Austin's the 13th Floor Elevators are easily one of the most influential and enigmatic rock 'n roll bands of all times. Best remembered (if remembered at all) for the classic garage rock single "You're Gonna Miss Me" (which some have compelling argued is the definitive garage rock song) and singer/rhythm guitarist Roky Erickson's breakdown. Erickson is generally considered to be the First Psychedelic Era's second most famous "acid causality" (this label being applied to Erickson has been hotly disputed, as we shall see), behind only former Pink Floyd front man Syd Barrett, and was institutionalized and subjected to electroshock therapy by the late 1960s.
And with my mission statement out of the way, let us get to the matter at hand.
Founded near the capital of Texas in 1965, the group was perpetually out of time and place. Despite hailing from one of the most conservative states in the nation (Austin was already considered something of a liberal oasis in the midst of a far right wasteland during this period, but Austin liberals were still a far cry from their coastal counterparts) the Elevators are considered one of the pioneering psychedelic acts of the 1960s.
"More than any other American group in the '60s, including the vaunted San Francisco bands that followed during the fabled Summer of Love, the 13th Floor Elevators proudly espoused the virtues of breaking on through to the other side via the use of psychedelic drugs. 'Recently it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state,' read the liner notes of their debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. With their music, they intended to provide the soundtrack for this journey."
(Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock, Jim DeRogatis, pgs. 67-68)
Some have even go so far as to proclaim the Elevators as the first psychedelic band. While this is a bit of a stretch, there can be little doubt that their sound slightly predated that of the legendary San Francisco scene.
"The 13th Floor Elevators were conceived and designed to be a psychedelic conduit for their audience. In late '65, early '66, both San Francisco and London were advertising 'Trips' festivals, but no one was actually focused enough to determine a broader ideology, let alone a psychedelic manifesto.
"Yet neither were the Elevators operating in a complete vacuum. The phrase 'psychedelic' was beginning to enter the lexicon but any prior reference lacked real substance or overt usage. There have been a few rare examples in connection to music. Roky, Tommy and Stacy were all Holy Modal Rounders fans and probably aware of the lyrics to their 1964 song 'Hesitation Blues' which contained the word psychedelic. A less obvious example was 'LSD-25,' the B-side title of the Gamblers' 1961 single, which was merely a surf instrumental. Kim Fowley apparently advertised his novelty record 'The Trip' as 'psychedelic' in the L.A. Free Press in mid-'65. While there had been the short-lived L.A. band The Psychedelic Rangers (featuring future Doors drummer John Densmore), it was the Charlatans who are most noted as an early example of a band connecting music and LSD. In June 1965, they made their debut performance at the Red Dog Saloon in the Nevada desert while tripping on acid. While the poster for the show has become known as the 'seed,' the germ for Californian psychedelic graphics, the music owed more to reworking of 1920s honky-tonk tunes than forming the foundation of psychedelic rock. While important, the Charlatans' scene was about tripping and living a psychedelic nineteenth-century fantasy, as their later recordings revealed.
"Handbills for Kesey's December 1965 acid tests are identifiably psychedelic in design, but it wasn't until Wes Wilson's superb 'Can you pass the acid test?' handbills in early '66 that mentioned the word psychedelic in conjunction with music ('The Merry Pranksters and their Psychedelic Symphony' – the Grateful Dead are billed as 'rock 'n' roll').
"While all of this is splitting hairs, it's important to give a foundation to just how curious the Texan scene really was in relation to the rest of the country. Austin remained a backwater university town, largely informed by the unofficial campus network. Despite the L.A. club scene's flirtation with psychedelic terminology, it was San Francisco that was beginning to evolve a real subculture with alternative dress codes, graphics and social gatherings centered around music. However, the new music was referred to as the regional 'San Francisco Sound,' nothing wider, all-encompassing or psychedelic.
"None of the colorful external trappings of Californian underground culture – beads, bells, etc. – had yet to infiltrate Texas, which remained decidedly bohemian. The Elevators certainly didn't dress like hippies, or even beatniks. They retained an outsider, rebel image, preferring work wear: jeans, 'rough out' boots, checked work shirts and Tommy's army surplus pea coat. While posters were beginning to define a new look for the new culture in California, Austin artist John Cleveland did design and paint one-off posters for the Jade Room windows (none of these are known to survive). However, his business card design (circa January '66) and blazing and pyramid design for the Elevators' bass drum head still remain two of the earliest known examples of Sixties psychedelic graphics."
(Eye Mind, Paul Drummond, pgs. 121-122)
|the famed 13th Floor Elevators business card|
Nor was the Elevator's influence limited to psychedelic rock either. They were one of the first rock 'n roll bands to use the album format to explore conceptual themes throughout the record. In this way they predated the concept albums and "rock operas" that would start to become all the rage after the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.
