Doug Sahm: Family Man & Night of the Living Blues

September 30, 2017

Family Man

      

My friend Charley and I went to see Doug Sahm at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go on Sunset Boulevard. Doug was there with his band, The Sir Douglas Quintet. It was the late 60’s and I hadn’t seen Doug since he’d become famous with his hit record “She’s About A Mover.” We first met a few years earlier in San Antonio at a club called The Cellar. I was playing drums at The Cellar on weekends in the house band and Doug would come down and sit in. 

 

At that time, Doug was in his T-Bone Walker period complete with sharkskin suit, big hollow-body guitar, pinkie ring and a Cadillac. I found out later that the Cadillac belonged to his mom but how much can you expect from a twenty-two-year-old white blues singer trying to pass as a pimp? You had to cut him a little slack. The man was making an effort. 

 

Years later, seeing him at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go (Doug had just returned from an international tour), it was clear that he was now a man of the world. He wore English Pop clothes, Beatle boots and shoulder-length hair, and he smoked a lot of weed. After the show we talked for a while about the Cellar and the old days back in Texas, then Doug asked if I would be interested in putting together a blues band and moving up to San Francisco. 

 

At the time, I was living in Venice and playing with my friend Charley in a topless bar in a bowling alley near the LA airport. A tough choice indeed but after a minimal amount of soul searching, I chose to give up a promising career in the ever expanding field of adult bowling alley entertainment and instead, follow a crazy dream and a crazy person.

 

 “Let’s go!” I said. “This is my ticket out-a this burg!” Doug painted a beautiful picture as he reeled me in on, what was for me, the first in a long line of Doug Sahm catch and release adventures.

 

 “You can come and stay with me,” he offered generously. “I’ve got a place in Monterey, we can rehearse there; I’ll get Wayne Talbert up from Houston to play piano. The horn players are already in San Francisco waiting for us. It’ll be groovy, man!” I soon realized that Doug didn’t really want me to help him put a band together. He had already put a band together! He just needed a drummer. No problem. I’m tha man!  A couple weeks later I packed up my drums, loaded up my car, locked up my house and drove up highway 101 to Prunedale, California.

 

The reality was that Doug didn’t live anywhere near Monterey. Doug lived in a little country town east of Salinas, California called Prunedale. There was nothing wrong with Prunedale but it damn sure wasn’t Monterey by the sea. There in Prunedale, in a rented house at the top of a wooded hill, Doug lived with his wife Violet, their four kids: Shawn, Dawn, Ginger and Ronny and Violet’s mother, Nanny who, to everyone’s great joy, did most of the cooking. Her fried eggs were perfect; her cream of wheat was a delicacy and her pork chops with rice and gravy was something you’d want for your last meal. There was also a little poodle-dog named Bourgeois. It was a Norman Rockwell painting -- the all American, working class home and family:

 

“Well, hand me that lunch bucket, dear. I’m off to Hollywood.”

 

“Goodby, honey. Have a nice day at the rock and roll concert.”

 

“Bring us home a copy of Billboard, daddy!”

 

As soon as I arrived at the Sir Douglas compound, Doug and I started taking acid. We took acid and wandered around in the woods behind his house. We took acid and played touch football with his kids in the front yard. We smoked weed, drank wine, ate Nanny’s cooking and listened to hours of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Horace Silver and Ornette Coleman. I got a crash course in Doug Sahm. His wife, Violet, said it was like having two more kids hanging around the house. “Just what I need!” 

 

One day the kids got poison oak rash all over their faces from playing with the dog. I remember Doug and I, being severely ripped at the time, suspected that each of his precious little children had turned into pigs: Fat, swollen, pink faced, laughing little pigs. It was later confirmed by practically everyone that we were mistaken. 

 

The two youngest, Dawn and Shawn, were hilarious. When they were with Doug, it was like watching the Stooges. Shawn was walking and talking but still in diapers. His sister Dawn was a little older. Doug and I would be in his music room listening to records, doing research: Smoking pipe-loads of weed, sharing a bottle of wine and baby-sitting the two little tykes. As anyone who has ever smoked weed and drank wine while listening to music knows, often there can be, let’s say, lulls in the conversation -- very long lulls.  Stupors might be a better word. Anyway, we would rise out of these deep and restful meditations to find that Shawn and Dawn had stolen the pipe and the wine and were hiding under our chairs getting loaded. I mean flush faced, bleary eyed, dumb grin loaded.

