The Heaven & Hell in 13th Floor Elevators: A Visual History
In an excerpt from the mind-bending new oral history and photo bonanza, we return to the Red River strip of March 1966 to witness Roky Erickson and crew
It’s March 16, 1966 and KAZZ-FM is live broadcasting a show by the 13th Floor Elevators from the New Orleans Club in Austin.
In external reality, the war in Vietnam is escalating, and the No. 1 record in the country – for the second week – is that dreary military call to arms "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. At the top of the album charts is a whole album's worth of militaria by the very same Sadler. Clearly, the country is in a martial mood, swinging behind the war in a way that it never will again.
Meanwhile, the Elevators are diving deep within their own world.
Since their formation only four months previous in December 1965, they have been moving far and fast, and are accelerating to warp speed. Their first single, released on the local Contact label, is nearing the KAZZ-FM chart even as it is banned on competitor KNOW. At the same time, they are under the cosh after a serious pot bust at the end of January, which has them confined to the state of Texas on $1,000 bond until the case goes to a grand jury.
External reality has declared an extreme hostility, but the Elevators' momentum is barely dented.
In February 1966, they record 10 more songs for a putative first album. Their first date at the New Orleans Club that month draws ecstatic praise from writer and booster Jim Langdon: "'Psychedelic Rock' was showing its effect on the wildly enthusiastic audience. The place was so jammed one could hardly move ... No one has ever heard anything quite like the sound they put out, anywhere."
One month later, the group is white-hot in front of a capacity audience of around 600 people: "The place is packed tonight and there's lots of action going on on the floor," says MC Rim Kelly, introducing the group on radio. The first song is the mid-paced "Monkey Island," a sharp comment on having to live in Texas with the rednecks and the police: "Well there's one thing about these monkeys, baby/ They don't know I'm around/ But that's pretty good 'cause if they knew/ They'll probably come and put me down."
But it's on "Roller Coaster" that they really begin to turn on the heat.
"Roller Coaster" takes you through the LSD experience. It begins slowly. The musicians are fighting to restrain themselves, and then at the lyric "You've got to open up your mind and let everything come through," they accelerate so quickly it makes your stomach drop.
"Come on," Roky Erickson yells, as the band whoops and Stacy Sutherland takes off on a vertiginous lead guitar run. "You've got to let it happen to you."
The musicians are tripping and so is the audience, whether on psychedelic drugs or the simple excitement and passion that the group produces. It builds to an absolute peak on the third song that remains in the public arena, a cover of that garage band staple, Van Morrison and Them's "Gloria," soon to be a U.S. Top 10 by the Shadows of Knight. As a club band, the Elevators still have to bow to that go-go imperative – dance tunes for teen punters – but their version shows why that era is coming to an end.
Suddenly, after nearly eight minutes, they stop on a dime. The audience whoops and hollers. The MC comes back in. It sounds like he's got a contact high:
"The 13th Floor Elevators, playing a song called 'Gloria' – one that they don't like to quit playing, and of course nobody here likes for them to quit playing. It just kinda keeps going, keeps going and keeps going and keeps going." In his own scrambled way, Kelly is trying to make sense of something extraordinary that you can still hear through the distortion and tape hiss. The electricity is such that it transmits with the feedback into an intangible third force: the sound of communal ecstasy.
In keeping with the Elevators' occluded career, this incredible document was not widely heard until 2009, when, thanks to the scholarship and persistence of [this book's author] Paul Drummond, the first comprehensive collection of their work was finally released in the 10-CD Sign of the 3-Eyed Men box set [revisit our review, "Livin' On," Aug. 14, 2009]. In the intervening 43 years, all manner of legends and myths had grown up around the group, partly because their career was so short and so ill-starred, more so because they embodied the possibilities of the Sixties at their highest.
This was deliberate from the very start.
The Elevators were young musicians programmed to promote their quasi-religious LSD use. Indeed, they would sing, write, and record under the influence. Operating almost like a hermetic sect, they existed outside the music industry and media mainstreams; apart from a brief stay in California, they were confined to Texas for the duration.
Not much pop media there. Apart from a couple of lip-synced television slots, there is no moving footage of the group. There are, also, almost no contemporary interviews.
Psychedelic drugs were the Elevators' rocket fuel, propelling them higher and further than any other group of that period – except perhaps the Syd Barrett Pink Floyd or the Skip Spence Moby Grape. There was a wildness to them that you can still hear in the recordings, a high whistling sound that is the gateway into the higher-key consciousness that they wished to communicate. They didn't hold anything back, hurling themselves into the void with each show, with each recording, and with no thought of the exhaustion that it might bring.
Above all, the Elevators were a product of their moment in that they thought, like many others at the time, that LSD could change the world. It was all so new. Nothing like this – the nexus of mass communication, truly popular music with radical messages, bohemian clothes and attitudes, a whole new way of being beaming straight into your mind through Top 40 radio and TV – had ever happened before.
The story of the 13th Floor Elevators is a classic cautionary tale. Psychedelic drugs took them very high very fast. Orbiting at warp speed within their own universe, they completed two stages of their revolutionary plan, but they were attempting something very ambitious – a complete rewiring of the human brain, language and perception – with an unstable compound and within a very hostile climate. The dangers, from outside and inside, were real.
They enacted Aldous Huxley's psychedelic duality of Heaven and Hell, in that order.
But their journey still occasions wonder and awe. For so many years, it was hardly told. Here it is, in pictures and words.
This is the way, step inside.
13th Floor Elevators: A Visual History can be purchased from Anthology Editions at shop.mexicansummer.com/product/paul-drummond-13th-floor-elevators.