Crying with the Cosmic Cowboy




I AM IN MENDOCINO, driving through a light rain, towards a grove of redwoods. The road ahead drops off into the mist, into the ocean. I drive slowly. I am in Mendocino to do research for an essay about the musician Doug Sahm. But I could be anywhere. I am telling myself that I am here to learn about the town that inspired Sahm’s 1969 record Mendocino, a record that defined a particular time in my life. I say I am here to eat fresh sole, sleep in a tent shaded by a live oak, drink strong coffee on a crumbling bluff, ask locals about Sahm, nose through the library. I am telling myself I am here for all these reasons. But I know better. I am in Mendocino because I do not know how not to be driving down the fogged-out road. I could be anywhere, but since I am in Mendocino, I decide to try to find out why Sahm moved to Northern California and why he left.

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When Doug Sahm moved to California in the spring of 1966, he was fleeing a drug bust in Texas. The story goes like this: he moved to Salinas from San Antonio with his family and without his band, The Sir Douglas Quintet, which had reached national fame the previous year with their pop song “She’s About a Mover.” After their drug bust in the Corpus Christi airport, several band members, including keyboard player Augie Meyers, were put on probation, forbidden from crossing state lines. The band languished. Sahm, however, was lucky. The terms of his probation differed: he was allowed to rove. 

Sahm bought a tract house in Prunedale, a city of dying plum trees on the outer edge of Salinas. His true home, however, was not in the valley with his family, but in San Francisco, specifically the Haight-Ashbury, where he dropped acid, lolled around Golden Gate Park, jammed with the Dead, smoked bricks of potent Mexican weed, cut tight records in brightly lit studios as the fog rolled in. He had different girlfriends stashed all over town, cute chicks holed up in cold apartments with cats and crates of records beside their beds. In San Francisco — and only in San Francisco — Sahm was finally able to indulge, full-time, in the one activity he loved most: grooving. He was free.  

Or so the story goes.

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The first year I lived in Los Angeles I wrote an email to an old friend, a former roommate, who still lived in Georgia: everything you’ve heard about L.A. is a lie. My apartment, a dingbat on the east side, was far from Hollywood and Beverly Hills and their stereotypes of Botox and Bentleys with blacked out windows. Instead, I wrote about skinny, sickly palms and pink stucco condos, greasy potato tacos, sitting on the roof of my building at dawn smoking, watching the pigeons peck the chickweed clean. I wrote many such letters: succulents in bloom, jacarandas shedding, rotting all over the sidewalk. I told everyone the same story. The city is magic.

I did not mention that I was incapable of starting the day without smoking a tidy joint, without sobbing on the roof of my building, pink sky and all. During this time I listened to the same record, every day, over and over — Sir Douglas Quintet’s Mendocino. It was the band’s third album. An autobiographical trip through Texas and Northern California as narrated by Sahm. The record told intertwined stories. One concerned a man who simply wanted to cruise through life, to groove. The other, a man in the midst of losing it all: his family, his youth, his sense of self. This was the story I heard.

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Mendocino was recorded in Los Angeles and San Francisco in a few quick sessions in September 1968. Although released under the Sir Douglas Quintet name, the lineup was new: Augie Meyers on keys and organ, Harvey Kagan on bass, John Perez on drums, and Frank Morin and Martin Fierro on horns. When the band entered the studio, Sahm was keening for a distraction. He had recently started and ended an affair with a 16-year-old girl up the coast in Mendocino. He was heartsick, or so people said.

The first song on the record, the title track, charts Sahm’s affair with the girl. At first listen, “Mendocino” is a sunny pop song featuring a choppy, driving organ, an infectious loose rhythm. I danced to it often, in the living room of my apartment in L.A., lights off, mouthing the words teenybopper, my teenage lover. I listened to it on repeat. It was not long before I began to hear a different story. One of longing. A longing obscured by a pulsing bass, Meyer’s staccato Vox throbbing on and on.

The plot was simple enough: a man and his teenage lover, a shack in a beach town, by a river, a grove of redwoods; two lovers, walking through a sun-drenched park, kissing beneath a eucalyptus tree, a perfect afternoon, save the man’s insistent pleading please don’t go. Sahm repeats: please don’t go. Please stay here with me in Mendocino. I imagined the scene: they make love in the dirt, the soft dirt along the river, he holds her naked in his arms, already aware he’s losing her to another, a “fast-talkin’ guy with strange red eyes,” a man who makes her “mind wonder.” The song’s lyrics swerve between tenses, between the past — that is, the night he falls in love with her, the early days of their affair, making love on a bluff — and the present, his aching don’t go. He has not lost her yet. He grieves nonetheless. The song ends in this suspended present-tense moment. No resolution in sight.  

