Tuesday, November 16, 2004

11/16 - 13th Floor Elevators - Slip Inside This House

Example Roger Kynard "Roky" Erickson Back in 1966 the 13th Floor Elevators exploded out of Austin, Texas – slicing through the barely psychedelicized minds of America’s youth like a ghost train screaming through the night. Soaring high into the ether they pulled hundreds of thousands of listeners with them, changing them forever, creating an acid utopia with Roky Erickson seated atop the Armadillo Throne (where he remains today). Well….not really, but it should have happened that way. The truth is (as much as can be pieced together from the shrapnel of the 60’s), the Elevators first 45 surged briefly into the top 40 – known to most only as a psychedelic curiosity – and then dropped back out of sight, taking the band with it. That’s the top 40 mainstream facts. It’s the kind of clichéd anecdote familiar to fans of the “one hit wonder”. But unlike a lot of similar stories, where the bands in question never deserved more than that tantalizing sliver of fame, the 13th Floor Elevators moment in the showbiz sun was the tiniest, barely visible tip of the iceberg, below which – hidden from the kids that saw them on Where The Action Is – existed another world entirely. There, in the shadows stood a groundbreaking band, led by a mad genius, who would record three albums of visionary psychedelia (serious shit too -none of that flower child doo-dah either) and then dissolve, smashed to pieces by drugs, madness and the hellhounds of the Texas constabulary.

Example

The 45 that brought them to the attention of the teenyboppers was ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ from their first album ‘The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators’. Recorded for Houston’s International Artists label, Roky Erickson had originally recorded the tune with his old band the Spades. It’s a deadly bit of savagery, with Erickson’s otherworldly voice stabbing through like an icicle, alongside the eerie sound of Tommy Hall’s amplified jug (no…really…). That singular voice – and the jug – should have been a signal that there was something new afoot in Texas, but since the Top 40 is often a monument to the fickle power of brute ignorance, the Elevators got their taste, and then dropped back into the underground, like so many Morlocks. That first LP is really the foundation of the Elevators legend. The sound, the songs and that cover standing like an invitation to some kind of demented debutante ball where the guests of honor were a pack of drug addled Texans dumping LSD into the punch. However, as I said before, these were not the mewlings of a tribe of daisy-toting, Maharishi-ettes, wearing the mantle of Dr. Hoffman’s “problem child”. The Elevators were channeling the real, often dark vibe of the psychedelic experience. They had been to San Franciso, joining the exodus that had already carried their fellow Texans Janis Joplin, Chet Helms and Doug Sahm to an place that – while not the fabled utopia touted by so many – was certainly a less hostile environment for longhairs. Unlike their fellow Texpatriates, the Elevators went home and made perhaps the greatest American psychedelic album, ‘Easter Everywhere’. Now before you go getting all “But, but but…..what about the Exploding Indoor-Outdoor Grateful Elephant Farm Experience…blah, blah, buh-lah…….” Or whatever your personal favorite is, let me assure you that you are WRONG. I believe wholeheartedly in the greatness of the Frisco bands (especially the Grateful Dead who I think have been criminally misunderstood and doomed by the culturally marginalizing force of the traveling circus known as the Deadheads), and I know that many great bands, from your storied West-Coasters like Spirit and Love and dark New Yorkers like the Velvets all had great psychedelic moments, NOBODY, in an era absolutely filthy with great albums, made a psychedelic record as perfectly realized as “Easter Everywhere”.

