Dirt Road to Psychedelia: Austin, TX During the 1960?s - Archie Paterson
I can remember far back to 1967 when the 13th Floor Elevators trekked their way up Hwy 99 through Central California?s San Joaquin Valley heading for the hippie haven of San Francisco?s Haight Ashbury. One Saturday night they made a pit stop at the Rainbow Ballroom in Fresno, CA, then a small farming city and convenient way station between LA and SF.
Virtually all the biggies played the Rainbow, but the Elevators were distinct from the rest as they had this shaman playing an electrified corn whisky jug, a baby faced archangel of a singer incanting lysergic lyrics and a dark brooding guitarist who cut loose with wild riffs and raging solos all set against a roaring inferno of amped up rock and roll. Dressed like cowboys off the street they were the ultimate everyday garage band conjuring up a psychedelic maelstrom. Barnstorming in support of their hit record ?You?re Gonna Miss Me?, they blew the cobwebs out from many a teenage mind that night.
It was somewhat known then that there was a strong Austin to SF connection. Chet Helms a UT dropout had gone to SF and founded The Avalon, the City?s first concert ballroom. Janis followed him and went on to become a shooting star. The Elevators too took the journey up to the City by the Bay and a short time after came crashing down to earth. What was not known up to now is the full extent of what was happening in Austin during those early 1960?s.
A young Austin film maker Scott Conn spent 10 years researching, interviewing and compiling an amazing documentary film entitled: Dirt Road to Psychedelia: Austin, TX During the 1960?s. It not only documents the scene in Austin, but in the end illuminates that the 1960?s was indeed far more than just some party involving sex, drugs & rock and roll.
Yes, there were drugs on the scene, initially peyote which was plentiful and legal at that time. It could be bought by the bushel bag at Hudson?s Cactus Farm just outside of town. There was LSD and pot as well. But aside from Roky?s well documented sad story (now happily with a good ending), Austin?s excesses when compared to The Haight and other major Metro areas seems on the milder side.
Conn?s film contains some amazing cultural artifacts. Plentiful current day interviews with the original ?freaks? and mojo navigators in town. There are rare Live audio recordings and early stills of Janis Joplin (who played autoharp back then). She performed folk blues as part of a trio that frequented Threadgill?s, the first hangout of the towns proto-freaks and folkies. There?s unpublished shots of the early Elevators. Also plenty of additional black and white historical shots of the towns beatnik and hippie landmarks then and now. Combined with Super 8 footage of Shiva?s Headband and Conqueroo gigs it all offers a glimpse through the looking glass at the early Austin spaced out folk/ rock scene. He organizes it in chronological chapters and ties it together with actual live lightshow footage creating an incredibly vivid time capsule of Austin in the early 1960?s.
In 1967 the Vulcan Gas Company came into being. It was a loose collective of hippies who lived communally creating a live art space and concert venue that hosted some of the 60?s best music, black blues musicians (John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin? Hopkins) along with freaky rockers (The Fugs, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground, a/o).
As people went to The Haight and filtered back to Austin light shows and poster art took root along well full fledged ?happenings?. People who all their lives had felt estranged from the Texas cowboy culture created their own community of kindred spirits and a ?second culture? outside the mainstream took root and thrived for a couple years.
One of the truly interesting aspects of Conn?s film is his continuing interview with one of Austin?s top cops during that time which provides an establishment perspective on what they thought and how they felt about just what was going on in their down home town. Needless to say the police were not appreciative of the long haired freaks. The interview illustrates the reality, there was an ?us against them? generational war going on at that time. There like many other places, the mode of the music was changing and the walls of the city were being shaken.
Austin also was not some microcosmic paradise in the world. Like all the other cities and scenes that exploded, and imploded, it did too. Time moved on and people changed. If there?s a certainty to life, it?s that we all live in a state of perpetual evolution personally, and in every other way as well.
As a child of the 60?s, now in my 60?s, that?s crystal clear today. Perhaps the most important aspect of the film was that Conn captured very simply and powerfully the history of the time when a feeling of wide eyed innocence and connection to each other really existed. We were young, and life seemed like one long song full of amazing melodies with big messages. We truly believed in the freedom to live, love and be the best person we might imagine. That essence is perhaps most simply summed up by Roky?s former wife Dana Morris Erickson in the film when she says: ?The old joke about ?if you can describe the 60?s, you weren?t there?.? Well that?s not true. How can you describe loving a song, except just to love it??
Dirt Road to Psychedelia: Austin, TX During the 1960?s encapsulates all of that and more on celluloid through words, music and imagery. Not only is it superbly made from a technical point of view, but Conn who is a couple decades younger than his subject matter has created an insightful, poignant documentary that offers a clear eyed perspective on the history of the 1960?s.
Produced & Directed by Scott Conn