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I first heard Mendocino on my weeklong drive from Georgia to California. It was late summer. I was 23. A friend had given me the record as a going-away gift. Doug Sahm and his band were strangers to me. I stared at Sahm’s picture on the cover of the CD: limp brown hair, big black shades, pert cowboy hat perched on his head. I slid the record into the player where it stayed.

Oh, baby, it just don’t matter were the words I mouthed as I kissed Georgia goodbye, crossed into Alabama, the highway lined with pines. It was the last track on the record. A raunchy garage jam with distorted vocals and a driving guitar. A song just heavy and loud enough to snuff the stray thoughts.

Oh, baby, it just don’t matter, I sang as I sped through Mississippi’s swamp lands, floated belly up in a chalky pool outside Shreveport, pissed on the side of the road in Beaumont, the noon sun sapping the spit from my mouth. Somewhere outside Houston, my car’s air conditioner failed. It just don’t matter, I sang out loud. Windows rolled down, hair sticking to the sides of my lips. Oh baby, oh baby. It just don’t matter. Up through the cattle country, the cut-up crust of Arizona. A brief detour: I sat in the back of a black SUV sweating through my shorts while two plain-clothes cops illegally searched my car for marijuana, wrote me a $1,000 ticket for possession, then slapped my back and said have a safe trip. I drove off into the red cliffs. It just don’t matter, I sang. As if casting a spell. It just don’t matter. 

I sang all the way to LA.

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Like every track on Mendocino, “Oh, Baby It Just Don’t Matter,” obscures more than it reveals. The more I listened to the song the more I began to question the singer’s confidence, began to wonder if the refrain — it just don’t matter — was less a declaration and more a necessary repetition.

Behind the veneer of good-timin’ was a deep-seated sense of longing, a longing for a world in which one can waltz through any and all experiences no matter how unpleasant, with the insouciance of John Wayne riding away on a dappled paint waving his hand: baby, I don’t care. A fantasy.

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Another fantasy: a woman moves to L.A. to write. She tells everyone she is moving West with her boyfriend to write a novel. A murder mystery set at a yoga retreat. She says she has waited her entire life to see the Pacific, to sniff the wet seaweed, crush jacarandas in her palm. 

None of this is true.

She fled.

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When I moved to California, less than a month had passed since my mother announced that she was divorcing her husband, my stepfather of 20 years, after discovering that he had lived a secret life for almost the entire extent of the marriage, including sexually abusing my older sister throughout her childhood. This was not the first time my stepfather had been accused of sexual indiscretion. It was, however, the only time the accusations were accepted by the family as fact. Within weeks of my departure, my mother listed our family farm for sale, and my ex-stepfather began dating another woman, an ex-nurse he met at a bar. By the time I had unpacked and settled in L.A., they had married. I called him only once that first year. The ex-nurse answered. I asked to speak with “my father.” She said, he does not have any children by your name. Then, she hung up.

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The first year in L.A. I wrote little and read even less. Which was unfortunate: reading was my only hobby. I struggled to sleep. I took to walking the city late at night, fingers trailing the clipped hedges, the metal fences enclosing nearly every yard. I watched punks in the industrial park pass glass bottles hand to mouth. I paced the flood tunnels, my shadow large on the smooth, concrete walls. I walked to exhaust myself. I tried to focus on the alder leaves above my head, the scratching of the rats. My mind roved. I wondered what I could not bear to know: how was it possible that I lived alongside a man for two decades without ever once glimpsing his nature? I had missed all the signs. I had lost the through line of my life.

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It sounded as if the man who had written Mendocino was even less sure than I of where he was going or why. I listened to “At the Crossroads,” the tender ballad that had replaced “Oh, Baby” as my favorite song on the record. I loved Meyer’s churchy organ. The overall religious tone of the song. Sahm sings every single word. The song begins with the line: leaving you now for the very last time. Again Sahm plays the confident narrator, a man who knows what he wants. It is easy to picture the “crossroads” Sahm found himself straddling — whether to move home to Texas with his wife and his band or to stay in San Francisco, the “great big freaky city.” Sahm sings: crossroads of my life passed her by. It appears he has made his decision: he will stay in the city. He has accepted his choice. Yet a residue of sadness lingers. The decision has brought him little solace. No closure. No sooner has Sahm announced — I’m leaving her — does he sing, just as surely, someday a change will come and you’ll be beside me one more time. He repeats one more time, one more time, one more time you’ll be beside me. As if he, too, is trying to convince himself. 

The picture of a man who is sure of nothing. A man bewildered by his appetites. A man playing a fool in the city of his dreams.

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In “Lawd I’m Just a County Boy” Sahm willingly plays the fool, the wide-eyed dreamer adrift in a city of dive bars, bad vibes, and cable cars. Really did mess up my mind, Sahm sings mid-song, referencing all that he’s seen in the Haight-Ashbury. Lawd I’m just a country boy in this great big freaky city.

