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The 13th Floor Elevators

+ {Thirteenth Floor Elevators}

If San Francisco, California embraced the virtues of psychedelia through the kaleidoscopic vision(s) of JEFFERSON AIRPLANE, GRATEFUL DEAD, MOBY GRAPE, QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE and the like, then Austin, Texas drew first blood – some would say – by way of pioneers, The 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS. While fans of the genre and culture would cite the frenzied garage thrash of `You’re Gonna Miss Me’; a minor hit late ’66 that stood out from the pack by dint of enigmatic frontman Roky Erickson’s apocalyptic vocal threats and Tommy Hall’s bizarre amplified jug playing, their spiritual haven was arguably far more drug-enhanced – certainly initially – than their West Coast cousins. In addition to Roky’s idiosyncratic musical accompaniment, Hall penned most of the lyrics, setting out his agenda according to the chemically-enhanced evolution-of-man ethos espoused by the likes of acid guru, TIMOTHY LEARY.
Roger “Roky” Erickson first emerged on the scene in 1965 when he superseded lead guitarist Jack Roundtree in garage combo, The Spades, who’d already released a single, ` I Need A Girl’, featuring non-13th alumni John Shropshire (vocals, guitar), Ernie Culley (guitar, bass, vocals) and John Kerney (drums). Bringing to the table an embryonic take of `You’re Gonna Miss Me’ (b/w `We Sell Soul’), The Spades were soon usurped when singer/harmonica-player Roky teamed up with self-styled psychedelic explorer Tommy Hall who, in turn, introduced ex-Lingsmen: Stacy Sutherland (lead guitar), Benny Thurman (bass, violin) and John Ike Walton (drums) to become The 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS; note that on record labels, the 13th was replaced by “Thirteenth”.
Re-issued in January ’66 with a different B-side (`Tried To Hide’), `You’re Gonna Miss Me’, spluttered out on producer Gordon Bynum’s fledgling imprint, Contact, where it made quite an impact in Austin. The record duly gained national notoriety after being picked up by Houston’s International Artists label as the group gravitated up the charts to #55. Erickson’s fractured drawl (screechy and indeed post-BURDON) – and how could one forget his frenetic harmonica playing towards the end of the song – the garage-rock 45 paved the way for yet another pioneering release; Thurman subsequently moved on to Plum Nelly, his berth filled by bassist Ronnie Leatherman.
For debut full-set, THE PSYCHEDELIC SOUNDS OF THE 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS (1966) {*9}, the 5-piece band had unleashed nothing less than a musical manifesto for mind expansion. But if the idea was to promote the use of hallucinogenic drugs, then the sirens on the DMT-tribute, `Fire Engine’, surely encouraged any sane person never to go near the stuff, sounding as it did more like the tortured wailing of lost, limbo-locked souls. Likewise `Monkey Island’ (one of three penned by local beatnik Powell St. John), with Erickson howling like a man possessed. Elsewhere on the album, tracks `Roller Coaster’ and `Reverberation’ made for thrilling, if uneasy listening, and it was obvious that a trip to the 13th floor with Roky and Co was somewhat different from the rosy hue that the incumbent psychedelic experience had taken on in popular mythology.
Ronnie and John Ike, moving aside for Dan Galindo and Danny Thomas respectively, “November” 1967’s sophomore set EASTER EVERYWHERE {*8} (produced by KENNY ROGERS’ brother Lelan), was a slightly more contemplative affair. Opening with the hypnotic brilliance of opener `Slip Inside This House’ (the subject of an equally essential 90s interpretation by PRIMAL SCREAM), through the trippy `She Lives (In A Time Of Her Own)’, and on to the frantic `I’ve Got Levitation’, it was made all the more interesting for its LOVE-like cover of DYLAN’s `Baby Blue’ (and Powell’s `Slide Machine’).
Inevitably, the Texan police were none too amused with the band’s flagrant advocacy of LSD and speed and, after escalating harassment, Roky found himself in court shortly after the album’s release. Charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana, he was faced with a choice of jail or mental hospital, and rather ill-advisedly, chose the latter. This effectively signalled the end for the band, although a disappointing, dubbed-over LIVE {*5} album was released in August ’68; croaky covers of BO DIDDLEY’s `Before You Accuse Me’, SOLOMON BURKE’s `Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ and BUDDY HOLLY’s `I’m Gonna Love You Too’ were hardly psych-power. Duke Davis had briefly replaced Galindo, while Danny and Duke were to become GOLDEN DAWN; meanwhile another post-split record surfaced in the shape of studio salmagundi, BULL OF THE WOODS (1969) {*6}, an album made up largely of Sutherland-penned tunes, although it contained Roky’s sublime `May The Circle Remain Unbroken’; the main man’s vocal all the more haunting in light of his tragic incarceration.
Subjected to years of mind-numbing drugs and electro shock therapy, Roky was finally released in 1972 after a judge declared him sane; the original band re-formed – very briefly! Like some darker version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, he once escaped but was then kept there for an additional three years; suffering Thorazine experimentation etc., etc. Ironically, no doubt, somewhat less sane after this experience, ROKY ERICKSON started making music again, forming a band, Blieb Alien, and immersing himself in B-movie horror shenanigans.
In 1984, the ‘Elevators’ were once again in operation (Erickson, Walton, Leatherman and guitarist Greg “Catfish” Forrest), although this line-up was absent of Stacy Sutherland, who’d been shot dead by his wife on August 24, 1978. True TFE fans might want to avoid the belated 1995 issue of their final gig – at the Consolidated Arts Warehouse, Houston, August 11, 1984 – LAST CONCERT; known in the UK as THE REUNION CONCERT {*3}.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD/LCS-BG // rev-up MCS Aug2016

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