- Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr
There’s a place in San Antone
Where I can go and not feel alone
Tacoland, it’s a panacea
Tacoland, they’re always glad to see ya
— “Tacoland,” The Dead Milkmen
“I’m taking over the Ram Jam thing, there’s no doubt about that,” said Eddie Cruz, the son of murdered nightclub owner Ram Ayala.
I had contacted Cruz to ask whether he knew anything about the rumors about a future re-opening of Taco Land, the joint his father had owned and managed for almost 30 years before he was fatally shot at the club in June of 2005. He didn’t know much, but he had plenty to say about the music jam that has been hosted for six years as a memorial tribute to the now-iconic figure.
“When my father died, everybody came out of the woodwork,” Cruz said. “‘Oh, I knew him! I partied here with him! I partied there with him!’ I mean, my father knew a lot of people, but everybody all of a sudden knew him really, really well. And some of these people started doing stuff on their own and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
“Some of these people” is actually only two: Jeff Smith (singer for the Hickoids, arguably the first punk band ever to perform at Taco Land) and booking agent/graphic designer Jerry Clayworth, co-organizers of the last six editions of the Ram Jam and, if you ask them, the only Ram Jam.
Two days earlier, I had put the question of Taco Land’s future to Jeff Smith. What did he know about rumors swirling around Taco Land? The venue has been a pivotal San Antonio landmark that served as a South Texas hub for local and touring punk bands at a time venues for such acts were hard to come by. Though the dilapidated structure in the shadow of the rapidly developing Pearl complex along the expanded River Walk was purchased earlier this year by an outfit called Taco Land Studios, LLC (co-owned by Desperate Housewives’ actor Ricardo Chavira) few details have leaked. A few weeks ago Chavira’s publicist denied rumors circulated on Facebook that the place was going to be converted into an ice house in the months ahead, but what plans exist — if any — have been closely guarded.
Did Smith know anything about it? Not much, it turned out. But later, after Cruz’s claims about the Ram Jam started to roil, Smith told the Current, “I don’t really care to get into a public pissing match [with Eddie Cruz] about this.”
With the property sold by the family, Cruz’s attention has shifted to the annual memorial concert. Though the family says the title “Ram Jam” dates back to Ram Ayala’s annual birthday parties, Clayworth was inspired by a statement from Ayala himself. “I once asked Ram, ‘Why do all these people and bands come here and vie to play at your [April 10] birthday every year?’” Clayworth said. “Without skipping a beat, Ram just looked at me and said, ‘Hey, pussy, every man wants to jam with the Ram.”
So, for Clayworth and Smith, the last six years of the Ram Jam have been just that: a time for bands to jam in honor of the memory of a pillar of the local music scene, the man who bravely booked punk bands other venues often feared and let them shine on their own terms. Taco Land became a symbol of musical experimentation, and its fame spread outside of the confines of San Antonio. Long before Ram’s death, the venue had been the subject of NPR coverage and a documentary directed by Laura Escamilla, not to mention a popular tribute by the Dead Milkmen.
The fight over the Jam started “out of the blue,” as Clayworth puts it, with a phone call from Cruz and a request to have Smith ring him back. Instead of a call, Smith wrote Cruz an email. In the note dated April 18, Smith told Cruz that while he wants peace with the family, he’s not going to stop organizing the Ram Jam. And he encouraged Cruz to start his own thing. “The name Ram Jam is not registered by either of us anywhere, except perhaps as a Facebook or MySpace page as a vehicle to promote the event,” Smith wrote Cruz. “If you want to use it, go ahead. We will continue to pay tribute to your father and the venue in our own way as we have done over the past six years and we’re not going to ask for anyone’s permission or blessing to do so, or operate under stipulations from people that have shown absolutely no desire to be involved until now. Again, we celebrate the man we knew and intend no disrespect to you or your family.”
By law, there may be no reason Clayworth and Smith shouldn’t continue, and there is nothing stopping the Cruz family from starting their own tribute. Yet Eddie was livid. He felt insulted and took the email for what it was: a way of saying “thanks, but no thanks.”
