Steve Vai's Stomach-Turning Nightmare Gig Happened Days Into His First Tour

By Andrew Magnotta @AndrewMagnotta

January 25, 2021

If you've ever battled stage fright, you've probably caught your brain coming up with some pretty wild scenarios of what could go wrong and how embarrassing it would be.

For Steve Vai, all those nightmares and more came true during the first leg of his first-ever tour.

Vai spent most of his teen years locked away in his room practicing guitar, hellbent on making a career in music one day. His maniacal effort paid off and by 1980, at age 20, he was touring as a sideman to Frank Zappa.

While Vai had built up all the musical potency necessary to get the gig, he had none of the constitution required to survive the gigs.

"I had no idea how to get my sea legs together, you know, how to navigate the road so to speak," Vai recalled for Riffs, Beards & Gear. "I was staying up very late, not eating right, not sleeping much and that doesn't work when you're on tour."

Vai's touring lifestyle caught up with him quickly — in the first week or so of the tour. (He recalls the gig in question as being in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but the venue he names was actually located in Austin, Texas.)

It was the summertime, the venue was an older building and Frank and the band were booked for two, two-and-a-half-hour sets.

"It was 120 degrees on the stage, and I was sick as a dog," Vai said. "...You gotta do the show; you can't not do that show... I was so out of it... I had to stand on [a hand truck] and get strapped in and get wheeled out onto the stage and get propped up next to the keyboard player there, Tommy Mars. All I had on was a pair of cutoff jean shorts and a bucket.

"Because not only was I projectile vomiting through the whole show, I was p---ing out of my ass, and it was not fun. I was standing there and I'm drenched in all sorts of bodily fluids. And I remember I had to ... move my head slowly to see the guitar. Because if I would have [moved my head too fast] I would have just fallen over."

The complexity of Zappa's music might have actually helped take Vai's mind off of the fact that his body was turning inside-out. He says he actually "played OK" because of the focus demanded of his parts.

But when he encountered Frank after the show, Vai was sure he was getting sent home.

"I saw him and I'm just like [catatonic]," Vai said. "And [Frank] goes, 'Hey sport, 'You look like a guy that's been on tour for the first time' [Laughs]."

Watch Vai tell the story himself in the video player above!

Photo: Getty Images

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