Cry Tough

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But then things got worse for Shannon. "I'd stay up five days without sleep," he says. "I remember one night getting ready to play. So I did a shot and just blacked out. They found me with the rig hanging out of my arm. I didn't wake up for three days, while friends shook me. None of us thought we could die back then. But I got busted and thrown in jail, ending up with two years' probation."

As a provision of probation, Shannon spent four months in a San Antonio rehab center, where he was treated with Valium. After that, he rotated between short jail terms and probation, failing urine tests, unable to remain straight. For a while he played bass for an Austin group called the Fools, but that didn't last long. His next jail term released him to a halfway house for four months, where he was introduced to AA, whose methods he first rejected.

Shannon's brokenhearted parents were then living in Amarillo, clueless as to their son's whereabouts for years. "I eventually ended up on this 'farm' out in Buda for over a year, where derelicts were sent," he says. "Halfway houses wouldn't have me, considered me hopeless. I was the only young guy amongst all these old guys they'd find under the bridge. It was hell."

A genuine freak, Shannon could relate to no one -- the generation gap stood firm even among derelicts. He'd pour concrete, pull nails out of wood. He had no money, lost every friend he'd had, couldn't even buy candy or cigarettes at the commissary. No girls, no music, no drugs. "I'd had my '62 jazz bass, which Hendrix had played, out there at the farm for a year under the bed," Shannon says. "I only pulled it out once, looked at it, broke down and cried. But I didn't kill myself."

When Shannon was finally freed from the farm, his probation stipulated he couldn't join a band or even play bass -- the court automatically associated music with drug abuse. Shannon's bricklayer cousin took pity on him, teaching him the trade. He laid bricks and rocks for a year and a half.

Finally, in 1977, his callused hands bleeding, Shannon laid down his trowel. He told his cousin he was going back to music and walked off the job. He went down to Ray Henning's legendary music store in Austin and posted his name on the bulletin board with this simple declaration: "Played with Johnny Winter." Shannon hadn't seen Vaughan for years, and then one night he was in Houston at Rockefeller's and caught an early version of Double Trouble. At that point, the band featured Vaughan, drummer Chris Layton and bassist Jackie Newhouse.

"I walked in and had a revelation: This is where I belong," Shannon says. "I knew it. After their set, we hugged, and I told [Vaughan], 'I belong in this band, I belong playing with you.' Normally, that's not the way to approach somebody. You just don't go up and say, 'Fire the bass player; let me play.' But that's how strong I felt. I had no shame."

Shannon sat in with Vaughan and Layton a few times in Houston. Then in 1980 he got a phone call to join Double Trouble. Starting at $200 a week, crossing the country in a milk truck, Shannon spent nine years with Vaughan, traveling with the guitarist till the day he died. "You'd think I had enough of it, but Stevie and I were doin' cocaine and alcohol," Shannon says. "Yet good things started happenin' for us. We met Jackson Browne, who was blown away the night we did the Montreux Festival. He gave us his studio free to do basic tracks on Texas Flood. David Bowie was there, whom Stevie almost played with. That shows what kind of person Stevie was. We'd made our record, but hadn't yet sold it. Stevie had this incredible opportunity to go from ridin' around in a milk truck to limos with Bowie. He was pushed into it by management and said okay. They rehearsed, but the night before leaving, he said, 'I just can't.' He chose to stay with his band."

The Bowie tour was to be a year. Chances are, had he signed on with Bowie, Vaughan would never have become the Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan soon had his own record deal, though, thanks to the good graces of John Hammond -- history's greatest A&R producer, the man who signed Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan.

"Working with him was the greatest honor," Shannon says of Hammond. "He talked Epic into signing us -- they didn't want a blues band. They only did it because John Hammond said, 'There's something here.' Then the record took off. I'll never forget, we were touring around in our little milk truck. All of a sudden, out in California, there was a line of people around the block at the club."

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Josh Alan Friedman