Manuel Diosdado Castillo, Jr. tragically succumbed to lung cancer on January 6th at the age of 40 – a matter of weeks after receiving the diagnosis – leaving behind a remarkable legacy of music, public artwork, of pride in and a powerful sense of responsibility for his beloved Westside San Antonio barrio. Manny was, for nearly twenty years, a singular presence in both the underground music scene in San Antonio (whose spiritual epicenter is marked by the centuries-old live oak tree at his favorite local dive/venue: the legendary, much-missed Tacoland) and in the non-profit community organization he built, originally as an offshoot project of Patti & Rod Radle’s Inner City Development, but which quickly blossomed into San Anto Cultural Arts.
My friendship with Manny goes back to a spontaneous garage rehearsal circa 1991. Marshall Gause and I were fruitlessly waiting at my folks’ house for some now forgotten drummer we wanted to try out, as our last band line-up hadn’t worked out. Marshall suggested trying to get in touch with this guy he had played a couple of times with the year before – they had enjoyed it, but it didn’t go anywhere as Manny soon left for New Orleans to follow Academic Pursuits. Marshall had a hunch he might be back in town now. After a few calls, the hunch was confirmed and we had a drummer on the way.
That first rehearsal (guitar, bass, & drums – singer Terry Brown had to work) immediately revealed an undeniable chemistry between Marshall’s hippy-punk musicologist guitar explorations, my intuitive but rudimentary bass playing (which, lucky for me, sounded better than it had much right to thanks to my chronic music obsession, a plethora of interesting audio exposure at a job selling used records, and especially Marshall’s unpretentious ability to cover for my lack of formal musical knowledge,) and Manny’s balls-out, hit-the-drums-hard-enough-to-break-at-least-one-head-per-session-but-always-dead-on-the-beat style, using complex rhythms even formally trained jazz drummers wouldn’t have the nerve to try. He was, and remains, one of the fastest, most precise drummers I have ever seen (even faster when he was nervous,) augmented by the physical strength to just bash the hell out of his drums – a steamroller cross between John Bonham, Neil Peart, Mitch Mitchell, George Hurley and Elvin Jones. All on a minimal and creaky drum set usually somehow held together with yarn.
That afternoon we quickly bonded musically over our mutual love for Rush, The Plugz, Esteban Jordan, Thin Lizzy and especially The Minutemen. Spontaneous jams we engaged in that day became the basis for numerous songs later fully developed and forming the initial base of our oeuvre (some still included in the set list at the time the band imploded.) In short order, we brought Terry back into the circle, sat around with some Lone Stars or whatever was cheap that day and soon agreed to call ourself El Santo, in homage to the legendary Mexican lucha enmascarada/film star who never lost a match.
El Santo stayed together for 3 years, released two 7″ records and a couple of compilation tracks, and did a five week old-fashioned punk rock-style tour with brother band Glorium (San Antonio natives, later based for most of their lifespan in Austin.) We had played a mutual early show together at Tacoland and discovered we were like-minded d.i.y. kids, becoming very tight through the remainder of our musical existence. The tour itinerary was essentially a big circle starting towards the west coast, making a big loop avoiding most of the Midwest and coming back home through the southern states not quite to the eastern seaboard. Quite the adventure for two van loads of early-20-somethings with no adult supervision. I won’t repeat amusing tour anecdotes ad nauseum, but highlights included getting caught in the midst of an anarchist ‘riot’ in Portland, Oregon; meeting Mr. T in Vegas; a brush with a snooty Michael Stipe in Athens, Georgia; playing on a stage that Sun Ra & His Arkestra had often performed upon in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It’s a cherished time of my life, and I think & hope it was the same for Manny, as well as the rest of the guys. One of my great memories of Manny happened in the wee small hours after leaving Oxford, Mississippi during a torrential rainstorm (where we had played an entirely unattended show with surf scientists Man or Astroman?) – me at the wheel and Manny in the passenger seat, fiddling with the radio dial. Everyone else in our van was dead asleep. Suddenly, out of the boring static soup of ads and pop-country music and preachers leapt the wheezing accordion of a Tejano corrido broadcast from some tiny Gulf Coast station. We looked at each other, unbelieving, Manny flashing the huge grin which anyone who ever met him will recall. Five weeks might not sound like much, but we were on our last tour legs, less than 5 days to go – heading to New Orleans and then Houston and then home to Tacoland for our welcome home show – and we were more than ready for it, not having had a decent taco since crossing the Texas/New Mexico border. For most of us it was the longest we’d ever been outside our home state, for some it was the first time ever – and if you’re truly a San Antonian, no matter how wonderful the time away, nothing beats being back and within minutes of a Blanco Café. Hearing that snatch of music – of course, the signal faded after 20 seconds and Manny couldn’t get it back – was just enough to remind us vividly of sweet home San Anto.