“At this point, I started feeling that [Clayworth] was feeling threatened about the whole thing,” Cruz said. “I offered my help and he turned around and told [Smith] the story about me wanting to take over, and that’s why [Smith] sent me that email.”
But Smith’s points are valid. If the Jam was so important to Cruz, why did he wait six years after the murders and six editions of the Clayworth/Smith-organized Ram Jam to enter the picture?
“For that,” Cruz said, “we have to go back to the day of the murders.”
The night of June 23, 2005, Cruz was supposed to be at Taco Land with his father, who at the last minute decided to open the bar at around 10:30 p.m., shortly after the Spurs had won their third NBA championship. Cruz said he was the de facto bouncer at the club and always helped his dad with various jobs around the bar. But that night he stayed home “doing nothing.” He didn’t even watch the game. Unbeknownst to Cruz, two robbers shot Ram, doorman Doug Morgan, and bartender Denise Koger shortly before midnight. Ram died in the early morning of June 24, Morgan would pass away on July 13, 2005, and Koger survived after spending 10 days in the hospital.
At about 2 a.m. Cruz got the call. His mother Tina and older brother Mark were too distraught to respond at first, so he went to the hospital by himself, finding Ram on a gurney covered by a sheet. “It was really bad,” he said. “We were all in shock, we didn’t know what to do.” Minutes later, a tall man entered the room, approached the body and began crying. Although Eddie Cruz had never seen the man before, he tried to console him. “I was comforting him, ‘Yeah, I know how you feel,’” Eddie Cruz said. After a few minutes, the sobbing man murmured, “Dad.”
“I was like, ‘What?!’ But at that time I controlled myself and just shook his hand and gave him a hug,” Cruz said. “So there I am, mourning the violent loss of my father, and at the same time discovering that I had a brother and that my father had two families.”
Most people I asked either didn’t know much about Ram Ayala’s private life, or remembered Tina as the wife. But Ram’s death brought two women and seven children together for the first time, leading to a years-long court dispute over Ram’s legacy and Taco Land. On March 9, 2007, the Express-News, while reporting on the end of the trial of Joseph Gamboa (Ram’s murderer), introduced Taco Land regulars to Agnes Ayala, Ram’s widow. Tina Cruz — who says she changed her two sons’ names from Ayala after growing tired of Ram’s infidelities — was described simply as “the mother of two of Ayala’s children.”
Eddie Cruz said the revelation wasn’t a complete surprise. For years, people would ask him, “How’s your sister?” or “How’s such-and-such?”
“I always smelled something, but I couldn’t confirm anything, so I let it go,” he said.
Tina knew Agnes as “Ram’s ex-wife” and claims Ram had shown her a divorce certificate. What she didn’t know was that Ram and Agnes had a full house of kids as well. “I only knew about one girl, not five kids,” Tina said.
Even before Manuel Ayala first met Eddie Cruz in front of Ram’s corpse, he introduced himself to Tina Cruz, who had pulled herself together and followed behind her son. “What are you going to do with the club?” Tina recalls him asking. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry about Taco Land; what you have to do now is go see your father.” She was confused, sad, and angry. “All he cared about was the club. All he talked about was the jukebox and Taco Land,” she said.
On July 2, 2005, a blog dedicated to all things Taco Land called tacolandstories posted the obituary. “Ramiro ‘Ram’ Ayala passed on Friday June 24, 2005. He is survived by his wife of 49 years Agnes, their children Sylvia (Alfred) Navarro, Manuel (Linda) Ayala, Ramiro (Patricia) Ayala Jr., Ernest (Leticia) Ayala, and Barbara (Damien) Lopez.”
There was nothing Tina could do. She says she started seeing Ram in the mid-’60s and that the two were married in Mexico. But she didn’t have a copy of the marriage certificate, something Agnes Ayala did have. Unable to show proof of marriage, and without the benefit of a will, the Cruz family had the burden of proving to the court that they were legitimate heirs to the Taco Land estate. The judge sided with Agnes Ayala, and shortly after the 2005 murders the Cruz family lost control of Taco Land to the Ayalas.
