In 1986, Steve Vai was having one of those years. March saw the debut of the film Crossroads, for which Steve wrote and performed both the rock and neoclassical sequences of the now-famous guitar duel, and in which he also landed a starring role as the devil’s swaggering henchman, Jack Butler. Trailer clips of the film’s climactic musical showdown, with its mesmerizing cascade of diminished arpeggios, had just begun to explode adolescent minds across the country when David Lee Roth stepped into the studio with Steve to record his highly anticipated post-Van Halen grudge album.
When that record, Eat ‘Em And Smile, was sent to the lathe in July of that year, Vai was catapulted from talented upstart to the ranks of the rarefied. Guitar Magazines nearly herniated themselves in the rush to pen think pieces measuring him against the default yardstick of Eddie’s vast influence. Adjectives like “talented” and “iconic” were weighed. Typewriter keys clacked. Coffee mugs were drained and refilled. Music videos were filmed. Fans were alternately thrilled or scared — or both — depending upon their allegiances. Steve’s sudden ubiquity was so complete, it was almost as though he’d made a deal with the Dave-il.
As it happens, Vai’s performances, both on the album and in the film, justified the hype. Those glittering arpeggios may have been the centerpiece of the film’s marketing campaign, but the entire scene was a Vai romp. The tasty blues jam that precedes the throwdown is punctuated by sinister slides, daring harmonics, and slippery arpeggiated runs straight out of what would soon become the Eat ‘Em and Smile playbook.
The Intimidation Breakdown
In one memorable moment, Steve’s tosses his guitar to a body man as he flicks off his jacket in a display of barroom bravado. An instant later, the guitar is whirled through an aerial arc, the strap is slung now over a bare shoulder, and his Paganini-like fingers launch a slashing dive of sparkling picking clarity that slices the juke joint haze like a blade. The run ends in a devastating right-hand harmonic shake as Steve nods to the band. It’s on.
Steve launches this ferocious and precise attack with his glare locked not on his fretboard or his picking hand, but on his adversary. As a teenager, I was terrified. I was also surprised that such a domineering display seemed to sneak past the script, in a way almost stealing the thunder of the ensuing slugfest. The “intimidation breakdown”, as I’d taken to calling it, was almost too good.
The Crossroads producers clearly struck paydirt in nabbing Vai for the role, poised as he was on the precipice of global notoriety, and arriving on set with so much skill and so much charisma. Nearly thirty years later, viewing the prescience of this selection in hindsight, it’s impossible to imagine who else would have possessed the musical versatility and inner histrionic ham to have pulled it off. Steve’s simultaneously studied and dangerously freewheeling musical performance is topped only by his deliciously diabolical, scene-chewing characterization of Butler himself.
Steve Always Wins
As Steve gloats and grimaces and pouts his way through the duel’s thrilling final moments, it’s easy to see why he won Roth’s nod to reinvigorate the base. Wearing both of the film’s musical white and black hats, Steve had rigged the duel from the get-go. Whether you were an Eddie or a Randy fan, a Roth or a Hagar fan — or for that matter a Karate Kid or a Jack Butler fan — it didn’t matter. Because in the end, with the year he was having, it was always going to be Steve that wins.