Somewhere in the seedy side of heaven there is a place for Doug Sahm. No doubt he has plenty of company: Hank is there, and so is Elvis, and Stevie Ray, and all the other musicians who meant so much to all of us. Townes Van Zandt busies himself writing timeless ballads, and Lefty Frizzell bangs them out on an old guitar with Ernest Tubb accompanying. There, off to the side, Valerio Longoria squeezes out a polka while T-Bone Walker plays the blues, and Bob Wills walks around with his fiddle, commenting on it all Ah-haaah in that lilting way so reminiscent of wide open West Texas spaces.
But if I know Doug, I'm sure he is still taking his vitamins and writhing around up there in a St. Vitus dance, looking for a way to mix it up. The harp music is getting to him something fierce, and even the old Texas ghosts aren't living it up like he had hoped. Right about now he's stepping up to the mic with his guitar, saying in that voice rubbed raw by a half-century onstage: "Here's a little song about a girl we all used to know." Then he breaks out the first backbeats of "Mover," and everybody joins in Valerio with squeezebox filler, Guitar Slim with a rollicking solo and for just a moment God (who looks suspiciously like a bearded, berobed Huey P. Meaux) stops to listen, and in those few minutes the worries of the world are diminished, and cases of Pearl beer materialize for the common souls like so many fishes and loaves, and all the seraphim and cherubim nod, tap, and flap around to the infectious beat of one of the greatest rock 'n' roll songs in the history of mankind. Hey, hey ...
Such are the hopes and dreams a man like Doug Sahm inspires. We want the best for him in the Great Hereafter. The reality of mortals, after all, never had much influence on his life.
Doug came wailing into the world on November 6, 1941, and from the beginning he seemed destined for the stage. Growing up just across a field from the legendary Eastwood Country Club (in those days a pivotal stop on the Chitlin Circuit, a touring regime for black musicians), his early years indelibly branded him as both a son of San Antonio and a disciple of Southern music.
By age 11, Doug was an old hand in the radio business. It was 1952, and he had been appearing regularly as a child prodigy on such seminal radio programs as the Louisiana Hayride for years. That same year, Hank Williams brought "Little Doug Sahm" up onto an Austin stage, and then died two weeks later.
Doug was eventually offered a place on the Grand Ole Opry, the greatest forum for country music of the day. His mother, however, thought it best that he finish junior high school first. As usual, the mother was right; if Doug had gone to Nashville, his life might have taken a very different path. Besides, San Antonio wasn't done with him just yet.
Fast forward to 1964: Doug Sahm had become infused with the musical and racial tensions of San Antonio, moving deftly between genres to record country, Western swing, and R&B numbers for a few local labels. He had fooled more than a few listeners into thinking he was black (at least until they got a look at the skinny white kid onstage), and had even shared a bill with the likes of Little Richard. Meanwhile, rock 'n' roll had made its mark, and Doug Sahm and the Markays had a good local following.
Then came the Beatles, and the whole world changed. Tearing his hair out over the British invasion, wily producer Huey P. Meaux drafted Doug and a rival San Antonio musician, Augie Meyers, into a band that was to be Texas' answer to the Fab Four: the Sir Douglas Quintet. The rest the ballad of Wayne Douglas (and the corrido of Doug Saldaña), his reinvention as a Texas Tornado, and on and on with the magic touch is history. Doug Sahm was too many things to too many people, and his death of a heart attack in 1999 felt like the bottom dropping out of Texas music and the end of an era. In many ways, it was both, and neither. Either way, the good Lord is surely relishing his choice to take him from us, if only to hear firsthand the simple ecstasy his music once provided the living.
So now San Antonio has finally decided to pay tribute to one of its most famous and influential sons. Bully for us. But why did it take the city so long? And why is it being so frostily received by friends and family alike?
Perhaps because, like so many things the city does, it is a day late and a dollar short, and stupidly done at that. The first musical tributes to Doug were heartfelt events, and I remember seeing Clifford Antone bent over in sadness at his own bar as a stream of Texas legends took the stage to pay their dulcet respects. Condolences poured in from around the world, and musicians cancelled paying gigs to make time for Doug's memory.
But like all sadness, time heals, and the goodwill of three years hence seems to have been squandered. The Tornados have spun away from each other, for the most part Flaco Jiménez back into the colorful folds of conjunto superstardom, Freddy Fender into the tearful crooning that gave him his name, and so on. With the help of Augie Meyers, Shawn Sahm (Doug's eldest son) has admirably stepped up to try and walk around in his dad's shoes, though even he knows they will never fit.
"He was a true Texas legend," Shawn said recently. "He's one of those guys who was a vital link in the musical food chain, if you can dig that."
Yes, I think we can. But what is harder to dig is how something as simple as a gesture of charity in Doug's name could get so screwed up in the process. Even the fiasco's promoters admit that "the event is somewhat in flux." And how:
To begin with, the event, touted as "Doug Sahm Day" by Mayor Garza, is scheduled for October 13 a date that was chosen mainly to accommodate the hectic schedules of many musicians, almost all of whom have fallen through. A venue change, from the tenderly appropriate Wolff Municipal Stadium (home of the San Antonio Missions, of whom Doug was a dedicated fanatic) to Camargo Park on the West Side (Doug was born and raised on the East Side), has left an event with no sponsors to speak of, and little money from the city. Add to that a confusing line-up though listed separately, Augie Meyers, Shawn Sahm, and the S.A. Groovers are all basically the same thing and what do you get? A sad showing for Doug.
The day may well be salvaged by the appearance on the bill of Joe "King" Carrasco, Little Joe y La Familia, Angela Strehli, and Lucky 13, featuring Lucky Tomblin (a lawyer-cum-musician who has largely funded the event) and the West Side Horns. The event's organizers had been trying to book Los Lobos, but last week that plan caved in, leaving them with little time to attract other musical acts and embarrassingly scarce public knowledge of the event. In response, the city has washed its hands of Doug Sahm Day, which is unhelpful at best.
"There's a lot of people missing," admits Shawn Sahm. "I'm not actually playing much of a role. I'm just gonna show up and sit in. We're gonna do a Tex-Mex party thing. A little Sir Doug, a Little Tornados ... we'll see what happens. It's not whether a thousand people come or a hundred, but the bottom line is that people show up and give him his due." To that end, Little Joe has written a special song for the event, and a trove of musicians are likely to show up and sit in.
"I was hoping we'd be moving downhill by now," says Deborah Hanson, a long-time lady friend of Doug's and an organizer, "but it looks like it's going to be uphill all the way up until the day of the event. We want people to know we're serious about it and will continue it. It's going to happen one way or the other, and if all the friends come together and have fun, then we'll try to do it better next time."
At least the lunacy surrounding the event is true to Doug's nature, which was always a little touch-and-go. The important thing, after all, is that Doug have his day, but I have the feeling that if he were here now, and was able to comment, he might say something like: "It's still not weird enough for me, groover."