“The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators” by the 13th Floor Elevators (1966)
Take a look at the singer in this video from Germany in 2010.
Sure, it looks as if he’s had some ups and downs over the years. But all in all, he seems to be in pretty good shape.
In 2005, filmmaker Keven McAlester released his documentary about the singer, Roger Kynard “Roky” Erickson. Judging by the movie, you’d never guess that Roky ever would be able to function in society again, let alone return to performing music.
But he continues to do his thing on stage, including shows this coming weekend in New Jersey, if you’re out that direction.
That’s good news for fans who have followed Roky – pronounced “Rocky” – since his days as frontman for the ’60s-era band the 13th Floor Elevators, and who have cheered him on during his peaks and valleys in the decades since.
In the rock ‘n’ roll canon, Roger Kynard Erickson usually is mentioned in the same breath as another Roger, “Syd” Barrett of Pink Floyd, and Canadian multi-instrumentalist Alexander “Skip” Spence, of Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane.
Those musicians often are cited as primary casualties of the era’s drug culture, men whose predilections for substances led to debilitating mental illness.
Roky isn’t the only one of them who’s still making music. He’s the only one who’s still alive.
His story begins in Austin, Texas, in 1965, when he came to local prominence with a band called the Spades. Barely 18 at the time, he wrote two songs that became audience favorites, “We Sell Soul” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”
Late in the year, Roky decided to team up with members of a band called the Lingsmen for a new aggregation. Erickson, guitarist Stacy Sutherland, bass player Benny Thurman and drummer John Ike Walton opted for the name 13th Floor Elevators, as a nod to the number that doesn’t exist in hotels (and possibly signifying the 13th letter of the alphabet, which also is the first letter of the word “marijuana”).
If the band name was thoroughly unusual for mid-’60s Texas, the addition of a fifth member was downright unique. To quote Mark Deming on allmusic.com: “nobody played electric jug quite like Tommy Hall … actually, nobody played it at all besides him.”
That’s right. He’d picked up a jug, put a microphone next to it and make noises that somewhat resemble what you’d hear on a submarine’s sonar. As you might imagine, he had to be in a certain frame of mind to operate thusly.
“With the Elevators, Hall made it a rule to drop acid every time someone picked up an instrument,” Jennifer Maerz of the Houston Press wrote in “Ex-13th Floor Elevator Tommy Hall Is Still Psychedelic.”
Speaking of psychedelic, we can attribute the coining of the word to British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who came up with the term for the hallucinogenic drugs he prescribed to author Aldous Huxley. (He’s the guy who wrote “The Doors of Perception,” from which Jim Morrison and company took their band’s name.) At the start of 1966, the word wasn’t widely known, except to folks like Dr. Timothy Leary. But that soon would change.
The 13th Floor Elevators started the year by going into the studio to record two songs for the band’s first 45, working with a producer named Gordon Bynum for a label called Contact Records. The B-side was called “Tried to Hide,” while the main track turned out to be an updated version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” If you’ve seen the movie “High Fidelity,” that’s the song that’s playing on vinyl during the opening.
The single made a national impact, peaking at No. 55 on the Billboard charts and No. 50 on Cash Box. The song’s most notable feature, even more than Hall’s jug, is Erickson’s frantic vocal delivery, in marked contrast to what other popular singers were doing in early 1966.
The success of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” resulted in the 13th Floor Elevators being offered gigs far away from Texas, most notably San Francisco, where acts like Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead were starting to make names for themselves. After taking in some Elevators shows, the Bay Area bands started to veer away from folk and blues toward uncharted territory.
Returning to Austin, the Elevators went to work on recording an album, which also ended up being unlike anything anyone had heard before. Or since.
“The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators” not only used Osmond’s contribution to the language prominently, but it also came with an album cover goes a long way toward summing up what psychedelic music was, is and will be.
John Cleveland, an Austin artist, ably executed the theme of bright colors surrounding an eye with a pyramid and smaller eye within the pupil. As band collaborator Powell St. John recalled in an interview decades later, “It was one of those arcane symbols of which Tommy was so fond and so vague in explaining. Maybe it had something to do with Scientology. Tommy was very big on Scientology. ”
The album was recorded for International Artists, a small Houston record company with a staff producer named Lelan Rogers, whose brother, Kenny, would score a hit with a band called the First Edition and a song called “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” (I heard he’s recorded some other stuff, too. And been in some movies. And lent his name to a chain of chicken restaurants.)