 

Doug would pretend to be outraged, leap out of his chair, chase the little bandits all through the house; the kids squealing and laughing and Doug, hot on their heels, yelling, “Gimme that pipe! Gimme that pipe!” Shawn and Dawn loved this. They ran around the walls screaming and laughing until they dropped from exhaustion like puppies. I think I should add here that these two crazed little rug rats have since grown up to be relatively normal human beings.  Within reason.

 

The whole time I was there at Doug’s Prunedale Paradise, I never once unpacked my drums, never hit a lick and we never rehearsed one song. We just talked. We talked all day and we talked long into the night about anything and everything. I’m sure that at some point, we must have at least discussed what it would be like if and when we actually got everyone together and played.

 

Eventually we did just that -- said adios to Prunedale, moved to San Francisco, hooked up with the rest of the players and became a working band. See, it’s always good to have a plan ... You can always throw it out later. 

 

 

NIGHT OF THE LIVING BLUES 

 

Doug booked a gig in San Jose and we all rode down from San Francisco in Doug’s big Oldsmobile. The band, Doug, Frank, Pete, Wayne, Jance and myself, all jammed in together with a trunk load of guitars and horns. The rest of the instruments -- piano, drums and amplifiers -- were all cheerfully furnished by the opening band, a naive bunch of kids with no clue as to the amount of damage we could inflict on someone else’s equipment. 

 

The band was a group of competent and semi-competent musicians playing old and new rhythm and blues tunes plus some real Neanderthal rock and roll. This is just my opinion but I think a maximum of one eyebrow and very little forehead is required to perform “Woolly Bully” the way Sam The Sham intended. To effortlessly drag one’s knuckles is so important to that piece.

 

The night began innocently enough as we cruised down the highway smoking joints, drinking beer, sipping whiskey and refusing Wayne’s constant whining request to stop and pick up some heroin.

 

 “It’s not in the budget, Wayne!” In the San Francisco bay area, in the late 60’s, the ingesting of recreational drugs was such a common practice that the odds on being arrested were long to say the least. It could happen and did happen but usually you had to be either a rank amateur and/or extremely loaded. I mean incoherent, slobbering, babbling, "put away for your own good" kind of loaded. The cops just didn’t have the manpower to deal with every long-haired, tie-dyed, mind fucked love child out prowling the streets at any given time. 

 

So, it was those odds coupled with our own attitude of cool confidence that propelled the band out of San Francisco (first mistake) and down the freeway, south to San Jose (big mistake) where we were pulled over by the local police. (We’re fucked.)  Obviously all the fun came to a screeching halt there on the side of the road. We set in dead silence, contemplating what life would be like in prison, knowing we each had at least one illegal substance on or about our person. Frozen in the flashing lights of the police car, we looked straight ahead like crash test dummies waiting to hit the wall.

 

Doug’s car had a taillight out and apparently, the San Jose police department was still all hung up in that whole “Traffic Safety” thing, man.  And since we were conveniently pulled off the road anyway, could they possibly search the car?  Just a little search and seizure? Come on, guys. Help us out.

 

The two officers were very businesslike, no threats. One was Spanish and the other some sort of Caucasian. We tried to explain (all speaking at once) that we were just your average hard-workin’, all American, not afraid to get our hands dirty, blue-collar type musicians. The white cop wanted to vacuum the car right there for drug residue and hopefully throw us all in jail. The Spanish cop took a more hassle free, no paper work type position. After checking the trunk and finding nothing but musical instruments, he said, “Ah, fuck it. Let-um go.” 

 

We couldn’t believe it! Those words were like music; a heavenly choir, the eleventh commandment: “Ah, fuck it. Let-um go!”  It was a powerful moment and we were naturally all a little misty eyed except for the two cops of course. They gave Doug a ticket for the taillight and turned us loose on society. The full wrath of the state had been poised to pounce upon our bony shoulders that night in San Jose and yet there we were, back in the car, heading for the gig as if nothing had happened. It was like jerking a fish out of the water but instead of chopping its head off and ripping its guts out you decide to throw it back. A sobering experience indeed and who needs that? We’ve got a gig in less than an hour! Let’s get loaded!

