Monday, September 17, 2007

Eye Mind

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I had a vague mental notion of the history of the 13th Floor Elevators and Roky Erickson, but this book really laid out the promise and tragedy of this group. I first encountered Erickson's music as a college student in the early 80s, when I heard the song "Bloody Hammer." Lots of Erickson's songs from this era have an almost cartoonish horror-movie vibe to them, but at the same time have an urgency that undercuts the silliness. "Bloody Hammer" is a perfect example. I had the album The Evil One, which I liked a lot, but really didn't pursue any more of his work. I knew he had been in the 13th Floor Elevators, which was considered a pioneering psychedelic band and, amazingly enough, was from Austin.

When I was living in Seattle, I got a double album version of The Psychedelic Sounds... and Easter Everywhere. I was kind of disappointed because of the terrible recording quality (that also bugged me about another great band's early records, The Velvet Underground), but I liked the stuff. Seattle in the early 90s had the grunge thing happening and a big garage rock scene, and lots of bands covered the Elevators. I remember seeing an especially rip-roaring version of "Fire Engine" live at Bumbershoot performed by The Mono Men. It was around then that Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, a Roky Erickson tribute album, came out, and it was outstanding. So now I was a confirmed Roky/Elevators fan. My housemate Stefan Dinter and I used to sit around and speculate what was making the weird, rapid-fire "who-oo-oo-oo" sound in all the songs. I speculated that it was a cuica--a friction drum commonly used to make a similar sound in samba music--or an early primitive synthesizer. It sounded like someone was firmly gripping and owl and rapidly squeezing and releasing it. (It was, of course, a combination of human voice and jug.)

Well, all the blanks on this mysterious band are filled in here in Eye Mind by Paul Drummond. Drummond is no great prose stylist, and the book has some obnoxious typos (the town of Addicks is hilariously referred to as Addicts), but like many superfans, he really digs up the details, extensively interviewing all the surviving cast members and unearthing up old interviews with those who have died.

The most interesting thing (and distressing in a way) was that the jug player, Tommy Hall, was the leader of the band and saw it as a way of pushing his thoughts of instant, acid-fueled enlightenment on the masses. So in addition to writing the lyrics to most of the songs, he was the one who pushed the band to perform on acid, and he seemed to have a certain devil-may-care attitude towards success or even getting paid (he had his own source of income, after all—he dealt acid). The were all babes in the woods, and were royally ripped off by their incompetent and dishonest record label, Houston's International Artists (which also put out records by Red Crayola and Bubble Puppy, who had the psychedelic hit "Hot Smoke and Sassafras"). And all the band members were reckless with drugs without Tommy's help. But still, one gets the feeling that if Tommy hadn't been such a dictator about spreading his gospel and thought a little bit about the well-being of his bandmates, a lot of financial, legal, and psychological problems could have been avoided.

Interesting facts—the band's first Houston shows were played at a joint called La Maisson, a teen dance club located in an old supermarket on Richmond at Mandel. If I am not mistaken, that is now the location if the Menil Museum's huge Dan Flavin installation. (Update: A poster named Don Julio on HAIF corrects this. According to the don, La Maisson was at 1420 Richmond, about a block east of Richmond Hall. ) Janis Joplin almost joined the band in the days before she went to San Francisco. Her vocal style is said to have been influenced by Roky's, and the song "Splash One" was inspired by an encounter between Roky and Janis. Townes Van Zandt was invited to join the band when it was collapsing as a bass player (even though he didn't know how to play bass), and he and Roky shared a house for a while.

Indeed, one of the most interesting things that comes through is how interwoven the Austin (and to a lesser extent Houston) music scene was then. I'm sure this is true everywhere—musicians in a given city know each other and play in each others' bands, and if this state of flux seems unfamiliar to us fans, it's because we see only a preserved-in-amber version of it—preserved on record, in this case.

This book also suggests an answer to a question. Why, of all the regional music scenes of the 60s, did San Francisco emerge as the place? Why not Austin (or Boston or somewhere else)? Eye Mind suggests that Texas’ harsh drug laws and the cops who loved to enforce them prevented bands from really succeeding here. What destroyed the Elevators was a combination of drugs and drug enforcement. If they had formed in San Francisco, with its relatively more tolerant attitude, they would have had a fighting chance. International Artists' terrible management of their career was in part due to IA's paranoia over the Elevators' drug consumption. Well, Elektra, Columbia, and other labels might have been unnerved by the quantity of drugs that bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were taking, but they dealt with it and pushed these bands’ careers forward.

By the 70s, the heavy attitude towards drugs in Texas had relaxed somewhat (especially in Austin) , and suddenly pot-smoking, coke-snorting guys like Waylon, Willie, Jerry Jeff, etc., found Austin a very congenial spot from which to become musical superstars. But by then, it was too late for Roky, who had spent three years in the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He spent the 80s and 90s in and out of institutions, taking prescribed and illegal drugs, living with his somewhat batty and totally overwhelmed mother, until his youngest brother took legal custody of him, got him some decent psychiatric help, and basically saved his life. So the story has kind of a happy ending, for Roky at least.

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