Sahm He Was
There’s finally a bit of good news for Doug Sahm fans. After much delay, the last recordings of the man known as “The Musical Voice of Texas,” the “State Musician of Texas” and, on a more mainstream level, the leader of the Sir Douglas Quintet have finally been widely released.
When Sahm died on Nov. 18, 1999, in Taos, N.M., the tracks for The Return of Wayne Douglas had been laid down for his Tornado Records label, but the album was still in flux and was held up by his son Shawn until certain estate issues could be settled. Review copies went out last spring to favorable notice, but the CD was available only as a special-order import from Evangeline Recorded Works Ltd. in England.
Late last year, shortly before the country learned its next President would be a Texan, the domestic version began shipping. The wait, though irritating, was worth it. The album fills in some blanks and brings Sahm’s freewheeling life in music full circle.
Doug Sahm spent a lot of his adult years far from his native San Antonio, in places like San Francisco; Vancouver (B. C.), New York, Sweden and other locales, but he was always pure Texas at heart. And although his recordings in the 80’s and 90’s delved into such genres as the blues, old R&B and soul chestnuts and, as a member of the Texas Tornados, accordion and organ-driven Tex-Mex music, he always remained country at the core.
So it’s fitting that The Return of Wayne Douglas is pure Texas country, a style of music that Sahm started playing as a child prodigy. Its mix of guitars, fiddle, pedal steel and upright bass would have made Bob Wills proud.
The title recalls the days in the early 70’s when Sahm was fronting the Sir Douglas Quintet and living in Northern California as something of a cosmic-cowboy hippie. When he wanted to record some traditional country songs, he used one of several aliases–Wayne Douglas being a reversal of his first and middle names–to get some air play on country radio.
The country songs on The Return of Wayne Douglas aren’t the kind being played on radio or television these days, a fact that Sahm addresses in the honky-tonk “Oh No! Not Another One.” The song reflects his disappointment, when turning on the Country Music Television channel, to see yet another of the hat acts that Merle Haggard has called “flat bellies”: “There’s a young dude walking across the stage like a gazelle / Hell, I’ll bet he never even heard of [country pioneer] Lefty Frizzell.” Later in the tune, he complains: “When country changed to pop, they had a laugh / As the real country fans got the shaft.”
Ten of the 12 songs on the CD are Sahm originals, old and new, including many that evoke the Lone Star State and loves left behind there. Four even have Texas references in their titles: “Beautiful Texas Sunshine,” “I Can’t Go Back to Austin,” “Dallas Alice” and “Texas Me.” Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” continues a long Doug Sahm tradition of including songs from an old friend in his repertoire. And “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me” is a Leon Payne tear-jerker that demonstrates Sahm’s gift for turning up long-forgotten gems.
For fans who are still in mourning over his death at age 58, the CD offers a few little insights that may help provide some closure. Recorded in a Floresville, Texas, studio not far from San Antonio, it has a live concert feel, with frequent asides from Sahm. After the Leon Payne tune, he pauses to describe a visit he made with his father to Mr. Payne’s home years ago.
In introducing “Texas Me,” a song he wrote more than 30 years ago in San Francisco, Sahm remembers his time there. “I was kind of a long-haired hippie refugee headed into the Haight-Ashbury along with Johnny Winter, Janis Joplin and Boz Scaggs. All the people up there and Jerry Garcia and the boys met us with open arms,” he remembers. “I was kind of missing home, really missing San Antone, when I wrote this.” He even goes on to dedicate the tune to “Eileen down there in New Braunfels, Texas. We all love you, and I know you love this song.”
On the track, he sings: “I’m up here in Sausalito / Wondering where I ought to be / And I wonder what happened to that man inside / The real old Texas me.”
Doug Sahm was as famous among friends for his motor mouth and eclectic interests as he was for his music. Chet Flippo, who did a Rolling Stone cover story on Sahm in the early 70’s, wrote in a memorial issue of The Austin Chronicle weekly that he was “the ultimate musician, the ultimate storyteller, the ultimate charmer.”
In Texas Monthly, writer Joe Nick Patoski expressed his regrets that he had never been able to sit Doug Sahm down long enough to get his whole life story. “The times I did interview him formally, I’d ask one question, he’d talk until the tape ran out and then he would be gone.”
