.

Well, at least it was supposed to be a celebrated collaboration. Early reports suggested that the two guitarists might cap the evening by spending some time trading riffs; but tonight, as with every other night of the tour, their partnership lasts for all of one song. The tune is “Going Down,” recorded by Beck in 1972, and at the hands of Double Trouble it receives a tough roadhouse treatment enlivened by the sparks that Beck and Vaughan throw off together. Still, there’s a sense that the balance that was achieved behind the scenes through painstaking negotiations — and the friendship that seemed to develop naturally between the two bands — doesn’t necessarily carry over onstage. They play well together, but these two guys are still in separate worlds, and the twain only meet for five minutes a night.

After the show, Double Trouble’s Chris Layton and Ernest Chapman, Beck’s manager, talk transportation. Vaughan and Double Trouble will soon pile into their tour bus for an all-night drive to Denver, while Beck, Bozzio and Hymas will spend the night in Albuquerque and fly to Denver in the morning.

“It’s fine once you get used to sleeping on a bus,” says Chapman. “But if you’re just taking the odd bus trip, it can be awful to try and get to sleep.”

“Yeah,” says Layton. “Once we didn’t tour for about three months, and when we started up again, I couldn’t sleep on the bus for a few days.”

“You didn’t tour for three months?” says Chapman, feigning incredulity. “We haven’t toured for nine years!” That, it seems, is one of the main differences between the bands: Beck hates to tour, but Vaughan and Double Trouble have built their career on the road.

“There was a time,” Vaughan says as he settles into his bus seat, “when we only came off the road to make a record. That was ridiculous.”

“The last 10 years or so,” adds Layton, “our touring schedule became a mindless thing, in a way. We’d take a break and make a record, and then we’d go right back on the road. And then things changed, and we didn’t go on the road for a while.”

The changes began when the members of Double Trouble got rid of what they say was an inefficient management team that kept them on the road to pay off what they were told were the huge debts they’d accumulated; when the band’s finances were straightened out in 1986, touring became less necessary.

But mostly, the changes had to do with drugs and alcohol. Since the early days, Vaughan had been indulging himself: drink, cocaine, harder stuff. “My addiction wasn’t because of the road,” he says, “but it did fuel the fire. And the more ridiculous the schedule got, the more rocket fuel I would reach for.”

Finally, on tour in Germany, Vaughan collapsed. Layton says he looked into Vaughan’s eyes backstage, “and it was just, like, hollow.” Vaughan went into a German hospital, came out to do a few more shows and then made an appointment with the British doctor who’d helped cure Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton of their heroin addictions. The end of the tour was canceled, and Vaughan and bassist Tommy Shannon checked themselves into drug treatment programs.

“I was just really lost,” says Vaughan. “I couldn’t keep going, and I didn’t know how to stop. I had gotten so far out that I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. I was basically hiring babysitters of different varieties, and yes people, and I yessed myself right into a hospital. And thank God it happened that way. It sounds nuts, but the one thing that saved my life was falling apart.”

Afterward, they slowly got back to work: first a video, then a short tour, finally the album In Step. Recording it, Vaughan says, “was fun, horrifying, it was everything. It was stronger, more concise and more focused.” And they set themselves a time limit: No recording session would last more than 12 hours. “I used to be completely nuts and do 38, 40 hours straight,” says Vaughan, and then he laughs. “Well, not straight. But straight through.” Songs like “Tightrope” and “Wall of Denial” reflected what had been happening in Vaughan’s life.

The talk winds down, and one by one Shannon, Layton and keyboardist Reese Wynans head off to their bunks. “I only got to see one or two of Jeff’s songs tonight,” says Vaughan with a frown, as he heads to bed. “At the beginning of this tour, I watched his whole set almost every night. He always amazes me. And he intimidates me, too.”

“Intimidates you in a good way, right?” says Vaughan’s girlfriend, Janna Lapidus.

“Wellll …” Vaughan says slowly. “Sometimes.”

I‘m sorry,” says Jeff Beck, “but this is too Spinal Tap.”

It’s almost a full day later, in the early-morning hours following the show in Denver, and things aren’t going right for Beck, Bozzio and Hymas. Oh, tonight’s performance was as strong as ever: Their arrangements are so intricate and carefully thought-out that their show doesn’t change much night to night.

But now they’re back at their hotel, which has reneged on its promise to keep the bar open a few extra hours. Standing in the middle of the lobby, surrounded by hollow, faux-marble pillars, Beck and Bozzio and Hymas are annoyed.

“The most overblown hotels are usually the least accommodating,” says Beck. “At least with the Howard Johnson’s, we knew where we were.”

“America,” announces Bozzio, “is fucking rotting from the inside.” And, he adds, it doesn’t stop with inefficient hotels. “My opinion of record companies right now is about the same as this hotel we’re in. You have basically three camps: your accountants, your lawyers and your corporate ass-licking, ass-covering executive climbers.”