After El Santo split, Manny ‘led’ a three-piece group of psychedelic blues-fueled heaviness called The Cleofus Trujillo Trio. Manny’s drumming proved just as powerful when slowed down a bit (just a bit.) Their sound was captured for posterity on a self-released CD EP that is unfortunately pretty much impossible to find now unless someone you know knew the band.
Chris Lutz was Manny’s bassman in his most recent musical muse, Snowbyrd. He was also an important element himself in the underappreciated Tacoland-based S.A. punk rawk rennaissance of the early & mid-1990’s – going back even before his o.g. membership in the first line-up of garage beat rockers The Dropouts, whose first ever show happened to coincide with our breakup show (at Tacoland, of course.) Chris’ assessment of this recent sad news: “The greatest and loudest lead drummer in San Antonio underground rock has left the planet.” Snowbyrd followed The CTT in a similar style but with a little less classic rock jam steez, a little more indie weirdness and a few more hooks. They have one CD that is well worth checking out (just ignore the deadly cover font) available on Jeff Smith’s . I understand there are new recordings in the can, but don’t know if there are release plans for them in the works.
While music was clearly a passion and a labor of love for Manny, it is his other contributions to this city that likely have made the larger impact on many people’s lives. From the time I first got to know him, he was vocal and passionate about wanting to improve the community he grew up in. Never losing sight of the early do-it-yourself lessons he learned from punk rock and his time in service at Inner City Development, he created and nurtured San Anto Cultural Arts, growing it from the initial Mural Project (with the early help of fellow Tacoland regulars – artists and musicians Cruz Ortiz and [Glorium drummer] Juan Miguel Ramos) – that by now has produced over 35 public works – into a greater resource. He gave Westsiders murals of beauty expressing their own culture and concerns, empowered others with the lessons he had learned, brought kids to the creative process and gave voice to the ordinary people of his community with the newsletter El Placazo.
In the years since the Santo era, Manny and I didn’t spend as much time together as I might wish, but we made our peace with one another soon enough. He was not a saint, could be stubborn as anyone I’ve ever known and was fiercely proud, but he also had an enormous heart and a wicked sense of humor and it was impossible not to love him. I was always happy to see him when our paths crossed. There would be pounds on the back with a beer in one hand, tales recounted – like Manny’s anti-toast to Austin the first time we played there at The Cavity, or the time that nut Frankie Glitterdoll go-go danced onstage through the entire set as we played a house party in Arcata, California. During the non-stop wake that was the weekend following the murder of Tacoland owner Ram Ayala, I recall Manny telling Tacoland stories, fervently recounting his admiration for Ram – he was a warrior, he lived the life he wanted to, he was always good to the people around him. Brother, I can give no better eulogy for you: you were a warrior, but one full of love and the healing power of creativity, and a light to those around you. I remember you with admiration, pride and love. Rest in peace, camarada.
Correction/Addendum [01.27.08]: Temporary brain blip caused me to entirely omit the River City Playboys from Manny’s musical resumé, another group featuring Chris Lutz on bass. The Playboys existence fell between the Cleofus Trujillo Trio and Snowbyrd. The CD I mentioned by the CTT was actually a River City Playboys release. To the best of my knowledge, the only released recording from the CTT was one track on Leighton Mann’s The Crispy Chronicles, Volume 1 compilation.
Please see Ben’s earlier post for photos of friends and artists painting Manny’s casket in tribute. Portrait of Manny and Ram by Gerardo Garcia, mural coordinator for San Anto Cultural Arts.