Saturday, April 22, 2017

The 13th Floor Elevators

In 1967, a group of Austin, Texas teenagers, doped to their eyeballs on pĂ©yote and LSD, offered up their swirling, reverberated take on jug-band blues, thereby giving name to a whole new musical ideology: The Psychedelic Sound of the 13th Floor Elevators. It was the same thing Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, featuring Jerry Garcia, was doing 1500 miles away in Palo Alto, California. Funny the things that happen simultaneously. Roky Erickson's voice shall forever be the Elevators' defining instrument, but his eerie wail wasn't the only element of their sound rewriting the tropes of rock 'n' roll. Where their peers were clinging to skiffle riffs, Elevators' Stacy Sutherland played a dank, gnarly guitar with swathes of reverberation and grackle-squawk. And then there was Tommy Hall's "electrified jug," on which he made spooky blues noise inside a mic'd up ceramic moonshine growler creating bizarre patterns of unquantifiable/never heard before arrhythmia. 

A common complaint with The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (AM7) is that it is unbearably lo-fi. True that. The "cave like" atmosphere has that same unconventional production of The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat. Fuck that founded Psychedelic Garage Rock bullshit, The Elevators founded indie rock in general (keep in mind The Velvet Underground and Nico was yet to be released). Like The Seeds, The 13th Floor Elevators played their psychedelia with a raw garage quality that had yet to go east or baroque; The instruments were guitar, bass, drums, that jug and that's it.

Tommy Hall's acid poetry informs every song on The Psychedelic Sounds (aside from "You're Gonna Miss Me", Erickson's lone contribution). And, perhaps most important, Hall's jug provided the psychedelic sound that evokes the chemical weightlessness of a trip. It's the sound of your hands melting or Huxley's doors squeaking open. That the 13th Floor Elevators could translate that concept into an aural sensation is perhaps the root of their reputation and would have been impossible without Hall.


Roky Erickson, however, undoubtedly was the creative force in the band, as a vocalist on Psychedelic Sounds and also as a songwriter on the follow-up, Easter Everywhere, but in 1969, arrested and charged with possession of marijuana, Erickson pleaded insanity rather than face jail time, and was committed to Rusk State Hospital. As legend has it, his mind was so devastated by shock therapy and medication that he spent the rest of his life battling mental illness. There are scores of 60s cautionary tales, but the music Erickson helped to make and the lifestyle he promoted with the 13th Floor Elevators explicitly advocated drug use as mind expansion, as true spiritual freedom - an idea he shared with Jim Morrison, although even at his most obtuse, Erickson never descended to the empty-headed blathering of the Lizard King at his worst. Erickson's psychedelia was not passive aural wallpapers - all pretty shapes and colors to listen to while tripping - but an active force of social, musical, and psychological change. Aside from the infamous album starter "You're Gonna Miss Me," The Psychedelic Sounds is awash in narcotic philosophy. And in case you miss it, Tommy Hall explains it all in the LP's original liner notes. What keeps the LP effective 50 years on is the Elevator's full-on psychedelic treatment of their own tunes as well as covers of Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love", The Beatles' "The Word", and even on that '60s live staple "Gloria." These tracks are anything but placid drugs trips or by-the-numbers re-creation; instead, the songs get the full psychedelic treatment as the Elevators play them like they're handling snakes.