High Baptismal Flow
Part 1: In search of Austin's 13th Floor Elevators, music to carry you to the next life
The words floated into my dreamworld, twisting and sliding throughout eight ethereal minutes of the 13th Floor Elevators' "Slip Inside This House." I stared at the ceiling of my humid bedroom, un-air-conditioned during a building summer heat relieved only by the ceaseless rains of June. The electric blue of the Indiglo clock said 3:20am. I'd fallen asleep with Easter Everywhere on repeat and it haunted my sleep like the hapless student in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dreams in the Witch-House."
The initial descent began benignly enough: an e-mail query from former Austinite Joe Trybyszewski asking if the Chronicle had any interest in an interview he'd done with Tommy Hall, lyricist and visionary of Texas' pioneering 13th Floor Elevators. The offer was tantalizing: As the primary creative source of the band, Hall and Elevators vocalist Roky Erickson rank in the highest order of songwriting teams in rock & roll history. Erickson's story is part of Austin lore, but the Elevators as a band are elusive. An interview with Hall could change that.
The Hall Q&A was indeed intriguing, yet the subject wanted more. What about Hall's wife Clementine, as much a member of the band as any musician? What of the murdered guitarist, two drummers, and three bass players? And how in this universe or the next did a band from Texas change the face of rock & roll?
Gathering sources and tracking information took nearly seven weeks of phone calls, phone interviews, e-mails, out-of-town trips, and repeated listening to music that has been in my consciousness for almost 40 years. Trapped in the Elevators, with the lyrical promise of something better deep within, the effort was revelatory, exhilarating, and gratifying.
Here was a band that was conceptual before the term applied to the form, egalitarian in both thought and deed, and alternative in the truest sense of the word. And the irony, as Clementine Hall modestly puts it, is "the 13th Floor Elevators didn't even get to be mighty enough to fall."
1966 was a good year for music. The British Invasion was goosing American rock & roll, which had forgotten its roots and lapsed into syrupy pap by the early Sixties. The singles soundscape of Top 40 radio that summer was an astonishing array of fluffy pop (Sandy Posey's "Born a Woman"), R&B (Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y"), blue-eyed soul (Mitch Ryder's "Devil With a Blue Dress On"), anthemic rock (the Troggs' "Wild Thing"), conservative ballads (Sgt. Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets"), and shimmering folk-rock (Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City").
Kingdom of Heaven
1966 was also the year for underground-breaking albums: the Beatles' Revolver, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and Simon & Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence. These LPs marked a new wave of acts writing their own material and sidestepped the standard themes of teenage love and angst for more sophisticated soul-searching. If you lived on the hip east or west coast, the music was accessible. If you lived in Texas and liked it, you were a weirdo.
In 1966, Texas still had a black eye for being the scene of the Kennedy assassination three years earlier. The Lone Star State had no hip standing, certainly nothing to suggest it was the breeding ground for a musical revolution all its own. Buddy Holly was long dead, and even Doug Sahm's Sir Douglas Quintet had made their mark in the guise of mod longhairs from Britain. Yet, deep in the heart of Texas, something was happening, and no one knew it better than the 13th Floor Elevators.
The Elevators originated in 1965, incubated out of a confluence of ideas espoused by a University of Texas philosophy-turned-psychology major named Tommy Hall, who recognized the sonic power of rock & roll and its potential as a vehicle for change. Dylan had given songwriters permission to take the message of protest music and apply it to a nonprotest context that challenged the status quo. Inspired, Hall sought to form a band capable of melding that style and substance.
"I wanted to do what Dylan was doing, playing rock music, but with serious lyrics," states Hall [see the accompanying "Where the Pyramid Meets the High"]. "Everything I wrote was inspired through my taking LSD."
He found the musicians in two places. The first was the rhythm section of a cover band from the Texas Gulf Coast known as the Lingsmen. Bassist Benny Thurman, drummer John Ike Walton, and guitarist Stacy Sutherland all hailed from Central Texas but found playing beachside concession stands like the Dunes in Port Aransas to their liking. Nevertheless, it took little convincing to lure them to Austin for something better.
