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Sunday, March 16th, 2008
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Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, the Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound

by Paul Drummond

What Floor, Please?

A review by Allan Vorda

The 13th Floor Elevators, a little known group that broke up forty years ago, might seem ill-suited as the subject of a 400-page book, yet the legendary psychedelic band from Austin, Texas is well worth this exhaustive treatment. Paul Drummond's Eye Mind, the new, definitive biography of the Elevators, is just as mind-blowing as the Elevators music -- it's a superlative account about a band whose history is as tragic as any Shakespearean play.

Drummond begins by describing how the Elevators formed in 1965. Three members came from a band called the Lingsmen consisting of Stacy Sutherland (lead guitar), John Ike Walton (drums), and Benny Thurman (bass). Tommy Hall, a brilliant engineering/psychology student at the University of Texas who played jug, added a new dimension when he hooked up with the Lingsmen trio. All they needed was a lead singer, and they found the perfect match for their style in Roky Erickson (vocals, rhythm guitar).

The concept of the band was the vision of Tommy Hall. Drummond discusses Tommy's influences (Nietzsche, Korzybski, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky) and notes that with "his background in academia, Tommy combined science with spirituality -- in short, he wanted to redefine God through mathematics." When Tommy became one of the early practitioners of psychedelics -- LSD arrived in Austin during the summer of 1965 -- he saw music as the vehicle for proselytizing his message: "Before him lay inner space, an infinite galaxy of new possibilities, communion with the architecture of the universe."

Fueled by Roky Erickson's "eldritch scream" (as described by Sam Andrew of Big Brother & the Holding Company) and Tommy's unique musical device -- a microphone held next to a ceramic jug that created a strange, reverberating sound -- the 13th Floor Elevators helped inaugurate psychedelic music. For approximately two years, however, the band's existence was like a roller coaster that was heading toward a tragic ending. Benny Thurman was kicked out of the band for shooting speed and replaced by Ronnie Leatherman. Tommy, Stacy, Roky, and Clementine (Tommy's wife) were busted for marijuana at a time when possession of one joint in Texas could mean twenty years in prison (the case was dismissed on a technicality).

To escape the Texas heat, the Elevators relocated to California, where they played numerous gigs. Most of the band, in line with Tommy's philosophy, continued to drop acid for every concert, but the constant use of drugs began to have a detrimental effect on Roky, who started blanking out on stage, unable to sing the lyrics. On top of this, Tommy started giving Roky a psychoactive compound called Asthmador to help him fail his draft induction. The combination of drugs and pressure led to Roky gradually snapping. Fortunately, before things got any worse, International Artists summoned the band during October 1966 to return to Texas to record their first album.

The album was Tommy's chance to deliver his message; as Drummond puts it, "His overall concept was to apply a psychedelic mantra, informed by his study of general semantics and semantic memory via Korzybski to their songbook to try and arrange the songs into a playing order that would best describe the psychedelic experience." More simply, Tommy's lyrics were written around existential philosophy, religion, love, and death, which created a strange brew when combined with the trippy music. The result was The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, which featured such mind-altering songs as "Splash 1," "Reverberation," "You Don't Know," and the single "You're Gonna Miss Me." It was produced by Lelan Rogers (brother of Kenny Rogers), who decided to emphasize Tommy's electric jug: "IA ensured that the jug, the Elevators' trademark, was audible in the mix, sometimes to the detriment of [Stacy's] guitar and Roky's lead vocal. While the technical difficulties in production marred the perfect product, the overall content within was clearly one of the most startling, original and accomplished records of the era."

The Elevators returned to California with a brief stop in Los Angeles and an appearance on American Bandstand. Dick Clark asked, "Who is the head man of the group here, gentlemen?" Tommy's classic response was, "Well, we're all heads." Before long the band headed back to Texas where they started writing songs for their second album; Easter Everywhere was "Tommy's attempt to incorporate his understanding of esoteric texts into his own model of enlightenment, correlating Eastern mysticism and Western science." More precisely, Tommy was formulating his "interpretations of the Hindu Vedas and Chinese Buddhist Tantras uniquely paralleled by Western scientific study of quantum physics in an attempt to scientifically decipher the components of the divine and eternal life." For example, Tommy wrote "Slip Inside This House," a psychedelic poem of exquisite beauty, after reading The Secret of the Golden Flower, an ancient Taoist text on transcendence.

After the recording of Easter Everywhere, Tommy broke down and quit the band in 1967. Roky Erickson was busted for marijuana and was advised to plead insanity to avoid twenty years in jail. He would instead spend over three years at Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he was given Thorazine and probably electric shock treatments; all of this, combined with over 300 acid trips, resulted in a deranged mental state that was diagnosed as schizophrenia. Stacy Sutherland submitted to his dark demons with excessive alcohol and drug abuse; he was shot and killed by his wife in a domestic argument in 1978. Tommy Hall, after taking LSD a total of 317 times between 1966 to 1970, dropped out in San Francisco, where he reportedly was writing a book that would explain the meaning of existence -- though as Drummond states, "Whether we will ever see another word in print from Tommy is doubtful." On top of all the personal tragedy, there was virtually no money paid to the band by their record label, and their music lingered in obscurity for decades.

Nowadays, the cult of the 13th Floor Elevators continues to grow; this remarkable band has influenced such groups and musicians as R.E.M., Echo and the Bunnymen, ZZ Top, Robert Plant, and many others. For anyone interested in the origins of psychedelic music, Eye Mind is a must read and vividly brings to life the culture that espoused what Humphrey Osmond stated when he coined the word "psychedelic" in a letter to Aldous Huxley: "To fathom or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic." As Drummond's book proves, for a short while, the 13th Floor Elevators soared angelic indeed.


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