'Sign of the 3 Eyed Men': 10-CD mother lode from the 13th Floor (Elevators)
Reviewed by Margaret Moser, Fri., Aug. 14, 2009
"Believe me," warned Benny Thurman, the 13th Floor Elevators' original bassist, back in 2004. "Nobody wants to stay on the 13th floor."
"It's too weird," he continued to the Chronicle (see "High Baptismal Flow: Part 2," Aug. 20, 2004). "It was bedlam, that Armageddon-in-your-mind type music. And we were the first, the original. We were onto the pyramid, with its mystical Egyptian connection."
It was almost too perfect as well. The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators and Easter Everywhere blew out the heart of rock & roll in 1966 and '67 with skull-ripping guitar, consciousness-raising lyrics, and a singer whose vocals originated in another dimension. Album No. 3 should have been a knockout, the third segment to complete the triangle – the triple whammy – but by the time Bull of the Woods lumbered out in 1969, the 13th Floor Elevators were all but DOA.
Basically, that's it as far as recorded output for the band that mapped psychedelia and redrew the boundaries of rock. In one sense, the Elevators were as manufactured an act as the Sex Pistols, with Tommy Hall playing Malcolm McLaren to Roky Erickson's Johnny Rotten; Hall joined in on the action, brandishing the 'Vators' secret weapon: amplified jug. Teamed with Benny Thurman, then Ronnie Leatherman on bass, John Ike Walton on drums, and guitarist Stacy Sutherland, Hall and Erickson didn't just spark, they exploded – full-blown, right out of the heart of Texas.
In the 44 years since the appearance of their first single, the 13th Floor Elevators have encompassed fascination and mystery few bands have been able to touch. Hall's obsession with philosophers such as Gurdjieff and Ouspensky manifested itself with a Texas rhythm section and the luminous voice of Roky Erickson, a cosmic confluence that's never been surpassed. And all the residual magic remains in those three recordings plus helter-skelter singles, live tapes, studio sessions, and myriad bootlegs and counterfeits populating the stratosphere. For years, the recordings and their runoff have languished and been plundered. Now, the peak of the pyramid has lifted and out floats a divine offering, Sign of the 3 Eyed Men.
'A Love That's Sound'
You have to have not only a collector's love for the subject, but also the financing to afford this deluxe 10-CD box set, which retails at Waterloo Records for $239, with used copies on Amazon going for upward of $500. The individually packaged discs, containing a total of 154 tracks, slot awkwardly into an otherwise pristine package guaranteed not to fit on your CD shelf, its album-sized hardback book written by project producer and curator Paul Drummond. It's an ambitious undertaking that Drummond accomplishes spectacularly, using a salient mix of visuals along with text from his astonishingly well-researched 13th Floor Elevators biography, Eye Mind (see "Rock & Roll Books," Nov. 30, 2007).
Very little of this audio material is new or unknown. Most of it has been available for years in scattershot form. An Internet-based fan group previously packaged much of this in its own way, with great attention to detail in the final product but lacking the extras, information, and permissions of a legitimate release. Those discs have some value but hold little weight against these more comprehensive and better-detailed authorized recordings. That's because in the end, the true-believer fan – not the one willing to accept bootlegs or patchwork substitutes – wants the real thing: the stickers, the goodies, the posters, the handbills, the extras that say, "I paid for this."
In that way, Sign of the 3 Eyed Men is the ultimate fan set, because from Drummond down, the participants are psalm-singing, foot-washing, 101% 'Vators fans sanctioned by the band to create it. Drummond is, of course, the band's official biographer. Longtime Elevators collector Patrick Lundborg provided the Avalon tape for the Live in California disc. In other cases, tracks came directly from band members, including John Ike Walton, or from family; Bob Galindo personally provided three tracks from A Love That's Sound. His late brother Danny replaced Ronnie Leatherman on bass when Danny Thomas took over drums.
Rather than a lengthy essay cannibalized from his book, Drummond narrates the 10 discs in print with chapters focusing on the specifics of each recording. It's got its share of editorial flubs, notably "Austenite" for "Austinite," and among the aurally enlightened, there are sniffs that the mono recordings are perhaps 1/8 semitone fast. For that fan, footnotes like "remnants of Roky's guide vocal were picked from Tommy's headphones whenever he stopped playing the jug," are third eyesight to the blind.
And in every sense, Sign of the 3 Eyed Men is the Holy Grail of 13th Floor Elevators compilations.
The 13th Floor Elevators' recorded output was a mess, its convoluted history best illustrated by the pressing of "You're Gonna Miss Me" as a single. At least 19 separate pressings of the 45 are detailed here, down to each label's color and notations. The sheer number of bootlegs and deviations makes a complete accounting of recordings impossible, but Drummond is unquestionably authoritative in his cataloging of the record's history.
His research reveals unsettling information about the Elevators' financial handling. The single sold upward of 60,000 copies in six months, and for that, the band ended up owing the record company $1,337.02 at the end of 1966. That was also the year Erickson began exhibiting symptoms of marked mental disconnect on- and offstage, and legal troubles in the form of drug busts began swooping down on the group.
It's this sort of intertwining of life and art that Drummond captures so neatly in his text. Eye Mind is broad in its biographical scope; with Sign of the 3 Eyed Men, Drummond had the luxury of dealing strictly with the music and the making of it. That naked-eye view allows him to observe that Easter Everywhere's weakness is that Tommy Hall concentrated his effort on the epic "Slip Inside This House" instead of the album as a conceptual whole.
Within the book's art is a dazzling array of images, many never or seldom seen. Bob Simmons' series of live photos from the band's shows in Houston and Austin and a televised performance in Dallas capture their frenetic stage presence, while eye-popping reproductions of Avalon Ballroom posters from San Francisco and their variants grace other pages.
An envelope of ephemera also has fans ecstatic. Eleven pieces of vintage 'Vatornalia are faithfully reproduced: stickers, handbills, posters, newspaper articles, business cards, autographs, and more, stashed inside the reproduction of an envelope from the band's label, Houston's International Artists, done so finely as to be printed on textured paper. As collectibles, the lot is valueless; for memories, it's matchless.
And so with the discs. It's not enough to call them revelatory, because the material is mostly known, yet two things become clear. First, that Stacy Sutherland was guiding the band in a new musical direction during the making of Beauty and the Beast, the aborted version of which became Bull of the Woods. Second, the notion that Beauty and the Beast could have been as remarkable an album as the first two, had the band not imploded, gains credence from 3 Eyed Men's "Livin' On," intended for Beauty but released to little effect on Bull of the Woods. Five different versions of "Livin' On" attest to its hypnotic allure; perhaps not as lyrically oblique as "Slip Inside This House" yet just as entrancing.
The stunning success of Sign of the 3 Eyed Men points the way to a similar project of collected Roky Erickson material. And as always, the question remains, is more 13th Floor Elevators out there?
Tantalizingly, the answer is yes.
Living Elevators and Associates
John Ike Walton
Powell St. John
Stacy Sutherland, d. 1978
Danny Galindo, d. 2001
Benny Thurman, d. 2008
Six Hits You Never Imagined With Electric Jug
Them's "Gloria" (disc 2, track 3)
The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (disc 2, track 16)
James Brown's "I Feel Good" (disc 2, track 18)
Buddy Holly's "I'm Gonna Love You Too" (disc 5, track 4)
The Kinks' "You Really Got Me" (disc 5, track 5)
The Beatles' "The Word" (disc 5, track 9)
Wanna see Sign of the 3 Eyed Men on YouTube?