The Origins of Austin Punk in the Aftermath of the 13th Floor Elevators
Roky Erickson hurtles toward Doug Sahm
May 10, 2015, Carson Creek Ranch, Austin: Levitation's three-day bacchanal honoring sounds and philosophies wrought at the Vulcan Gas Company, Congress Avenue's patchouli-soaked den of all that was psychedelic in the late Sixties, is coming to a Sunday night close. A mass pilgrimage toward the Reverberation stage commences simultaneous to a soundcheck. Who's tuning up, getting line levels?
Only the act whose songs named the festival's stages and rebranded the event itself from the more prosaic Austin Psych Fest.
Suddenly, an alien sound rings out: Doopity, doopity! Doopity, doopity! Behold the oscillating, high-pitched weirdness of psychedelic guru Tommy Hall's amplified moonshine jug. "With that, the 13th Floor Elevators emerged from the mists of myth and legend, becoming flesh once more" (revisit "Levitation Live Shot," May 11, 2015).
Death, seriously bad juju between Elevators principals, and four intervening decades made any such re-formation more unlikely than a Led Zeppelin reunion. An early Seventies lineup assembling new personnel around the singer and drummer – but absent Hall, the band's ideological engine – proved short-lived. Yet here's the key personnel, present and accounted for: yowling shaman Roky Erickson, Ronnie Leatherman's deep throb bass, John Ike Walton's steady, idiosyncratic drums, ... and Hall, seated next to Erickson and doopity, doopity-ing all over the place.
Accompanying the originals are three ringers: Fred Mitchim holding down rhythm guitar, Erickson's son Jegar handling background vocals and occasional harmonica, and Jegar's Hounds of Baskerville bandmate Eli Southard, ably subbing for late lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland. Eleven songs from the first two Elevators albums, 1966's The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators and Easter Everywhere the following year, commence somewhat raggedly with the latter's "She Lives (In a Time of Her Own)" and the former's "Fire Engine." Someone remarks Hall shouldn't be so loud, but Lelan Rogers, the band's original producer, would disagree.
To him, the doopity, doopity constituted the most prominent recorded element.
Before long, the mix evens out. "Tried to Hide" struts from the stage to the largest audience the Elevators surely ever played. Come the lysergic R&B of "Levitation," hipster hippies revive Woodstock dances learned from YouTube, while "Splash One" emanates Zen waves. Initially, Erickson's voice runs rough, but he still hits the notes, so "Reverberation (Doubt)" and "Roller Coaster" fairly shriek, Southard unleashing trebly sheets of heavily reverberated tremolo.
Doopity, doopity! Doopity, doopity!
Forty-five minutes later, it's done – only they haven't played The Song. Following a few fraught moments, the band finally returns onstage and uncorks "You're Gonna Miss Me," written by an 18-year-old Erickson in his band the Spades and perfected by the 13th Floor Elevators. Pogoing erupts.
People shout, but Erickson screeeams despite his raw throat: "You're gonna miss me, bay-beh – owwwww!"
It feels so right, yet it's over too soon. The 13th Floor Elevators gather stage front, basking in the afterglow. Walton removes his wide white Stetson and crowns Erickson with it. None can believe what they just saw and heard.
Clash City Cow Punks
First wave punk acknowledged its debt to the 13th Floor Elevators early and often. New York's Television covered "Fire Engine" off the Elevators' debut. London's Clash twisted the introductory quartet of down-stroked power chords from "You're Gonna Miss Me" into "Clash City Rockers." The original Spades single even held a spot on the jukebox of Sex, the boutique owned by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and his clothing designer wife Vivienne Westwood, while Australia's Radio Birdman included a powerdrive rendition of "You're Gonna Miss Me" on their debut LP.
Tommy Hall's acid mysticism warped the Elevators' ideal, but at root, they were a young, loud, and snotty rock & roll band, defiant and completely on edge. The seeds of punk remain blatant in the howling ultimatum Erickson transferred from his previous teen combo to the Elevators. "You didn't realize," he hisses in a tenor that oozes contempt. Factor in constant harassment by the Austin Police Department, a pot bust Erickson avoided with a stay in Rusk State Mental Hospital, and the growing legend of the singer's LSD-eroded emotional state, and enough outlaw cachet surrounds the 13th Floor Elevators to inspire bands from here to eternity.
Just ask Bill Miller, a goth before his time and Sixties teen with a penchant for the freakish singles of British rock eccentric Joe Meek. Living a nocturnal, anti-social lifestyle, he boasted a solid black wardrobe, raised lizards as pets, and initiated various half-finished art projects like a Doctor Doom costume ("I only got as far as the glove"). In 1968, he'd begun experimenting with an amplified autoharp run through a fuzzbox.
Miller was also a confirmed peyote eater who'd soon hear the same psychedelic clarion call rung by the 13th Floor Elevators that other local bands including the Conqueroo, Bubble Puppy, and the Golden Dawn responded to. His band, Cold Sun, eventually released Dark Shadows, a prime example of the opaque proto-punk undertow at the heart of the best psychedelia. Those days receded far behind him, and Austin, by 1975.
"In Austin, 1975 didn't seem much different than 1974," recalls Miller today. "But Austin started getting on the map in '75, and it was due to the cosmic cowboys."
Willie Nelson and his fellow Texan Waylon Jennings, among others, had established a new country sound that rejected Nashville glitz and went its own damned way. Rock elements fused with twanging roots and helped win over leftover hippies, who'd recently brought cowboy hats and boots to the Armadillo World Headquarters. They'd actually heard the call in 1973, a good six months prior to Nelson's Austin relocation from Nashville, from Sixties Texas legend Doug Sahm.