“We had made an agreement with Manuel [Ayala],” said Eddie Cruz. “I said, ‘Look, you’re not going to take anything out [of Taco Land] until we’re all there, we’re all going to take it out together.” Instead, “not even a week later,” he said, the Ayalas began emptying Taco Land. “They threw a bunch of stuff in the dumpster, a bunch of posters, a bunch of stuff that people would pay a lot of money for or even die for. … They threw a lot of stuff away in the dumpster and took the jukebox out, they took the coolers, they gutted that place. There was nothing I could do.”
The Ayala family sold Ram’s 1977 Datsun — which Eddie Cruz had always eyed, though he says Ram regularly responded, “Not for sale” — to help cover the property taxes on Taco Land, according to Sylvia Navarro, Ram’s eldest daughter.
But the worst part of it all, at least for the Cruz family, is that Eddie and Mark never got the chance to bid their father farewell. The body was cremated and the ashes thrown in the river by Taco Land. None of the Cruzes were invited. “There wasn’t really a relationship between us and them because of the bitterness between my mother and their mother,” said Sylvia Navarro. “I mean we were all victims. It wasn’t their fault that my father and their mother had an affair and that my mother forgave him. There’s really no one at fault here. You know, my mom was a victim, we’re victims, Mark and Eddie were victims. We all had to suffer for it, but really there was nothing anybody could do. I can only control what I can control.”
From shortly after the murders until earlier this year, the two families engaged in a legal tug-of-war. Eddie and Mark Cruz had to submit to DNA testing and, once the judge was convinced they were legitimate sons of Ram, he named Eddie Cruz and Sylvia Navarro as executors to the Taco Land estate. “The judge told us, ‘You need to figure this out among yourselves,’” Eddie Cruz said.
Gradually, Eddie and Sylvia were able to work things out, and the stage was ready for the sale of Taco Land. But Eddie took his time agreeing to it. After refusing several offers, he said he accepted a sale for $325,000 in early 2011 with one condition. “I said, ‘I will sign off, if you let me and my brother [Mark] run this Ram Jam without any issues,” he said. “I don’t want any problems from anybody.”
When people started spontaneously flocking to Taco Land following the 2005 murders of Ram Ayala and doorman Doug Morgan, the Cruz family started to think about organizing concerts to honor Ram’s memory. After those early memorials at Taco Land, there was a benefit for Morgan’s family and to offset Koger’s medical expenses at the now-defunct Sanctuary on July 3, 2005, with Smith’s Hickoids as one of the performing bands. But the first family-approved Ram tribute concert occurred at the Josephine Theater in August of 2005. “We were the ones that allowed that to happen,” Eddie Cruz said. “It was me, my mother, my brother [Mark], and we had Jerry Clayworth get involved.”
However, the first tribute concert billed as the Ram Jam was held at the Limelight in April of 2006. After that, the event was celebrated at Sam’s Burger Joint (2007-08), again at the Limelight (2009), Nightrocker (2010), and Backstage Live (2011). Each was organized by Smith and Clayworth.
Now Cruz said he wants the Ram Jam get closer to “Ram’s real spirit” and include scholarship money for young people. “I’m finally ready to claim what’s mine,” he said, “but people don’t know all I had to go through to get here. That’s why I’m talking.”
He describes a free event mixing established bands with the up-and-coming. But Clayworth says Cruz pitched him a different vision. “He basically said, ‘I want to head the Ram Jam,’ and said the event should be about getting unknown bands and having people come out and see unknown bands,” said Clayworth. “That right there just goes to show you that he doesn’t have an understanding for the music or the business.”
Tina Cruz says she’s attended the Ram Jam every year — “but the only reason I went was to tell Jerry and Jeff not to do it. Every year I told them, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it.’ And they went ahead and did it.”