The basics of the legend are these: Sahm made his radio debut at age 6. Five years later, he performed live onstage with Hank Williams. As the story goes, the Grand Ol’ Opry offered him a permanent gig, but his mother thought he should finish junior high first.
Sahm’s greatest commercial success came in the mid-60’s with the Sir Douglas Quintet, which landed the singles “She’s About a Mover,” “Mendocino” and “The Rains Came” on the charts. In 1973, he recorded Doug Sahm and Band for Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records in New York; the band included Bob Dylan, Dr. John and David Bromberg. Sahm recorded and performed under his own name and as the Sir Douglas Quintet through the 1980’s. In 1988, he recorded the R&B-soul album Juke Box Music with a horn-driven band. In 1989, he formed the Texas Tornados with Flaco Jimenez on accordion, Freddy Fender on guitar and long-time partner Augie Meyers on organ. In 1994, he shifted gears again and released The Last Real Texas Blues Band .
“What [Dr. John] is to New Orleans, Doug is to Texas,” Jerry Wexler wrote in his memoir, Rhythm and the Blues. “From western swing to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Houston blues, from Tex-Mex ditties to polkas, Doug integrated it all and came out with something singular: his own sound on guitar, his own voice, his own songs.”
The Return of Wayne Douglas closes with a message from Sahm’s phone machine, delivered in a voice that sounds as if it had spent the night in a mesquite smoker: “I’m not home right now; I’m out milking the cows. So you might call back if it’s baseball or Guitar Slim or something that’s int’restin’. I’ll give you a buzz. Have a good day. Adios.” It’s the closest Doug Sahm ever got to a proper goodbye.
–William H. Dunlap
D.J. Assault: Turns Up the Base
Back on Oct. 19, during a CMJ Music Festival showcase on the Lightship Frying Pan, D.J. Assault, the big daddy of the Detroit variant of bass music known as ghetto-tech, put on a record that featured the memorable chant, “Ho’s take off your clothes / Ho’s get naked.” And the ladies in the crowd–momentarily forgetting years of women’s studies and feminist dogma–chanted along and danced in a manner that would have given Naomi Wolf night sweats.
Others with more of a stake in decoding dance-floor politics may have a different explanation, but if you ask me, music as infectious and advanced as D.J. Assault’s tends to render sociological considerations moot. And his latest in a series of addictive mix CD’s, Off the Chain for the Y2K (Intuit: Solar), is a pretty tremendous argument in his favor.
A replication of what went down at the Frying Pan back in October, 48 of the record’s 58-minute span is taken up by an unrelenting 80-track torrent of eerie synth washes, samples of Snoop Dogg, sped-up snatches of tunes such as Robin S’s early-90’s club hit “Show Me Love,” and frantic, hurtling 808 drum-machine beats. I love it.
Bass music, itself a more delirious version of the early hip-hop style electro (think Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”), developed in Miami. Whatever one thinks of boorish First Amendment poster boy Luther Campbell, it can’t be denied that 2 Live Crew made fabulously catchy records, which served as kind of a ground zero for bass music’s germination. When Detroit D.J.’s like Assault customized Miami bass, it only highlighted the fact that the drum-and-bass genre is nothing but overly busy bass music.
The running theme of Off the Chain , which is repeated periodically over the course of the album, is “ass, titties / ass, ass, titties, titties”–which, if you must know, makes me giggle like a schoolgirl. But if you pitch your tent in the Joe Lieberman or William Bennett camp, then you should give Off The Chain a wide berth. (While you’re at it, stay the hell away from me.) Even I suspect that D.J. Assault isn’t particularly enlightened when it comes to gender relations, but that doesn’t have a thing to do with the provocative appeal of Off the Chain . Sometimes shaking your ass is just shaking your ass .
Sylvian Retouches His Polaroids
The last few months of the year are traditionally the time when record companies release dozens of “best of” collections that no one (save a few music-industry accountants) can explain.
At first glance, David Sylvian’s Everything and Nothing (Virgin) seems to fit this category. It’s hard to fathom why a label would put out two discs’ worth of music by an esoteric singer-songwriter who hasn’t had a hit in his native U.K. for 15 years and who is known in the U.S., if at all, as a marginal cult act. Making matters even more unusual is the fact that this career retrospective, which draws from 20 years of material, doesn’t contain several of the dusky-voiced Mr. Sylvian’s best-known songs, most notably 1983’s “Forbidden Colours,” composed for the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and 1984’s “Red Guitar.” Seven out of the 29 tracks compiled here have never been previously released. Four more were originally guest appearances on other people’s albums. Of the remainder, many tracks don’t sound the way long-time fans may remember them because Mr. Sylvian has remixed and, in a few mildly jarring spots, re-recorded them.
