eNotes.com - 13th Floor Elevators - Psychedelic Rock Group
13th Floor Elevators - Psychedelic Rock Group
Often considered the first psychedelic rock group as well as the first underground band to achieve commercial success, the 13th Floor Elevators were a Texas-based outfit that combined folk/rock, R&B, and hard-driving rock 'n' roll with mystical lyrics that espoused the virtues of drugs. Although many of their songs are based around the concept that ingesting LSD and other substances can take the user to a higher plane of consciousness, the Elevators' biggest?and only?hit was "You're Gonna Miss Me," a song that has nothing to do with drugs. A forceful, pulsating rocker about the end of a relationship, it features the intense tenor vocals and blood-curdling screams of Roky Erickson and the percussive electric jug-playing of Tommy Hall. The tune reached number 56 on the national Billboard charts in 1966.
Although the Elevators have influenced punk and alternative rock bands for almost 40 years, as a group they lasted just over three. During this time, they released three studio albums?Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, Easter Everywhere, and Bull of the Woods?as well as a "live" album that actually was a collection of studio outtakes with tacked-on audience participation. The band's first two albums are considered classics of the garage and psychedelic rock genres; the third is considered a worthy addition to their canon. Their lead vocalist, Roky Erickson, an eccentric musical genius in the vein of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, is also a diagnosed schizophrenic known for legendary drug-taking exploits. He is regarded as an outstanding singer and gifted songwriter whose post-Elevators solo work includes moments of brilliance as well as disturbing, horror- and occult-tinged subject matter and imagery.
The 13th Floor Elevators were formed by Tommy Hall in late 1965. A student of philosophy, psychology, and chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, Hall had begun to experiment with drugs such as peyote and mescaline that were local to Texas and that were legal at the time. After moving to illegal substances such as LSD, he began to believe that drugs could enhance his personal and spiritual growth. He began to write song lyrics, and decided to make a popular local skiffle band, the Lingsmen, the mouthpiece for his theories. The Lingsmen were made up of guitarist Stacy Sutherland, bassist/electric violinist Benny Thurman, drummer John Ike Walton, and vocalist Max Rainey. When Rainey left the group, Hall invited Erickson, a 17-year-old wunderkind in the R&B band the Spades, to join as lead singer and rhythm guitarist.
Shortly before the formation of the Elevators, the Spades had released Erickson's song "You're Gonna Miss Me" on Zero Records, a local label. The Lingsmen decided to change their approach to reflect the tougher sounds of bands like the Rolling Stones and the Kinks as well as the mind-expanding experiences that they were having with acid, pot, and other drugs. Thurman dropped the electric violin to concentrate on bass, and Hall began to blow into a jug to which he had duct-taped a microphone, thus creating the electric jug, a new sound in pop music. The Lingsmen changed their name to the 13th Floor Elevators, named for the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, "M," which stood for marijuana, and for the missing floor in American high-rise buildings.
The Elevators developed a reputation for ferocious live shows, and they became hugely popular in Texas. Their rerecorded version of Erickson's punk anthem?released nationally by International Artists Records, a Houston-based label run by Lelan Rogers, the brother of pop singer Kenny Rogers?brought them popularity around the country. However, the Elevators were less than popular with the Texas Rangers and other local authorities, who were unhappy with the group's personal drug use and public support of getting high. In 1966 the band was arrested for possession of marijuana but was released on a technicality. Shortly thereafter they relocated to San Francisco without Thurman, who decided to stay in Texas; he was replaced by Ronnie Leatherman.
In San Francisco, the Elevators became influential figures on the nascent psychedelic scene; they helped create the "San Francisco sound," psychedelic music that would receive critical acclaim and commercial success. Allegedly the first group to go onstage under the influence of LSD, they played at the Fillmore West and the Avalon Ballroom with bands such as the Byrds, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. The lead singer of Big Brother, Janis Joplin, was asked to join Erickson as the Elevators' second vocalist. She declined, but always noted Erickson as a major influence.
In mid-1966, International Artists released Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, considered a groundbreaking debut. Writing on the Vinyl Junkie website, collector Karl Ikola stated, "[T]he depths of soul evident in the debut are still so richly filled with an hypnotic 'n' spine-tingling-blast-off life-odyssey paradox that I'd like to be buried with an original white-label promo copy right across my chest." However, due to the fact that International Artists decided not to publicize the band in order to retain their "mystique," the album failed to reach a mainstream audience.
Shortly after the release of Psychedelic Sounds, the band's rhythm section left; they were replaced by Elevator fans Dan Galindo on bass and Danny Thomas on drums. The group returned to Texas in late 1966 but went back to San Francisco several times over the next two years. In 1967 the Elevators released their second album, Easter Everywhere. Thought to be more focused and even more lysergically enhanced than their first release, Easter Everywhere usually is considered the group's best record. Cub Koda of All Music Guide to Rock suggested, "Anyone wanting a real psychedelic album from the '60s should head right to the counter and grab this one."
