Tuesday, April 24, 2007


This here is a copy of the paper I presented at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington this past weekend.

"Is Anybody Going to San Antone?"
Doug Sahm, the Sir Douglas Quintet, and Memories of Home

Howdy, my name is Andy Beta and I'm a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York. My paper concerns a sixties pop song that evokes my hometown of San Antonio, Texas. I haven’t lived there in well over a decade, yet the city is never far from my mind.

Take for instance my neighborhood bar, a watering hole called Daddy’s, but a few doors down from me in Brooklyn. This place evokes the Texas I always remember. Mounted deer heads and horseshoes hang from the rustic wood walls, reminding me of them old ranch houses that you might find up in the Hill Country of South Texas. And yet, there’s few bars in Texas that pretend to be a ranch house. Instead, they hang knots of neon beer signs and banks of TVs, their light glistening off the dark polished wood. Patrons mingle about giant cardboard cutouts of NASCAR racers or big-titted bikini models peddling Coors Light.

One night, I walked into Daddy’s and heard a song I probably hadn’t heard in close to ten years. “The Sir Douglas Quintet is back,” a familiar southern drawl announces, thanking their fans and “all the beautiful vibrations.” “Mendocino” was spinning overhead, by a band also hailing from my hometown, the Sir Douglas Quintet. It’s a song wherein the frontman of the group, a fellow named Douglas Wayne Sahm sings about teenyboppers that blow his mind, going so far as to liken one to a “groove.” Who calls someone a “groove”? It was the band’s second national hit.

It wasn’t the first taste of fame for Sahm though. Born to German and Irish immigrant parents in San Antonio, he was a prodigy on fiddle, mandolin, and steel guitar. At the age of five, Doug began playing honky-tonks backing touring country acts. He even played behind ol’ Hank Williams but two weeks before he died in the backseat of a car. As a ‘tween, he could walk across a neighboring field to a club and check out T-Bone Walker, Bobby “Blue” Bland, or James Brown on any given night. But his momma made him turn down the Grand Ole Opry so that he could attend high school in San Antonio.

Doug Sahm cut honky tonk and R&B in his teens, trying in vain to convince a local producer named Heuy P. Meaux to record him. Appropriately dubbed “The Crazy Cajun,” Meaux had a string of local hits and couldn’t be bothered. It was only when Beatlemania descended like locusts across America’s musical landscape, wiping out all that came before, that Meaux (after holing up in a hotel room with every Beatles single he could find and a couple bottles of Thunderbird wine) decided to clad Sahm and a few other boys from San Antone in British suits ‘n’ boots, and call ‘em Sir Douglas Quintet, so that these vatos might pass for limeys.

The Sir Douglas Quintet’s first hit came in 1965, a greasy and quintessential cut of garage rock called “She’s About a Mover.” A melding of the Beatles’s “She’s a Woman” and Ray Charles’s “What I Say” onto a Cajun two-step beat, the music as rendered by Sir Douglas Quintet is pure Texas: rattlesnake hip-shake, ballpark organ blat, Huevos Rancheros with refried beans, a sound as blue and smoky as a broke-down jalopy.

With a Top 20 single to their name, Sir Douglas Quintet gigged Hullabaloo and Shindig, saw the world, wound up out west to make it with sweet things that “blow your mind every morning,” as their follow-up hit, “Mendocino,” states. And yet for all that globetrotting and evocation of California sun, “Mendocino” remains the epochal South Texas single. In under three minutes, it blends garage-rock with soul, country & western with cojunto, blues with oompah bands, with every ethnic culture of South Texas present: white, black, brown, red.

It dawns on me that in nearly 40 years, there hasn’t been a more-enduring band to hail from San Antonio than the Sir Douglas Quintet. And there’s no greater native son than Sahm. Who else could get Bob Dylan to be in his backing band? Ask Elvis Costello, who stole both Sahm’s singing style and that needling organ tone for his own band. Sure, there’s the Butthole Surfers, but folks in San Francisco, Austin, and Athens can lay (partial) claim to them. And the lead singer from that faux-grunge band Candlebox, he was from SA, but he doesn’t count.