Eighteen-year-old Roky Erickson was singing for a popular local group called the Spades. He'd written their marginally successful single, "You're Gonna Miss Me," which landed the band a regular gig at Austin's Jade Room. The Jade Room was one of several hot nightspots of the day; the New Orleans Club at 11th and Red River was another, while a few blocks east, 11th Street was lit up like Broadway, with Charlie's Playhouse and Sam's Showcase packing 'em in on the weekends. Folk, blues, and rock were the prevalent sounds of the day as Kenneth Threadgill, John Clay, the Jets, and the Waller Creek Boys (featuring a young Janis Joplin and Powell St. John, who later wrote many Elevators songs) played around town.
Tommy Hall, struck by Erickson's charisma and blues-shouter vocals, invited him to join the unnamed band. Not much hesitation went into the decision. John Ike Walton remembers, "We went to Tommy's house. Tommy got Roky over and we were jamming. Next thing, we're playing at the Jade Room."
Though time has sanded specifics, it seems the band fell together easily, with one little hitch: Tommy Hall played no instrument. He was the band's guru and songwriter, along with Erickson, but the other members pushed him to participate musically. As a solution, he picked up the jug, an instrument popular with folksingers and hillbilly bands.
"Electric jug" they dubbed the instrument, and born was the band's signature sound, a fey, fluttering noise that percolated through their electric call to arms. With Hall performing and an immediate local following, the Elevators had nowhere to go but up.
The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators exploded at the end of 1966. With "You're Gonna Miss Me" as the opening salvo and mind-bending cover art unlike any seen before, psychedelia was born. Stacy Sutherland's guitar launched the song with four-chord muscle that distinguishes it as one of the greatest tracks on a rock & roll album. Ever. John Ike Walton and Benny Thurman swept in on drums and bass, accompanied by Tommy Hall's jug producing the fluttery pulse that bewilders first-time Elevators listeners who say, "What is that sound!?" Then came Roky.
Roky Erickson's hellfire holler thunders on "You're Gonna Miss Me," a primal scream summoning shrieks and whoops adapted from the Little Richard tunes and R&B covers that were staples of the era. (An Elevators live recording from San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom that same year features covers of the Beatles, Solomon Burke, the Kinks, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly, all arranged with electric jug.) His vocals roar like a mighty river of mind-blowing proportions. The song's two minutes and 31 seconds are electrifying even today; imagine the jolt of consciousness it was to the world in 1966.
In addition to "You're Gonna Miss Me," Erickson co-wrote four other tunes on the record ("Roller Coaster," "Don't Fall Down," "Reverberation (Doubt)," "Fire Engine"), as well as the ballad "Splash 1" with Clementine Hall, Tommy's wife. Hall and Sutherland composed "Tried to Hide" and "Thru the Rhythm," while Powell St. John, who soon joined Mother Earth, wrote "You Don't Know (How Young You Are)," "Kingdom of Heaven," and "Monkey Island." Austin artist John Cleveland designed the pyramid-and-eye album cover and adapted it into the logo on John Ike Walton's drums.
The album reverberated with a depth and lyrical meaning, appropriating the word "psychedelic" for a musical context. Hall's liner notes reflected his interest in the philosophical writings of Alfred Korzybski, Peter Ouspensky, and particularly G.I. Gurdjieff, famous for his "who am I?" musings.
The lyrics of Hall's songs also reflected his immersion in enlightened schools of thought, worlds apart from what was emanating out of the day's transistor radios. "You're Gonna Miss Me" went No. 2 in Austin, No. 1 in some California towns, and No. 56 nationally.
It's not enough to spin back Austin's clock to the mid-Sixties and say life was simple before the technological evolution. Nothing was simple in the middle of a cultural revolution that both united and divided the country. The space race was on, civil rights were being advanced, and feminism and gay rights were becoming social issues. Then there were the long-haired, pot-smoking, acid-dropping, pill-popping, tie-dye-wearing, establishment-protesting, free-loving, sex-having hippies that are AARP-cardcarrying senior citizens today.
