If Thee Oh Sees were a dorm room, it would be half-a-foot deep in paper plates stained with pizza grease and have a kitchen sink so bloated with the foul and crusted silverware of meals long past that it belches at you when you pass by. It also would likely reek of some unmentionable mixture of urine, unclean dogs and neglected laundry. And we may need to toss in a few condom wrappers thrown to the floor, walls yellowing with stains of bong smoke, and perhaps a stash of happy mushrooms hidden somewhere under the bunk.
Welcome, my friends, to the music of Thee Oh Sees.
This rioting pack of garage-psych brats hails from San Francisco, and they’re hell-bent on simultaneously resurrecting and razing the cultural stomping ground once lorded over by acts like The Sonics, The Electric Prunes, The Count Five and The Trashmen. The ‘60s script these kids read from is one they’ve studied hard and know by rote, even down to their propensity for cutting a new record every eight minutes or so (six LPs in the past three years alone, and a record in Warm Slime which they claim to have recorded in a single day).
The Kinks released three new albums in 1965 alone, and The Rolling Stones, not to be out done, released four new albums of their own that year as young bands scrambled to stuff the insatiable maws of slave-drivers back at the ranch of one big label or another. Thee Oh Sees don’t even have a distributor, no less a big-label slave-driver, but their Wikipedia discography reveals an extended rap sheet of LPs, EPs, 7-inch releases and the revolving door of labels they’ve thrown them to.
To top it all off, John Dwyer, the epicenter of this calamity who seems only to have gathered a band around him as an afterthought, has paraded through seven prior bands before arriving at the one he’s with. And even then he can’t seem to settle on a name.
“From the OCS to the OhSees to Thee Oh Sees, John Dwyer . . . has molted band names like some rare endangered bird determined to shake off pursuers,” Jayson Greene of Pitchfork remarks.
No wonder their video for “Meat Step Lively” from 2009’s Help seems to serve the sole purpose of inducing an epileptic seizure.
But in Warm Slime Thee Oh Sees have the record The Black Keys and White Stripes thought they’d been making all these years but were never unhinged enough to deliver. The record is an unrelenting siege of distortion, reverb and rage filtered through the sieve of the long-gone garage gods they worship in song. “I Was Denied” is a glorious romp that laces Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover” with a few tabs of acid and sends it on its exceedingly merry way. The turbulent “Castiatic Tackle” amps up The Cramps’ “Goo Goo Muck” to a decipel even those godfathers of psychobilly didn’t know they had in them. And the title track clocks in at nearly 14 minutes of blistering abandon that will leave you panting for more.
These guys’ fingers may be dirty with the dust of your grandma’s vinyl collection, but with records like Help and Dog Poison in 2009 and now Warm Slime this past May, they leave absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this most certainly is not your grandma’s rock ‘n roll.
To open Jan Reid’s book Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm (U of Texas Press) is to stumble into a time warp where Bobby Womack is more famous for marrying the woman whom Sam Cooke widowed than he is for anything he’s done on record, where Doug Sahm’s name looms far larger in Texas than Willie Nelson’s, and where growing your hair a little longer than most other folks in town is still enough to earn you a mean shiner from a cop in the street.
Reid set out to write a book about an American legend for whom he clearly harbors a great deal of affection, and he begins his tale with a note of modesty that belies his subject, explaining that he hopes not to write a comprehensive biography but merely “to convey some sense of the antic swath that for decades he cut through many communities in many countries, to call up some voices of the people who got to know him well . . . and to demonstrate the sheer knowing of his music.” What he ends up accomplishing instead, though, is much more: a great book about Doug Sahm that also happens to be a great book about American music itself.
Reid breathes life into a moment in American culture that can neither be recaptured nor replicated. The stories he tells–and the unreal cast of characters that move through them–comprise a wildly entertaining romp so vivid that you can hear Doug Sahm chuckling at himself somewhere between the lines. On page after page, you can see the Texas dust that Doug kicks up on his way to thrill yet another town just as clearly as you can smell the several tons of ganja he roasted along the way.