Is that why I knew “Mendocino” all these years, as a matter of hometown pride? That’s why my best friend from high school and I played his copy of Mendocino to death. That whole album became second nature to us: we’d take a break from making music (okay, making noise), draw on some Mexi-dirt, crack a cold one, and we’d spin that sucker all night long, relishing with pride when that one number came on, near the end of side one. “At the Crossroads,” it was, where Doug Sahm belts out: “But you just can’t live in Texas, if you don’t have a lot of soul.”

Slouched on my bar stool in Brooklyn, I catch myself singing that line now. I no longer live in Texas though. In fact, I don’t even own the record. My best friend did. And even though we still sometimes bump each other on the streets of Brooklyn, we don’t speak anymore. We’ve grown apart, things changed, we’re not the same people anymore. And yet as “Mendocino” plays on, I’m right back in his living room, the air still hazy with smoke. Maybe I didn’t have enough soul. Maybe neither one of us had enough soul, and that’s why we’re no longer in our hometown, but thousands of miles away.

But when Doug sang those lines back in 1969, he wasn’t in Texas neither. After touring through Europe in ‘65, Sahm got busted in the Corpus Christi airport with some grass and --Texas laws being draconian (just ask Roky Erickson, who opted for a mental asylum rather than do jail time)-- was soon exiled. He went thousands of miles away too, to sing about Mendocino, a little coastal enclave north of San Francisco, off the Pacific Coast Highway. The album itself was recorded at Columbus Recording in San Francisco and in North Hollywood.

And yet he never stopped thinking about Texas. In an article from Texas Monthly in 1974, author Gregory Curtis details a friend who has also left Texas, yet cannot escape its pull. “You can’t just leave Texas the way you can just leave Idaho,” the friend slurs one night, the latest Doug Sahm platter cranked up on the stereo. He turns to drunkenly address it: “I don’t need goddamn Doug Sahm to tell me about leaving Texas,” he said, “but he sure as hell knows what it’s like.”

He sure as hell does. There’s a palpable sense of estrangement and mal du pays throughout that album. One song has the title: “Lawd, I’m just a country boy in this great big freaky city.” And in much the same way that he took what the Beatles and Ray Charles had recorded as the basis for his first hit single, so too does he co-opt Otis Redding to fit his own situation:
I left home in Texas, headed for the Frisco Bay
Encountered a lot of hard times, through changes all the way.
Now I'm up in Sausalito wondering where I ought to be.
And I wonder what happened to the man inside,
the real old Texas Me.
Here he is, smack-dab in the middle of hippie paradise, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, yet he misses dives like Farmer’s Poolhall on the east side of SA and redneck backwaters like Port Arthur. Severed from his roots, he begins to question just who he is. As his surroundings have changed, so has his interior landscape. “I have always snapped that environment shows in music,” Doug stated on the liner notes for one of his records. Things aren’t the same out there, and neither is he. It saddens him to realize that, despite how desperately he wants to hang onto that “Texas me,” inevitably he can’t.

And yet he always dreams of a change that will revert time back, a return to how things used to be. And then I glean something else in “Mendocino.” Sure, it is outwardly about a barely-legal chick, but there’s also an undertow to it too, a desperate prayer beneath its come-on: “Stay here with me,” Doug Sahm pleads. “Please don’t go.” It’s this futile fight for a paradise lost, a past now made untenable.

