The Great Albums

The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators

April 21, 2002


Dick Clark seemed befuddled by the grungy band standing before him. The year was 1966, and the freaky quintet from Austin, Texas, had just appeared on "American Bandstand" performing their Top 40 hit, "You're Gonna Miss Me," a stinging slice of lysergically fueled garage rock.

Clark tried one of his surefire conversational gambits. "Who's the head of this band?" he asked. The long-haired guitarist with the piercing eyes and the unnaturally high voice smiled broadly. Said Roky Erickson: "We're all heads, Dick!"

More than any other group, including the vaunted San Francisco bands that followed during the fabled Summer of Love, the 13th Floor Elevators proudly espoused the virtues of breaking on through to the other side via psychedelic drug use. "Recently it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state," read the liner notes of their debut album. With their music, they intended to provide the soundtrack for this journey.

Born Roger Kynard Erickson (his first two names were truncated into "Roky," pronounced "rocky"), the youngest member of the group was kicked out of Austin's Travis High School in his junior year for growing his hair like the Rolling Stones. He'd already written "You're Gonna Miss Me," a minor hit for garage rockers the Spades, when he was approached in 1965 to join a sort of Texas supergroup.

Guitarist Stacy Sutherland, bassist Benny Thurman, and drummer John Ike Walton had progressed from playing bluegrass to raunchy garage rock with Port Arthur's Lingsmen; their friend and neighbor, Janis Joplin, briefly sang backing vocals for the Elevators before setting out on her own. The musicians were introduced to Erickson by University of Texas undergrad Tommy Hall, who played the "electric jug" in another band called the Conqueroo.

The new band's very name declared a desire to be different: The 13th floor doesn't exist in many high-rises. The group was also fond of pointing out that "m" is the 13th letter of the alphabet, as well as the first letter in "marijuana."

Several years older than his bandmates, Hall was a self-styled Beat poet who quoted the writings of Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley. "When rock 'n' roll was happening and the music was coming on, it would [tick] you off that people would write really dumb lyrics," he said. "You had Leary and the psychedelic concept, the beginning of that, and people didn't follow it. They'd just come out with the same old type of songs, so you'd think, 'Hey, you guys, talk about this. This is what we want to hear about!' "

While Hall gave the band a philosophical backdrop, Erickson provided its musical focus. Blessed with a talented family--his mother was an amateur opera singer, and his younger brother Sumner is a world-class symphonic tuba player--Roky emulated the soulful screaming of Little Richard and James Brown. But during the Elevators' more tender moments, such as the beautiful ballad "Splash 1 (Now I'm Home)," the plaintive emotion of his voice brought to mind another great Texas singer, Buddy Holly.

The Elevators built a reputation on powerful live shows and an independent single featuring a new version of "You're Gonna Miss Me." This diatribe against an errant lover contrasted sharply with the prevailing sentiments of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and Erickson's vocal veers between grief-filled pleading and psychotic threatening. "You're gonna wake up one morning as the sun greets the dawn/You're gonna look around and you'll find that I'm gone/You didn't realize/You're gonna miss me, baby!" he sings.

This explosion is delivered over a propulsive back beat and Sutherland's churning, Duane Eddy-gone-bad guitar, which tears through a classic E-D-A-G chord progression. And through it all runs the high-pitched burbling of Hall's electric jug.

The jug had been a staple of the folk and bluegrass combos of the early '60s, but Hall amplified his by holding a microphone close to the opening. He claimed to draw musical inspiration from the free jazz of John Coltrane, but more than anything else, his random noises foreshadow the chaotic synthesizers of later art-rock bands such as Roxy Music and Pere Ubu.

The Elevators were signed to Houston's International Artists label by Lelan Rogers, the brother of rocker-turned-country crooner Kenny Rogers. The group came to despise Lelan for his dubious accounting practices, and his involvement as producer of their first album seems to have been marginal. "I didn't produce them, I baby-sat them," he said.

Despite the fact it was recorded quickly on three tracks in what sounds like a cave, "The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators" is an impressive accomplishment. As Erickson said, "The music makes you see things if you want to," and the sounds and song structures viscerally evoke the lyrical topics at hand.

The wild "Roller Coaster" careens like an out-of-control amusement-park ride. The chorus of "Reverberation (Doubt)" echoes as if bouncing off the walls of a dark cavern; "Splash 1" creates waves of sound like the ripples on a still pond, and "Fire Engine" is propelled by the guitar and jug combining to evoke urgent, wailing sirens.

"Let me take you to the empty place on my fire engine," Erickson sings, but he later offered another reading of the line referencing a potent psychedelic smoked by South American natives. "Let me take you to DMT place,'" he said. "It was like a fire engine without the calamity of a fire."

With lyrics by Hall, "Roller Coaster" is even more explicit in its heralding of the psychedelic experience: "After you trip life opens up/You start doing what you want to do/No one can ever hurt you/But you know more than you thought you knew."

Not surprisingly, the band attracted the attention of law enforcement, and Hall's philosophizing aside, that hurt the group plenty. "It was sort of like being in Jesse James' gang," said bassist Danny Galindo, who joined the group in 1967. "We had the cops after us wherever we went."

Shortly after recording a second brilliant offering, "Easter Everywhere," Erickson was arrested for marijuana possession. In court, his lawyers called a psychiatrist who said the singer had taken 300 LSD trips that had "messed up" his mind, but the strategy backfired: He was acquitted by reason of insanity but confined to a state mental hospital, drugged with thorazine, and subjected to shock therapy.

Friends and family say Roky was never the same when he emerged. Though he produced several strong solo recordings through the mid-'80s, he became increasingly incoherent and unstable, and eventually dropped out of the music scene. Together with Syd Barrett, he is one of rock's most famous recluses, and the words "acid casualty" often follow his name. (According to a recent article in Texas Monthly, his brother Sumner is now trying to nurse him back to some semblance of mental and physical health.)

Though "The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators" never connected with a mass audience, it certainly inspired the band's peers. The Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were reportedly wowed by the Elevators when they traveled north to perform at the famous Fillmore Ballroom; the Rolling Stones rewrote "Monkey Island" as "Monkey Man," and Pink Floyd lifted the main theme for "More" from "Roller Coaster."

Later, during the punk explosion, Lenny Kaye included "You're Gonna Miss" as the central track on his garage-rock compilation "Nuggets," and Television covered "Fire Engine."

And at the dawn of alternative rock, Warner Bros. released a two-disc tribute to Erickson entitled "Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye." With contributions from the likes of R.E.M., the Butthole Surfers, Poi Dog Pondering, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, its stellar roster is ample tribute to the enduring power of an unforgettable voice and one of the greatest albums of the psychedelic era.

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The 13th Floor Elevators, 'The Psychedelic Sounds of the the13th Floor Elevators' (INTERNATIONAL ARTISTS, 1966)