Like Icarus, the 13th Floor Elevators, a band that should have a special alcove in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, flew too close to the sun.
Sitting in the shiny Airstream trailer looking at Tommy Hall and seeing him for the first time since 1968, in what, like 46 years? We are at the 2015 Reverberation “Psych Fest” in Austin, with its nearly 70 bands, 20,000 people, and one or two old hippies for use to compare and contrast. And who would do that better than Tommy, a walking talking true cultural artifact if there ever was one.
I am awash in remembrance of what it was like all those years ago when the 13th Floor Elevators were encouraging their fans to “let it happen to you.” As a student at UT in the 60s I admit gladly that I was one of those who decided to indeed let it happen, in fact, to work actively to make it happen to me and anyone else who would listen. “Proselytizing ‘R Us,” some cynics might have said. But hey, if it worked for the Beatles, Jimi, and everyone in Golden Gate Park, why not for us? Pass the sacrament Jack. Just put the little Janis blotter stamp on your tongue and let nature take its course.
Many know the story of Roky and the Elevators, but for the quick recap, the band was Austin’s contribution to the turmoil and art of the 60’s by being one of the first “psychedelic” bands in the country with their driving bass and drum lines, reverb guitar, and an angelic screaming kid singing anthems about the inner places in your brain that could be accessed only by chemical gonzo. Who wouldn’t love that?
Texas teens, post-teens, and hipsters flocked to their shows in the late ’60s.
Texas teens, post-teens, and hipsters flocked to their shows in the late ’60’s. At the same time Texas Rangers, cops, and sheriffs hated them and stalked them at every turn, to the point that some of them were arrested right off stage during a show. One could never say the Elevators were “discreet” as to what they were all about. Lore has it that Roky was a constant user of LSD and other psychedelics; four, five, six hundred trips?
It was said that it was at Tommy Hall’s urging that the band needed to be tripping to play to a turned-on audience. And indeed, all too briefly, the band and their audiences did achieve what they called “Levitation.” It wasn’t carefully crafted Beatles music, it wasn’t updated dirty blues like the Stones, it was pound your brain, bass-thumping energy and attitude combined with high-minded lyrics in the most literal sense of “high-minded.”
But like Icarus, the band flew too close to the sun, and the crash ended with a dead guitarist, a lead singer in the Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane in Rusk, Texas, receiving hundreds of shock treatments, not to mention some less than excellent recordings and worse recording contracts, plus every other curse that could befall a band that today should have a special alcove in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Snakebit, is what they was.
The genesis and journey of Elevators founder Tommy Hall was not unlike that of a lot of other seekers at the time. “Baby beatniks” or “yearning hicks” is what Tom Wolfe called the syndrome. At least that’s what Wolfe called Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in the days of the Acid Tests, and “we” were not all that different, except we lived in Austin, Texas, which, at the time, seemed to some of us sort of a jerkwater backwoods place suitable only for leaving. We were all trapped in Ozzie and Harriet land, Patty Pageville, Squaresville, USA, and mainly we wanted out. Geographically, mentally, and philosophically we sensed there was big change in the air, and we were anxious to help be its agents.
Tommy was one of the prophets of the
Tommy was one of the prophets of the chemical revolution (“Better Living Through Chemistry“), and he found that rock music was a fine way to get his cosmology and philosophy out to the lumpen. Unfortunately, there were a lot of other people who were resistant to the blandishments of the Age of Aquarius or what the hell it was supposed to turn out to be. You know, straight people, so they were anxious to provide jail, prison, expulsion, or just a random beating by the rednecks for daring to step into the coming paradigm. It was something that sadly Tommy and Roky came to know intimately.
It seemed to me that Tommy was an exemplar of the “let’s transcend all this bullshit and get behind the veil of Māyā” school. He had been a part of the Ghetto/Ranger crowd at UT who liked to go to the folk-sing, hang out at the UT Chuck Wagon, and, if I remember correctly, he had a penchant for the mystical writings of Gurdjieff, Herman Hesse, and the Indian Vedas.