Eventually, Beck and Hymas call a halt to the label-bashing. But when the talk turns to the pairing with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Beck gets visibly uncomfortable once again, changing the subject and mentioning that he was offered an opening slot on the Aerosmith tour. When Vaughan is mentioned a few minutes later, he circles the subject warily. “Epic, they probably saw it much clearer — that two guitar players would make a heavy package,” he says. “They thought it would be good. I don’t really know.”

Bozzio interrupts and it becomes clear why Beck is so reluctant to talk about Vaughan. “This is a new band,” Bozzio says. “And in a lot of ways it’s been frustrating, because so much of the attention has been ‘Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan,’ instead of us establishing our identity. We love Stevie, he’s a great guy, but it’s the typical, safe record-company way: This is the package America can understand.”

There is a delicate balance within this band: Beck is the legend, the guy with the name who can’t risk alienating his two partners if the band is to be an ongoing concern; Bozzio is the brash, California-bred, fast-talking newcomer — if you can call someone who served stints with Frank Zappa, U.K. and his own band a newcomer — who won’t stand for being overlooked; and Hymas, a veteran musician, is the quiet voice of reason, albeit one who knows precisely how valuable he is to the other two voices.

They all admit the combination is satisfying but precarious. Beck, whose long layoffs have made him seem ambivalent about his career, wasn’t necessarily looking for something longterm when he decided it was time to become active after spending most of the Eighties refurbishing cars, making one poorly received album, Flash, and backing out of tours with Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger. “The years were melting away,” says Beck. “It’s easy just to sit around for another year. It was like, ‘Oh, well, I’ll just be a has-been.’ And then I’d play a guitar and think, ‘Well, that didn’t sound bad. It sounds a bit more exciting than what I just heard on the radio. …’ I realized that it had been five solid years since I’d picked up a guitar, properly. And I started becoming very uncomfortable with the fact that I hadn’t really done anything.”

A devotee of Fifties rock & roll, Beck originally thought about making a rockabilly album and called legendary songwriters Leiber and Stoller to see if they’d write him some new tunes. They wouldn’t. Beck then called Hymas, who had worked with him when he toured in 1980, and Bozzio, who was trying to get a solo project going after the breakup of Missing Persons.

The three got together in Jimmy Page’s studio, planning to rehearse and write songs; things went so well that it quickly turned into a full-fledged recording session. They had few rules, except to stay away from the jazz-rock fusion sound that Beck had experimented with in the mid- to late Seventies. “I didn’t really want to go back there, because my big love is block sounds and powerful stuff,” Beck says. “I mean, when I heard ZZ Top do that Eliminator album, I realized that the simplicity is the attractive part of it.”

For the most part, the songs were group compositions based on or inspired by Beck’s guitar improvisations. Take “Where Were You,” an ethereal ballad in which Beck plays the melody by manipulating the whammy bar on his guitar. “Jeff had the theme,” says Bozzio, “and we started to piece it together line by line. He would do something, and that would suggest a melody to me, and I’d go, ‘Okay, do this.'”

Tony Hymas, who’s been listening quietly to most of the conversation, clears his throat.

“Wait a minute,” he says. “What happened with ‘Where Were You’ was I left the cassette running for half an hour while Jeff was playing phrases. And then I wrote all the phrases down, put them in order, harmonized them …”

“That’s not true,” says Bozzio adamantly.

“That is true,” insists Hymas.

“You wrote ‘Where Were You’ with me and with him.”

“This is great,” says Beck, doubled over with laughter. “The band’s breaking up right here.” He rises to his feet in mock indignation. “You fuckheads, I’ve had enough of you.” Eventually, the argument is settled and the talk turns to the future. “The way I look at Jeff,” says Bozzio, “is after this tour he can go home and be quite happy to build cars for another nine years. But if he wants to play …”

“No, I’m off to find happiness within the auto industry,” says Beck, grinning. Then he turns serious. “I was determined not to turn 50 and look back and think, ‘Fuck, I wish I’d have done this or done that.’ But you can’t do it all.”

He sighs. “I get depressed when a car is almost finished. Even before it’s upholstered, I’m depressed. Because I know it’s gonna ride all right. And this tour, now, is just getting into overdrive, and it’s coming to an end …”

Bozzio interrupts and starts talking about how after a tour ends he gets antsy every afternoon around four — but Beck isn’t really listening.

“I gotta decide what I want out of life, really,” Beck says, almost under his breath. “I don’t really know what I want. I suppose I’ve had it all.”

And then he heads upstairs to bed. After all, it’s almost 3 a.m., and he’s got to be at the airport tomorrow morning for a 12:30 flight to Los Angeles. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble are flying to L.A. tomorrow, too. On a different airline.

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