It’s what I want to tell my old friend when I pass him on the street, when I run into him in Brooklyn, so far from our hometown. I too want to believe in Doug Sahm’s plea at the end of “At the Crossroads”: “Some day a change will come and you will be beside me one more time.” I want those intervening years to disappear, the distance between here and ‘home’ to be eradicated, to be back in that little room of San Antone, where we’d play music and spin them old records, oblivious to the paradise of that time together. I want to just hear “all the beautiful vibrations,” Augie Meyer’s incessant, asthmatic Vox organ, and that eternal bit of sunny Tex-Mex pop, “Mendocino.”

And then it hits me, right there on my barstool in Brooklyn, why I always felt that I knew this song. It wasn’t because my best friend and I learned of it ourselves. It wasn’t on oldies radio when I was growing up. The reason I knew “Mendocino” was because my father used to sing it to me! That’s how I knew it! He’s the one that grew up on it, he’s the one that heard it blaring out over the radio in the summer of ’69.

My father always talked about that song. That’s why, when I was thumbing through my best friend’s record collection, I picked it out. Because I had never heard it before. My father would reminisce to me about his own time back in high school, when he and his best friend, a fellow named Leonard, would deerhunt, do farm chores, drive tractors, all the while the radio was cranked up to resound across the plowed fields. To hear him describe it, that was the greatest summer of his life, that summer of 1969 when “Mendocino” dominated the airwaves in South Texas. That was their song, he would recall. And yet I never had that testimony corroborated by Leonard himself. In fact, I never even met his best friend, as they hadn’t been on speaking terms my entire life.

It’s come full circle: a poppy Tex-Mex 45 about teenyboppers, the quintessential South Texas single, a tune that has soundtracked two generations of friendships, also hints at the shifting sands of paradise, an ebullient pop song that reveals that all things come to an end. No matter how many times Sahm pleas “I love you so, please don’t go,” however many times my father evoked that magical summer, or however many times I hear it in my head now, there’s no holding onto people. They don’t stay put in Mendocino, they don’t remain “in a love house by the river,” they don’t remain in San Antone or wherever home may be.

And I want to talk to my father about this now, but we no longer speak ourselves and haven’t for a good number of years. Thousands of miles from home, the song from my hometown long since replaced in that jukebox, I just shake my head to think that this all transpired in my mind for the duration of a side of a 45, at a bar called Daddy’s.

Monday, April 16, 2007

heep see

Texas Monthly

This month features a portrait of a (real) Texas Ranger who has the most-awesome name ever: Clete Buckaloo.

Kevin Drumm
Sheer Hellish Miasma
Editions Mego

This was my first review ever for Pitchfork Media. I cringe to re-read my early flailings there, my insistence on running a metaphor (a blizzard broadsided New York right when I was listening to the album daily) deep into the tundra. My first paragraph joked about a Rhino reissue in twenty years time, opining titles like Brain Scratch Avalanche and Demonic Wasabi Colonic. Go hyperbole! Guess we didn't even have to wait five years for it to re-surface, though. It's a slight relief to be back so soon in that (as was often the case at PFK) I never got a real copy of the album before it went out of print (kids loved them some Chicagoan post-rock/ power-electronics/ black metal hybrids, no doubt). It even comes with a bonus track.

"Blue" Gene Tyranny
Out of the Blue
Unseen Worlds

I had the privilege a few years back to trade emails with Robert Scheff, a man who revels in his own pen name and injects it into his own titles, much like a certain writer who posts here. It was for a set of liner notes to this archival release, Formations. It intrigued me to learn that Scheff was also from my hometown of San Antonio. Yet while I spent many a high school day getting burnt on the grounds of the McNay Art Museum, Scheff and Phil Krumm spent their high school days staging world premieres of John Cage pieces a the McNay (also pieces by La Monte Young, Yoko Ono, and Richard Maxfield).
Not familiar with either Blue's operatic works nor those he made in conjunction with Bob Ashley, Out of the Blue is a winsome, disarming listen. A friend and I agree on the wonkiness of the instrumental here (he hears Herbie Hancock, while I hear Zappa), but the sprawling recitative works (see title track) balance stoned letter-writing rambles with minute cosmic epiphanies. And I can't help that when the letter notes the bar that changed hands again, recalling how Blue and his companion used to get stoned and sing along to the songs on the jukebox, that said dive bar might in fact be SA's legendary Tacoland.

Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble
The Malcolm X Memorial

You can see a third of trumpeter Kelan Phil Cohran's progeny perform on the streets of New York as Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. This is the second album of paternas Cohran to get reissued, after the astounding On the Beach. A live performance mourning and celebrating the death of X, its four movements embody each persona of the man, from his birth as "Malcolm Little" to his pimp name, "Detroit Red," through his rebirth as "Malcolm X" on into his final metamorphosis (post-Mecca) as "El Hajj Malik el Shabazz." Each transformation is rendered in the music, starting out as bluesy, moving into jazz, before becoming chant-heavy and tribal. Dig their marching band outfits as well as the only pic I've ever seen of future Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey sans-shades.

The Mouse That Roared dir. Jack Arnold
Five years before Peter Sellers achieved comedic godhead as a trinity of characters (or is that warhead at Trinity?) in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying an Love the Bomb, he debuted in this slight comedy playing three roles as well (Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, Prime Minister Count Rupert Mountjoy, fool Tully Bascombe), across from the cardboard flat of actress Jean Seberg. In much the same way that Strangelove was eerily prophetic though, so too is the act of war declared on America in this film. Sellers proclaims: "They forgive everything! No sooner is the aggressor defeated then they pour in food, machines, clothing, technical aid and lots and lots of money for the relief of foreign enemies."

Black Dice

Thankfully, the recent Optimo mix Walkabout (which --in the terminology of an Aussie-- is killuh) made me go back to this all-but-ignored 12" from the Dice. First audition felt way too slight and spacious, as opposed to the density of the band to that point. Filed it away. Rather than skull-crush, they pulled back, creating something as weird, yet less tethered to weight, than anything else they've done to date. Keep thinking Residents, but that's not quite right either. Regardless, they're going to remain misunderstood for another decade at least.

Drag City cover art
I know I've been dealing with different PR folks over at the esteemed Drag City as of late, but what gives with the heinous cover art? Did they go the way of the Voice's art staff? Both the PG Six and Bill Callahan boast the ugliest cover art of the year, making it way too easy to dismiss the finely-honed folk-pop within. It's great fodder for the Assumer Guide though.


Here's hoping some visionary music director at The Palace in Auburn Hills or the Staples Center realizes that this is the second coming of Gary Glitter's "Rock'n'Roll Part II" and begins to blast this blistering stomp of gibberish during the next time-out to get the crowd of Oompa Loompas hyped.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


...think back to that fateful day, ensconced in my room as the cold front blew through, fearing for my life as I finished Cat's Cradle, believing the world had indeed turned to ice...

Such news isn't depressing though, but indeed a relief. Kurt Vonnegut's website today has a picture of a birdcage, its door opened, its occupant escaped. I go back to the fine interview my editor JC Gabel conducted for Stop Smiling last year, when Vonnegut stated:
I've said everything I want to say, and I'm embarrassed to have lived this long. I so envy Joseph Heller and George Plimpton and all these other friends of mine who are pushing up daisies...That's what I want to do. I think I'd do a swell job.
Hoping that he gets to that work as swiftly as possible, there remains work for us as well. Elsewhere, Vonnegut tells that art is a state of becoming, as necessary as food and sex. He recounts a challenge he gave out on the lecture circuit:
Write a poem tonight. Make it as good as you possibly can...Don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it to anybody. When you're satisfied it's as good as you can make it, tear it up in small pieces and scatter those pieces between widely separated trash receptacles and you will find out you have received your full reward for having done it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007



I didn't write about going to Pitchfork's party during SXSW. And I probably wouldn't have gotten in at all if I hadn't hunted down my good friend Mark Richardson, who had to claw his own way back into the venue. The line to enter into the Pitchfork party at Emo's stretched in one direction up Sixth Street, down Red River in the other.