Tommy too, like many of us, was keeping up with the happenings of our spiritual brethren on the East and West Coasts. He wanted to write, and he wanted to write about serious topics like consciousness and cosmic human experience. Some of the rest of us experimenters were less serious, cynical, perhaps hard-bitten, anti-religious, atheists and jokesters. If it wasn’t funny, then it didn’t count. But with Tommy, it was all serious business. Think Alan Watts meets Joel Osteen. This was all a long time ago on W. 35th Street in Austin, Texas, before the commodification of hip, before tattoos became a sign of middle class anxiety.
So now, all these years later, Tommy is there, sitting across from me in that little aluminum trailer. He has a big stack of Franklin’s BBQ on the table between us. Brisket and beef ribs. I can see from the pile of bones that the flavorful succulent nature of the Franklin’s “Q” is not lost on him. It’s probably been a very long time since he has been treated so much like royalty, but that’s what is on his menu tonight, a good hotel, rides in limos, decent chow, all that stuff that a rock star should experience. King for a day. So, what should I say to him after so many years? Not that we were ever close. “Hey man, you holdin’?” seems inappropriate.
I choose, ‘How do you like that Franklin’s BBQ?’ as my icebreaker.
I choose, “How do you like that Franklin’s BBQ?” as my icebreaker. Tommy immediately acknowledges that it is exceptional. Surprise! He is no vegan, maybe even not a good Buddhist, but he goes on, “I understand that Franklin was trained by John Mueller.” Wow! In spite of all those years in California, Tommy hasn’t forgotten his roots.
My own knowledge of “Q” is not so great, but I do know that John Mueller was the son of Louis Mueller of Taylor, Texas, and a recognized heir to one of the lionized names of Texas BBQ. Tommy seems to know all this too, and more. I wonder how someone who lives holed up in a cave in the Tenderloin of San Francisco could be up to date on Texas BBQ.
Others wonder if he can still play the electric jug or if he is up for explaining his cosmic theories, but I am more curious about his preternatural awareness of BBQ. Does the Texas zeitgeist radiate out to Tex-ex-pats in the world and keep them apprised of the minutae of Texana culture? Has Tommy been pondering the theories of Steven Hawking and barbeque in the same brain? If I had been on my toes I would have asked him about his opinion on the Church of the SubGenius. (Look it up, it started in Dallas.) It would be a funny answer, I’m quite sure of it.
As we chat, a brand new Cadillac Escalade pulls up in front, and out pops Roky Erickson, the voice, the front man for the Elevators and others for all these years, accompanied by his son Jegar and his wife, Dana. He is in a smiling good mood though not saying much. In some ways the whole event of Reverberation and the Psych Fest is an homage to him and his saga, so why not be happy? Thousands of adoring fans are waiting at the Reverberation stage to be anointed by his presence. All hail bleib alien! (Watch You’re Gonna Miss Me, the remarkable 2006 documentary about Roky’s life, embedded below.)
Harsher critics might ask, ‘How’d Roky get so old, gray, and um, girthful?’
Harsher critics might ask, “How’d he get so old, gray, and um, girthful?” But if they knew his full story, they would be astounded that he is today still up on the boards, singing and playing at age 68 or so, and not sounding half bad. All those shock treatments, all those trips, all that bad food, yet here he is like the Unsinkable Molly Brown floating above all the fray, unflappable, stoic, calm.
It’s actually another triumph for Roky and the rest of the surviving 13th Floor Elevators. There has been attrition of course. Stacy Sutherland, the band’s original guitarist was shot by his wife sometime in the seventies, Benny Thurman, the bassist, died only a few years ago, but taking the stage tonight will be Tommy Hall as lyricist and jug player, drummer John Ike Walton, bassist Ronnie Leatherman, and the almost wraith-like return of their indestructible vocalist, Roger Kynard Erickson.
Filling out the roster is guitarist Fred Mitchim (who also heads up a band called The Tommy Hall Schedule) and a new lead guitarist Eli Southard who also plays with Roky’s son’s group. It’s an important reunion… so important that Sean Lennon and some of the Flaming Lips drop by to pay their respects to the Buddha after Sean’s own rather spirited performance at around sunset.
Still there in the trailer, I don’t want to set Tommy off to talking about the cosmos, so I ask about San Francisco. It turns out that psychedelic guru Tommy is worried about the San Francisco Giants and how “The Freak” Tim Lincecum is going to do this year. It figures in a way that Tommy, who is known for espousing the odd mix of right-wing politics combined with an advocacy of LSD for the masses, would be a major league baseball fan.
