Punk band the Dead Milkmen mostly wrote joke songs, but a lot of people who spent time in the South Texas punk rock scenes in the eighties, nineties, or early 2000s felt the opening lines of the band’s 1987 song “Tacoland” right in their hearts: “There’s a place / in San Antone / where I can go / and not feel alone,” they sang of the dingy dive bar located “just three quarters of a mile past the Rockwood exit in beautiful downtown San Antonio, Texas.”
Taco Land—and its abrasive-yet-charming owner, Ram Ayala—were vital to a part of the state where punk rock and other types of underground music didn’t get a lot of play, even in the years after they became socially acceptable elsewhere. If you were in, say, a touring stoner metal band named “Bongzilla,” Taco Land was your home in San Antonio well into the 2000s; if you were a local band who wanted stage time for your first—or fortieth—gigs, booking at Taco Land was usually as simple as calling the club and asking Ayala when you could play. (If he liked you, he might call you a “pussy,”—a word Ayala famously used a lot—and then pull out his calendar to book you again.) Taco Land, improbably, was an institution, a CBGB’s or 924 Gilman Street in a city that wasn’t otherwise on the map. NPR told the Taco Land story in 2009:
Taco Land quickly became a sanctuary for all the bands in San Antonio that didn’t fit in anywhere else. Ram became their patron saint.
“He allowed that music to be here which was more underground —- punk, you know, surfer or rockabilly, everything that most of the clubs wouldn’t allow,” long-time customer Bell Solloa says.
Ram’s original customers didn’t necessarily see it the same way when these kids and their bands started coming in, dressing weirdly and playing really — really — loud music.
“They’d say, ‘What the hell are you doing, bringing these bands in here?'” Jeff Smith of the Hickoids remembers. “And [Ram] goes, ‘Hey man, they’re here to rock and roll. And if you don’t like it, you can go sit outside or you can go somewhere else.'”
Some regulars left. Some stayed. And the bands kept coming.
The cultural importance of Taco Land to the fledgling underground music scenes dotting various parts of South Texas made it especially shocking when, in June 2005, Ayala was shot and killed in a robbery at the bar, along with employee Douglas Morgan. (Another employee, bartender Denise Kroger, was shot and survived.) Taco Land closed shortly thereafter.
Today, though, “Tacoland” reopens in San Antonio. The San Antonio Current explains that:
Legendary music venue/dive bar Tacoland (103 W. Grayson) is finally re-opening. The bar will open its doors Wednesday, February 19 at 5 p.m. Jason Dady’s DUK Truck will come out of its winter hibernation to sling its famous eats along with Umai Mi fare (tacos have gotten a heck of a lot fancier since the bar’s closing).
Chris Erck, of the Worm Tequila & Mezcal bar and Swig Martini Bar says the full-service bar will feature 36 beers on draft, 99 bottles of beer and a collection of signature cocktails, which draws inspiration from the SA River and surrounding trees.
“We’ll be playing music of our times,” Erck said of the amplified acoustic he hopes to bring in to the bar and not the punk staples the bar was known for. He hopes to draw in emerging talent, much like Taco Land did previously, without pigeonholing a genre.
“People have great expectations of it being the old Taco Land, but it’s not the same, it cannot be the same,” Erck said. “The DNA is there and we’re trying to respect that history as we continue the legacy.”
All of that makes Erck’s bar sound like it might be a nice place for a drink or a bite to eat. Craft cocktails, high-end tacos, outdoor patios, and acoustic music can all be pleasant things. But it’s hard to see how calling this a “reopening” of Taco Land is appropriate. Taco Land was a punk rock dive bar where the owner yelled obscenties at the bands. This is an entirely different concept.
Erck (who won a Bum Steer from Texas Monthly in 2012) seems to acknowledge that in some ways. He told MySA.com “That Taco Land can never be rebuilt” and that his place is “evolving into something of its own.”
Which raises the question: Why did he call it Tacoland?
Talk about “DNA” and how the building is “easily recognizable as parts of Taco Land” are by definition going to be true, if Erck’s new place occupies the same building. But there’s something that feels crass, tacky, and disrespectful about opening a place that, most people who spent time at Taco Land would probably agree, Ayala would have hated—and claiming it as part of his “legacy.”
That’s especially egregious considering the circumstances of Taco Land’s closing. If Ayala had been forced out by rising rent, a failed concept, or money mismanagement, the question of whether or not Erck’s decision to use the name was appropriate would have a different flavor to it. But Ayala was killed at that bar. Given that, it seems like the respectful way to acknowledge the “legacy” that Erck talks about isn’t to drum up publicity by claiming the re-opening of an institution: It’d be to open what’s clearly a new business in that space under a new name. If it’s important to him to honor Ayala, maybe he could leave the tributes outside commemorating the man intact, or hang a plaque and a photo behind the bar.
It’s not news that yesterday’s punk rock institutions will end up tomorrow’s high-end establishment. Anyone who’s seen the John Varvatos retail store in the old CBGB space in Manhattan can attest to that; and while the original Emo’s location in Austin is so far unoccupied, the eventual Waller Creek redevelopment will probably end with somewhere pretty nice in that spot too. This is the way of the world, and there’s nothing wrong with Erck opening a pleasant-sounding bar in the building that Taco Land once occupied.
But he probably should have called it something else.
Photo of Ram Ayala by Erik Sanden.