By this time, though, the band was starting to unravel. The crowning blow came on the occasion that Erickson decided to go home while high on acid. His mother, a former opera singer who had released a local 45-inch single, had him committed to the Austin State Hospital, where he underwent shock treatment. After this incident, Erickson's behavior became erratic and unpredictable; the rest of the band also showed signs that their drug use was catching up with them. Offered a chance to tour England with guitarist Jimi Hendrix, they refused so that they could stay at home, stoned. Hall and Erickson, wrecked on acid, were found waiting in line to buy tickets for one of their own shows in Austin.
Late in 1968, Erickson was busted for a single joint. In order to avoid being placed in the Texas state prison, he claimed to be a Martian. The authorities placed him in Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Rusk, Texas, where he was subjected to treatment with Thorazine and other psychotropic drugs for three years. In the meantime, International Artists released the pseudo-live album and Bull of the Woods, a record that features songs by lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland and unreleased compositions from the band's first two albums; though praised for Sutherland's straight-ahead songwriting and musical prowess, the work generally is considered the least effective of the group's studio efforts. Like Erickson, Sutherland and lyricist/jug player Hall were busted for drugs, but each did jail time.
You're Gonna Miss Them
In 1969 the Elevators decided to disband. Hall, who wanted to write a treatise about his philosophies, moved to San Francisco with his wife Clementine, a lyricist and occasional vocalist for the group; the couple are now divorced. Most of the rest of the band remained in Texas, playing music semiprofessionally or not at all. After his release from Rusk in 1972, Erickson attempted to reform the Elevators with Sutherland, original drummer Walton, and second bassist Leatherman, but the band fell apart after a short time. A fan of horror and science fiction comics, films, and television programs as well as of arcane literature, Erickson began writing songs about demons, vampires, aliens, two-headed dogs, and other supernatural creatures. Doug Sahm of the Texas rock band the Sir Douglas Quintet took him into the studio as a solo artist, and Stu Cook, bassist of roots-rock group Creedence Clearwater Revival, also produced several tracks.
In 1972 rock historian/guitarist Lenny Kaye featured the Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me" on his garage/psych compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965?1968, a release that helped the Elevators become legends in the burgeoning punk movement. The New York band Television performed the Elevators' song "Fire Engine" in concert, and the group was cited by poet/songwriter Patti Smith and art rockers Pere Ubu. Copies of the band's albums began to fetch high prices among collectors. In 1978 Stacy Sutherland, a former heroin addict, was shot and killed by his estranged wife in a domestic dispute; his tombstone reads "The Lead Guitarist of the 13th Floor Elevators."
By the early 1990s, Erickson?who, like the other Elevators, never had received royalties for his work with the band?was living at a subsistence level. He started to work with a variety of backing bands, such as Bleib Alien, the Explosives, and the Resurrectionists, and to record solo albums on a semiregular basis; he also produced two books of poetry, the second of which was published by writer/punk musician Henry Rollins. In 1984 an Elevators' reunion concert featuring Erickson, Leatherman, and Walton was held in Houston. Five years later Erickson was arrested for mail fraud; apparently, he collected mail for an apartment complex and neglected to give it to the addressees. The judge presiding over the case failed to believe that he had a mental condition and sent him to Missouri for "testing." A year later the album Where the Pyramid Meets the Sky: A Tribute to Roky Erickson was issued by Sire Records; it contained songs by such groups as R.E.M., ZZ Top, the Butthole Surfers, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, all of whom cited Erickson and the Elevators as influences. An expanded version of Nuggets was released in 1998 by Rhino Records, a move that brought the Elevators to a new audience. In 1999 a case against International Artists was decided in Erickson's favor; he received master tapes and publishing rights to the songs he wrote for the Elevators. The following year "You're Gonna Miss Me" was featured in the film High Fidelity and appeared on its soundtrack.
The Circle Remains Unbroken
Reviewers regard the Elevators as architects of acid rock as well as a group whose exploits led to their demise. Writing in All Music Guide to Rock, Mark Deming noted that they "were trailblazers in the psychedelic rock scene, and in time they'd pay a heavy price for exploring the outer edges of musical and psychedelic possibility ..." Rock musician Steven Van Zant on the website Little Steven's Underground Garage called the Elevators "true rock visionaries. They were exceptional in a variety of respects, first appearing out of the wilds of Texas, featuring wildly unusual instrumentation, and a true genius/madman in the form of guitarist/vocalist Roky Erickson." Writing on Erickson's Website, Lenny Kaye noted "[I]f I had anything to do with keeping the flame alive, then that is the payback that happens when one artist touches another and they give each other a ride on the 'Fire Engine' of life. I'm glad this work is remembered because it was unique and visionary, even in a U-and-V time." In an essay on the Texas Ghetto website, Gerry Storm commented, "[T]he Elevators showed that it could be done, that small-time Texas kids could become leaders of the pop culture." Interviewed by Mike McDowell for Blitz Magazine, Erickson concluded, "I always refer to the Elevators' albums for inspiration. I pick little things out of the arrangements for my new songs... I'm not really trying for an Elevators sound, as I'm more into horror now. But the way I write songs hasn't changed since then."