I couldn't think of the last time I had been at Emo's, but it had to have been nearly seven years ago. Thankfully, little had changed (meaning that the Wilma and Betty lesbian bondage montage still adorned the interior wall). Back before they expanded into four separate locations on Sixth Street (with the surreal Emo's Las Vegas in the works), Emo's was the locus of innumerable transcendental concerts for me in the nineties.

I can recall that fateful night back in high school, on a whim driving up to Austin well below the legal drinking age and experiencing the Jesus Lizard. My HS friends and I knew Goat already, quaking slightly at the thought of seeing such a band in the flesh. Even the openers were monstrous. Some scuzzy band Johan Kugelberg mentioned in SPIN called the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; the sight of drummer Russell Simins hammering his kickdrum into the floor was frightening, but that was nothing compared to Spencer's climactic squall of the theremin. None of it could compare to when the Jesus Lizard finally crept on, though. David Yow was shirtless, looking as if he'd been drinking Boone's down by the river all day. Duane Dennison's aluminum guitar glimmered like cougar teeth under the stage light. With neither signal nor count, the Jesus Lizard pounced on our throats with "Boilermaker," the crowd now a blender of sweat, feverish bodies, ecstatic screams. Somewhere in the miasma of the night, David Yow's orange-sized testicles got whipped out, pressed against the microphone. Did anyone hear it?

Drinking in daylight with Mark and Scott Plagenhoef, I conjured up the wasted nights I had spent at Emo's in my past, experiencing Stereolab, Fastbacks, Brainiac, Unwound, Palace...but what meant the most was seeing my friends play there, toiling haplessly in obscurity, never to make it out alive. There was no hope. Sure, people can boast of seeing the bands named above, witnessing these bands in the era before the internet, before such instantaneous networking made word of mouth spread like Hill Country brush fires, but who was going to invoke Gut, Glorium, Multitude of the Slothful, American Psycho Band, Big Horny Hustler, Brownie Points? Austin bands that killed it/ fucked up/ sucked ass/ blew ears and minds on any given night at Emo's, only to be lost irretrievably down the memory hole.

It's hard to argue for who had the most hype coming into the Pitchfork Fest. Was it Girl Talk? Pipettes? Marnie Stern? Peter, Bjorn, and John? I went to see Deerhunter, after the incessant gushing about their "insane live shows." Standing in a venue where such a presentation was necessary just to avoid getting blown off the plywood, to the point of being a given, I wonder where the insanity is during Deerhunter's rather pedestrian performance. Am I at the same show as my editors and peers, who get glassy-eyed by set's end and proceed to hosanna about them online?

Perhaps not. But as I get this Deerhunter assignment, I find the disc more enjoyable, though nothing brilliant. It's a good start, nothing less or more. Hopefully it augurs well their next few years, allowing them to really do something, but for now, they remain just this pretty good rock band. Why do they deserve such a shitstorm of praise following them everywhere?

During my phone interview, I ask singer Bradford Cox about what it means for Deerhunter to be deemed 'insane.'

Cox asks me upfront: "When you saw us were you let down?"

“Sorta. I mean, I didn't see what anyone was talking about.”

"That’s because you're a rational, sane person," he laughed. "You wanna know the secret? You're probably a nice dude, that's what it is. It's your problem, not mine, buddy. You're too nice, rational, and smart. Let me tell you why. If you wanna know what this 'insane live show' boils down to is: people have never seen a skinny person before get on stage and not be shy about it. I don't have to do anything. I just have a weird appearance."

Such is hype.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Should you be in the market for obscure but crucial female folksingers, might I recommend the recent reissue of firebrand Anne Briggs, and her penultimate album from 1971, The Time Has Come. I wrote the liner notes, which was a total honor.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007