By Gilbert Garcia
At the June 24 wake for Taco Land owner Ram Ayala, Juan Miguel Ramos looked around at the hundreds of people who'd gathered in the club's patio to remember one of the local music scene's defining characters. It occurred to Ramos, drummer for Sexto Sol and a longtime Taco Land regular, that this might be the last time he saw many of these familiar faces.
"There were a lot of people that I don't know if I'll see, or if we'll all ever be in the same place again," Ramos says. "It really is kind of an end."
Creating a sense of community was Ayala's great art, and the power of his scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold personality forged unlikely bonds between bikers, punks, homeless people, and college students eager for a taste of gritty authenticity. That community was shattered on Friday, June 24 at 1:30 a.m., when a Taco Land patron allegedly approached the 72-year-old Ayala at the bar and, after an apparent verbal altercation, fatally shot him in the stomach and wounded two club employees. The gunman and an accomplice fled the bar, leaving money from the register strewn about the floor. At press time, the San Antonio Police Department continued to investigate the case, with the suspects not yet identified or apprehended.
Ayala liked to say that it wasn't the place but the people that made Taco Land special, and he was the ultimate illustration of that point. Certainly, the North Side bar - with its gallery of glossy band pictures and a vintage jukebox loaded with records that hadn't changed in decades - had character, but nothing that particularly set it apart from hundreds of other dives around the country. As for the music, Taco Land hosted some noteworthy bands over the years, such as the Minutemen, the Cramps, Gwar, and the Dead Milkmen (who went on to immortalize Taco Land and Ayala in song). But tons of other clubs could claim a more impressive roster.
Ultimately, what set Taco Land apart was neither its decor nor its music, but Ayala himself. No matter how bad the band might be on a given night, no matter how thin the turnout, you knew things would get entertaining if Ayala was around, guzzling fire-hazard tequila from a Sprite bottle and spreading the good word for his congregation of proud outcasts.
"Sometimes I preferred it when it was a slow night," Ramos recalls. "Sometimes I'd just sit at the bar. Ram knew I wasn't a very talkative person, so he'd just be doing his thing, talking to his buddies. And I'd be sitting there, listening in and just getting a great big kick out of it."
Ayala opened Taco Land in 1965, selling tacos at 10 cents apiece (beer went two for a quarter) to employees of the nearby soft-drink bottling plants. In 1969, he bought the property for $21,000, and eventually transformed Taco Land into a bar catering to a heavy biker constituency. In the early '80s, San Antonio's long-suffering punk scene, which had vainly searched for suitable venues, came calling. At the urging of Hickoids bassist Richard Hays, Ayala allowed Taco Land to become a home for an underground music community that had been homeless up to that point. In doing so, he unwittingly adopted a generation of local punk kids.
Jeff Smith, a musician who played and booked countless shows at Taco Land, met Ayala in 1982, while Smith was playing in the group Bang Gang. Ayala dubbed him "The Original Punk Rocker."
"Our drummer Arthur knew some drug dealers in the neighborhood," Smith recalls, with a laugh. "We had been playing shows at various one-off bars that ended up in some sort of fist fight between a bunch of flyboys, the owners, and the bands. Every club lasted about one-and-a-half shows at that time. So Arthur said, 'Let's go play at this place called Taco Land.' We asked, 'We're going to play at a Mexican restaurant?'"
Bang Gang played at Taco Land's first punk show, along with Millions of Dead Cops (MDC, for the squeamish), Offenders, Marching Plague, Billy Bob Faggots, and special guests the Butthole Surfers. According to legend, Ayala sold plenty of beer that night, so he had no objection to the noisy, anarchistic invasion of his club.
His connection to the punk scene, however, went much deeper than dollars and cents. The young punks were provocateurs, and Ayala intuitively understood that because he liked to provoke people too. His provocations surfaced whenever things got too slow, whenever spirits flagged a bit, whenever he sensed that things needed to get stirred up.
Ramos recalls the soundcheck for a Taco Land gig by Austin's ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead in which Conrad Keely, armed with a monstrous stack of amplifiers, cranked his guitar up to ear-bleeding decibel levels. "It was ridiculous, it was so loud," he says. "I remember they had played at the North St. Mary's Brewing Company and they got the cops called on them for playing too loud and a mini-riot almost broke out. But at Taco Land, Conrad's checking his guitar, it's ridiculously loud, and Ram yells out, 'Is it on?'"
"Is it on?" was part of Ram-speak, a shorthand language built on idiosyncratic phrases that alternately served as warnings, warm greetings, and sarcastic rejoinders. His most famous expression, "Don't Be a Pussy," had many interpretations, but at heart it was as much a punk mantra as "Kick out the jams" or "Never mind the bollocks." It goaded you into dropping your inhibitions, not for a political agenda, but for the sake of pure fun. That's why a Taco Land patron once described Ayala as "the guru of good times."
Ramos first played at Taco Land in the early '90s with the punk band Glorium. The group's members were all in their teens. No one knew who they were. They had not yet written any original material, so they played nothing but covers that night. Ayala showed his support at the end of the night by handing them a 12-pack of beer.
When Ramos and his wife Rosemary married in 2002, they headed straight to Taco Land after their wedding reception, where Ayala showed both his gruffly humorous exterior and carefully concealed soft streak. "She still had her wedding dress on," Ramos recalls. "She told him that we were married, and Ram asked her, 'Why'd you marry him? He's ugly.'
"We didn't know he was doing it, but he passed around a collection jar, so he surprised us with this money when we were leaving. So we went to Taco Cabana and paid for all our friends to eat with the money he collected."
Smith says in his two decades of hanging out at the club, he never saw Ayala face a threat like the one that ended his life. "I've seen a lot of people back down from him - a lot of pretty imposing people," he says. "Once somebody succeeded in making him mad, they'd normally get the impression that he wasn't messing around. I guess in retrospect, he could have used some more backup, but the clientele was his backup, in a lot of ways."
Because Ayala was so inextricable from Taco Land's ambience, and because ownership of the bar made a financial sense to him that it probably wouldn't make to someone trying to buy the bar now, it's hard to imagine the club carrying on without him.
"Ram was in complete control of the aesthetic of the whole place and his personality dominated the vibe of the place," Ramos says. "You could keep the place open as a business. You could sell beer and book bands, but in a way, it's like, what's the point? It's just going to be any other bar without him."
In a 1999 documentary by Laura Escamilla, Ayala encapsulated Taco Land's appeal for two generations of San Antonio bands: "You might not make no money, but you'll have a good time. You can't buy a good time. And a good time is here."