Example

It’s difficult to nail down exactly why this is. Not in the sense that the albums greatness is not immediately evident on first hearing it, but trying to reverse engineer the recipe isn’t so easy. First and foremost the Elevators were a great band, in the truest sense of the word. In an era where there were many bands that featured great performers, or technically proficient bands without any heart (the hallmark of the oncoming progressive era), or bands with all the heart in the world but no vision (like those making thousands of great garage punk 45s during the same period), the 13th Floor Elevators were a “band” in the Merriam Webster 5B definition of the word (b : a more or less well-defined range of wavelengths, frequencies, or energies). On the level of pure sound, Erickson’s eerily powerful voice, Hall’s incongruous yet strangely appropriate jug, and Stacey Sutherland’s guitar combined to create something new and unique. The echoes of the wider psychedelic zeitgeist were there – the Elevators were not working in a vacuum – yet they managed to transcend the echoey, trippy clichés because of their songs. Working in various combinations, Erickson, Tommy Hall and Sutherland wrote most of the bands non-cover material, along with Powell St. John (who would later show up as a member of Mother Earth). Though capable of love/relationship songs, they tended more to abstract ruminations on fire engines, earthquakes etc. ‘Easter Everywhere’ begins with the epic ‘Slip Inside This House’ (click link above to hear the 45 edit). Opening with a droning guitar line, followed by the drums and jug, Roky winds in and out with lyrics that on first listen appear to be a metaphor for psychedelic experience, yet something more as well:
“If your limbs begin dissolving / In the water that you tread / All surroundings are evolving / In the stream that clears your head / Find yourself a caravan Like Noah must have led And slip inside this house as you pass by. Slip inside this house as you pass by. “
These are the words not of a psychedelic dabbler but of a convert and prosyletizer. Someone who has already “slipped inside this house” and seen the way. The final verse of the song speaks to the levels of enlightenment:
“One-eyed men aren't really reigning / They just march in place until / Two-eyed men with mystery training / Finally feel the power fill / Three-eyed men are not complaining. / They can yo-yo where they will / They slip inside this house as they pass by. Don't pass it by.”
The song stands as a kind of manifesto, not just for the rest of the album, but for the Elevators music in general. As to whether or not it is in fact possible for everyone to “slip inside” their house one can hope that those that do not fully “get” the Elevators will at least be drawn in by the power of the music and suitably intrigued by the lyrical sentiments. The next cut, the Powell St. John tune ‘Slide Machine’ (according to an interview with St. John) uses a road grading machine as a metaphor for the power of nature, and love (it’s better than it sounds) starts off slowly but gradually picks up speed – and settles down again. A paean to the uber/everywoman (or perhaps someone more supernatural) ‘She Lives In A Time of Her Own’ features some bizarre interplay between the jug and guitar, as well as a ghostly refrain. ‘Nobody To Love’ (no doubt a response to the Jefferson Airplane) has long been one of my favorite Elevators songs. It has an intriguing melody line, harmonized throughout the length of the song by the Sutherland’s lead guitar. Sutherland’s vocal is an interesting departure from Erickson’s voice. I know some people think of this as an atypical Elevators song, but it dovetails nicely with a lot of the Sutherland material on their last LP ‘Bull of the Woods’. Over the course of three studio albums, the Elevators only covered a single song, Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’. Their treatment of it is slow and spacey, replacing any warmth/irony from previous versions and replacing it with a chilly sadness. ‘Earthquake' may be one of the most chaotic, intense odes to lust ever recorded. The guitars pound and feed back and Roky wails about the shaking of the earth, the splitting of his head and the long lasting power of his woman’s love. I won’t speculate as to whether or not this song is a window into Erickson’s later mental problems, but the combination of the lyrics and the musical vibe is kind of disturbing. ‘Dust’ is a quiet love song, that starts out with just Erickson’s voice and spare acoustic guitar. It sounds as if that’s how the whole song was done initially, and the bass/jug etc. were overdubbed. The most rocking song on the record ‘Levitation’ (later covered to great effect by Julian Cope) is as close as ‘Easter Everywhere” comes to the garage punk of ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me”. Perfectly suited to the song’s pulsing waves, Erickson’s voice punches through the ringing guitars at all the right times. As hard as it is to conceive of the Elevators creating a deeply touching, almost traditional love song, ‘I Had To Tell You’ illustrated that they could do so as well as anyone. Co-written by Erickson with Tommy and Clementine (his wife) Hall (who also duets with Erickson on the track), they lyrics are timeless, and the sparse backing - only acountic guitar, harmonica and tambourine – frames them perfectly. The words of the song, illustrate the redemptive/protective powers of love :
Chaos all around me with it's finger clinging,but I can hear you singing in the corners of my brain.Every doubt has found me. Every sound of grows drier. Everything is quiet. But the song that keeps me sane.I can hear you're voice, echo in my voice softly.I can feel your strength, reinforcing mine.If you fear I'll lose my spirit, like a drunkard's wasted wine,don't you even think about it, I'm feelin' fine.
It may well be the Elevators finest moment, and is still one of my favorite songs. The final song on the album, ‘Pictures (Leave Your Body Behind)’ is almost like the mellow ending to an intense trip. An ode to astral projection (or at least it seems that way), taken at a leisurely pace, you can almost picture the band driving off into the sunset as the credits roll.

