19 January 2009
The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, the Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound
454pages, First Edition edition (November 2007)
In that brief period in the mid to late 1960s when a youthful subculture believed the answers to life lay locked in the chemical complexities of LSD, the Psychedelic music that emerged from England and the US took on very different moods.
While British groups typically sang of marmalade skies and model villages, American groups described Oedipal nightmares, paranoia and violence.
It makes sense when you consider the social conditions of the two countries at the time.
The British drug-influenced groups may have received a fair deal of hassle from the man, or the odd catcall as they paraded up and down the King's Road in their dandy finery, but they didn't face a constant threat of being drafted to Vietnam or getting decade-long jail sentences for marijuana possession, as the Americans did.
The story of The "13th Floor Elevators", one of the earliest American Psychedelic groups, is a horrifying illustration of how the struggle between an emerging experimental consciousness and the old order led to nothing less than a war.
Hailing from the town of Kerrville in Texas - not a state known for its enlightened attitude towards "mind expansion" - The "13th Floor Elevators" offered a powerful mix of LSD evangelism, mystical philosophy and straight-up Rock'n'Roll.
Needless to say, this didn't go down well with the authorities.
By the end of the 60s, countless attempts to rip out the soul of the band through drug busts and intimidation finally had their desired effect.
"13th Floor Elevators"'leader, lyricist and amplified jug player "Tommy Hall", a charismatic expounder of eastern philosophies who insisted that the band perform every single concert high on LSD, ended up living in a cave. Guitarist "Stacy Sutherland" spent much of the 70s in jail and strung out on heroin before being shot by his wife in 1978.
Drummer "John Ike Walton" never recovered from the acid trip he went on in a police cell in 1966 and has been treated with lithium for severe depression ever since.
Other members variously ended up in Vietnam, had nervous breakdowns and underwent electroshock therapy in mental institutions.
Most dramatic of all, though, is the case of lead singer "Roky Erickson".
The son of an alcoholic, philandering architect father always 'in the office' and an obsessively protective mother, "Roky Erickson" was an immensely charming wild card who fell under "Tommy Hall"'s LSD-evangelising spell.
While it's clear that excessive drug use didn't exactly help "Roky Erickson"'s mental clarity, the damage it did pales in comparison to the abuse meted out by the Texan authorities.
After being caught with a small amount of marijuana in February 1969, "Roky Erickson" took his lawyer's advice and pleaded insanity to avoid jail.
He ended up at "Rusk Maximum Security Prison" for the criminally insane, and the profiles of the men with whom he formed a band there illustrate the extent to which he was a butterfly broken upon a wheel.
The guitarist was in for killing his mother, father and sister.
The bass player had raped a policeman's daughter and killed her two infant sons.
The deaf tambourine player had raped and killed a 12-year-old boy and stuffed his body into a refrigerator.
Somewhat alarmingly, Rusk's recreation director arranged for this band to play at high school proms.
By the time "Roky Erickson" was released in 1972 any chances of a normal life had been destroyed by the trauma of his experiences.
The authorities had won the battle, but perhaps not the war.
The "13th Floor Elevators" went on to become one of those bands, alongside the "Velvet Underground" and "The Stooges", whose musical and cultural influence has far outweighed their initial popularity.
"Paul Drummond" has deemed the band significant enough to spend eight years of his life researching and compiling "Eye Mind", an exhaustive combination of biography and oral history that covers every aspect of The "13th Floor Elevators"' story in exacting detail.
Not only did he convince the various members to emerge from the shadows and talk about a painful period in their lives, he also sourced every piece of information on the band imaginable, from legal documents to concert posters to psychiatric reports.
His diligence occasionally overpowers his discrimination - some of the concert set lists and record company contracts might have been better left as invisible background material - but this is a small criticism, given the clarity and wisdom with which he writes.
He has the good judgment to let the remarkable story tell itself, resisting the temptation to put in too much conjecture, and is particularly good at painting a picture of the band's unique situation.
Being from Texas, they were more psychedelic outlaws than hippies, holing up in hill country hideouts to escape police harassment, dealing drugs to survive and never straying too far from the basic Rock'n'Roll template they were all schooled in.
Add to this "Tommy Hall"'s cosmic proselytising, "Roky Erickson"'s compelling, confused personality and the fascistic nature of the Texan authorities at the time and you have a tale that demands to be told. Eye Mind takes its place alongside "Jean Stein"'s Edie and "Andrew Loog Oldham" 's Stoned as a definitive chronicle of a contradictory, dangerous, endlessly fascinating period in Pop culture.