The Kingdom of Heaven
It's time you knew Powell St. John
The band's been playing at least an hour, but it feels like five minutes. Besides "You Really Got Me," "Roll Over Beethoven," and Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me," they've done a dozen originals that seem like the beginning of a new age. There's one called "Roller Coaster" that sends shivers through the audience of 50, massed together at La Maison on the edge of downtown Houston.
It opens slow, speaking of one "whose eyes are clear to see," then hits a hurtling midsection announced by the lyric, "It starts like a roller-coaster ride so real it takes your breath away." For 10 minutes, the music pushes everyone in the room through a twisting, turning trip, with Stacy Sutherland's lead-guitar lines feeding back far beyond what rock bands in 1965 seemed capable of.
When the song ends, there's an audible sigh of relief in the crowd. We've all just taken a journey of incredible intensity, and now, newly baptized, we look at one another with a bond of brotherhood. We glance around the room, shake our heads, and smile at one another with knowing glances that each person there has been shown a deep secret. We can only guess where the 13th Floor Elevators will take us next. For the five musicians onstage, there's no question. It's time now to deliver the words they know we've come to hear:
Here you are at my place
And within your glistening eyes
I'm watching your reactions
As the thing within you cries
And I'm bringing you this message
Because I think it's time you knew
The kingdom of heaven
Is within you
The song is slower than a ballad. In fact, it isn't really a song at all. More like a prayer. It begins with a roll on John Ike Walton's snare, followed by Benny Thurman's fearsome bass pattern, and an ominous drone by jug player Tommy Hall. It takes the crowd into a glowing room, filled with flashes of infinity and, well, love. We stand in front of the stage, "fixed with fascination" as one of the earlier songs has proclaimed, not really sure that what's happening is real. It's as if the music is making us levitate, a reminder that there's a true center to life waiting just outside our physical dimension. The chords blend, treble notes melting together into a searing sonic wall. Singer Roky Erickson is lost in his own world, eyes shut tight, his whole body a vessel of vibrations.
Through the incense and the candle
And the colors on the wall
Your image stands reflected
As a princess come to call
Your suspicions you're confirming
As you found them all quite true
That the kingdom of heaven
Is within you
The quintet is now playing the music of the spheres. As the two guitars become one, overlapping instruments of dedication and desire, the emotions of everyone present have moved La Maison, itself a former church, onto an astral plane. Who's this band giving us such a mesmerizing gift of music and meaning? Coming out of an extended instrumental break, the singer steps up to the mic with a beatific smile, one that shoots through everyone in the audience.
Through the blazing stained-glass windows
Moonlight falls upon the choir
And it splashes across the altar
As a flow of liquid fire
And it bathes you in its glory
As your life begins anew
For the kingdom of heaven
Is within you*
Erickson, secure in the sanctity of the song and feeling its power, begins a scream from somewhere beyond the soul that builds to a tremulous shriek of belief. The sound bombards our molecules until it feels like we'll explode. When the song ends and quiet fills the room, the 13th Floor Elevators walk offstage, leaving La Maison humming with electricity from our close encounter with the beyond.
For the next year, everyone there searches out the Austin act's first LP, and once procured, we scour the back for that song. There it is, "Kingdom of Heaven," by John St. Powell. For me, it's the start of a 40-year mystery, trying to find out exactly who this person is, this man with the power to put into music what entire religions are forever seeking.
The first thing I discovered, shortly after seeing several songs by St. Powell on the Elevators' 1966 Psychedelic Sounds, was that John St. Powell was really Powell St. John. The band's record label, International Artists, had thrown a curveball into the songwriting royalties. Beyond that, the initial story I found on St. John was in the second issue of Mother, a short-lived Houston periodical devoted to the developing world of Texas rock. In a one-page piece, writer Larry Supulveda gave a quick rundown of St. John's new band Mother Earth, ending with an explanation by the artist of how he saw the new counterculture: "Spontaneity and juxtaposition are both happening everywhere simultaneously." This, obviously, was a man for the ages. Little did I know just how true that would turn out to be.
Rayward Powell St. John came to Austin in 1959 to attend the University of Texas. Born in Houston and raised in Laredo, he went to college to find freedom. In Laredo, his father had been principal at Powell's high school, which made the son "toe the line." Falling in with fellow seekers, fans of poetry, peyote, and other forms of intelligence-inducing agents, it wasn't long before St. John was playing harmonica and singing with Lannie Wiggins and Janis Joplin as the Waller Creek Boys. The early folk scene was being born at the Student Union's weekly hoot nights, then moved to Kenneth Threadgill's gas station/beer joint on North Lamar for even rowdier runs at musical fun.
