The “inspection” required all of the equipment to be unloaded. From some things Barrett said I gather they didn’t believe we’d actually go through with it. Thank goodness we weren’t traveling with a full lighting rig and stage set, I guess?
That still took hours. The crew were none too happy about having to go do it, either, but better them than risk having the government goons move the stuff and possibly break it.
Hours and hours. I’m honestly not sure if we ever would have gotten off the ground there if some other governmental types–who had gotten better schmoozed at our post-show party, I suppose?–hadn’t intervened. I don’t know. All the details are fuzzy.
I’ll give you one guess why the details are so fuzzy.
So fuzzy that now I don’t remember exactly why I ended up “medicated.” I think Flip decided when the usual time for soundcheck rolled around that the day was turning out to be as stressful as a show day and to treat it as such…
This is bullshit and I’m sure you know it. At the time it felt like it was helping me get through, though. The medication of choice was some kind of booze dissolved in club soda which meant I got some hydration at the same time and the carbonation insured the alcohol took the fast lane into my bloodstream.
Don’t worry. The result was not an epic bender or a drunken incident. The result was a nap. A nice, quiet nap, tucked in a nearly empty part of the plane since most of the crew ended up working on the unloading/reloading.
When I woke we were in the air, flying over some truly impressive-looking mountains. The sun was setting, so the valleys and crags were deep and dark and the peaks were sharp and bright. I felt at that moment like the planet was a giant, ancient crocodile, the mountains were its moss and tree covered teeth, and the airplane was a gnat that could be obliterated by one careless snap of those jaws.
That’s a really fucking dark thought. I was also freezing. I got up to walk around a little and look for my backpack, which had a flannel shirt rolled up in it, but some turbulence hit before I’d gotten very far. I abandoned my plan and buckled myself into the nearest row.
We’re not all going to die in a plane crash in the mountains of South America, I told myself. I repeated it several times, like a refrain. We’re not all going to die in a plane crash in the mountains of South America.
Then I realized I wasn’t being specific enough. I changed it to: NONE OF US are going to die in a plane crash in the mountains of South America. None. Not one. No one. I gripped the armrest hard during one particularly rollercoaster-like drop and kicked off a cramp in my palm. Shit.
So then I sat there in pain, trapped by my own negative thoughts and the vagaries of air pockets at thirty-thousand feet. Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night as a kid afraid there might be a monster under the bed? You can’t look under the bed, because what if there IS an actual monster? So you lie there, trapped by your own fear.
Yeah, I was that kid. I thought I’d grown out of it by the time I was fourteen or fifteen, but here I was having the grown-up rock star version of it, I guess. Except you can tell kids there’s no such thing as monsters. You can’t tell me there’s never been a rock star killed in a plane crash. The list of them is pretty long. I used to think about them a lot while flying, but then I got jaded to flying for a while and pushed it to the back of my mind. It all came rushing back the longer the turbulence went on.
Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Jim Croce, the guys in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Patsy Cline. Otis Redding. Most of them were on tour or on their way to or from a gig. Even Randy Rhoads, whose death was probably the result of stupidity instead of bad luck or weather, was on tour at the time. (He was in a private plane and tried to “buzz” Ozzy Osbourne’s tour bus and crashed.)
I couldn’t stand sitting there, stewing in terror, so I forced myself to get up and move to somewhere I could talk to someone, even though I was increasing the chance of breaking my neck by doing it. I clung to the seats, moved up two rows, and threw myself down next to whoever was there.
It was Mr. Ponytail, the lighting tech. “Hey,” he said. He was already a pale guy so I couldn’t tell if his color was related to the turbulence. He had a magazine open but kept looking up at the ceiling like it wasn’t possible to keep reading while we were being bumped around like that.
“You worried?” I asked.
“Not too much,” he said. “The pilot didn’t sound too worried, anyway.”
Yeah, but it doesn’t do the pilot any good to have the passengers panic, so maybe he was just being nice.
“I’ve been in worse,” he added. I wracked my brain for his name. John? We already had a Josie and several other J-names.
“Yeah, me, too,” I replied. It was true. This wasn’t the worst turbulence I’d ever been in. It was however the worst turbulence I’d been in while flying over desolate mountains on another continent while also not being in the most positive frame of mind. “It always make me think about all the musicians who went down on planes.”
“I know, really. I once worked with Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
I did a double-take. “Stevie Ray Vaughan?”
“Okay, if you want to be picky about it, that was a helicopter crash, but–”
“What? What are you saying?” My brain twisted in my skull like a fish trying to get out of the grip of a fisherman but still trapped in a bucket.
“Just recently. Didn’t you hear?”
“No, no I didn’t hear. I missed that.”
“Like a year ago, maybe. It was all over the news.” Jonah. His name was Jonah.
“Shit. Must’ve been while I was out of the country.” I was already chilly but now I felt cold to the core. “I met him once. MTV followed me around with a camera one day when we were on tour in 1989, and we ran into him in a store.”
“Fucking shame,” Jonah said. “Happened after he played with Clapton. Three of Clapton’s bandmates were on the ‘copter with him.”
“Shit.” It was a miracle Eric Clapton wasn’t drinking himself into oblivion given the way tragic death seemed to be following him around. I guess if he wasn’t it was because he’d already been there, done that. I shivered. I couldn’t even say more than, “Clapton. Shit.”
“Yeah. At that place in Wisconsin. You know the one. The Swiss Chalet.”
Holy fucking shit. He meant Alpine Valley, where I’d just played with Nomad, what, a month? two months? ago. Now it felt like death was stalking dangerously close.
Fortunately, the turbulence evened out then, but my mood continued to plummet. Vaughan was a guitar hero if ever there was one. That he was simply gone was hard to grasp. That it could happen to any of us, on the other hand, seemed clear as day.
R.I.P. Stevie Ray.
(Filmed at one of my old haunts, The Capitol Theater in New Jersey. -d)