In truth, Sahm was no longer simply a country boy. Could never be one again. This, too, he mourns.

Sahm openly grieves the loss of this particular identity in “Texas Me,” a sublime slice of autobiography. He sings, I wonder what happened to that man inside, that real old Texas me? The question hangs. Sahm’s fiddle plays on. The fiddle itself is played with heavy reverb, an especially trippy touch that seemed to answer the question Sahm posed earlier: no, he can never return, will never be that good old Texas boy again. The steel guitar whines. He can never return.  

In “I Don’t Want,” a song written around the same period as those on Mendocino, Sahm yet again refers to himself as a fool. A man who has changed so irrevocably as to become unrecognizable even to himself. The changes in the city made a fool of me, Sahm sings, amid the sad steel guitar.

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It was easy enough for me to play the fool in my new city; I was enrolled in a graduate program. The main reason I chose to attend this particular school, which had offered me little funding, was that it was located 2,193 miles from my childhood home. The school, founded by Disney in the 1960s, was nestled in a dreary suburb of chain restaurants and highly-ranked public schools. I commuted 30 minutes from the city. The writing program had its own facilities, a three-room metal box painted yellow, a small parking lot. Often I would arrive early to class, pull into the back lot, and park along the tree line. I would sit, listen to “Oh, Baby It Just Don’t Matter,” cigarette ash all over the seat. I would sit, unable to open the door, walk over to the building. Sometimes 10, 15 minutes would pass before my body would cooperate. When I did make it to class, I listened. I spoke when I was addressed. I do not remember, however, what I said or what I heard. With time, I stopped bothering with the drive at all. I skipped class with prominent poets — poets I admire — to eat salted caramels on the beach, make-out beneath the pier, sun low, fingers in my hair, in my mouth. I visited dank bars dark at noon. The walls lined with mirrors, strands of Christmas lights. If I happened to catch a glimpse of myself in one of these mirrors, I always had to look twice to make sure it was me. Few things held my focus: wet kisses, riding my bike heart-pounding through the park, dancing in my apartment, air threaded with smoke. That is the thing about fools: they like to dance. They prize the ride.

Sahm was a fool, dancing up and down the streets of San Francisco. Mendocino is his story: a man grieving, still singing. A story I needed to hear.

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I, too, tried to sing. Despite my grief. I tried to find the through line. I graduated, found a job at an Internet tutoring center where I talked to teenagers about Othello through a small black screen. I began driving to the desert. I drove to Anza-Borrego, on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, which in Southern California is called The Colorado. A desert of Tamarisk trees, long-horn sheep, real live badlands falling off into the Salton Trough. I hiked through slot canyons and across buttes strewn with seashells, mud hills streaked red and brown. I snapped pictures of burned yuccas, a flat of creosote. I slept in the car, on the side of a dirt road in a dry wash with white thistle and heaps of scrub, horizon obscured by a mountain chain I couldn’t yet name. Other times I hiked deep into the mountains, slept in my tent, stared up at the stars through a mesh slit. In the early days, friends joined me. With time, however, they stopped saying yes and instead started asking questions.

I thought about Sahm often on these trips as I was almost always listening to Mendocino while laying in my sleeping bag. I thought about how he needed to move to California to understand something about Texas. Mainly, that he missed it. That Texas was a thing to miss. 

It took Sahm five years on the coast before he could return. In 1971 he moved to Austin, but he rarely slept there. He visited his family in San Antonio, tried to reconcile with his wife. The couple soon divorced. He fled north. In Austin, he had no permanent address. He toured Amsterdam, wrote several records, taught his sons to play guitar. He killed time following his favorite baseball teams game to game, often blowing off gigs with his new band to attend spring training. He never lived in San Antonio again. He prized the ride. 

I have lived in L.A. for five years, but unlike Sahm, I am not ready to return home. Not yet. Increasingly, however, I find it hard to stay. I drive to Mendocino for the same reason I drive to the desert — the city no longer charms me. I long once again for the ruralness of my childhood. I miss my mother, my sister. Our home in Georgia. The pine trees laid out in neat rows, thick bands of sumac, honeysuckles in the spring, the threat of chiggers, deer ticks feasting on our skin. It had never occurred to me that I would miss it. This land that was owned and worked by the abusive man who still owns and works it today. I am, in fact, no longer allowed on the premises. 

I don’t share all Sahm’s appetites, but I can understand them. Some I understand too well. Wrapped in a plaid blanket on a beach at Headlands State Park, the very beach where I imagined Sahm strolling with his lover all those years ago, it occurs to me — it is ok to miss where I come from, all that I have left. Even if what I left was not particularly good or healthy or interesting. I miss it nonetheless. This, too, is part of Mendocino’s story.

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Elizabeth Hall is the author of the chapbook Two Essays (eohippus labs) and the nonfiction book I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris (forthcoming, 2016). 


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