"We all wanted to play folk music," says St. John, "and we became this small collection of like-minded souls who got together whenever we could. No one really thought beyond the evening's entertainment, but at that age we all felt anything could happen. Sometimes it did."
A few of those same souls began living in a string of small apartments on Nueces dubbed the Ghetto, giving birth to a bohemian stronghold that morphed into Austin's first hippie enclave. For St. John, it was a chance to pull out his pen and start writing songs. "I'd always been fascinated by songwriting, and felt it was something I could do," he says. "After playing folk music awhile, some of us gravitated to rock & roll. It was a natural progression, plus a whole lot of fun. In a rock band, I could play my kazoo on 'Land of a Thousand Dances,' and it'd be really loud."
By then, St. John the Conqueroo had formed, with Ed Guinn, Bob Brown, and a few others. "I'd played some gigs with the Chelsea too by then," he recalls. "But from what I could tell of music, I couldn't see a career doing music in Austin. This was before anyone had recorded any of my songs. I did have a mind that I could go to the West Coast and get serious, possibly. It was set up for me. People I knew were already there, and I had a place to stay. Chet Helms was running the Avalon Ballroom, and I felt there'd be room to maybe make it work.
"So I did something I'd always wanted to do, which was travel around Mexico for three months, and then made my way to San Francisco."
It was while in Mexico that St. John wrote "Slide Machine," where "the gods of gold are heard but seldom seen," which would turn up on the Elevators' second album, Easter Everywhere, in 1967. He remembers arriving in San Francisco on Dec. 16, 1966, a month before the Human Be-In and the rest of the upcoming craziness surrounding the Summer of Love. He was ready to roll.
"I'm somewhat cautious," he explains now, "but in those days it was close enough to my last acid trip, and I was living in the flow of letting the cosmos take care of things. I believe if I had a goal in mind, I would somehow achieve it, but with no specifics on how I would do that. I do remember getting a little concerned about food at first. I would go down to Haight Street and collect cans and bottles. This is before it was a trade. I'd get enough to buy a Mounds bar for lunch, and then the people I was staying with would help out with dinner."
His Austin friend Travis Rivers was already in the Bay area, running the alternative newspaper Oracle and looking to help St. John start making music. In the Sixties, before the entertainment business became formalized, sometimes all it took was a hope and some like-minded heads to get in the thick of the action.
"Travis had met some musicians from Chicago, and one of them was keyboard player Ira Kamin," St. John recounts. "I got together with him, and he knew this singer from Madison, Wisconsin: Tracy Nelson. Travis also knew the guys from the Sir Douglas Quintet, who he'd heard wanted to make a change.
"So right away we had a complete rhythm section with drummer George Rains, bassist Jance Garfat, and also pianist Wayne Talbert for a while. Wayne had some problems that didn't really fit with being in a band, so he was replaced by Mark Naftalin from the Butterfield Blues Band. We called it Mother Earth, after the Memphis Slim song that Tracy sang."
New bassist Bob Arthur and guitarist John "Toad" Andrews, who had both played with St. John in Austin band the Chelsea, soon completed the lineup. Like most Bay area bands at the time, Mother Earth found a recording contract fairly fast. Not even there a year, St. John had a band and record deal in San Francisco. The cosmos was definitely smiling on the singer.
The striking thing about Mother Earth was that, somewhat like Certs, they were really two bands in one. Powell St. John's songs, a rootsy blend of country, blues, and folk laced with large amounts of psychedelic underpinnings, were always favorites. Whether a big band arrangement of "Kingdom of Heaven," the captivating "Marvel Group," or even the debut album's title track, "Living With the Animals," each song could be counted on for ingenious lyrics and equally amazing musical structures. Nelson took a different tact, with soul-stirring versions of classic American blues and Crescent City favorites, along with originals like the wrenching "Down So Low." It was a thrill even for her to hear two such distinctive styles coming from the same bandstand.
"In the midst of the budding psychedelic sound, Powell's music was completely original and brilliant," says Nelson. "He gave us validation as something more than a derivative R&B band, and he inspired me to stretch out beyond my desire to be Irma Thomas. I think he was the most significant and profound artist around, and by the very nature of that, the least appreciated of the era."
