Monday, June 27, 2005

06/27/2005 Report

Taco Land and slain owner get mournful goodbye

Web Posted: 06/27/2005 12:00 AM CDT

Karisa King
Express-News Staff Writer

Grieving musicians and patrons loyal to the legendary San Antonio bar Taco Land gathered Sunday night for a concert tribute to the club's slain owner, Ramiro "Ram" Ayala, and bid farewell to one of the longest standing underground music venues in Texas.

The epic history of the club, which started in 1969 and came to represent a segment of San Antonio culture in its rawest form, abruptly ended early Friday when Ayala was shot to death during what police say was an apparent robbery attempt. Now, those closest to Ayala say the bar will close for good.

"Now that Ram is passed and gone, there is no more Taco Land," said Robert Tatum, a close friend of Ayala's who helped organize the show. "It's over. None of us are even thinking twice about continuing to run it."

A long lineup of bands, most of them Taco Land standards, played into the night on the club's cracked front patio, just beyond the locked front door at the corner of Grayson and Elmira streets. It was both a mournful homage and a rowdy bash that held true to the irreverent approach Ayala took to running the club.

At dusk, Taco Land regulars swilled beer from their own coolers, shared barbecue and danced on tables to songs from Yoshimoto. Several other bands were expected to play, including the Sons of Hercules, Pit Bull Daycare, Boxcar Satan, Los Mescaleros, the Swindles, the Alcoholic Helltones, and Los #3 Dinners.

Donations raised at the door will go to help the two surviving employees, bartender Denise "Sunshine" Koger, 41, and doorman Douglas Morgan, 53, who were shot alongside Ayala and remain at University Hospital in stable condition.

After an outpouring of grief and condolences, Ayala's family recognized the need for a collective farewell and agreed to host the fundraiser.

"They just wanted to give the public one last night," said Roland Fuentes, a former Taco Land employee who helped to organize the show.

Ayala opened Taco Land in 1965, selling tacos and enchilada plates to workers from soda bottling plants that once operated nearby. After the plants shut down, he turned the business into a bar in 1969.

Since then, an eclectic parade of obscure bands from around the country has performed at the low-frills bar. They included the Dead Milkmen, GWAR, the Poster Children, the Fleshtones and Yo La Tengo.

Over the years, the place held onto its blue-collar roots, but evolved into a unique cultural force that sometimes made for a weird juxtaposition of people ˜ well-groomed college students in the same mash pit with middle-aged rockers and silver-studded punks.

Band members and customers cherished the bar for its gritty authenticity and an atmosphere that remained free of the sneering pretension of other alternative venues.

Police on Sunday continued the hunt for two Hispanic men in their early 20s who sped away from the shooting in a silver, two-door sports car.

Police spokesman Joe Rios said no arrests have been made Sunday and detectives continued speaking with witnesses.

"We're still investigating, trying to figure out who the people in the club before the shooting were," Rios said.

A Taco Land bartender who was not there at the time of the shooting stood off to one side, leaning against the car and looking devastated. Jay Bermea, who lives in the neighborhood, does not feel lucky that the shooter didn't get him, too.

"I wish they had," he said grimly.

Bermea had worked for Ram for about three years.

"He was just a tough old Billy goat. Hard-headed. Stubborn," he said.

"But he was a good man. A good father to everybody," Bermea said.

Some Taco Land regulars already had been preparing for the day Ram wouldn't be there, especially after the bar owner had heart problems some time ago.

"Most of us were already thinking that something so good couldn't be so good," said Timothy Phillips, who had been coming to the bar nearly a decade.

"Good things come to an end. I felt it coming. I really did."

Express News Staff Writers Vincent T. Davis, Sheila Hotchkin and Mariano Castillo contributed to this report.

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