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Adios, Doug Sahm

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Doug Sahm had more Elvis than Elvis. When he died in Taos in mid-November at the age of fifty-eight, Doug Sahm left behind a wealth of good music you could dance to and a string of stories that sound apocryphal but probably weren’t. And if they were, it didn’t matter.

Here’s one. According to Observer graphic designer, Harrison Saunders, a Sahm softball teammate a decade or so ago, Doug Sahm was afraid of getting hit by a line drive, but he insisted on pitching. So Doug Sahm pitched in full catching regalia: mask, chest protector and shin guards. And the stream of consciousness patter coming through the iron bars of that catcher’s mask must have been like nothing the baseball world had heard, short of Casey Stengel and Frankie Frisch talking to each other.

In the seventies, everyone came to play with Doug Sahm. At Austin’s old Soap Creek Saloon, at the Rome Inn, at Antone’s, you’d find Herbie Hancock pounding away on an old, beat-up upright piano or Carlos Santana on guitar or Bob Dylan.

Adios, Mexico.

What was it about Doug Sahm? Where did the guy get his duende? How did this white boy from the East Side of San Antonio come to be the composer of a La Raza anthem: “Soy Chicano”? A musical prodigy sitting outside the old Eastwoods Country Club in segregated San Antonio, soaking up Bobby “Blue” Bland, T-Bone Walker and Memphis Slim on San Antonio’s East Side, Flaco Jimenez and his father on the West Side, hooking up with saxophone player Rocky Morales back in 1959, listening to Webb Pierce and the stars of country western as a young boy, playing guitar while sitting on Hank Williams’ knee just before Williams died.

In the sixties, he had hits by grabbing the British wave as head of the Sir Douglas Quintet. He never left any of these personae behind. They became part of him, became integrated into one Doug Sahm. A disciple of the Walt Whitman school of rock ‘n’ roll, he contained multitudes.

Here’s part of what it was: You take these Ry Cooder CDs with the Buena Vista Social Club or world-class musicians from Mali or India and you think: this is good. Here’s music to pay attention to. Cross-cultural. Great music. You can even dance to it. But it’s still cultural anthropology.

Then you’ve got this long-haired, white musician in a cowboy hat from the East Side of San Antonio, growing up in the forties and fifties, and he takes the country sounds he grew up with, and the rhythm and blues and jazz he heard at the Eastwoods Country Club and other such places. And he brings in that West Side norte-o sound with accordion genius Flaco Jimenez and los West Side Horns, and along the way he pulls in South Texas icon Freddy Fender, Bob Dylan for a few sets, West Coast psychedelia, and to it all he adds the roller-rink organ of Augie Meyer. But it’s not anthropology. Through the medium of Doug Sahm, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll, as in his rendition of a Butch Hancock song:

Spanish is the loving tongue. But she never spoke Spanish to me…. She spoke to the shadows of her bungalow, But she never spoke Spanish to me.

In Doug Sahm’s hands, there was never “roots music.” There was music. It was revived and made new at the same time. Cross-pollinated. That was part of it. Not homogenized. Not made for money. It carried an authenticity that was far from precious or studied or calculated. It was raunchy, uneven, hard-driving, working-class — be it white, black or brown — rock ‘n’ roll. It was fun. And it was funny.

You got more out of it Than I put into it last night. Who were you thinkin’ of When we were lovin’ last night?

So you worry: is any of this authenticity still out there? And is there a Doug Sahm to bring it home? Is there still blue-collar, deeply felt music still out there, beyond the reach of MTV and syndicated radio? And where’s Doug Sahm to make it new?

You had to know that South Texas was one of its last refuges. Ask anyone from San Antonio to the Border what they hear when you put on Doug Sahm, and they hear home. Puro South Texas.

Some people call me third world. But I know that it’s the real world.

Now we’re getting to it: Puro South Texas. The only thing puro about South Texas is its unevenness, its flaws, its singular personalities, its flux, the constant shifting of its cultural tectonic plates, its mixing of culture and languages. No clear borders. No desire for clear borders. Proud that it’s not one thing or another. It’s everything all at once. Puro South Texas. Puro Doug Sahm.

Dee Simpson said it was not so much about losing a great musician — though he qualified. It was about losing someone who was like those close friends who help you realize who you are. So you worry about this small corner of the world without Doug Sahm. You worry about a culture that takes itself too seriously. That believes it’s one thing and not another.

Adios, Sir Doug.

Former Observer editor Geoff Rips grew up in San Antonio.

Geoff Rips is a novelist and a former editor of The Texas Observer.