Monday, October 25, 2010

"Stoned Faces Don't Lie" / 
Doug Sahm


Texas music doesn't have to be all about tacos, tumbleweeds, and honkytonks. Looky right here at the long and rambling career of Douglas Wayne Sahm of San Antonio.  At various times he could be found in such bands as the Sir Douglas Quintet (the faux-British invasion "She's About a Mover"), the Honkey Blues, Doug Sahm and Band, the Sir Douglas Band, Doug Sahm's Tex-Mex Trip (the ultra-soulful "Houston Chicks"), or the Tejano super groups the Texas Tornadoes and Los Super Seven -- that is, when he wasn't recording solo albums under his own name, or his alias Wayne Douglas. Having begun life as a country music child prodigy -- he was onstage with Hank Williams in the country music star's last live performance -- he traced an idiosyncratic career arc through the 60s, 70s, 80s (when he was insanely popular in Scandinavia), and 90s, switching musical styles with a chameleon's easy grace, yet never really hitting the big time nationwide.

Sahm sang some of the most iconic Texas rock songs ever, like "Texas Me" and "Beautiful Texas Sunshine" and "I Can't Go Back to Austin," but he also could also sing R&B like nobody's business, launch into a polka or a bit of Western two-step, then turn hippie at a moment's notice -- a mode permanently imprinted from a spell in the Bay Area during the Summer of Love. That's the Doug Sahm I've been thinking about today . . . as if that song title hadn't clued you in already.

The Doug Sahm discography is a very complicated thing; it doesn't help that most of the original albums are out of print, superseded (but not really) by a succession of hit-or-miss "best of" compilations. But as near as I can figure out, this track first came out on on a 1971 LP called The Return of Doug Saldaña. He'd just moved back to Texas (hence the Mexican-sounding alias) and reassembled the Quintet, most notably childhood friend Augie Meyers, whose keyboards were so essential to the SDQ sound. But whereas his 1969 album Mendocino was all about pining for Texas from the confines of Northern California, on this homecoming album he's sitting in a Texas roadhouse, reflecting wistfully about the good old days in San Francisco.

Doug Sahm had one of the great voices of rock and roll; I love how that acoustic opening sets it off, soft and husky with just a little reverb.  "Stoned faces don't lie, / Baby, when you're high," he croons gently over a muted dab of bass.  One by one the instruments drift in -- a light jangle of guitar, then the drums, a splatter of honky tonk piano -- as he muses about running into an old friend from his mellow San Francisco days, when life was so much more simple and straightforward.

That low-key ballad tempo -- ticking along nicely, but never breaking a sweat -- betrays Sahm's country roots, translating them perfectly to this stoner anthem.  (Dig that little yip of self-pity he throws into his voice.)  Everything strips back in the middle-eight, almost as if he's taking a long reflective toke over the pit-a-pat of bass. You can almost hear the scrape of his chair as he pushes it back from the table. It's getting late, and the jukebox is gonna turn to Hank Ballard in a second; the beer sign in the front window is starting to flicker.  For all his nostalgia, Sir Douglas is very much in Texas here. But then, he never really left it behind.

It's a classic grass-is-always-greener scenario (emphasis on the grass), but I don't hear a bit of irony here -- not even towards the end, when it dissolves into a barroom singalong ("Everybody now!") and Doug lets loose a mournful howl of "When you're high, when you're high, when you're high!" I do love a song with handclaps, even if they only creep in at the end. Mind you, I don't know what he's moaning about -- it sounds to me as if his current lifestyle is plenty stress-free. But then, hey, I live in New York.  What do I know about a stress-free lifestyle?


Holly A Hughes said...

By the way -- in case you're thinking of getting that Mendocino album I mentioned -- know that there are several albums out there by that name. I guess when the "Mendocino" single became a hit, it was a logical title to slap onto some early compilation records. I ordered one on-line, and I have to say it's a mishmash and a distinct disappointment. Make sure you get the one where Doug is wearing a cowboy hat on the cover, the one that has "Lawd, I'm Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City." Word to the wise...

wwolfe said...

I love Sir Doug, and this is one of his best, for my money, alongside "Mendocino" and "Crossroads" - the latter with its definitive Texican line: "You just can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul." Doug had a pretty good handle on all those groovy life mysteries.

Holly A Hughes said...

Truly one of the grooviest individuals ever to grace this planet. I could listen to his stuff for days and never feel like it was getting stale.