Shiva's Headband Experience

Trip the psych fantastic

Shiva's Headband convening in the bowels of the legendary Vulcan Gas Company
Shiva's Headband convening in the bowels of the legendary Vulcan Gas Company

"Above my typewriter is a framed 45 single that is the most important recording in Austin. ... The single was 'Kaleidoscopic'/'Song for Peace,' [by Shiva's Headband]." – Chet Flippo

Those words by rock critic emeritus Chet Flippo mean little today, but in the high and far-off times of the late Sixties, they were engraved in native Texas limestone. Shiva's Headband shaped the image of Austin as a musically creative oasis in unforgiving times. Yet, somewhere between the adulation for the 13th Floor Elevators' psychedelic pioneering and Doug Sahm's enduring Tex-Mex rock, Shiva's Headband missed its rightful place.

Spencer Perskin – his bespectacled stature suggests the Hobbit race – masterminded Shiva's Headband in 1967, one of the earliest progenitors of roots rock in Austin. The quintet, including his wife, Susan, served as house band for the Vulcan Gas Company, and when that venerable venue vanished, Perskin founded the Armadillo World Headquarters with a group of well-chosen friends. Shiva's was the first rock band in Texas to land a major label contract with Capitol for Take Me to the Mountains in 1969. For Perskin, it was a canny combination of right-place-right-time and economic know-how.

"Remember, there weren't very many bands around," says Perskin over some lunch on South Congress. "Austin wasn't what it is now. Now, it's what I wanted it to be then, you might say. We didn't have any competition to speak of. We played fraternity parties back then.

"I emerged as a leader-spokesman because I was better at negotiating business. The band got paid better because I had the nerve to ask for more money. Sometimes we got it. I wish I had what we used to make in '69. We got to where we didn't accept jobs for under $750. We only played weekends and might get paid $1,000 for the night back then."

Shiva's Headband Experience
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

Perskin's Web site (www.outlawforpeace.com/spencer/story) documents the group known today as Shiva's Headband Experience in droll, astute prose. The site offers a select biography of Perskin and an amazing array of photos from the band's 40-year history, complete with flyers, labels, family photos, and posters. Life for Perskin and his family hasn't always been easy; he fought the law and the law won more than once. The death at age 24 of Spencer and Susan's youngest son, Skye, last October was another matter entirely.

"We permanently take care of our grandson now," says grandpa. "We pretty much have to. We raised six kids, so it's not that big a deal, but he's a tough little cookie and we don't run as fast as we used to. We're still coping with the tragedy. I've been going up and down, but things are coalescing a little bit."

Perskin's easygoing patriarch suggests a perennial image of the hippie lifestyle, American Gothic with long hair and 12 grandchildren, meaning he often juggles kids and gigs. "Basically, we didn't get a lot of gigs because I was so domestically preoccupied the last eight or nine years."

Traditionally, Shiva is the destroyer, the Hindu god responsible for change. Yet Shiva also represents the essential goodness, because with change comes new life, a clean slate. When he wasn't actively keeping up his own music, Perskin performed as sideman in local bands. When the time was right, he re-envisioned the band for modern times.

"I call it Shiva's Headband Experience today to let myself off the hook a little – it's not the material people expect," he laughs. "I learned long ago it's the kiss of death to be called 'miscellaneous.' I stay radical personally, but I never try to put that into music as much as the consciousness expansion side of it. It probably makes some people uncomfortable that I don't get off the dime and get hip. But I never was hip."

Perhaps not, but the legacy of Shiva's is that "people got fiddles in bands right and left" these days. Occasionally, Perskin is even recognized for it.

"I was walking down the street one day and someone stopped me and said, 'I know you. Didn't you used to be somebody?'"

And what about psychedelic, that butterfly elusive term that defies definition? Shiva's Headband fused country and rock well before the cosmic cowboy Seventies and never compromised. The phrase "roots rock" wouldn't become music lexicon until the Eighties. Were Shiva's Headband ever psychedelic? Perskin hesitates only a moment.

"We took a lot of psychedelics. But I let the music tell me where it wants to go."

The 2021-2022 Austin Music Awards Music Poll is underway. Vote now for your favorite bands, venues, and music until January 31.

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