Stevie Ray Vaughan lost his life in a helicopter crash exactly 29 years ago today. Since that untimely death, the blues rocker’s stature has only grown. Vaughan’s posthumous honors include gold records and Grammys, inductions into both the Blues and Rock and Roll halls of fame, and perennial appearances on lists of the “greatest guitar players of all time.”
This month saw the release of Alan Paul and Andy Aledort’s new Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, a comprehensive oral history of his life. Vaughan’s bronze likeness stands beside Austin’s Lady Bird Lake, the silhouette on the platform behind him suggesting the lengthy shadow he still casts over the city and the world. His spirit lives in each new generation of Strat-wranglers snaking their way around the pentatonic scale, inside every guy who’s wondered whether he could pull off a concho belt. Your local classic rock station is probably spinning “Pride and Joy” right now. In 2019, Vaughan is very much with us. So, of course, he’s become a meme.
Last December, the Instagram account @StevieVagueWrong launched with an initial volley of eight posts. That established the account’s remarkable prolificacy, as well as the premise of its most enduring, surprisingly elastic joke—a photo of Vaughan in one of his many outlandish outfits, overlaid with text that incorrectly identifies him as someone else. For example, a picture of him rocking a fluffy black fur coat and carrying a walking stick is titled “Notorious SRV.” One of him wearing a relatively spartan combo of aviator sunglasses and a muscle tee is tagged “Lou Reed.” A pair of shirtless images, showing off his chest tattoo, link him to both The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow and sludge-metal heroes High on Fire. They’re sophisticated in a record-geek sort of way, presuming that the account’s core audience is already hip to artists like Shellac, A Place to Bury Strangers, and This Mortal Coil. They are also, like the best memes, very, very stupid.
The account’s four cocreators—who asked that they be identified only (and appropriately) as EAR, GHM, JCB, and SMK—started out making each other laugh by sharing bad Vaughan-inspired art that they’d stumbled across in various Texas restaurants and bars. They posted garish watercolors of Vaughan ripping guitar solos and photos of him pulling dyspeptic guitar faces on each other’s Facebook feeds. As the memes began piling up, the foursome decided they should share them with the world.
In the months since its debut, @StevieVagueWrong has evolved from those sorts of “misidentification” gags to more complex forms of its single-serving stupidity, incorporating Vaughan into topical riffs on the day’s biggest news stories or pop cultural happenings, and riffing on viral memes like “Tuxedo Winnie the Pooh,” “Pepe Silvia,” and—my personal favorite—“Is Your Child Texting About Stevie Ray Vaughan?” The account has also developed a mythology to rival Vaughan’s own. JCB, in particular, has created an entire sub-narrative about his “wife” and her growing hatred of his SRV obsession. Another go-to joke involves Vaughan’s (entirely fabricated) blood feud with Eric Clapton. Coursing through it all is “Them Blues,” the God-given life force within Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music that is bestowed upon its listener. Like the Buddhist dharma, “Them Blues” represents both the cosmic balance of the @StevieVagueWrong universe and the unavoidable path we all must walk toward it.
Crafting the perfect SRV meme often takes hours, entire afternoons of the four of them shirking their office jobs on a constantly updated group thread. The seemingly casual, tossed-off idiocy of the images belies this involved process. On the recent post advertising a new Vaughan-themed mod for “the fine folks at SRVape,” for example, SMK pitched the concept, GHM wrote the copy (and suggested “ThemBluesberries” as the flavor), while EAR handled all of the Photoshopping and design. Whatever gets the most laughs after all that work is then posted for public consumption. No joke is considered too ridiculous or too niche.
“We have some followers that appreciate the irony and the obscure music-dork references we sometimes drop,” SMK says. “We also have plenty of hardcore Stevie fans who probably don’t pick up on the Jandek or 4AD references but love the SRV content.”
In fact, other than a few people angry to discover that the SRVape isn’t real, the only backlash thus far has been over the account’s occasional straying into politics. This month, some followers took issue with a play on Jon McNaughton’s viral monstrosity “The Masterpiece” that depicted Donald Trump sitting proudly before his oil painting of Vaughan. They decried the implication that Vaughan would have anything to do with Trump. On the flip side, another post that saw Vaughan rocking out approvingly to the idea of fighting state bans on abortion was met with accusations of liberal agenda-pushing, followed by a fierce debate over whether Vaughan’s Christianity meant he would have been pro-life. But such flare-ups are exceptions.
This is even more remarkable considering there is the sense, especially here in Texas, that Vaughan’s legacy is sacrosanct—that even those who may not be partial to “Scuttle Buttin’” must still genuflect before his talents. Even when vandals twice struck Vaughan’s statue in Austin last year—it was graffitied by some cowardly taggers with questionable can control and also draped with a Philadelphia Eagles jersey the morning after the Super Bowl—Vaughan was less target than collateral damage. For some detractors, perhaps he represents a strain of proficient-yet-soulless Guitar Center blues that’s only become more watered down in his wake. (Though let’s face it, there’s plenty to unpack regarding his cocaine-cowboy fashion sense.) Yet no one seems to have any real beef with him, even if they don’t care for his music, which makes something like @StevieVagueWrong a tricky needle to thread. Its creators, three of whom are Texas musicians themselves, say they’re especially sensitive to that, even if they’re not exactly fans of his music.
“I think there’s a playful quality that recognizes people’s love for SRV,” JCB adds. “My best friend has harangued me for 25 years to give SRV a chance. His haranguing always had this mix of zealotry and absurdity that’s sort of inspired how I come to the account. I’ve tried to approach SRV from his mindset, then add an even larger dollop of ridiculousness.”
“Stevie’s music has always been like a language that I didn’t understand, but I was surrounded by growing up in Texas,” EAR adds. “This is my attempt, in its own strange way, to embrace it and accept it. We’re talking about SRV in a way that no one else is and reviving his legacy through meme culture. We imagine a world were Stevie lived on and reached a much greater audience, where he infiltrated the world of comics, movies, celebrity news, and product placement.”
That may sound a bit lofty for a bunch of absurd jokes about Obama and Spider-Man rocking out to “Cold Shot.” Nevertheless, there is something strangely restorative about @StevieVagueWrong. It allows both the diehards and the skeptics to take pride (and fine, joy) in claiming him as one of Texas’s own, uniting them through laughter—and of course, Them Blues.
“The level of SRV mythology in Texas is astounding,” SMK says. “It became something I mocked as a defense mechanism. But over the past year of immersing myself in Stevie, my perspective has softened. He was obviously talented beyond belief. And from what I can gather, he was a really good dude who brought joy not just to his fans, but everyone around him. I like to think he might have gotten a kick out of it too.”