Dancing About Architecture
A Fond Farewell to the Texas Tornado himself, Doug Sahm.
I must admit I had no idea what to expect when I entered the Hole in the Wall late Thursday afternoon. I had only gotten the call from Margaret Moser a half-hour or so before and was without a clue as to what channels the news had gone through. As I approached the door, however, and heard the strains of "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone" coming from the CD player inside, I knew that someone else had already taken the role of Bearer of the Bad News -- everyone inside already knew that Tex-Mex legend and friend of the club Doug Sahm had died. The club's caricature of Sahm had been moved from the wall of past performers to a new place: front and center in the Elvis Presley shrine over the club's stage. "Doug Sahm is our Elvis," one staffer noted somberly. Many of the patrons crowded inside were wearing cowboy hats, and it took me a while to recall that the Hole's Brooks Brannon had his birthday party scheduled for that afternoon and Western wear was the suggested attire. It was especially ironic given the later report that Sahm would be buried wearing his cowboy hat. The juxtaposition of Brannon's birthday and Sahm's death no doubt helped turn the evening -- as much as possible under the circumstances -- into a celebration of the singer's life, rather than mourning his death.
It took a few more days before all the facts were clear, but it appears that the great Sir Doug had taken ill during the middle of the week. He had complained, says son Shandon Sahm, of difficulties with his hands and fingers, while others say he had been throwing up -- something friends claim he hadn't done in 20 years. He had headed off to Taos, New Mexico, to see a doctor (or "his medicine man," as some friends say he he referred to the MD), and when his girlfriend called his hotel on Thursday morning and got no answer, the inn's security was sent to discover the tragic scene. At 58, the Texas Tornado, had run out of what had always seemed to be boundless energy and succumbed to an apparent heart attack. Looking back, some folks close to Sir Doug have said since that over the last few months they had noticed him to be less than his energetic, unstoppable self, that he appeared to have lost his spark somehow. If that's true, it got past this writer altogether. When I saw him at the Broken Spoke a few weeks ago -- at what must have been his final Austin performance -- playing sets of his own and with Ed Burleson, he was nothing less than an unstoppable ball of lightning, keeping the audience hustling to keep up with his own electric batch of mostly George Jones songs and fighting a losing battle to keep from upstaging Burleson during the young country star's time onstage. If that's "losing the spark," I'd hate to have known the man in his heyday.
Of those who did, all have a story or 12 to tell, and many of them can be found throughout this issue of the Chronicle. Some have less of a chance of telling their stories, like the currently incarcerated Huey P. Meaux, who in the words of Monday's New York Times Sahm obit, "decided to look for an American answer to Beatlemania, [and] he found the Sir Douglas Quintet." A prison official at Huntsville who asked Meaux for comment on the Chronicle's behalf reports that the former producer had not yet heard the sad news, and was "real shook up -- he just couldn't believe it." Still, Meaux managed to pass along that Sahm "was the best -- we never had no contracts, and we never had no problems. Doug was a real person. He was good-hearted." The Huntsville official added that he himself knew Sahm and was astonished to hear he had been felled at such an early age (and was more astonished when I told him Sahm was actually 58 years old). Equally stunned was KGSR-FM's Jody Denberg, who spent much of Thursday staring at piles of Broadcasts Vol.7 CDs, the cover of which bears Sahm's beaming face. Those CDs, he recalls, were being unloaded just about the time it was determined that Doug died (see Denberg's remembrance in our tribute section). The Chronicle has received a number of voice-mail tributes to Sahm, including a particularly garbled one; If our crack team of language experts deciphers it and determines it's Sahm's good buddy Bob Dylan, we'll let you know.
Among those walking the streets of Austin, it was impossible over the weekend to miss the reminiscences and tributes to Sahm. Beyond the immediate, impromptu get-togethers at places like the Hole on Thursday, Saturday saw numerous shows dedicated to Sir Doug, from the Meat Puppets (featuring Shandon Sahm) at the Cactus Cafe where Curt Kirkwood referred to "the unspeakable" having happened, to Joe Ely at Antone's looking around the packed club and noting that "we know he's in the building." Official services took place Tuesday in San Antonio (as this issue of the Chronicle went to press), with numerous other assemblies in Sahm's honor in the works at press time. The big Tary Owens benefit at Antone's, set for next Wednesday (Dec. 1) and described in great detail here last week, is now set to double as a tribute to Sahm, with the real thing following two days later at the club on December 3-4, where Joe Ely, Lucinda Williams, Kim Wilson, Gene Taylor, Joe "King" Carrasco, and the Mavericks are among the names being kicked around as performers in the service of Doug's memory.
So what's left for those of us to look for from Sir Doug, besides memories of the man and his music? Well, Tornado Records' Bill Bentley says, "I had a lot of plans with Doug. Now I won't get to do them with him, but I will do them for him." (Look for Bill's lovely piece on Doug also in our tribute.) Sahm's country album for Tornado is in the can, for instance, with the plans to issue The Return of Wayne Douglas (named after Sahm's country persona, who previously attempted fame with the single "Be Real") still on for March. Also, there's the planned Volume 2 of the Texas Tornados' Live From the Limo sessions from last year, the release of which the Tornados had planned to discuss at a meeting scheduled for December. Bentley says he doesn't know who's got the rights to that one, but he points out that Sahm himself had recently bought back the rights for last year's SDQ '98 (featuring the Gourds) from Watermelon, as he was particularly proud of the album. Bentley says that if they can legally do it, Tornado Records would be equally proud to reissue that disc. Coming up from public TV, the Austin City Limits episode that the Texas Tornados shot recently is scheduled to air in early 2000 (possibly March), while on public radio, KUT's Larry Monroe says he's going to play a tape of the last time Doug was on his Texas Radio program (1/24/99) at 9pm this coming Sunday.
All this is merely a drop in the enormous bucket that is Doug Sahm's half-century-plus musical career. Due to the fact that his dozens of releases came out on dozens of labels, and have been repackaged in dozens of configurations, rounding up the complete Sahm catalogue may be nearly as impossible as culling Duke Ellington's recorded output! That chaos may finally be turning to order, posits Bentley, who says he's been talking with reissue rangers Rhino Records, and there's the possibility that a long-overdue, comprehensive box set might be in the works in the not-too-far future. "I think we have a really good chance" of getting Rhino to assemble the definitive Sahm collection, says Bentley proudly, adding with only a hint of resignation, "Of course, he had to be dead first." Being dead also leads to memorials, and in the works are plans to get Sahm nominated to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame via the local Grammys chapter. Also, given that Walter Hyatt has a bench and Stevie Ray Vaughan a statue on the Hike & Bike Trail, it's been suggested that some sort of memorial to Sahm be erected in that area. To that effect, son Shandon says that what Doug really wanted was a tree planted in his memory. That seems awfully, how shall I put it, tame to me. Not that I'm actually against the tree thing, but let's just say that in addition, we need to start working on the guys at the national weather bureau in anticipation of the next time the letter "D" comes around on the naming list for Texas tornados (or is that hurricanes?). Considering this entry in the "too weird for words" department, that push should probably begin sooner than later: Clifford Antone reports that he found a message on his Call Notes at home from Sahm a day or two before Doug left for New Mexico. "Too many yuppies," he complained to the clubowner and went on to talk about a future date at the club, before ending the message with an eerie, "This is the Texas Tornado, and I'm outta here -- whoooooooooossssssh!"
-- Contributors: Christopher Gray, Raoul Hernandez, Andy Langer, Margaret Moser