Saying goodbye to a friend and a hero.
A tribute to Doug Sahm
Originally published on November 26, 1999 in the Austin Chronicle
The koolest kat in this great big freaky city just checked out. It wasn't like anyone expected -- he didn't do it onstage, he didn't even do it in Texas, he didn't do it a couple of decades after the rest of us, which I would have guessed. Instead, in a hotel room in Taos, New Mexico, Doug Sahm died alone, of a heart attack. Everyone's stunned. Sahm was energy defined, so full of life it is impossible to imagine him gone -- he was a musician who looked as though he were having as much fun making music at 58 as he did when he started at four. We all would have bet that Doug would be rocking onstage with the boys into his 80s. Just as we knew that after the set, he would get off stage, and, while inexplicably holding his hand over his mouth, complain about the new generation and how they didn't get it, then wonder if they would be interested in a softball game challenge. It's not to be. Doug Sahm is dead, and we're all a little sadder for it.
In 1974, my friend Everett and I pulled into Austin, Texas, the day after Thanksgiving. I remember driving up I-35, my first sight of Memorial Stadium being the packed stands for the A&M game. We were cruising in a 1952 Chevy Deluxe that could be coaxed up to 55 miles an hour in its best moments. We followed directions to a friend's house, but she wasn't home, and so we broke in. Immediately after settling down, we headed over to the Rylanders on Jefferson, where Snow Pea is now. In front, we found the Austin Sunrack. Heading from town to town, we would always look for publications like these, evolved out of the underground press (they hadn't evolved yet into the alternative press they were to become). They told the story of our community, of clubs, politics, and lifestyle. In the Sun, we found an ad for Doug Sahm playing at Soap Creek Saloon, out in the hills.
Sahm was a hero. We were all involved in an exploration of American music, looking for the roots of rock & roll. A record by the Holy Modal Rounders or the Rolling Stones would send us off in pursuit of America's musical pioneers. Dock Boggs, Charlie Patton, Memphis Minnie, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rogers, Bob Wills, Lightnin' Hopkins were names gleaned from song credits or referenced in reviews, artists whose work we would try to track down, some with more success than others. Sahm attracted our attention with the radio hits "She's About a Mover" and, years later, "Mendocino."With windows open, racing through the Vermont mountains with "Mendocino" playing as loud as those lousy old AM radios would go, we were all so innocent and thought we knew so much. Each new Sahm release was a catalog of sounds offering exciting new ways of thinking about music. There was both a sloppiness and a genius to much of Sahm's work, taut music-making coupled with truly eccentric ramblings. The Return of Doug Saldaña, released in 1971, introduced us to T-Bone Walker and Freddy Fender. But if you want to hear hippie-weird, listen to the track "The Railpak Dun Done in the Del Monte," a strange tale about the death of a railroad in Monterey, California. We listened, sprawled around a Fifties Life magazine living room stereo, the Vermont winter outside, reading Ken Kesey, the Whole Earth Catalog, and Dashiell Hammett. Over and over we had listened to the albums -- Mendocino, Together After Five, Doug Sahm and Band -- and here was Sahm playing live.
We followed the directions to Soap Creek, got very lost, and finally found a dirt road with a small billboard pointing the way. We parked and walked in the dark down this dirt road with cars parked on both sides. Finally, we got to a clearing with this building at one end.
The door opened, light poured out, we walked by an enormous bouncer and a jukebox. We had entered our first -- and the perfect -- Texas honky-tonk. It was heaven. It was smoke, light, music, liquor, and people with Doug and the band playing someplace beyond even brilliant. If you never saw Doug in a club live, well, it can't be explained. It wasn't just that he was so good at so much; it was that as much fun as you were having, he was having more. This first time I saw him was a revelation. I remember leaning against the bar, a skinny rum and Coke in my hand, thinking that, at last, I was home.
There is so much to say here, but much of it is said in the special Sahm section in this issue heroically put together by Raoul Hernandez, Christopher Gray, and Margaret Moser. Sahm was not just a great band leader and brilliant musician, he was a terrific guy. Hat slung low, he'd lean into you, cup his mouth, and a torrent of words and images would just pour out. The best part was watching him make music; he was exciting and always capable of the unexpected.
The last time I saw Doug was at the Formosa Restaurant. My son and I were eating out when Doug came over, sat down, and we talked for a half an hour or so. Over the last few years, we had gotten to be better friends, talking when we ran into each other or during explosive Sahm phone calls in which he shot out an idea or a hello and then asked what was happening. He became the voice of the SXSW softball game (with Joe Nick Patoski) and had taken to inviting me to gigs around town. This night we were both in great moods, Doug speed-rapping, with a street preacher's tendency to repeat the most important points, with a hipster's rhythmic beat.
The other night I was at home when Margaret Moser called with the news about Doug. I was intellectually stunned, but the news was traveling the long, slow route to my emotions. My son Eli came in, asking what was up. I asked him if he remembered the guy we had talked to at the restaurant. "You mean the crazy man?" he asked. I smiled -- it was most certainly the crazy man I was talking about.
Ten minutes later, a friend stopped by with the same sad news, adding that Larry Monroe on KUT-FM was playing a tribute. Going back in, I turned on the radio. The music did it. I stood there sobbing, just overwhelmed by this totally unexpected loss. Later in the evening, Jody Denberg, Raoul, Margaret, and I went on a bar-hopping wake, running into a host of Doug's friends. Which, when you go out in this town or this state, just isn't that hard to do.