Had I not been reminded while driving home from a family gathering on the night of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s most recent induction-ceremony that a family member happens to be a fan of his music, I would have kept from sharing my thoughts on a) John Mayer of all people being selected to speak on behalf of inducting Stevie Ray Vaughan, b) his approach to playing the blues, and c) his pop/weak-ass speech.
But in the end, it was just too tough to ignore. (And, I feel safe that said family member will not actually see this post on fb. …It’s all love! :) )
I am aware of the lot of compare-and-contrast’s on various comment-threads, but the true matter of contrast seems within John Mayer. He still insists on being more of a pop star, and you can hear it in his more often than not tepid style of songwriting and performing. Where’s the swing, the soul, the dig, the boogie, the jazz, the fun, the funk?! Where’s the blues?! The blues is a good person — usually shy and quiet, but very spirited and creative — hashing out in some fun or sweet way, loneliness. Mayer seems to be at a point in his career where he could very easily at all times let all of his colors fly. But he doesn’t.
He has good technique and fingering, and he most certainly has the performance gene, but this is the nagging contrast between him and more serious blues musicians — let alone, when he tries to pick up Stevie Ray Vaughan’s number. And it does not take a musician to really hear and agree with this.
My overall feelings about John Mayer, in his music and here speech, can still really be summed up as follows: if you date women like Jennifer Aniston, Jessica Simpson, (supposedly) Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry, among others, you will never know the blues. This is just obvious to me.
Most H.o.F. induction speeches I’ve watched are good to really good. But, some flop. (I mean, Flea for Metallica? I never knew him to be very close friends with anyone in the band, nor all that articulate outside of his bass-playing.) I could just not listen to anymore of John Mayer’s speech beyond the 2:29 mark. I gave it another try, only lasted another fifteen seconds. Ultimately, there were some semi-sincere deposits but overall it was just too skate-along-the-surface, pretty, and pop. (And not to overlook that he is someone who thinks he is charming but isn’t.) …No, Jimi did not come from out outer-space, he very much came from the ground up as well, and took it everywhere including outer space! (…Dammit!)
It is difficult in itself for a very spiritual person to live with being embodied, and to try and connect with others, who themselves all love to be uplifted but are obviously in many ways not all cut from the same cloth. The love Stevie Ray Vaughan embodied towards his music was just not very well represented in this speech… How many freaking times are you going to drop my least favorite word, ‘hero’? No need for that. And, hold on a sec, you ‘turned down every drug and drink’ offered to you?! You must mean this as already having your own because you were an avid burner for years! You did an interview while puffing! Define ‘drug’! I want-to-keep my eyes from rolling…
No one would argue someone more fitting to both induct and accept on his brother’s behalf than Jimmie (not the other Jimi, but his brother). Or, firstly, any number of the living influences whom his brother mentioned in his speech. Stevie came from a musical family, and entered into a larger one courtesy of his family and older brother. I would have loved to hear Jimmie share the story of how he showed his brother a lot of what he knows on guitar. But he warned, if you ask me to show you anything again I’ll kick your ass. Well, he asked, and he did! …And now here he is getting inducted into the Hall. ‘Naturally, I don’t mind,’ he might have added. ‘Obviously, in more ways than I just mentioned, he earned it.’
Wherever you would hear that ululating bend come back down on the note again, your ears perk up and recognize it as a Vaughan riff. One could just take excerpts from his box-set pages, where there are so many beautiful, highlighted remarks, from David Bowie, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Buddy Guy, Joe Satriani, Chris Layton, among others — and not to mention an article reprinted from a guitar magazine, salivatingly entitled, “The Secrets Behind Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Legendary Guitar Tone”, an interview with his guitar-tech, Rene Martinez.
Surely, one of the most profound what-ifs asked around guitar-circles is what if Jimi Hendrix had been alive to hear Stevie Ray Vaughan? He would have ended up spending a little more time in Texas, to be sure! (‘Take me to the [physical] place that note came from!’) The parallels between the two are too numerous and unmistakable. Jimi said he wanted to create music so powerful it could be a light that could cure cancer. Stevie often visited and played for young people, and children, stricken with cancer, in their hospital rooms. It is this generosity of spirit, this habitually gleeful level of sacrifice that puts these two musicians/people in the same camp.
They likely would have played a lot together, as surely there would have been a healthy, competitive friendship for the sake of the musical world. I once read of Van Morrison and Bob Dylan crossing paths at a club in Ireland, and they sat as the gob-smacked interviewer watched them quiz each other identifying lines from the most obscure folk songs. You could imagine the two guitar greats might do the same with blues riffs.
He had “technique…by the truckload”, as Steve Vai once put it. This is evidenced in many, many, many places. Just one example, one of my personal favorites, is in this version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. He goes from taking a virtual break, strumming away at a few chords, to putting the pedal to the floor for his solo; it is the exact feeling as going from sitting in waiting to the passenger-jet very quickly hitting full-throttle. And he stays locked in — never for a instant losing focus! With Double Trouble’s you’re-not-worthy rhythm-playing behind it, it is fun, funky, jazzy, and flawless.
If in the book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites an approximation of 10,000 hours of practice at something makes you an expert, let’s see… Stevie Ray Vaughan started playing on his seventh birthday, in 1961, and played everyday until his passing, about 29 years later. …Minus sleeping and eating…let’s put that at playing around 14 hours per day? …Now, the math… Wow! 148,190 hours! …Plus or minus. :)
For how else can you explain this ability to launch into something with so much feel, at seemingly any given point in time, and never miss? It was this amount of knowledge, power, passion, devotion, and drive — sweet and profound — that made him so great and so much fun to watch.