Rest assured, those are no small words for someone not prone to praise.
Mother Earth played a lot of hometown benefits and free shows in Golden Gate Park in the beginning, but once their debut album appeared, the whole country beckoned. Their label, Mercury Records, released "Down So Low" as the first single, and it garnered airplay immediately. The problem, according to Mercury, was that most of the stations playing it were African-American, not exactly what the company had in mind for their prestigious San Francisco rock signing. So the label's press department hurriedly sent out a photo of Tracy Nelson to radio outlets, which stopped airplay cold in its tracks. Naturally that was the last significant chart success the band would have.
St. John, Nelson, and the group built a solid live following on the East Coast, particularly with college crowds, but even then, the band's singer-songwriter was already looking for the exit sign. Like airline workers on the Tarmac, he'd taken to wearing 100-decibel sound-suppression earphones onstage to protect his hearing, and after the band relocated to Nashville for the studios and musicians there, not to mention a relatively inexpensive lifestyle, St. John knew he was Berkeley bound.
"I'd left Texas to go West," he laughs, "not East. Plus I was tired of the business. I didn't want to have that experience the rest of my life."
He stayed in Music City long enough to record Mother Earth's second album, Make a Joyful Noise, with his classics "I, the Fly" and "I'll Be Moving On," but he was long gone before the band set off to promote their new release on the road.
Back in the Bay area, he played with some Texas friends, including Tary Owens, Minor Wilson, and ex-Conqueroo Bob Brown in the infamous Angel Band. They appeared at a club in North Beach one night, when a few certified Hells Angels came in, listened to several songs, then told the musicians they needed to find a new name. Right away. Not wanting to risk life or limb, the Angel Band became the Leaping Lizards, immediately. St. John, realizing the vagaries of making a living playing music, became a jewelry maker in the early Seventies, changing careers the next decade to work in computer maintenance. This being music, and Powell St. John being a man of intrigue, the story didn't end there.
In the past few years, fans of Roky Erickson, the 13th Floor Elevators, and all those associated with the Austin phenomenon credited with creating psychedelic music have grown exponentially and made themselves known. That includes musician Fred Mitchim and financier George Gershen, who approached St. John about recording a new album two years ago, an offer the singer didn't have to think twice about. During SXSW 05, when St. John was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame, he found himself in an Austin recording studio surrounded by some of the best players in the city, finally making his debut solo disc.
Together, they recorded Right Track Now, an exciting mix of most of St. John's early songs first recorded by the 13th Floor Elevators, Janis Joplin, and Boz Scaggs along with newer selections proving beyond any doubt that the man who started his career credited wrongly as John St. Powell has found a firm footing in the future. There's even a short second disc that includes three songs with former Elevators John Ike Walton and second bassist Ronnie Leatherman. Early next year, St. John heads back to the studio for round two, this time for the Tompkins Square label based in New York and featuring collaborations with several young players inspired by his music and a strength that's never been shaken.
Almost 40 years to the day I first heard the 13th Floor Elevators and the songs of Powell St. John, I stand outside the house at 1921 Oregon St. in Berkeley where Mother Earth once lived and were photographed for the cover of Living With the Animals. It's like going back to your elementary school, where things that once seemed so large now appear much smaller. That 1968 album cover made it seem like the whole world was waiting for the musician on that porch, St. John posed regally at far left, sitting on the stair's railing in a white dress shirt and natty vest, looking proudly into the camera. Today, the street is quiet, the house's facade tastefully redone with redwood shakes. It takes a few moments to pick out where each other person was in that original photo Rains sitting in back, Andrews on the porch's top post, Nelson and Arthur together on the stairs, and Naftalin on a chair in the front yard to the right.
Gradually the image comes back, burned in my mind all this time, until I realize what makes that photo so indelible to me. It was the first time I'd seen Powell St. John and was finally able to put a face with the man who wrote "Kingdom of Heaven," the song in the top slot on my psychic radio, always reminding me just what music is really here for.
In so many ways, that 1965 night in Houston at La Maison listening to the 13th Floor Elevators for the very first time set me on my lifelong course. More importantly, that song has helped me find that course again and again, all the times I've gotten lost. For that, the message still feels brand new, and the kingdom of heaven really is within you.
*© Mainspring Watchworks Music