Lelan produced nine new songs to go with the pair of tunes originally recorded for Contact. The result is sonically primitive – adding to the technological limitations is the apparent loss of the original master tapes – but fascinating, a document of the raw tools that paved the way for a style of music that’s still revered in many quarters today.
“You’re Gonna Miss Me,” naturally, is the opening track, kicking off with a riff reminiscent of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” but quickly veering off the beaten path with the introduction of Hall’s jug noises. Roky breaks in with an otherwordly “Oh, yeah!” before warning his girlfriend of an imminent departure. The key switches from E major to E minor for a the bridge before returning to the main theme, punctuated by blasts from Erickson’s harmonica. The net result is two-and-a-half minutes of pure adrenaline.
The pace slows with “Roller Coaster,” which begins with a Walton drum roll leading in to a menacing guitar figure, with Sunderland using reverb and echo to great effect for the time. Roky starts intoning the Hall-penned lyrics: “Once, somewhere, some time ago, his eyes were clear to see/He put his thoughts into my mind, and gave myself to be.” He and Sutherland trade guitar licks with Hall’s jug bubbling up prominently, until Roky redoubles his vocal effort: “Well, it starts like a roller coaster ride, so real it takes your breath away/It slides you through your point of view, you look back to where you thought you’d stayed.” Perhaps listeners in 1966 weren’t exactly hip to what Hall was writing about, but seeing the words in print makes the subject matter quite a bit clearer!
Tommy’s wife at the time, Clementine, co-wrote the next track, “Splash 1,” with Roky. Compared with the freakout that was “Roller Coaster,” “Splash 1” comes across as a relatively straightforward, sparely arranged love song … until you’re confronted with lyrics like “The neon from your eyes is splashing into mine/It’s so familiar, in a way I can’t define.” Perhaps it’s a coincidence that a preferred method of taking LSD at the time was to use an eye dropper, straight into the ol’ cornea?
“Reverberation (Doubt)” opens with a burst of feedback, flowing into a riff that sounds like a speeded-up “Roller Coaster.” The lyrics, again by Tommy Hall, reflect pure paranoia: “Well, you finally find your helpless mind is trapped inside your skin/You want to leave, but you believe you won’t get back again. … It holds your thought, your mind is caught, you’re fixed with fascination/You think you’ll die, it’s just a lie, it’s backward elevation!” This ode to a bad trip, was the follow-up single to “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and actually made it to No. 129 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under, shortly after the album’s release.
“Don’t Fall Down” features a call-and-response vocal arrangement, with Tommy’s lyrics sticking to a more conventional (for him) love-song script: “Every time you need her, she is there, to ease the pain that fogs you/And when you don’t need her, from her stare, she says she’s needing you.”
The frenzy factor is upped again with “Fire Engine,” with suitable sound effects roaring through the song’s start, punctuating Sutherland’s reverb-drenched chords. His playing is particularly prominent during this composition, showing him to be an inventive guitar player whose style seems to have made many fans among West Coast players who developed similar chops.
“Thru the Rhythm” is built on one of those great ’60s-era riffs that seem as if they’d be right at home as the theme music for a period spy movie. Unfortunately, Hall’s lyrics serve as an unnerving foreshadowing of what would come to pass in Roky’s life: “You gobble all the blessings they taught you to digest/They may be hard to swallow, but they keep your tongue depressed/Your scattered whims were born depressed, so when something slams into your chest/You flutter about your sleep distressed, and then you stop to ease your breast/A scattered rim leaves you obsessed, but solid thoughts are soon suppressed/Where are you?”
Keep those words in mind for later reference.
St. John’s “You Don’t Know” is the song on the album that uses Hall’s jug to best effect, as his noises punctuate a relatively spare arrangement. Although the key line is “You don’t know how young you are,” other lyrics register high on the lysergic scale: “Your eyes are filled with liquid snakes and liquid plastic castles.” Another eye-dropper reference, perhaps.