I mull over the strange interface, wondering how one could be busy talking about the universal oversoul, drug consciousness, Eastern mysticism, and still merge those topics to the soundtrack of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh lambasts. As someone once wisely said, “There are many mysteries.” Not to mention that I too am worried about the Giants’ health, Buster Posey, and whether Matt Cain’s flexor tendon would heal in time for the All-Star Game. Never mind tales of peyote mush cooking on the stove back in the dim mists of the 60’s. We’ve got Dodgers to pound into the mud hole.
Suddenly our tête-à-tête is over as Tommy is whisked away by a camera crew for an interview. I am told by Elevators biographer Paul Drummond that this is Tommy’s first on-camera interview ever, though he has spoken to the print press now and then about his early days of prophesy in the hinterlands, but never before in full-color high-def TV. I can only remember Dick Clark asking him on American Bandstand in 1966 who the head of the group was, and Tommy replied, “We’re all heads.” One of TV’s shorter interviews. Perhaps we will see Tommy being grilled by a generous interlocutor someday on YouTube or Vimeo. I can’t wait, really.
The crowd is ‘mellow,’ kind of like they’re all on Prozac, but warm and accepting.
So, to the stage. I count the crowd out front of the Elevators at seven to eight thousand. A fairly impressive turnout with a mix of millennials, a few old greybeards, and a huge herd of 25-35’s in various forms of festive garb and adornment. The crowd is “mellow,” kind of like they’re all on Prozac, but warm and accepting. It reminds me of once when I went to see the Popemobile go by. People waiting to be blessed. It definitely is not Woodstock, nor is it Altamont. I don’t even sense that there are a lot of people in the audience who have been ‘psychedlecized’ tonight. Hardly anyone seems to be smoking dope or whacked on X. Definitely no “bath salts” behavior.
Nor do I see one person in the first aid tent on a bad trip! No babies being born or people being stabbed to death onstage. Yawn. Not even a sign of police presence uniformed or undercover. What kind of rock festival is this? At least at a Willie concert you would see dozens of Highway Patrolmen and local sheriffs hoping to get near the stage. Busting hippies must be out of vogue with Travis County law enforcement personnel. Another mystery for me, the old ragged claw scuttling between the Airstreams.
The Elevators walk onstage amidst a
cloud of mist.
The Elevators walk onstage amidst a cloud of mist and into a fabulous light show that would make a flea circus look impressive. Hats off to the tech of the presentation. The sound is great, the lights are world class, and Roky bangs into “She Lives in a Time of Her Own,” a thoroughly appropriate kick-off tune from the Levitation stage. His voice is rough, his singing antics reduced to an occasional microphone grab or hand wave, but there is still magic in the tunes, and the band backing him is tight. Ronnie Leatherman, Benny Thurman’s replacement, and John Ike Walton, the original drummer, are not playing bad for old guys. Eli Southard has Stacy’s guitar parts down cold. They miscount a few bars every now and then, but a little slop in rock and roll is always allowed if the spirit is there.
They’ve granted me access to the stage and the pit in front, so I’m able to get a few good photos of the band, and even a little video. It’s not pro, and probably not as good as the shots I got in black and white at the 1966 Houston shows, but what is as good as it was “back then?” I’m happy enough to share some “then and now” with you here at The Rag Blog.
I don’t know how much longer Roky and the Elevators will be able to do shows, but as for me, I was very happy to be able to attend this reunion of old mates. Maybe they’ll do it again next year? Take your Geritol boys, and first thing you know, you’ll be on a Stones tour. It’s never too late to keep on rockin’ in the free world.
© all media by Bob Simmons
Bob Simmons reviews The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators in Vol. 1, No. 10 of The Rag, published on December 12, 1966.
- Roky sings “Roller Coaster“:
- Keven McAlester’s documentary film, You’re Gonna Miss Me, about Roky Erickson:
- Find more articles and videos by Bob Simmons on The Rag Blog.
[Rag Blog contributor Bob Simmons has had a storied career in radio, where he was a pioneer in the underground format in the ’60s and ’70s, and has been a producer and personality at legendary stations in places like San Francisco, Austin, and Portland. Simmons also has been an oil biz entrepreneur, voice talent, construction worker, videographer, newspaper publisher, writer, and sports editor.]