Example

The Elevators story doesn’t end here. They did one more studio album, ‘Bull of The Woods’. This album’s reputation has suffered unfairly due to the fact that Roky Erickson is barely present – literally and figuratively. His struggles with psychedelic overindulgence, in combination with a mental breakdown (one of the many parallels to his UK counterpart Syd Barrett) have risen to the level of folklore, and it becomes difficult (if not impossible, without firsthand knowledge) to tell where one ends and the other begins. In either case it’s a tragic story, Erickson was a truly talented individual, and the Elevators hugely influential (much like the Velvet Undergound, their influence was not immediate). He continued to perform through the 90’s, and though he made some savage rock’n’roll, nothing he did rose to the heights he ascended to with the Elevators. Careful consideration of their legacy should strip the Elevators of the pejorative label of “psychedelic curiousity” and elevate them to a position as one of the great American bands of the 1960’s.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am once again educated, big brother. I will seek this out and listen (or just bum a copy off you) and then listen. cenzo

11/20/2004 09:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Duncan Engler said...

Larry,
As an infrequent visitor to your musings, I keep being ever pleasantly surprised by not only your "right-on" understanding of the "Texas, Ray-De-Oh", but your mastery of the understated prose.
Knowing the Elevators from the "get go", it's nice to know someone has done the well deserved job as you have, of "explaining" the band and their music. Their orignals were masterful no doubt and their covers (thankfully few)
somehow "fit" with what was the "concept" of their music.
"...all your seasick sailors are all coming home...". It's All Over Now, Bably-Blue......

11/28/2005 10:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

consider that this was all done before 1968- I did see this band on several occasions with a wesson oil light show- far ahead of their time. tommy hall could play that jug...and roky was a born frontman..and all were victimized by the IA label ( kenny rodger's brother) who ripped them off continually and the law who harrassed them into mental cases. And from the hospital stays and shock treatments...and today tommy lives in san francisco still brilliant and totally misunderstood. Roky sanity has returned- thankfully...a great band far ahead of its time...the beatles heard them on their west coast trip in 1966- when asked what band impressed them the most, they all said" the elevators!"

7/20/2006 01:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Marchbanks said...

Yep, Roky is still out there., as I saw.

Sam

10/29/2006 05:01:00 PM  
Blogger Sten_Gun said...

Yep!! Nice 13th Floor Elevators!
I love this Group.
Nice blog too!

6/21/2007 08:42:00 PM  
Blogger willisg said...

In the late 60’s I was given a 13th Floor Elevator demo album with a track of Chaos. I used to perform this in clubs. These are the words I always sang. I was sure this is the way it was recorded on the demo. It is somewhat different. Did I transpose this? Or was it changed for the album?

Chaos all around me, with its feeling clinging, but I can hear you singing, in the corners of my brain. Any doubt that bounds me, any sound of riot, everything is quiet, but your song that keeps me sane.

I can hear your voice, echoing my voice softly, I can feel your strength, reinforcing mine. If you fear I’ll lose my spirit, like a drunkards wasted wine, don’t you even think about it, I’m feeling fine.

willisg

5/03/2008 01:20:00 PM  

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