So what gives? “This is not a regular best-of,” Mr. Sylvian said in a recent interview at the Michelangelo Hotel in midtown. “I dare say that Virgin will put one out at some point, but I wouldn’t be involved in that.”
Think of Everything and Nothing, then, more as a chance for Mr. Sylvian to re-interpret his own history, spurred on in part by simple business realities. “Virgin owns all of this material,” he noted, “so if we were to part ways, I wouldn’t have access to it anymore. And although we call the previously unreleased pieces ‘outtakes,’ I never thought of them as lesser pieces; so the opportunity to complete them was something I really wanted to take advantage of, and this was the only opportunity I could see that would be afforded me.”
One of those outtakes, “Some Kind of Fool,” was recorded 20 years ago with Japan, the art-pop combo in which Mr. Sylvian first achieved fame. Among the first pieces aired during the sessions for 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids , this slow torch song, with its tasteful piano and lush strings and brass, is drastically different from most of the danceable, synth-heavy fare found on that album. No wonder it was shelved. Listening to it now, it’s clear that “Some Kind Of Fool” points toward the style that Mr. Sylvian would adopt following Japan’s 1982 breakup: softer and more intimate, with an emphasis on acoustic instrumentation, romantic (if often oblique) lyrics, unorthodox chord progressions and his own deep, vibrato-laced purr.
That style reached its peak on 1987’s Secrets of the Beehiv e, an album graced by sumptuous orchestral arrangements–so sumptuous that the album went over budget and Mr. Sylvian was forced to scrap the half-finished song that he felt would have been its centerpiece. “For me,” he said, “‘Ride’ made sense of that album, so to have not had it included in the original was very frustrating, to say the least. I think I got the most satisfaction out of finally putting that piece to bed.”
As it appears on Everything and Nothing , with a new vocal and rhythm track, “Ride” more than supports its author’s feelings; its delicate seesaw melody marks it as a new Sylvian classic.
Another gem many fans might argue needed no renovating is “Ghosts,” a piece of quiet unease that originally appeared on Japan’s final album, Tin Drum (1981). Mr. Sylvian re-recorded the song’s vocal part for Everything and Nothing –mostly, he claimed, because he wanted the compilation to maintain a sonic continuity. His new take is smooth and assured, and it does blend in well with the rest of the album. Yet the tortured Bryan Ferry-like yelp of the earlier version contributed much to its allure, and that’s missed here.
“When I first came up with the idea of re-recording and remixing pieces, just about everybody I spoke to was opposed to it,” Mr. Sylvian said. “My wife [poet-singer Ingrid Chavez] said people would see it as an act of vanity. But if I’d been performing these pieces live and we were releasing a live album, people would say it was just a new interpretation of older material, and that’s the way I think about it.… Nothing’s been lost; the originals still exist. I’m not trying to deny my own past, it was just a matter of personal satisfaction.”
Fortunately, most of the older songs here–including three gorgeous selections from 1991’s Rain Tree Crow , the highly atmospheric product of Mr. Sylvian’s brief reunion with his Japan comrades–are spared from excessive studio tinkering. And the new material is outstanding, particularly the drum-and-bass-tinged “The Scent Of Magnolia.” Originally intended for 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake, it would have made a welcome substitution on that album, where Mr. Sylvian’s taste for languid balladry often tipped too far toward the soporific.
Is Everything and Nothing a worthwhile release? Absolutely. Is it the best introduction that a novice could find to the last two decades of David Sylvian? No. Taken together, Rain Tree Crow and Beehive serve that purpose far better, especially since the CD bonus track on the latter is “Forbidden Colours,” still one of his most evocative compositions. Mr. Sylvian’s desire to revisit the vaults and bring long-unfinished work to completion is understandable, and his decision to do so is justified by the quality of what he’s emerged with. But perhaps it would have been more judicious to put out the previously unreleased and lesser-known pieces on a separate single disc. Combining them with a skewed selection of old favorites only weighs Everything and Nothing down with the burden of appearing to be the best-of it really isn’t.
Contact Manhattan Music at fdigiacomo @observer.com