Monday, April 28, 2008

Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators

EYE MIND: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, the Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound
by Paul Drummond
Process Media, Inc. 450 pages

I just spent the weekend reading Eye Mind, Paul Drummond's exhaustive biography of Austin psychedelic legends Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators. When I say "psychedelic," I'm not kidding: these guys not only walked the walk and talked the talk, they dropped acid before pretty much every show they ever played.

I first heard the Elevators in the late '70s, courtesy of Lenny Kaye's great compilation, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts of the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, which featured the classic "You're Gonna Miss Me." While that song, with Roky's trademark howls, has since been used in numerous movies, and more recently, to sell Dell computers, back then it was a revelation to my young ears. Over the next few years, I laid hands on import copies of the band's LPs The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators and Easter Everywhere, while learning the history behind the music, which involved drug arrests, mental breakdowns, incarcerations in state prisons and institutions for the criminally insane, and other profound forms of bad luck and general misfortune.

Apparently, I didn't know the half of it. Eye Mind meticulously details the group's rise and fall through interviews with not only the surviving members, but also some of those who didn't make it, thanks to archival interviews conducted by such true believers as Andy Brown. Unlike the Roky-centric 2006 documentary You're Gonna Miss Me, the book gives equal time to the other main architects of the Elevators' sound and vision, guitarist Stacy Sutherland and lyricist/jug player Tommy Hall, as well as members of the group's various rhythm sections, and other key figures, such as songwriter Powell St. John and the band's "Earth mother," Clementine Hall.

Compared to their Texas garage band contemporaries, the 13th Floor Elevators were way ahead of the curve musically and philosophically, and gained a devoted following through their incendiary live shows at such long-gone Austin-area nightspots as the Jade Room, and from airplay of their immortal first 45. Of course, flying their freak flags high in mid-'60s Texas made them targets, and paranoia set in early on. The Austin vice squad busted most of the band for possession, leading to a nomadic existence trying to stay one step ahead of the law.

When the band headed west to San Francisco in 1966, they were also head and shoulders above the local bands who would become synonymous with psychedelia: the Dead, the Airplane, and Big Brother were not in the same league as the Elevators. Unfortunately, the band never made it back to the coast, and missed out on the lucrative record deals lavished upon the lesser groups in the San Francisco scene. Part of this was due to the restrictions of the probation that resulted from the drug busts, and partly due to the crippling contractual agreements made with their exploitive record label, International Artists, whose ineptitude in managing the band's career was matched only by their legal expertise in writing airtight, one-sided contracts.

While reading the book, I listened to the Elevators' first two albums and a recording of one of their Avalon Ballroom shows on headphones, which provided an excellent soundtrack to the misadventures and inevitable decline of the band, even if the electric jug was a gimmick that quickly became an annoyance. I was reminded of another book I had recently read, Simon Callow's Hello, Americans, the second volume in his biographical trilogy about the life of Orson Welles. Knowing the story isn't going to end well, I read on, powerless to stop the inevitable tragedy, wishing that I could go back in time to change history, or counsel the protagonists against some of the disastrous decisions that derailed their lives and careers. But that stuff is only possible in the sci-fi movies that Roky loves so much.

Drummond has done a stellar job of telling the story of the band, and of the individuals within it who set forth on a quest that began with visions of enlightenment only to crash and burn in madness and addiction as the '60s wound down.

Unfortunately, although all of the Elevators' music is still in print, the musicians haven't seen much in the way of royalties, owing to the contracts they signed 40 years ago, but in 2005, all future royalties were awarded to the songwriters, a rare instance of a bad publishing deal being overturned through the courts. Unfortunately, the tinny, poorly remastered versions of their music found on CD only hint at the greatness of this one-of-a-kind American band.

The upside is that I live in Austin, and Roky is still playing locally with his band, the Explosives, so it's still possible for me to witness one of rock's greatest voices without having to drive very far.

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