 

At the gig, things took a turn for the strange when Wayne and Frank began rolling up joints full of weed, hashish and crumbled up tabs of acid. By the time the band managed to get on stage and start playing, we were in a semi-liquid state. The show was in a small auditorium with about three hundred people standing in front of the stage. They sounded like thousands of screaming monkeys. They looked like thousands of screaming monkeys. 

 

A flash camera went off in my face and my brain suffered a complete white-out. I was sure that someone else was playing the music and that we were just holding the instruments. Jance, the bass player, talked non-stop throughout the first set to no one in particular. It was just as well since no one in particular understood what the hell he was saying anyway. At one point, Wayne lurched over the piano and yelled at me,  "I’m not who I think I am!”  If I looked at anyone for more than a few seconds, I could see their skeleton right through their skin .... Good times.

 

Somehow, we managed to make it through that first set. One more to go then we’re out of there and back to San Francisco.  If we can find San Francisco. The band held a meeting to discuss how we were going to get through the rest of the night and it was unanimously decided that what we needed were more of those delightful, madness-laced hash joints. Huddling together like giggling sheep, we went outside, behind the building where no one would see us light up. The auditorium was on the outskirts of town and quite dark and deserted out there in the back except for one bright light shining down from a high metal cyclone fence.

 

Being the real pros that we were -- plus never really knowing when to quit -- enabled the band to catch its second wind and finish off those power joints without anyone going into convulsions or swallowing their tongue. We were taking the edge off with a few beers before going back inside for another performance of “Six Idiots In Search Of A Village” when Pete, our trumpet player, happened to spot a pattern of lights shining low in the night sky. The lights were grouped together in a tight formation and appeared to be steadily moving in our direction.

 

Now, in Pete’s case, it wouldn’t have mattered much at all whether he was high on drugs or not. Pete just automatically assumed that this unearthly glow in the sky could easily be an alien spacecraft, finally coming to retrieve him and take their lost boy home. Pete wanted to believe this more than anything and he wanted everyone else to believe as well. He never shut up about it. Pete truly was a Stranger In A Strange Land.

 

"This is it." He said softly, his voice cracking, his dilated pupils expanding. "This is fuckin' it, man!" He began jumping up and down like a little kid. The rest of us, even in our own drug-induced haze, were skeptical of Pete and his steaming pile of Star Trek horseshit scenario. As the lights came closer and lower, our own dim bulbs of rational thought began to flicker.

 

“It's probably an airplane.”

“No way, man!”

“Gotta be a plane.”

"That's no plane!"      

“It’s a plane.”

"Are you guys blind?"

“It’s coming in for a landing.”

“Where?"

 

The approaching plane turned on its landing lights and we stared into the blinding light like stunned animals. The plane came down lower and closer, its engines screaming. “It’s coming right at us.” Wayne observed, then he lost it. “It’s gonna hit us!” He screamed and began running around in circles like a dog looking for a place to hide. The huge cargo plane roared down over the auditorium and landed on the airstrip behind the high metal cyclone fence in back of us. We were at the far end of the San Jose airport runway and hadn’t even noticed.

 

It took a while to coax Wayne out from under Doug’s car then explain to him just what had happened. “Airport?” Wayne asked with childlike wonder. 

 

“Yeah, behind that fence. All those lights way over there, that’s an airport. Hey, we were just as surprised as you were. But the important thing now, Wayne, is to put this whole thing behind us, pull ourselves together and get on with our lives. Damn it, man, we’ve got a show to do!”

 

I don’t remember much about the second set. Pete never showed up on stage. Apparently devastated that his own kind would, after coming all this way, just fly right over him like that without even a wave hello, Pete wandered off, leaving his trumpet in the parking lot, and disappeared for three days. He was finally spotted in Oakland dancing in a Hare Krishna parade.

 

On stage, the show went on. Doug sounded like he was singing in different keys and languages at the same time. Wayne fell asleep on the piano ... not at the piano but on top of the piano, curled up with his shoes off. I broke several important pieces of the drum set but no one, including myself, seemed to notice any discernible difference in the all around quality of the music. I think the monkeys liked us. They didn’t trash the place. The opening band seemed genuinely honored to have their equipment violated by such an odd assortment of professional fools. We even managed to safely make it back to San Francisco before daylight.

 

 Overall, I think, for the band, the gig was yet another wondrous adventure in life's rich pageantry ... for the audience, an unusual night of theater.  And the music? Well, from what I can remember, there was some of that too.

 

George Rains © 2017

 

 

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