Saturday, May 21, 2011

Doug Sahm

I remember hearing the Sir Douglas Quintet's "Mendocino" on AM radio in New York when I was 12 years old. The song -- Tejano polka infused with a mellow San Francisco hipi vibe -- was as hard to relate to culturally as Desmond Dekker's "The Israelites" (also a hit that year), but there was something about it that made it irresistible. Maybe it was Doug Sahm's friendly bray of a voice, which seemed to invite you to sit down on a big wrap-around porch for a spell. Or Augie Meyers' roller-rink organ, which made it sound like a hell of a party. (Just ask Hef.)

A couple of years later, I read a review of the Quintet's last album for Smash, The Return of Doug Saldana, in Creem. It'd be years before I'd hear the record, let alone contemplate setting foot in Texas (and realizing that you really _can't_ live here if you don't have a lot of soul), but to my 14-year-old self, as obsessed with the idea of a community built around music as I was alienated from my immediate environment, Sir Doug's San Antonio sounded like a multiracial Utopia. On The Return, he covered Chicano country star Freddy Fender's "Wasted Days, Wasted Nights," and in the '90s, they'd share stages as bandmates in the Texas Tornados.

I was aware of his Doug Sahm and Band and Texas Tornado albums via selling them to older cats at the record store where I worked in high school. Their interest stemmed primarily from the Bob Dylan connection, since Dylan sang along on a couple of And Band songs, but at that point in my life, I could've cared less about Bob Dylan. (It took a mixtape I got from John Bargas in 1994 to change that.) When I was stationed in Korea in '82-'83, however, I found a copy of And Band in the base library, and used to go listen to it through headphones because it reminded me of Texas, especially the song "Is Anybody Going To San Antone?" It impressed me that the record's stylistic range spanned everything from western swing to Tejano to T-Bone Walker styled blues. (As Oliver Lake wrote, "WHAT KINDA MUSIC U PLAY? / 'GOOD KIND.'")

Sahm was born in the same year as Dylan and absorbed as many different strains of American music as the Minnesota bard, but did so from the standpoint of a working musician -- stylistic adaptability was a must if you wanted to gig regularly in San Antonio. He'd been a child prodigy on steel guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, performing on the radio from age five, having his picture taken sitting on Hank Williams' lap at seven, and cutting his first record at 14. Post-Beatlemania, producer Huey P. Meaux tapped him to make a fake English band, dubbed the Sir Douglas Quintet, and had them photographed in silhouette to hide the Chicanos. (Less successful on TV -- see "crazy eyes" clip below.)

Sahm decamped for the West Coast in '66 following a drug bust. Signed to Mercury subsidiary Smash, a reformed Quintet cut four albums (Mendocino, Together After Five, 1_1_1=4, and The Return) that were a rich gumbo of rock, blues, R&B, country, jazz, Tejano, and psychedelia. The Quintet drifted apart, with Doug and Augie Meyers embarking on solo careers, then reformed again in the wake of a "New Wave" over which they were muy influential (cf. Elvis Costello's Attractions, Joe "King" Carrasco's Crowns).

I was fortunate to see Sir Doug live at Soap Creek Saloon when I lived in Austin for four months in late '79. It was a special time that I only came to appreciate in retrospect: hipis, cowboys, frats and punks, all living together in relative harmony; the Armadillo and Liberty Lunch; dragworms and Salvation Sandwiches; the Huns and the Big Boys (I took Tim Kerr's job at Record Town in Dobie Mall); stumbling into a 6th Street dive and hearing Stevie Ray Vaughan, whom I recognized from a tape my Fort Worth compadre Jim Yanaway had recorded; breakfast tacos at the Lazy Daisy and flirting with the waitresses at the Buffalo Grill. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Doug's music and vibe were part of what started me thinking that maybe I had a place in what had previously seemed like a strange and foreign location to me.

I saw Sahm again a decade later, when I was stationed in Abilene. He was touring with Lou Ann Barton, and they performed in a strip joint because it was the only place in town that had a stage and a P.A. At that point, he was concentrating on blues, and he was as conversant at that style as roomfuls of earnest guitar-slingers with gassed-back hair and soul patches. His Hell of a Spell record focuses on that facet of his music (except for the inexplicably reggae-inflected title track, which blows). Much better is The Last Real Texas Blues Band, cut live at Antone's in Austin, which includes a beautiful version of the standard ballad "When I Fall In Love" that's a stunning departure. (But hell, T-Bone Walker used to sing ballads, too.)

For the country side of Sahm, you owe it to yourself to hear the deceptively-titled Texas Rock for Country Rollers, produced by Huey Meaux, which includes Doug's song "Texas Ranger Man," covered live to good effect by Texas punks including the Hickoids, the Loco Gringos, and once-and-future Nervebreaker Barry Kooda. Near the end of his life, Doug returned to those country roots on the posthumously released The Return of Wayne Douglas (the pseudonym under which he originally released "Be Real"), on which he revisited songs from his catalog like "Beautiful Texas Sunshine," "Cowboy Peyton Place," "Dallas Alice," and "Texas Me." Hard to believe that his great, strong heart gave out on November 18, 1999.


Blogger Krakhaus said...

Thanks, Ken! I like the guy more than I can explain...

7:54 AM  
Blogger apauling said...

Nice overview of a brilliant figure in American roots music who deserves wider exposure.

2:58 PM  

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