Music : The river's edge

Misfits, miscreants, and music in the Land of the Taco

San Antonio's infamous rock 'n' roll mecca, Taco Land, is rapidly approaching an impressive 40-year watermark — just long enough for most of us to take it for granted. Thankfully, the venue and its 70-plus-year-old owner/operator Ram Ayala are still going strong. For generations of musicians, gigging at Taco Land has become a sort of unwritten rite of passage, which in turn makes Ayala the most unlikely of gurus: half burly biker, half benevolent benefactor, and undisputed grandfather of the San Antonio music scene. Every musician and aficionado in San Antonio (and perhaps Texas) has a favorite Taco Land story, and all revolve around Ram in some way, shape, or form. He is, by deliberate understatement, quite a character.

Sons of Hercules' Frank Puglise (center) and Dave "Bone" Pedersen (left) belt out one of the band's high-energy tunes, as fans crowd in front of the tiny stage at Taco Land. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Ram's living room-sized bar is perennially surreal — an experiment in chaos theory gone affably awry, teetering precariously between an endless loop of Repo Man and Up in Smoke, with the intermittent but choice frame from Taxi Driver spliced in for good measure. On a slow night, you can all but hear fish breathing in the San Antonio River below, but on a Big Drag, Murder City Devils, or Belrays kind of occasion, you'll need a well-angled crowbar to venture five feet past the front door.

To the virgin eye, a onceover of Taco Land by day is more likely to spark a change of plans than a ballad, though the Dead Milkmen (among others) managed to pull one off. The venue is flanked by an automotive shop and a large patio, liberally sprayed with graffiti and inhabited by the sprawling remains of a decrepit barbeque pit. But as the harsh light of day ebbs, such relics are washed in a blanket of softening darkness, and the venue begins to exude an odd yet undeniable allure that falls somewhere between an impromptu soup kitchen and a backstage gathering at CBGBs.

The bar is unapologetically understated — rectangular, with a service area and pool table at one end, and an elementary alcove that functions as a stage at the other. The interior's diminutive size and shotgun shack simplicity do have the advantage of successfully blurring the line between performer and audience, a boon that keeps bands who could easily pack larger venues coming back year after year.

Taco Land is a recognizably level playing field, completely stripped of any saccharine trappings of cool. It is unpretentious, gritty, and quintessentially San Antonio. Big shows take on the feel of punk rock homecomings rather then staged events of the sort prevalent at Sixth Street vomitoriums and less- seasoned local alternative venues.

Perhaps it is the low-key nature of the setting, but both the place and owner seem to abet acts of harmless absurdity including a highly contagious and situationally induced form of Tourette's Syndrome. Yet things rarely get out of control. Ram is a patriarch who rules his domain with a velvet fist cast in iron — and the occasional well-aimed cue ball. For the most part, indigents and '09ers mix with relative ease in Taco Land's sub-zero succor.

Neither owner nor regular clientele suffer fools lightly. Bands who overstep their boundaries via crappy attitudes, complicated setups, multiple roadies, large guest lists, and/or other irritating demands are turned out on their not-so-proverbial asses faster then Ram can rattle off his beer menu. Taco Land is a music venue, plain and simple — a worthy pit stop on the road less traveled.

Despite his advanced years and rather flamboyant façade, Ram is a walking anthology of Texas music trivia. Every inch of his bar is covered with flyers of years past. His office is a veritable shrine to musicians past and present, but it may take years for you to work yourself into that inner cavern of confidence. But once you are in the circle, you are always in the circle. Like many of his generation, all his relationships — with performers and patronage alike — are built on mutual respect and a genuine love of music.

Taco Land is not for the weak of will or the thin-skinned. Ram is more likely to taunt you relentlessly than kiss your ass for a tip. But remember — just smile and take it — that usually means he likes you. The proper yet nonsensical response to "Hey, pussy," is "Is it on?" And please, for the love of god, do not ask the man for a glass of water.

By Anjali Gupta

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