Like you I am sitting here thinking about Roky Erickson. I heard the news that he passed away two days ago. Sad news. Since I was on my computer when I heard the news, my immediate reaction was to check my ipod, and load up a few 13th Floor Elevators songs I had not heard in a while. A fairly pitiful reaction I admit. But I did not know the man personally, I knew his music; so that is where I went to find solace and a connection.
I first encountered the music of the 13th Floor Elevators when I heard the band Television doing a live song entitled “The Blow Up.” I found out later that the song was in fact a re-titled version of the song “Fire Engine” that appeared on the first 13th Floor Elevators album. I liked the song, and being that sort of music fan, I sought out the 13th Floor Elevators album.
The debut album is a masterpiece. Most people will remember the band for their hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” or even dismiss them as one-hit wonders, but I think the 13th Floor Elevators were operating at a far different level. At the time the band recorded their first album, the Beatles had recently ceased to tour and were releasing albums that seemed like complete works as a whole, not just collections of various singles. The music mindset in the mid-Sixties was changing, and albums were about to become important statements. The 13th Floor Elevators were ahead of the game. Their debut album preceded albums by the Velvet Underground, The Doors, Love and many others, all of whom would make album-sized statements to the kids. Initially, I found the album hard to listen to, there was a significant repeated noise in every song that I could not identify, which was obviously not a mistake or accident. It was only after not concentrating on that noise that I heard the songs, the voice, and guitars as intended; sort of like looking through a windshield and seeing the road beyond, by not focusing on the raindrops on the glass itself.
I quickly became entranced by Roky Erickson’s voice, and the lyrics and the rhythms by which the band moved on the album. They were a garage rock band practically inventing psychedelic music. Go ahead and get out the album, The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators, and drop the needle at the beginning of any song; it will be as stunning today as it was in 1966.
Listen to that loud thumping bass on “Reverberation,” while the guitars charge along. Listen to “You Don’t Know,” with its slithering tempo changes, picking up pace at the end, as though you are taking off in flight. Listen to “Thru The Rhythm,” with its dense lyrics put up against a twanging crash of guitars, and Roky getting all the way out, with his screams, a singular vocal sound in the history of rock’n’roll. Or the near-epic length “Rollercoaster,” starting slow, like a roller coaster going up the track towards the first drop, then racing along, with the guitars playing a constant lead throughout, like the screaming wheels of an amusement park ride.
It was years later that I came to learn that Roky Erickson did not write the lyrics to many of the songs; they were written by Tommy Hall. Probably around the same time I came to understand that fact, I discovered what exactly made that noise on the 13th Floor Elevators record. I saw a video performance of the band from 1966, they were at some sort of staged pool party, with the obligatory TV teenage fans, and there was one member, Tommy Hall, blowing wildly into the mouth of jug bottle. That was the noise that had off put me at first; over time it has become an essential and unique element in the band’s sound.
Of course, like all rock’n’roll bands, The 13th Floor Elevators made a few missteps on the way to success. They signed to a small label, International Artists, who were caught with their pants down by the success of the band’s single. They had trouble keeping the record in print. When they did press copies of the single and the album, they used recycled vinyl, and many of the original pressings were of inferior quality compared to many of the contemporary records of the day. Considering the pressing issue, I am happy to state that the album was fairly well recorded, and recent reissues of both the Mono and Stereo pressings of the album are fantastic.
At some point the band relocated from Texas to San Francisco, California. The band’s arrival just slightly predated the psychedelic explosion of 1967. In fact, I am willing to bet the band’s shows in San Francisco demonstrated to the many folk-inspired musicians (who went on to form bands like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Big Brother & Holding Company), how to rock. The 13th Floor Elevators were a force to be reckoned with on stage. The band was known to ingest acid prior to performing and listening to a vintage live recording from San Francisco, it is easy to imagine the band tripping in tandem, one mind, one sound.
The misstep with San Francisco though, is that band opted to return to Texas, just before the summer of love in 1967, when San Francisco become the focal point of psychedelic music and culture.
Despite the struggles, the band went on to record a second album, another masterpiece, Easter Everywhere. By now the band was a psychedelic group with garage rock roots. A few of the songs were of extended lengths, epics like “Slip Inside this House,” “Postures (Leave Your Body Behind,” starting and ending the second album. In between those songs, the band included a fantastic cover of the Bob Dylan song, “Baby Blue,” with heavy psyched-out near-floating guitar work. Rockers, such as “Levitation,” would have easily have fit on the first album. “Earthquake,” with its shifting tempos and exceedingly fuzzed-out guitar, seemingly lived up to its title.
Around the time the band was set to work on a third album, Roky Erickson was arrested for possession of marijuana, which at that time in Texas was a serious crime, punishable by years in prison, no matter the amount of the substance found on the accused. Not wishing to go to prison, Roky Erickson plead insanity and was sentenced to a mental health facility. He spent close to three years in that facility, and was given shock therapy and reported Thorazine to “cure” him. No surprise that upon his release he was not quite the same person that fronted The 13th Floor Elevators.
Over the course of years, Erickson made a few records, some of which I owned, some of which I did not. The lightning in the bottle that had been the man himself in the 13th Floor Elevators, seemingly no longer existed. That being said there are some memorable songs from his solo years: “I have always been here before,” “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer),” and “Creature with the Atom Brain” come to mind.
After his release from the psychiatric facility, Roky Erickson’s life was not easy. He experienced mental health issues, financial issues, and near obscurity. I am happy to say that near the end of his life, it took a turn to the positive, with the band, The 13th Floor Elevators briefly re-forming to perform at the Levitation Festival in 2015. By all accounts, the band pulled it off, a stunning performance.
As the 21st Century marches on, I realise I am becoming accustomed to reading in the news of the death of famed and well-loved musicians. The gnashing teeth of time will get us all eventually. Musicians who helped to shape my taste in music, which further helped to shape the sort of person I have become. The recent losses of David Bowie and Mark E. Smith gutted me, as does the loss of Roky Erickson. I do not believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in a life well-lived, and a legacy or memory that a person leaves behind. These memories are especially impactful for artists and musicians. Future generations will always discover and rediscover the people that shaped and changed the times in which they lived.
Please do so now: go put on an album by The 13th Floor Elevators.