The lingering image of Texas as a state unfriendly to hippies wasn't far from the truth. Austin was no less oppressive, with hippies often venturing out in numbers, for safety. Clementine Hall recalls seeing, "Powell St. John bruised and beaten up, because some guy jumped out of a station wagon with a baseball bat and beat him up, just for walking down the street with long hair."
The Elevators found themselves a constant target of local law enforcement. Clementine Hall talks of "directional microphones on us, outside our house." The band was watched, taped, followed, and eventually busted repeatedly, and it made the news every time.
"They busted the Sir Douglas Quintet in San Antonio and us in Austin on the same night," remembers John Ike Walton. "It was on the news. My father saw me getting busted."
The band had been heavily into LSD and other methods of mind-expansion since their inception. Tommy Hall viewed acid as a tool and led the band through group trips, as both a bonding process and one of self-discovery. A growing number of youth across the U.S. and UK shared the band's search for meaning and enlightenment, but the nexus was the Left Coast's Bay area. Coincidentally, the vibrant youth scene there starred a number of Texpatriates, including Powell St. John, Doug Sahm, Janis Joplin, plus Dave Moriaty and Jack Jackson, who helped found Rip Off Press, and Chet Helms, who ran the Avalon.
Walton says the band "got out of Texas after the bust, went to California, and started writing stuff out there." The Elevators basked in their moment of glory, rubbing shoulders with their peers in Moby Grape and the Grateful Dead. They headlined shows at the Avalon and pursued enlightenment. Friction plagued the band in the form of drugs, particularly speed.
"One of the things that upset Tommy most was speed, amphetamines," states Clementine Hall. "I remember Stacy saying, 'But Tommy, I've never felt love being poured on me like when I take amphetamines.' Tommy would say it was evil, bad for you, and Stacy would say, 'But I need to escape to the place where I am loved.' Benny liked speed for other reasons, not because he felt warm and mushy but because he could think faster and accomplish more.
"Tommy would say, 'The philosophy behind the righteous drugs is that they're drugs that have been used for centuries by Indians peyote, mushrooms, marijuana, and by extension LSD. We don't use escape drugs, ever. We do not use pills or any addictive drugs. If you take them for pleasure, they become psychologically addictive. Nobody takes LSD for pleasure. It teaches you way too much about yourself.'"
Changes were happening within the 13th Floor Elevators by 1967. Ronnie Leatherman replaced Benny Thurman on bass. He and John Ike Walton stayed with the band long enough to record "She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)" and "I've Got Levitation," but neither was happy with the band's direction.
"Tommy's philosophical approach became offensive to John Ike and Ronnie," says Walton's replacement Danny Thomas. "They wanted to keep playing music as journeymen musicians, like they did in the early days of the California trip when they made such a big hit at the Avalon and Fillmore."
The band's Houston label, International Artists, called them back from California and wanted them to begin work on a new album. In the midst of the Summer of Love, John Ike Walton and Ronnie Leatherman left the 13th Floor Elevators.
Thirty-seven years after its release, Easter Everywhere remains the 13th Floor Elevators' most completely realized effort. Psychedelic Sounds was the bellwether of things to come, but Easter Everywhere was a stunning and revelatory work, as slyly conceptual as anything that came after it.
With Easter Everywhere, the Elevators redefined psychedelia as potent message music. In contrast to what psychedelia was coming out of and turning into standard blues-rock with lengthy guitar solos and special effects Easter Everywhere rose as a seamless mix of rock with Middle Eastern elements and, of course, the ever-mesmerizing electric jug. "Slip Inside This House" remains a musical wonderment, carried by Tommy Hall's metaphysical lyrics and Roky Erickson's hypnotic chant-vocals, sung with a messiah's conviction.
Drummer Danny Thomas, a North Carolina native attending Trinity University, and fellow San Antonian bassist Danny Galindo were players steeped in Southern R&B. In the same way the Lingsmen plugged in as the rhythm section behind the creative leads of Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson, Galindo and Thomas made the transition from the already-recorded "She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)" and "I've Got Levitation" to eight other songs that comprised Easter Everywhere.