Erickson's primal, high octane vocals have been cited as an influence on short-time Austin-ite Janis Joplin. Their drugged out dirges slightly predate the Velvet Underground and may have had an influence on tracks like "Heroin." With their sound also bordering on hard rock at times (thanks in no small to by the feedback laden guitars sometimes employed by Erickson and lead player Stacy Sutherland), there are Elevators influences on heavier bands ranging from ZZ Top to Led Zeppelin as well. Modern day stoner rock bands such as Queens of the Stone and Nebula have also cited the Elevators as influences.
It was on punk rock and "alternative/" artists that the Elevators' likely had their most lasting influence (outside of psychedelic rock that is), however. Their raw energy, blue collar dress (despite the bulk of the members coming from solidly upper middle class backgrounds) and outsider stance would influence artists ranging from the Damned, Patti Smith, R.E.M., Spacemen 3, and fellow Texans the Butthole Surfers.
|this Roky Erickson tribute album, heavy on Elevators numbers, features a compelling list of performers|
"... The bands very name was meant to signify membership in a select group blessed with secret knowledge: The thirteenth floor doesn't exist in many high-rises, and the band was fond of pointing out that m (for marijuana) is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet."
(Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock, Jim DeRogatis, pg. 69)The number thirteen of course has much esoteric significance. It is thought to be an unlucky number because on Friday the 13th of October 1307 hundreds of Knights Templar were arrested in France, thus beginning the Order's persecution and suppression. In some traditions, however, 13 is thought to equal a mystical dozen. This may derive from the fact that there were Twelve Apostles plus Jesus, giving thirteen. On the other hand, thirteen is also thought to be unlucky sometimes because thirteen individuals were seated at the Last Supper.
|da Vinci's The Last Supper|
The 13th Floor Elevators would also play a major role in shaping what has become the legendary Austin scene. The psychedelic culture of Austin existed prior to the formation of the Elevators, however, and the band would likely not have existed without it. Thus, it behooves us to consider the development of the scene for a moment.
The Austin psychedelic scene seems to have originated from the political/philosophical conversations held in the University of Texas' canteen known as the "Chuck Wagon" and the folk performances held at the student union lodge. The latter featured a young singer known as Janis Lynn Joplin during the early 1960s.
"While the conversation at the Chuck Wagon was about searching for the 'truth,' the focus was on re-examining American culture beyond its historic relationship with Europe. Along with the re-discovery of true American roots came the interest in Native Americans, which validated experimentation with their sacraments – use of peyote and marijuana was soon justified. The Union scene was about building a sense of community through participation. Although Texas was a few months behind what was happening on campuses around the country at the time, there was communication between students. Young Austin residents heard about the latest sounds from friends on the East and West Coast campuses.
"... The social scene at the Union soon made a natural move away from campus, as gatherings started taking place at the 'Ghetto.' Situated over the road from Dirty Martin's Drive-In, this complex of dilapidated wooden-frame hovels collected fringe bohemians both by choice and circumstance, and had been home to UT students since the Fifties...
"... Although Janis didn't live at the Ghetto, like many others she treated it as a home away from home. The Waller Creek Boys, Janis, Powell and Lanney Wiggins performed at the Union most Sundays, and at bars in South Austin during the week, but it was their performances at the famous Threadgill's – an old gas station converted into a bar – on Wednesday nights that were most heralded.
"The Ghetto was where Austin got over its hang-ups about experimentation with drugs. A lot of marijuana was smoked at the Ghetto, but it was not out in the open. Mild it might be, but marijuana was an incredibly dangerous drug to be associated with in Austin in the 1960s, as penalties were severe, so even a matchbox full was a constant source of paranoia...
"UT anthropology students seem to have been mostly responsible for the experiments with peyote and mescaline in Austin...
"The introduction of peyote to the Ghetto scene in 1960 changed its attitude towards drug experimentation. There was no party atmosphere surrounding it – practiced users babysat the curious through the experience. It was considered a somber rite of passage, and bore no resemblance to the later ecstasy of the Merry Pranksters' acid tests. Partly this was due to the fact that peyote wasn't manufactured and palatable like LSD – it tasted unpleasant, it was difficult to swallow and induced vomiting. The attraction, though, was seeing the world through brand new eyes. It could have a heaven-or-hell impact, conjuring warm visual distortions or triggering suppressed memories. Since LSD didn't arrive in Austin until 1965, peyote was the only food for the drug-curious... At first the cactus was diced up and simply eaten, covered by molasses to hide the bitter taste. Gradually, the whole process became more sophisticated, using a homemade pace that was put into capsules and then swallowed."
(Eye Mind, Paul Drummond, pgs. 37-38)
|peyote growing in the wild|
And it is here that I shall wrap things up for now. Now having addressed the Austin scene I shall move on to the curious backgrounds of various Elevators members and their associates in the next installment. Stay tuned.