As a precocious child musician working San Antonio's Fifties country circuit, Sahm found himself opening for Hank Williams' final show. Ten years later, producer Huey Meaux coaxed Vox organ-drenched rock & roll with a Tex-Mex accent out of Sahm and his keyboardist pal Augie Meyers under the name the Sir Douglas Quintet in a cheesy attempt to cash in on the British Invasion. Huge hits like "She's About a Mover" made rock stars out of the band anyway, admired by peers like Bob Dylan.
All those bona fides made Sahm and company contemporaries of the 13th Floor Elevators in the Sixties garage gestalt that would inform Seventies punk.
That wasn't all the SDQ had in common with the Elevators. A marijuana bust repelled them from their native Texas into the San Francisco scene's warm, welcoming embrace. There, Sahm wasn't just about a mover. He was a groover, with new hit "Mendocino" enveloping the old Tex-Mex rockjunto sound in a cloud of sensimilla smoke.
Eventually returning to Austin, Sahm brought that Haight-Ashbury cred with him, combining it with his honky-tonk roots on the Soap Creek Saloon's tiny stage. He even cleared the dance floor for Willie and Waylon at the Armadillo. Not at all coincidentally, Sahm and Nelson shared the bill on the pilot of a new locally produced PBS TV series designed to showcase this sound: Austin City Limits.
Creature Feature Nuggets
Several of Bill Miller's Vulcan Gas Company peers became cosmic cowboys themselves. This left him as cold and clammy as one of his pet lizards. The other developing choices for musical nightlife centered around a new venue opened by Clifford Antone and at grimy Red River dive the One Knite.
Both venues nourished a group of young white musicians who all seemingly moved from Dallas or Fort Worth to replicate the sounds of scratchy old Chess Records blues 45s. At the low end of that spectrum, meanwhile, prog and heavy metal acts made Mother Earth their home, first on North Lamar and later on East Riverside. Since catching ex-Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed in Memphis on the 1973 tour promoting his David Bowie-produced Transformer LP, plus reading an enthusiastic Rolling Stone review of garage rock primer Nuggets, Miller decided he wanted to rock in a hard and basic fashion.
Read the second installment of the history of Austin punk as two Texas legends collaborate on a song that helps create the blueprint for a movement.
As did Roky Erickson.
"Roky had just gotten out of Rusk," recollects Miller. "I didn't meet him until '74. Our paths had crossed a bunch of times, however."
Patrick Mcgarrigle, younger brother of Cold Sun guitarist Tom and friend to Erickson's brother Mikel, made the formal introduction. Miller's inability to write the sort of stripped-down rock & roll tunes Erickson could, counterbalanced by a knack for wielding his amplified, fuzzed-out autoharp as a sonic weapon, made this an ideal summit.
"My biggest influence as a musician was Chuck Connors on [Sixties TV series] The Rifleman," Miller jokes. "I wanted to play the way he handled his gun!
"When Roky went into exile," he continues, "his main rival was Jim Morrison. When he came out of exile, I may have been the first person to tell him his chief rival was the singer of the Velvet Underground [laughs]. He said, 'What? Lou Reed?! That guy?!'
"Roky knew he wasn't the only one trying to do something. He liked Alice Cooper and [gothic British rocker] Screaming Lord Sutch. So, he already had this idea. I got the impression he'd wanted to do something like Screaming Lord Sutch way back when he first met the Elevators. What they were doing was pretty far out, so he abandoned the whole horror rock idea."
"The whole horror rock idea" became the duo's raison d'être after the brief attempt at a new 13th Floor Elevators lineup imploded. Now, Erickson could shake them off, the Sixties, and finally psychedelia, and roar into the Seventies amps ablaze. His lens pulled focus on all he'd experienced during his harrowing psychological journey of the last several years. What emerged showcased his rapid-fire wordplay, unhinged imagery, and off-center puns.
Additionally, in the lurid EC Comics of the early Fifties and the late-night creature features he adored like I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and The Creature With the Atom Brain (1955), Erickson discovered a marvelous metaphor for the horrors he'd endured in Rusk. Throw in a warping of innate religious beliefs – which led to his cutting the words "God" and "Jesus" out of the Rusk-originated lyrics/poems featured in his small-press book Openers and replacing them with "Satan" and "Lucifer" – and the stage was set for his career resurrection. After all, this musical recipe bubbled a heady brew to pour into blasting riffs.
"I would look at [the songs] and think maybe my fans wouldn't understand it if I was praying to Jesus all the time," Erickson told Paul Drummond, the English author of 13th Floor Elevators history Eye Mind. "So I was thinking of Lucifer more in the vein of horror movies. When I was young, I wanted to go to horror movies and my mother would say, 'No, I don't want you going to these horror movies. They're bad for you and you could get too scared from watching them.'
"So, I was comparing that, what my mother would let me do, to the horror movies. I would try and make my songs into horror songs."
Drummond then asked Erickson if he addressed his own internal demons through the music.
"That I had an internal demon?" Erickson asks. "That would be Rusk."
Initially, Miller simply helped Erickson organize his ideas without a goal of starting a new group. He'd employ guitar or bass to acclimate Erickson to the idea of tight arrangements. However, when Miller returned to Memphis for a few months, Erickson's new partner Dana booked a gig for opening night of the Ritz, a dilapidated Sixth Street movie house converted into a live music venue by Armadillo muralist Jim Franklin.
That October 18, 1974, its grand opening coincided with the world premiere of Tobe Hooper's cinematic Grand Guignol, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This proved perfectly synchronous for Roky Erickson's horror rock to finally meet the world. One single impediment stood in his way.
He had no band.
Part two of these ongoing punk chronicles appears in next week’s paper.