Both Clayworth and Smith deny Tina ever told them not to do the Ram Jam.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Smith said. “She was dancing in front of the band this year.” He sent the Current two pictures of Tina at the 2011 Ram Jam to back up his claim.
Sylvia Navarro says she specifically gave Clayworth permission to host the event. “The only conversation I had with [Clayworth] was during the trials,” she said. “He said, ‘Do you mind if I still conduct the Ram Jams in your father’s honor?’” and I said, ‘For right now, that’s fine.’”
But Cruz also challenges how the money is handled. While Ram’s annual birthday parties were free to attend, the Ram Jam charges admission. And while Eddie praises the fact that Clayworth and Smith often donate part of the proceeds to local charities and vows that his own version of the Ram Jam “would be all about scholarships, about giving young kids a chance,” he’s critical of Clayworth’s and Smith’s bookkeeping.
“Where does this money go?” asks Eddie Cruz. “Where are the receipts? Do you have it on a big billboard, a big check saying, ‘Donated to KSYM or whatever? And a picture? Something that shows this is why it’s happening? No, [Clayworth] doesn’t have that!”
The Current was able to confirm that $480 from 2011’s Jam was donated to Belle Solloa, who has power-of-attorney over Taco Land regular Dee Dee Williams, the singer of Lost in Space, now recovering from spinal surgery. The rest of the net $1,625 went to the bands, light and sound techs, a doorman, hotel expenses, and $50 out-of-pocket expenses for Clayworth, according to a detailed accounting report sent to the Current via email by Smith.
“I [once] took [the donation] to KSYM, I don’t remember what the program director’s name was at the time,” Clayworth said. “That was probably the second [Ram Jam in 2007]. At the Limelight, we gave part of the proceeds to San Anto Cultural Arts, the year after Manny [Castillo] passed. There was one year, the second or the third year, that there was no benefit and it just all went to the bands.”
“I can’t produce any receipts for you,” Smith said. “We just handed out the money, and that was basically it.”
Despite their relaxed attitude towards record keeping, Smith and Clayworth have never been accused of not delivering to the organizations or individuals listed as Ram Jam beneficiaries. And, really, it’s not about that anyway. Eddie Cruz’s real beef is with Clayworth for, first, going around the Cruz family and getting close to the Ayalas as soon as he found out Agnes was the legal wife, and, second, for refusing his offer of help.
The Cruzes want one Jam. One that is controlled by the family. “Ram Jam should be handled by the families, not Jerry Clayworth,” said Tina Cruz. But Clayworth insists that friends and fans of Ram and Taco Land should always be free to organize and celebrate Ram Ayala and Taco Land the way they see fit. “They can take the name anytime they want. We’ll continue our tributes in our own way. The name doesn’t matter,” he said. “The important thing is to pay tribute to somebody who was important to our musical lives.”
Sylvia Navarro spoke once to the Current, and says she won’t speak on the topic again.
“My father was not perfect, but he was a great father and provider and I am proud of what he brought to the music industry in San Antonio,” she wrote the Current in a recent email. “I hope that is what he will be remembered for and not the mistakes he may have made in life.”
Wading into the many recollections of Ram Ayala has been a bit like reliving a San Antonio version of Rashomon, the Akira Kurosawa movie in which three characters each reveal a different recollection of the same event. I’ve found at least four Rams: Agnes’ Baptist, slacks-wearing version, Tina’s rock ’n’ roll Ram, a father loved by seven kids, and the sneering, hard-drinking figurehead adored by the bands and the fans.
If and when Eddie Cruz and Sylvia Navarro, now bridging a difficult divide between two families, launch their Jam, we’ll report it. If Clayworth and Smith continue, we’ll be there, too. Even though the forecast appears to call for more months of simmering hostility as two camps resolve to remember Ram as they best see fit when April 2012 arrives, for most of us it’s still about the music and the man that made it possible.
Above and beyond the dispute lies the ethereal presence of a man who refuses to disappear. •