While “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Roller Coaster” are the best-known tracks on “Psychedelic Sounds,” the tune that most lives up to the album title is “Kingdom of Heaven.” Sutherland’s minor-key, languidly paced guitar riffs lay the foundation for an entire rock genre, as do St. John’s set-the-scene lyrics:
Here you are at my place within your glistening eyes
I´m watching your reactions as the thing within you cries
And I´m bringing you this message ´cause I think it´s time you knew
That the kingdom of heaven is within you
The incense and the candles and the colors on the wall
Your image stands reflected as a princess come to call
Your suspicions I´m confirming as you find them all quite true
And the kingdom of heaven is within you
Through the stained glass windows moonlight flashes on the choir
And splashes on the altar in glows of liquid fire
Then it bathes you with its glory and you begin life anew
And the kingdom of heaven is within you
Another St. John song, “Monkey Island,” either alludes to the “monkey on the back” of addiction or the recurring theme of nonconformism that runs through his and Hall’s material: “Well, here I am on Monkey Island, hiding behind a rock/I’m all dressed up with my monkey suit, pretending to be something I’m not.” Maybe a combination of the two.
The Elevators’ debut wraps up with “Tried to Hide,” which co-composer Sutherland actually builds atop major chords. Hall blows on the jug frenetically as his lyrics – yes, they’re about alienation again – are sung by Erickson: “You think you´re strong when you´re all restraining/You think you have when you´re only claiming/When I got near all I saw was fear/And I know that you tried to hide and you cried ´cause you lied about it.”
So … for anyone who had equated “Incense and Peppermints” or “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” with psychedelic rock, the guys who invented it obviously had a lot more depth, and a much darker side. Adjust your (doors of) perceptions accordingly.
I’d like to report that the 13th Floor Elevators went on to triumphs and successes in accord with their groundbreaking performance on their first LP. Actually, the sophomore effort, “Easter Everywhere,” is regarded in some circles as the band’s crowning achievement, and it actually charted nationally, peaking at No. 122.
Sessions for a third record, eventually released as “Bull in the Woods,” had just gotten started when the forces that be caught up with the 13th Floor Elevators.
If Austin, Texas, doesn’t seem as if it would be the most enlightened of cities well into the 21st century, think about what it must have been like in the mid-’60s. Here was a group of long-haired musicians playing strange music, obviously (except for non-user Walton) hopped up on something, and just as obviously serving as a menace to the young people of the Lone Star state. As those on the scene have stated in interviews over the decades, John Law was out to get the boys in the band, especially that singer.
Arrested for possession of a single marijuana cigarette, Roky pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to avoid a potential 10-year prison sentence. The claim had plenty of merit, as he’d already been diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent some time in a mental hospital. This time around, though, he wound up in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he was surrounded by inmates who did a whole lot more than smoke pot. As the movie “You’re Gonna Miss Me” chillingly explains, Roky played guitar in a Rusk pickup band that also included a couple of murderers, one of whom molested a boy and stuffed his body into a refrigerator.
Erickson, to no one’s surprise, emerged from his experience a changed man. He returned to performing, but took the paranoid attitude of the Elevators’ lyrics to new levels. With a band called Bleib Alien – the first word is an anagram for the Bible – he started singing about monsters and horror films, eventually recording a whole (tremendous!) album on the subject.
Eventually he dropped out of music and lived in an apartment near his mother’s house, clipping coupons and answering sweepstakes mailings, as documented in “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” With the intervention of his brother, a classically trained tuba player who lives in Pittsburgh, Roky finally overcame his issues enough to restart his career.
Walton’s reminiscences served McAlester well in his documentary, providing a good bit of insight to the rise and fall of the 13th Floor Elevators. Clementine Hall also provided some commentary, but Tommy was nowhere to be found.
Stacy Sutherland may have been one hell of a guitar player, but he fought his own demons, serving time in prison on drug charges after the demise of the Elevators. On Aug. 24, 1978, he was fatally shot by his wife, Bunny.
The website www.lysergia.com contains excerpts from an interview an unnamed person conducted with Sutherland a year before his death. In it, the late guitarist talks derisively of the San Francisco scene, the supposed epicenter of psychedelia in the late ’60s:
Their culture had definitely been into drugs more so, I think at the time, and it was more advanced in senses … but it didn’t have a freshness like Texas had to it, it was more washed out. One of the things I found when I first got out there was a walk I took down to Haight Street which was supposed to be where all the “beautiful people” were at the time, but I didn’t see anything but derelicts and dope fiends running around in the streets freaked out … shot up and whatever, begging money off people, it wasn’t anything that I was looking forward to seeing, it didn’t have the freshness Texas did at the time.
The Texas scene burned out quickly, though, leaving shattered lives in its wake. Fortunately, Roky Erickson has lived to tell about it. And even better, he’s still making music, including material from the album that started it all.