Thomas' glistening percussion and Galindo's weighty bass gave the Elevators a fuller, weightier sound on Easter Everywhere. Powell St. John's ethereal "Slide Machine" and Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" were the only nonband songs included; Hall, Erickson, and Sutherland, meanwhile, had hit their strides in various combination. Clementine Hall was brought in to duet with Roky on "I Had to Tell You," their harmonies charmingly naive. The result was amazing to all.
"Five of us in a new lineup, so we looked at each other perplexed, wondering what the others would have to put on the table and how the mix would work," recalls Thomas. "It was a big challenge. Frank Davis and Lelan Rogers [Easter Everywhere recording engineer and producer, respectively] were able to synthesize it rather than leave the band in fragments. Things would get pretty jagged on occasion, and they would make sure things got resolved, mostly between Tommy, Roky, and Stacy.
"It was an evolving process, each one was pulling in a different direction because each had a different skill and different styles. Lelan put his weight behind making sure that Tommy's direction was the direction the band was taking. That's part of what made Roky disillusioned with the project.
"Roky was a really good rock & roll frontman, who would've been satisfied to let the philosophical message go in order to just rock out. But Tommy insisted we use this vehicle. We had gotten attention with 'You're Gonna Miss Me,' and Tommy thought we should use our high visibility to answer questions our generation was asking. Lelan saw the wisdom in that.
"Most of Easter Everywhere was Tommy's lyrics, in conjunction with Roky. Tommy and Roky roomed together, so there was a lot of collaboration. Tommy would write lyrics as poetry first. And we would have pasteboard boxes full of loose-leaf paper. He'd present them to Roky, who'd do his best to come up with a basic arrangement to fit the meter.
"Roky would make suggestions about changing the lyrics and then it would be presented to us, the rhythm section Stacy, Danny, and Danny. And it would go through more refinement. Once we had the chord changes, we knew what the style of the song would be, and we'd go about arranging it.
"It was a collaborative process there wasn't a single lyric Tommy didn't run past the band, 'Are you comfortable with this? If not, tell me.' And sometimes they would be four, five, six months in revision before they got recorded. He's a fantastic person."
The final recordings made by the 13th Floor Elevators were Live and Bull of the Woods. The former LP is little more than a collection of studio tracks with an audience dubbed in, but Bull is a notable effort that stands on its own.
Slip Inside This House
Roky Erickson's deterioration was such that his contribution to Bull is limited, while Hall's spiritual participation also diminished. After repeated busts and harassment, the 13th Floor Elevators' direction was clouded and unclear, yet Stacy Sutherland stepped forward as a formidable and underrated talent in the band. He'd been writing and co-writing songs for the band since Psychedelic Sounds, and his guitar playing developed a distinctive crystal jangle style. Bull stands as Sutherland's legacy to the band whose sound he was crucial in creating.
What happened to Roky Erickson, who declined comment for this story through his younger brother Sumner Erickson, is well-documented. After several busts and hospitalizations in the late Sixties, he began a slow decline into undiagnosed schizophrenia marked by periods of remarkable recordings, including the immortal "Two-Headed Dog"/"Starry Eyes" single of the mid-Seventies. Bad health and illness kept him reclusive until the recent intervention of Sumner. Under his brother's care and with proper medical attention, Roky has made an impressive recovery, attending shows, making public appearances, and getting his driver's license.
Reminded that Tommy Hall, now living in San Francisco, doesn't want to talk about music or the Elevators, but insists on talking philosophy instead, Thomas defends his bandmate.
"Philosophy is Elevators stuff," stresses Thomas. "That's the way he was then, he's still the same. He's not a musician. Never has been. He feels terrible about it, and he hates it when we remind him of it."
In the end, the secret of the 13th Floor Elevators is the all-seeing eye of the pyramid, the invitation to slip inside the cosmic house and open your mind. Corny? Perhaps. Yet, the original power of rock & roll lay in its promise to carry the listener to places unknown, music to carry you to the next world. It was a powerful message then and it remains powerful.
"And anytime I get the chance to espouse the message of that generation," Danny Thomas swears, "I take it."
Special thanks to Jack Ortman for the use of his 13th Floor Elevator art archives.