There he is in a rare moment of domestic bliss before his insatiable pursuit of the next hit single and the town he’ll play it in wrenched him away from his wife Violet, demanding that his children keep from opening presents on Christmas morning until “he came out with his pipe and big jar of pot.” And there he is on the road with his bandits of the beat–some of them are part-time barbers, some make doughnuts for a living, others have done time “in the sweltering fields of Angola” for pot possession. Augie Meyers, who played the meanest Vox organ anyone on earth has ever heard and brandished a “pickled ear” to perpetuate the myth that his ear was sliced off in a knife fight; Freddie Fender, who did those mean years at Angola only to hit the road with Doug and the boys once again and, with his slick talent on electric guitar and a hairdo that looked like a mushroom cloud, solidify his reputation as “the Mexican Elvis”; Huey Meaux, the “crazy cajun” who did several stints in the clink himself and once earned a full pardon from Jimmy Carter for one of the convictions that put him there.
The sum of all these inimitable parts was a musical stew that ranged from psychedelia to Tex-Mex, from Bob Wills to Jerry Garcia and all points in between. Sahm’s greatest notoriety came with his 1965 hit “She’s About a Mover” with the Sir Douglas Quintet. As Reid likes to note throughout the book, Doug went on to enjoy the rare distinction of a musician who never once had to hold a day job. The creative restlessness that Sahm exhibited from then on resembled that of Neil Young, always finding himself with a different crew of sidemen to back him up in the studio for yet another record, some as inordinately famous as Bob Dylan or Jerry Garcia; others anonymous sidemen he picked up somewhere in Texas. By Reid’s count Sahm laid down no less than “140 records in the United States, Europe and Canada,” bringing Scandanavia to its knees with a gorgeous number called “Meet Me in Stockholm” that earned him eternal superstar status in that country, and firing off other Tex-Mex beauties back home like the chart hit “Mendocino” or the sublime “At the Crossroads.”
Reid’s book is full of forgotten treasures and the kind of rock ‘n roll trivia that you either never knew or had heard from a friend once and forgotten–that Delbert McClinton taught John Lennon how to play harmonica, that Freddie Fender is the reason Austin’s own Roky Erickson graced the world with his brilliant “Starry Eyes” and “Two-Headed Dog” even as he struggled with the ravaged psyche of a traumatic pot bust recounted in detail here, or simply that Michael Martin Murphey’s Geronimo’s Cadillac is one hell of a record.
The book’s generous collection of photos is equally revelatory. Stunningly intimate in a way that makes you feel as though you’ve been invited to the man’s house to thumb through his family albums, the photos tell almost as much of American music’s story as Reid does. Many of them are provided by Sahm’s son Shawn Sahm, who today plays and tours with his father’s old bandmates. There is Doug accompanied by a seemingly teenage Stevie Ray Vaughn on page 80; and there are Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Leon Russel backing up Doug in a show at the Armadillo in 1972.
Doug never did quite recapture the stardom he attained with “She’s About a Mover,” but he never stopped recording and he did score a Grammy with the Texas Tornados in 1990, a group comprised of old cohorts Meyers and Fender along with Flaco Jiminez. The now-legendary alt-country group Uncle Tupelo afforded him a little cross-generation love when Sahm contributed “Give me Back the Key to My Heart” for their 1993 album, Anodyne. Today, though, Sahm’s music enjoys more air-time on barroom juke boxes in Europe than it does on radio stations in the Texas he called home for most of his life, where he contributed more to Austin’s emergence as the music mecca it has become than he’s given credit for.
Sahm’s lifelong heart murmur culminated in a heart attack that took him from this world much too soon in 1999 at age 58, but the beautifully sloppy cache of music he left behind is worthy of significant critical reconsideration–records like Honkey Blues, Doug Sahm and Band, or Texas Rock for Country Rollers. And even in death, the legend that was Doug Sahm lived on, as buddies hunched over his body after the funeral service to roll a few last twists of weed and dump them in–just in case he ever felt the urge to light up as he took his final rest. In Texas Tornado, Reid has written a book that essentially amounts to a 200-page-love letter to the younger days that Doug Sahm colored with great music, good times, and, of course, what Reid refers to as “the good herb.” The ride he’ll take you on as he inches toward the end of Sahm’s uniquely American tale will linger with you long after you’ve put the book down.